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The OSS And Ho Chi Min – How They Found Common Ground


People involved in or merely interested in political military affairs tend to think today’s world is more complicated than ever before. Certainly, many examples can be found in history that would refute the uniqueness of today’s world. It is true, however, that certain events and circumstances can be pointed to as having a special, though not emphasized, place in world affairs. Many of these events have been lost in contemporary history. One of the best examples of this phenomenon was the contact the American intelligence unit, Office of Strategic Services (OSS), had with Ho Chi Minh in the summer of 1945.

An OSS team made up of one officer (Major Allison Thomas) and two enlisted men parachuted into an area near the small village of Kim Lung in northern Vietnam. Others were to follow later. The code name for the mission was “Deer Team.” Along with the Americans were a French officer (Lt. Montfort) and two of his Vietnamese soldiers. They were there to provide help in translating and dealing with local customs. Of course, in those days, the region was known as Indo-China and it was a French colony; it also was a sector of Japanese World War II conquest.

An earlier operation in May 1945 had been mounted by the US Army Air Corps and its Air Ground Aid Section (AGAS) to extend its recovery of downed aviators in that part of the Far East Command. A specially trained officer, Lt. Dan Phelan, headed this group accompanied by Lt. Frank Tan, a Chinese-American, and a radio operator, Mac Sinn. All of this was a follow-up to a February journey taken by Ho Chi Minh. The Vietnamese leader had walked 100 miles from Kim Lung to the Chinese border town of Ching-hsi all the while dodging Japanese Army patrols. He had heard of the American forces recovery operation from his own contacts with Texaco employees. That oil company was responsible for the original creation of US intelligence assets and operations in areas their company had operated in the Pacific. Indo-China had been one of those places.

Ho was picked up by the Chinese military who took him by truck to their headquarters in Kunming. There Ho was processed as an ally and eventually met with American authorities, including the Commanding Officer of the 14th Air Force, the legendary Claire Chennault. Ho made a good impression as he quietly spoke in his passable English. The Vietnamese leader ended up with a photo of Chennault as well as six Colt .45 cal. semi-automatic pistols and a sizeable carton of ammunition. For Ho that was a serious indication of American support and the beginning of a period of mutual misunderstanding and eventual mistrust. Chennault saw Ho Chi Minh as a possibly useful communist guerrilla leader. After all, the United States was in an alliance with the USSR against Hitler and theoretically also Japan. For Ho’s part, the pistols and ammo were a symbolic gesture of favors to come. Both sides couldn’t have been more wrong.

When the Deer Team arrived months later in July, Ho was bedridden with malaria and dysentery. The team’s medic, Pfc. Paul Hoagland, carefully doctored Ho with sulfa drugs, quinine and anti-dysentery medicines. The American medic stayed close by for days until Ho’s fever broke and his stomach problems subsided. Ho recovered amazingly well. However, in spite of the obviously beneficial effects of Hoagland’s efforts, suspicion existed among the collected Viet Minh montagnards and local Tonkinese fighters. Years later Viet Minh propaganda adjudged Hoagland’s efforts to have been useless and Chairman Ho had recovered due to the natural herbs provided by a local farmer.

The key element that undercut the Deer Team’s presence in Kim Lung turned out to be the discovery by Ho’s aides that the French officer on Major Thomas’ team was an experienced intelligence officer. In fact, so was one of Lt. Montfort’s supposed enlisted men. That fact was exposed under what was referred to by the Viet Minh as “light questioning.” The political impact of Ho’s friendly visit with General Chennault came into play at this time. Ho decided to accept Major Thomas’ protestation of innocence of these facts regarding the true background of the French personnel in American uniforms. Allison Thomas was either a very good liar, or as more probable, Ho decided to overlook the obvious objective of the French individuals to gain information on his Viet Minh operation. Lt. Montfort and his two “sergeants” were “escorted” to the Chinese border.

However, the truly solidifying factor in the nascent, if now troubled, relationship with Ho and his Viet Minh fighters came about as a result of a basic, but successful, training program in the use of US weapons instituted by Major Thomas and his noncommissioned officers (NCO’s) with the Viet Minh. Particularly pleased was the ever-present “Comrade Van” who had kept his eyes on the American team since its arrival. This impressive gentleman in the white suit and tie became well known in later years as the famous General Vo Nguyen Giap. Unfortunately, from the American standpoint, this training that they had worked at so hard was not put into effective use because Comrade Van and his troops were not really interested in fighting the Japanese. Their aim, though never so stated at the time, was simply to await the end of the war in order to start their revolt against the French when the latter came back to regain their colony of Indo-China.

Good relations were maintained between the Americans and “Uncle” Ho nonetheless. When the war against Japan ended formally in September 1945, Major Allison Thomas and his team accompanied Ho Chi Minh and his Viet Minh troops to Hanoi. After that, the Americans returned home. There was a time though, when US special soldiers, the Viet Minh and General Giap and Ho Chi Minh were all on the same side. The question exists starkly: “Is a similar situation possible somewhere in the conflict-filled world of today?” Of course, the Middle East and South Asia immediately come to mind – just to start!