With Japanese occupation forces vanquished after the Second WW, communist insurgents surged to fill the power vacuum in eastern Asia.
Communist North Korea was established shortly after the war’s end. Then China went communist, sending the western friendly opposition forces of Chiang Kai-Shek off shore to Formosa.
France colonists returned to Vietnam, not something the US was particular pleased with, but they did not register any resistance because the French homeland was decimated from the war and needed cash from its previous overseas ventures to rebuild.
Ho Chi Minh’s Chinese-supported Viet Minh did resist the re-introduction of French expeditionary forces however.
In Laos, French-educated King Sisavang Vong refused to cooperate with home grown Lao nationalists at the war’s end and was deposed when the Lao Issara declared the country independent.
In April 1946 at the request of Sisavang Vong, the French asserted its pre-WW II role as the country’s administrator and reinstated Sisavang Vong as King.
Lao did not have exploitable resources and the small French task forces sent from Paris had to import funds each year from French government enterprises in Hanoi and Saigon to underwrite its cost of running rudimentary Lao government operations. Generally the Lao – both mountain tribes and low land farmers – cooperated with French efforts to bring some order to the sleepy kingdom.
This somnolent peace was soon to be broken because of Laos’ strategic location.
In the spring of 1953, the war in Vietnam was not going well for the French. General Raoul Salan, the French Expeditionary force commander, had no long range plan, generally committing his men to counter moves of the Việt Minh insurgency.
Exploiting that tactic, General Vo Nguyen Giáp, the communist commander – possibly directed by his Chinese advisors – overloaded the western battlefield and launched the majority of his Viet Minh infantry in a three prong invasion of northern Laos, which was not on a war footing.
In the middle column – the main thrust - the Viet Minh 308th and 312th Infantry Divisions and the 51st Engineer/Artillery Division moved across the border on route 6 in an infantry charge at the recently built up French Expeditionary three-battalion garrison at Sam Neua (aka Xam Nua), the largest settlement in northeast Laos. General Giáp led this main attack with plans to replace the Royal Lao provincial government staff there with pro-Vietnamese communist officials.
The southern-most column – the blocking unit - the 304th Division, advanced into Laos through the Nong Het pass on route 7 to engage French/Lao forces on the Plain of Jars (PDJ) and to block any French/Lao retreat from Sam Neua.
The third column to the north – the deep penetration unit - was led by the combat toughened 148th regiment of the Việt Minh 316th Division, supported, by one acc’t, with more than 200,000 porters bringing supplies in probably directly from China. This invasion force staged in the Dien Bien Phu valley of Vietnam, ten miles from the Lao border, before heading south west with plans to follow the Nam Noua river valley to the Nam Hou river valley and then down deep into the Lao interior.
The first two Việt Minh columns destroyed the French at Sam Neua. Deciding at the last moment not to take a stand, some of the elite expeditionary French units in the 1,700 man force were pulled out early by air cargo planes. The remaining soldiers were ordered into the jungle from their fixed fortifications in the face of the quickly-closing three divisions of Việt Minh. Trapped against Giáp’s blocking force on Route 7, the luckless French and their Lao allies were hunted down and killed, almost every one.
The large third column to the north invading Laos down the Nam Noua River valley ran into a problem. 20 miles from Dien Bien Phu, 10 miles inside Laos, advance Vietnamese elements came to the small Lao village of Sop Nao, which was guarded by a 30 man Chasseurs Laotiens (Lao light infantry) platoon under the command of French Lieutenant Grézy.
Their position, surrounded by steep, jagged mountains and almost impregnable jungle, straddled the river valley.
Grézy contacted his regional commander about the sudden appearance of main line Vietnamese forces to his front and was advised Viet Minh were invading Laos all along the border. He was told to hold for as long as he could.
While this probably meant death for the Sop Nao Chasseurs Laotiens, it was common for French rear commands to order forward listening posts, like Grézy’s, to stay and fight against Việt Minh attacks. It was an accepted tactic – an acceptable loss – for the French Expeditionary military force in their management of almost 800 fortifications scattered throughout Indochina, mostly in Vietnam.
Shortly after dusk 3 April 1953, the gathering Vietnamese infantry launched their assault on Sop Nao. Nothing sophisticated about their plan. Vietnamese soldiers lined up in ranks inside the jungle and on orders launched towards the small Lao position, yelling “TIEN LEN, TIEN LEN, TIEN LEN.” (Advance, Advance, Advance).
Greatly outnumbered, Grézy’s men held their position through the long night against wave after wave of attackers. As the early morning sun began to break, Việt Minh soldiers were seen pulling their dead and wounded back into the jungle.
There was a pause as if the Việt Minh were reassessing their attack plan. The small Sop Nao unit wasn’t expected to put up much resistance.
Within his position Grézy girded his forces, watched his front and waited. Although a full company of Chasseurs Laotiens was garrisoned 20 miles to the west, Grézy did not look for re-enforcements.
His platoon stood alone in its forward position. Spartans at Thermopylae.
Six days the Vietnamese attacked and for six days – against all odds – the Lao platoon held. They were running low on ammunition. There were wounded and every defender was tired almost beyond normal human endurance.
They could not hold out much longer.
Evening 9 April, after conferring with Captain Teullier, commander of the Chasseurs Laotiens company to his rear, Grézy gathered his men and taking what they could, they quietly slipped out the back side of their battered position into deep jungle.
Not moving west where he expected the Vietnamese lay in ambush, Grézy and his men made their way south and on 11 April – dirty, gaunt, bone tired – they encountered friendly Laotian hills tribesmen, who had been silently tracking their progress. The mountain people told them that two companies of Việt Minh had followed them from Sop Nao, however those pursers, while gaining, appeared to have recently moved off their trail west in an effort to interdict the platoon’s movement towards Captain Teullier’s position at Muong Khoua.
With that, Grézy pushed north to the village of Pak Ban on the Nam Hou – a fortunate decision. His bedraggled patrol arrived about the same time a French/Lao resupply convoy of canoes was passing, paddling nonchalantly down-river to deliver supplies to several French outposts – unaware of the Việt Minh invasion.
The convoy commander found places for Grézy and his men and, with a renewed sense of purpose, they made their way down river to the Chasseurs Laotiens outpost at Muong Khoua overnight.
Captain Teullier’s company of Lao infantrymen there manned positions on three small hillocks at the confluence of the Nam Noua and Nam Hou rivers. The northern position overlooked the small village of Muong Khoua and was called Mousetrap. Teullier was the commander. 200 meters south, across the Nam Noua, next to the Nam Hou, was the position called PI, assigned to Lt Grézy on his arrival. And then 200 meters west – completing the triangle – was the position known as Alpha, commanded by a senior French NCO. Teullier and Grézy were the only officers at the 3 positions. There were 10 French NCOs assigned with approximately 300 Lao soldiers. Their crew-served weapons included three 81mm mortars, two 60mm mortars and two machine guns.
Completely isolated, the men had done all they could to fortify their positions. Though they now realized that they were on the route a Việt Minh infantry division was taking into Laos, they were not intimidated –Grézy had survived with less. Morale was good.
They did complain about the weather. The monsoon season had just begun in this area of Indochina that normally had 5 feet of rain during the April to October rainy season. With dirt fortifications, their lives became muddy.
The canoe convoy, anxious to be on its way, left at first light the day after it arrived. At the first sand bar south, however, it was ambushed by Vietnamese, all within sight of Grézy’s position at PI. A three platoon relief column sent down from Grezy’s position beat off the enemy, who left 13 dead and 4 wounded behind. The convoy’s men, canoes and supplies were returned to Muong Khoua, to share its fate.
Teullier knew that he was surrounded by the Vietnamese and that his positions were in an inconspicuous but tightening noose. A French correspondent called it L’asphyxie par le vide, choking out by creating a void. Hills people in the region had stopped bringing their produce to the small Muong Khoua market, and more recently, the villagers themselves had melted away into the jungle.
The village was deserted and there was an unusual quiet about the surrounding jungle. No monkeys and birds chatter; just an omnibus quiet, broken only by the falling rain. The day after the ambush of the river convoy, Teullier received a coded message from Colonel Boucher de Crevecoeur, the commanding officer of all French forces in Laos. It dealt with the Vietnamese invasion and said in part:
“You are to hold your position at Muong Khoua for a minimum of fourteen days with all means at your disposal. You will be resupplied by air drops and receive adequate air support…”
It was later explained that French intelligence had determined that the invading Vietnamese in front of Teullier were intent on the Lao Royal Capital of Luang Prabāng and the French command there needed time to build up fortifications. Every day that Muong Khoua held gave the French Expeditionary force in Laos more time to get ready.
Midnight 13 April mortar rounds began landing on the Alpha position, followed by a determined ground assault by the 910th battalion of the Việt Minh 148th regiment. The Alpha position held and the only casualties reported were 22 Việt Minh dead on the French/ Lao wires in the morning.
General Giáp did not understand how a small Lao unit held up his forces in Sop Nao for almost a week and now, how this mostly Lao group could have held off against one of his best attack units. He berated his commanders on the scene, finally telling them to leave behind a siege force, and to press on towards Luang Prabāng.
The enemy left behind shelled the three hilltop positions at Muong Khoua for 14 straight days. They did not attack in mass as they had the first night, but under cover of darkness they often moved in from the jungle to dig trenches close to the barbed wire. Every day it seemed the enemy trenches were closer and deeper.
French B-46 and fighter bombers provided air tactical support to the garrison during the day, while other French planes dropped supplies. At night “Luciole” planes would drop “firefly” parachute flares to light the cleared areas around the positions in an acetic-smelling green pyrotechnic haze. The low hanging night fog allowed only vague, eerie glimpses of Vietnamese soldiers moving along the edge of the jungle and in towards the trenches. It was as if at night Muong Khoua entered a damp and surreal third dimension.
Word of the plight of the small, besieged French/Lao unit in the mountainous jungles of northeast Laos began to be reported in Europe. France would wake up in the morning to read if the heroic position still held.
Maybe sensitive to the media attention the Muong Khoua defenders had attracted, the French High Command out of Hanoi dropped the Legion of Honor medal by parachute to Teullier and the Croix de Guerre to other men in the company afternoon of 27 April 1953. That evening Captain Teullier waded across the Nam Noua River and pinned medals on his soldiers defending PI and Alpha. It would be the last time he would see them.
The ponderous Việt Minh column which had bypassed Muong Khoua continued to move inexorably toward Luang Prabāng, but they were behind schedule. When it reached the Luang Prabāng environs, lead elements were ambushed by French defenders, and as they moved forward again the PAVN division faced newly constructed defense positions manned by French Legionaries and Moroccan Tirailleurs.
And then the monsoon rains began to fall in central Laos.
So Giáp ordered the division back to Dien Bien Phu, the way it had come.
Teullier and his men still held their muddy positions at Muong Khoua, unaware when the small Việt Minh siege unit was replaced by 4,000 infantry of the 98th and 148th Regiments, returning from the interior.
The night of 17 May – 34 days from when they had been told to hold for 14 – a patrol from Mousetrap moved down into the deserted village of Muong Khoua. It was foggy and as the patrol moved slowly down the dirt street the houses and shop stalls stood out in ghostly silhouette. Off some distance the patrol heard dogs barking and then one yelped like it had been kicked. The patrol froze. Staring to the front, they began to see lines of advancing Việt Minh coming towards them through the mist.
The patrol ran back to Mousetrap and Captain Teullier called for the TacAir support he had been promised.
Within minutes thousands of screaming Việt Minh ground forces attack; some coming from the jungle, others from the abandoned village, and still others from the trenches. Using the enormous ammunition stock carried by thousands of porters to attack the Lao capital, Soviet 120mm mortars and 57mm recoilless rifles fire pounded the Mousetrap and Alpha French/Lao positions relentlessly, collapsing bunkers. The Vietnamese infantry advanced screaming, throwing phosphorus grenades. It was if there were more attackers than the Lao had bullets. Deafening sound and fury enveloped that small place.
The western flank of Mousetrap fell at 0110 hours 18 May.
20 minutes later the French rear command informed the garrison that weather prevented any TacAir support.
By 0230 the enemy was completely inside the Mousetrap fortification and by 0350 hours no more firing was heard; the Việt Minh controlled the position.
Alpha lasted the night but by dawn the enemy had scaled its step walls, many of its bunkers crushed by the unrelenting 120mm mortar fire.
Alpha fell by 0800.
Midmorning a French C-17 over-flew the area and saw small dust and gunpowder smoke from advancing Việt Minh on PI. The French Tricolor and Laotian flags still flew over the PI command bunker but by noon another plane saw that the flags had been taken down.
All of Muong Khoua was lost.
Four days later one Frenchman and two Lao soldiers from the garrison stumbled into the French/Lao position at Phongsali 50 miles to the north. The Frenchman, Sergeant René Novak, moved as if he was in a daze. As journalist Bernard Falls reported, his eyes were sunk in his gaunt face and unfocused. Covered with mud and scratches, clothes torn, he stumbled into camp and just kept walking like a zombie until someone stopped him near the middle of the camp.
The next day another French soldier came in riding a hills tribe pony. That was all.
Four survivors from more than 300.
North Vietnam military would continue to invade northern Laos over the next 20 years years in unsuccessful efforts to defeat military there and bring the buffer country into its sphere of influence.
By the fall of 1971 North Vietnam Army General An was given 27,000 main line North Vietnamese soldiers to take the PDJ, to kill Vang Pao’s military and at last take control of the north country. And to do this ”… at all costs.”
They were stopped at Skyline Ridge by CIA irregulars who showed the same tenacity as did the mostly Lao defenders under French leadership in 1953.