January, 1930 – Northern Việt Nam
4 January, 20:45
Another year. Another year has past since I left France to serve in Indochine. I never knew the map even extended past the bounds of Europe, and here I am, half way across the globe sitting in the same garrison I came to five years ago today. It's a far cry from Cahors and the family winery. Such exquisite wine, I've nearly forgotten it: mildly tannic, with a beautiful rich color and a nice, subtle undertone of oak. Together with a nice wheel or two of Brie we would get from my cousins in Provins, ah, such a feast. Certainly puts the food here to shame.
Nothing ever happens here. We patrol, we keep an eye on the Indochinois, and that's it. How I wish I could just go home and wrap my arms around my beautiful Ségolène. She must be nearly seven now. Such beautiful blue eyes she has, and that perfect little smile. But, I have no time to dote on such things. It's time again for patrol. We have to make the rounds to assure our self that nothing has changed since we last checked. Nothing ever does.
It was nearly time for the meeting, and everyone was crowding in around the table in the center of the room. It was time to finalize our plans, make sure everything was ready. I was so anxious I was sweating. Finally, Học came in and gathered everyone around. The first time I met Nguyễn Thái Học I was expecting him to be an older man, someone who'd lived through the darkest times of the French control, but he was merely a young man, not more than six years older than I was. But he had such fire to him. He seemed to draw everyone to his ideals, like he struck just the right chord with everyone he met. After hearing about the Party he was starting, I joined immediately, even though I was only 16 at the time.
Học was getting desperate for an opportunity to show the French that he really meant business. His plan was for us to start an uprising at the base nearby in Yên Bái. We were to sneak into the officers' barracks in the middle of the night, kill them, and rally all the Việt soldiers to join us. It was a sound plan, and with the right kind of luck, he said, it could work perfectly. To me it sounded more rash than bold, but if we didn't act, the French would eventually crack down and take us away, to jail or worse. Something had to be done.
Học had also said he had planned two other mutinies to happen at the same time, one at Hải Phòng and another at Sơn Tây. It would be our chance to show the French that we had no intention of being oppressed any longer. It was to be our glorious revolt, the Việt rising as one to push the French back out of our country and retake it for ourselves. Hoc told us it was set for February 10th, and that we were to meet outside the base. After that, we had to disperse. It wasn't wise to be out late, and we didn't want to attract suspicion.
My dearest Ségolène,
I know with all your heart you wished for me to be home this year for your birthday, but my Commander says that it would be impossible for me to leave. If I had my way, I would be on a ship this instant sailing for France. I know you will be let down, but along with this letter I have sent you some gifts I got in Hanoi. I know they are just trinkets, but I had them made especially for you.
You asked me once to tell you what it is that I do here, why I'm in Indochine when I could be home with you and Mama. I'm here, mon petit chou, for France. You see, Indochine is our colony, and because of that, we get many things from them, like coffee and tea and tobacco. We also help them become more civilized, to become more modern. Indochine is a very backwards place, and we are simply trying to help them become more like us. We give them businesses, farms, and schools, so they can have better lives.
Forgive me for missing your special day, my sweet. I will come home someday soon, and when we do, I will take you and Mama to Marseilles, where we can lounge on the beaches and swim in the ocean like you've always wanted. I promise.
Give kisses to your Mama for me. Tell her she is more radiant than the sun.
February 1930 – Yên Bái
Học had us gather outside the base, in a grove of trees just beyond sight of the guards.
"I want you to split into three groups. Chính, I want you to take your group into the officers barracks and dispatch them. I will take my group and take control of the base headquarters. Như, I want you and your men to go into the infantry barracks and take care of the NCOs. While you're there, rally all the Việt soldiers you can find. The more help we have, the better."
I knew he was giving me this job to prove myself. If I could rally these soldiers to help us in one mutiny, I could have the power to rally thousands against the French. I knew it was a test, and I wouldn't fail.
We waited for the guards to move away from the entrance, and we snuck on to the base, where we split into our three groups. I had almost 30 men with me, and with only 10 NCOs, I knew we would make short work of them. The barracks were on the far end of the base, in the southeast corner. We moved quietly, using the other buildings as cover. When we reached the barracks, I looked across the middle courtyard to where Học was. He gave the signal, and we moved in.
I opened the door and told my men to file in. The NCOs were middle of the building, past the quarters for the regular infantry. Just as we reached the door, shots began to ring out from the courtyard. It was our cue, and the burst through the door. I immediately grabbed the first NCO I could reach and buried my dagger into his chest. By that point, the clamor had woken the rest, and they were all scrambling for their weapons. They fought back fiercely, some even managed to shoot down some of my men. All but two managed to get out. They begged us to let them live as I moved them in front of the wall. One started crying about how he had a wife and daughter back in France, and how he was going to be sailing home soon to see them. Two shots sounded, and they crumpled to the floor.
From behind us, we heard the infantrymen grabbing their weapons and running down the hall to us. They streamed in, charging at us with rifles and bayonets. We were vastly outnumbered, so I told my men to flee. The only way out was the windows, so I dived for nearest one to me. Once outside, I ducked behind a parked truck. There were people running everyone, bullets whizzing by, and orders being screamed in French and Việt. I looked around frantically for Chính or Học. Over at the headquarter building, I saw our party flag, the one Học intended to fly on the pole, being ripped apart by some soldiers. The bullets were so thick in the air that I had to crawl under the truck.
I heard one soldier yell out to an officer than they had captured one of the leaders. I couldn't see who it was from under the truck, so I slowly moved out from under it, and, staying close to the building, peeked around the side. Học was unconscious, and was being dragged by two soldiers toward headquarters. I knew we had failed. My stomach was in knots and I didn't know what else there was I could do. I knew if I stayed I would be captured too. I looked around the building to see if anyone else was near, and I ran off into the woods. I never stopped to look back.
20 Feb, 1930, 18:27
To Com. Reneaud, Commandant of Yen Bai
I have finished collecting and organizing the personal belongings of the casualties from the mutiny attempt. They are all tagged and documented, awaiting your approval. There was one man who had an un-mailed letter on his person. I put the letter in with his things. Once the forms are signed, I will be sending these back to the consulate in Paris, where they will be distributed to the families.
June 1930 – Yên Bái
I slipped in and out of the crowd, trying to avoid looks from the people around me, in case I was recognized. I tried to push my way through towards the tall platform the 13 men were standing. I knew each and every one of them: they were all at Yên Bái, and they were all going to die.
My love Ségolène,
By the time you get this, you will have already turned eight. What an amazing thing. I remember back when you were nothing but a bump in Mama's tummy. It was so incredible, feeling your gentle little kick through her belly. What a beautiful little girl you were.
I looked for Học, but they all were wearing hoods over their heads, so it was impossible to tell who was who. They stood fidgeting, anxious, waiting for their turn with the gallows. They grabbed the first in line and shoved him under the noose. Just before the floor dropped, he screamed out "VIỆT NAM!" It was Chính. He was dead before the slack tightened.
I remember how you always begged for a little brother or sister to take of, and I am sorry you never were able to experience that joy. I am more sorry that you have spent the past five years without a father as well, and I am sure it aches just as much.
One by one they all filed up, and dropped through the trapdoor. Finally, they grabbed the last man. As they slipped the rope around his neck, he pleaded with them, saying he had written a letter to the Governor-General, explaining his actions, how it was all a misunderstanding. The executioner didn't seem to be listening, and simply turned towards the lever. With a shout of " VIỆT NAM!" like the others, he fell through the trapdoor. Học was dead.
Well, my child, I have good news for you. I have, through much bartering and negotiations with my commanders, been granted permission to return home! It has all been arranged, and I will be sailing on the 17th of February! You shall see your dear Papa again before March has slipped past. Run now, and tell your Mama, let her see for herself.
I knew I had to leave before someone spotted me. As I pushed through the crowds, I saw the smug looks on the faces of all the soldiers and politicians who had watched. They were so proud to have put down the insurrection, of being the great protectors of French Indochine. Someday they will come face to face with rifles of Việt soldiers, and they will be the ones swinging from ropes. Time will tell.
Dear girl, the next few weeks will be harder than all the years combined, but I know we can make it through them by showing strength. I long for the day when I can hold you in my arms again. Give your Mama kisses for me. I shall see you both soon.