At Large

Americans Saved Ho Chi Minh’s Life

Sixty-five years ago today, in the waning days of WWII, an OSS medic landed in Ho's small village.

By 7.16.10

On July 16, 1945, sixty-five years ago today, an advance team of one American OSS officer with two enlisted men jumped into a previously prepared landing zone outside of Trang Quang, near the small village of Kim Lung in the part of northern Vietnam known as Tonkin. They were code-named the Deer Team. A French officer and two of his Vietnamese enlisted men accompanied them. The entire operation was aimed at following up contact with and assisting a Vietnamese independence organization known in brief as "Viet Minh" and its leader Ho Chi Minh -- previously known as Nguyen Ai Quoc, among other names.

The group had been preceded in May by an Air Ground Aid Section (AGAS) officer, Lt. Dan Phelan, who was extending an Allied air crew recovery operation. This American lieutenant was posted northeast of the LZ. The landing zone preparations had been directed by a Chinese American, Lieutenant Frank Tan, and his radio operator, Mac Sinn. They were part of a long-term intelligence operation known as GBT, begun earlier in the war in the Pacific with the aid of some Texaco employees.

Ho Chi Minh had traveled earlier to Kunming, China, in February 1945, specifically to further contact with the Americans through the good offices of GBT. Ho walked from his headquarters at Kim Lung to Ch'ing-hsi on the Chinese border, a distance of well over 100 miles avoiding Japanese patrols. He was then driven by truck to Kunming, where he met with various American intelligence officers through his GBT contact.

Eventually Ho was moved up the ladder to a meeting with the well-known Maj. General Claire Chennault, commanding the 14th Air Force and formerly the CO of the famed Flying Tigers. Chennault gave Ho an autographed photo that pleased the Viet Minh leader greatly. Ho also received a symbolic gift of six .45 cal Colt semi-automatic pistols and ammunition from OSS stocks. These pleased him even more.

From this point on the facts of story of these contacts differed even among the American participants, including the caliber and type of pistols mentioned, and the presence of Sgt.1st Class William Zielski, who is never seen in any photos. This is to say nothing of the views of the Vietnamese and French. They disagree on just about everything, from the details of what was said and done as well as the motivations for actions that were taken. The following are some things on which there is a degree of agreement.

Perhaps the most important result of Deer Team's visit to Ho Chi Minh's rough camp was the life-saving treatment that one of the group's members, Pfc. Paul Hoagland, an American medic, gave to "Uncle Ho." His skin yellowed, his complexion haggard, the seemingly old man (Ho was only 55 at the time) had difficulty rising from his bed to greet his visitors.

The American officer in charge of the Deer Team, Maj. Allison Thomas, assigned Hoagland to care for the Viet Minh leader. The army medic would later say that he made a good guess and decided Ho's symptoms of high fever and diarrhea might be a combination of malaria, maybe some dengue fever, and, of course, dysentery. Hoagland had quinine and sulfa drugs in his bag and after boiling some tea water to replace fluids he said he told Ho all would be well.

Thanks primarily to the sulfa drugs and quinine, Ho returned to health with amazing quickness. Later he would joke that he never thought he was very ill in the first place. Whatever the actual affliction, the man's stamina proved extraordinary. Years later the propaganda line from the Viet Minh held that the Americans were unable to help, but a local farmer following instructions from Uncle Ho had gathered herbs in the forest -- and that was the source of their leader's recovery.

The training of the Viet Minh volunteers -- gathered about 6 km away at Tan Trao -- in military deployment and weapon use was a bit of a challenge. Three more OSS troopers were dropped in a little over a week later along with a great deal of equipment. Fluent French-speaking Lieutenant (soon-to-be Captain) René Defourneaux, the second-in-command, would shout instructions in English. These orders were then translated into rudimentary Vietnamese by Sgt. Henry Prunier, who had arrived in the advance team with Thomas. An enthusiastic, if slightly confused, group of Viet Minh volunteers would do their best to comply with the orders.

The truth was that the majority of these guerrillas had already learned about handling rifles and mortars from captured French ordnance. Typical Vietnamese, they were too polite to tell the Americans. In any case, it gave the Viet Minh fighters a chance to be responsive to the desires of these Americans who were clearly friends of their "Uncle." From the sidelines, in his usual colonial white suit, black tie and black fedora, stood the impassive Comrade Van -- better known in later years as General Vo Nguyen Giap.

Within days of arriving Maj. Thomas was "requested" to attend an important conference with Uncle Ho. It didn't take a genius to know something was wrong. In a firm but non-belligerent tone, the still ill Ho informed Thomas that he would have to send back the American-uniformed French M.5 (special operations) officer, Lt. Montfort. The two sergeants (Phac and Logos) could stay. As it turned out under what was referred to as "light questioning," Phac admitted he was also M.5 and was actually a lieutenant. All three joined a group of refugees who were "escorted" to the Chinese border.

There remains a question as to whether Thomas knew Montfort's complete story. He certainly must have known he was M.5, but beyond that Thomas insisted he had known only that Montfort was a French officer who because of his multiple language skills could be helpful in working with the Vietnamese. Ho, in his typical way, allowed the American his excuse, but nonetheless made it clear he wanted no more "cleverness."

The other two OSS sergeants, Lawrence Vogt and Aaron Squires, who had arrived with Defourneaux provided the necessary manpower to pick up the pace of training. In addition, an improved system of recovering downed allied flyers was in operation in the region following-up the initial work of the AGAS and GBT nets. The Viet Minh fighters became relatively proficient in the use of American weaponry. Even Comrade Van seemed pleased, though he never showed it.

The only real problem apparent to Thomas and Defourneaux was that the Viet Minh really didn't want to enter into a full-scale guerrilla operation against the Japanese. A few hit-and-run raids were fine. One unnecessary and bloody attack was later led by Giap at Thai Nguyen after Japan's surrender. But there were clear signs the Viet Minh leadership for the most part wanted to hold back their men and equipment for their ultimate target -- any return of the French colonialists.

The point became moot by the middle of August with the dropping of the U.S. atomic bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the subsequent surrender of the Japanese. The Deer Team had done its job. After traveling to Hanoi with Ho and a victorious parade of Viet Minh forces, the team broke up and shipped out for eventual demobilization.

What might have happened if the military opening with Ho and Giap had been exploited is a matter of conjecture. Many say it was an impossible situation. The U.S. was France's ally and France wanted to reestablish its previous Indochina colony. Uncle Ho and the Viet Minh were never going to allow that to happen, nor would they end or moderate their communist ambitions.

Nonetheless, the OSS jumped in during that very wet summer of 1945 and did its job. It would be repeated again in other forms by new agencies and units as U.S. special operations forces carried on their dangerous but rarely heralded missions in other wars in other places.

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About the Author
George H. Wittman writes a weekly column on international affairs for The American Spectator online. He was the founding chairman of the National Institute for Public Policy.