The Indochina Wars: 1940 – 1990

Written by Harold McNeill on November 12th, 2016. Posted in Travelogue

Southeast Asia – Colonial Powers

Southeast AsiaPS

Colonial Powers, as listed above, played a large role in the ebb and flow of the fortunes and misfortunes of Southeast Asia from the early 1800’s onwards.  The French played a dominant role in Viet Nam, Cambodia and Laos and while it ended in war there are still many positive reminders of the occupation.

Part I:   Introduction and the Rice Paddy
Part II:  Indochina Wars: 1940 – 1990
Part III: Resilience of the Human Spirit (passcode required as post under revision)
Part IV:  The Future Belongs to the Young
art V: Travelling with Uniworld (In progress)

Part 11. Indochina Wars: 1940 – 1990


Ordinary people do not start wars unless they are oppressed. Governments or dictators make wars with an ideological or expansionist purpose in mind. When this happens, ordinary citizens are pushed to fight whether they want to or not. This was no better expressed than in Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem, “The Charge of the Light Brigade”:

“Forward, the Light Brigade!”p18aCharge of the Light Brigade
Was there a man dismay’d?
Not tho’ the soldier knew
    Someone had blunder’d:
Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die:
Into the valley of Death
    Rode the six hundred.   

Such was the case in Indochina where not six hundred, but an estimated 8000 times that many would be driven into the valley of death. The Viet Nam or Second Indochina War, was just the second part of fifty years of war that began when the Japanese occupied French Indochina in 1940. Following the departure of the Japanese and the French again occupied, then Communist North Viet Nam (formed in 1945 after the war) (3), began a push to remove the French who resumed their Colonial control status that was ceded to the Japenese for a few years.   One occupying force simply replaced another.

I. The French, United States and Chinese compete for power 

While the French had maintained a heavy influence in the region from the early 18th century through the middle of the 19th, in 1955 they lost control after being soundly defeated by a technically inferior, but highly resourceful North Vietnamese force under the leadership of Ho Chi MinhThe final, decisive battle took place in a small community in the Northwest of Viet Nam at Dien Bien Phu. In that battle, a superior, but arrogant, French force had set up what they believed was a trap to end their ongoing struggle against the North Vietnamese.

The staging ground they choose quickly turned into an indefensible position when the North Vietnamese forces surprisingly infiltrated the surrounding hills with heavy weapons from which they were able to chip away at the 545917609_oFrench with impunity. Over time, as French resources were depleted and their airlift supply lines cut off, were left defenceless.  This War of Attrition could only go one way.

French Lieutenant Colonel Charles Piroth, the man in charge of the main artillery defense system, being unable to protect his troops or attack the enemy, committed suicide in his bunker.  Soon thereafter the dispirited French signed a surrender document known as the 1954 Geneva Peace Accord The accord brought to an end a century and a half of French influence that had introduced Indochina to the modern world.  While the French lost the war, many positive aspects of their time in the region can be felt to this day.

Following the First Indochina War, the region remained unstable and in the late 1950’s to the early 60’s, Ho Chi Minh began to infiltrate South Viet Nam which had operated under a US-backed nominal democracy from 1949. It was the clear intention of Communist-backed North Viet Nam to annex the South. With the support of Russian, the aggression resulted in a commensurate buildup of Allied Forces from United States, South Korea, Thailand, France, England, Australia and a sprinkling of other anti-communist nations.

The war would follow an eerily similar path to that taken by the French in the First Indochina Warin There was a belief (some would say arrogant) that a superior, modern war machine could easily defeat a poorly armed and trained force that was always short of supplies.  It seemed as if no one in the Allied Command understood just how difficult it would be to defeat a motivated guerrilla force.

For various reasons, the Canadian Government declined to participate which, in retrospect, was a good decision. However, it would be unfair to fault the Allied Forces as the goal of stemming the flow of Communism into Southeast Asia was a worthwhile cause. For a number of reasons, it was the prevailing belief that if South Viet Nam fell, so would the rest of Southeast Asia.

The entire build-up of western military forces was back-dropped by the ongoing Cold War between the West and Russia, a war that had simmered in increasing intensity from the end of World War II. Further inflaming the situation was Russian expansion into Eastern Europe. It was also compounded by the Korean War that had dragged on through the early 1950’s. Canada had taken up a combat role in that war.

In the Korean case, the ongoing fear that Chinese style Communism would spread eastward was also on the minds of Western governments. As history now reveals, South Korea, supported primarily by the United States, succeeded in holding North Koreans at bay and as a result, South Korea today is one of the powerhouse economies in the region.  North Korea on the other hand remains a dark hole controlled by a malevolent dictator.

Playing to the fear of Communism in the 1950’s was a US Senator whose ‘red baiting’ ways knew no bounds, Joseph McCarthyHis relentless search too ‘out’ those he believed to be Communist sympathizers or dissidents reached epidemic proportions. McCarthy’s public antics and shaming techniques made his own own party cringe, yet they seemed impotent as they tried to reign him in. It was a path to power that in many respects seem’s to be again be playing out in the election of 2016.

By the time McCarthy’s fear mongering was put to an end, the heightened suspicion that Communists were hiding in every closet, permeated America society. This lead to a massive build-up of US defence systems around the world including the proliferation of nuclear weapons in what was aptly referred to as MAD (Mutual Assured Destruction).

The opening of dozens of USAF SAC bases around the world including more than a dozen in Canada gave the author an early career start in the 1960’s as a civilian Crash Rescue Fireman attached to the USAF Strategic Air Command in Cold Lake, Alberta.

It was within this Cold War framework that bombs began to rain from the sky in North Viet Nam, Cambodia and Laos.


  1.  Canada did not participate in the War, but many young men from Canada signed up with the US Military or other Commonwealth Forces (Refer Canada and the Viet Nam War)
  2. For a close family link to the Viet Nam War go to:  Remembrance: Viet Nam
  3. French Indochina in World War II: “In 1940, France was swiftly defeated by Nazi Germany, and colonial administration of French Indochina, modern-day VietnamLaos and Cambodia, passed to the Vichy French government, a Puppet state of Nazi Germany. The Vichy government ceded control of Hanoi and Saigon in 1940 to Japan, and in 1941, Japan extended its control over the whole of French Indochina.

2.  Rolling Thunder: The Air War Begins

From the opening sorties over North Viet Nam in 1965 (link above) to the evacuation of Saigon, South Viet Nam, in 1975, more bombs and other munitions (napalm, agent orange – a defoliant, etc.) were dropped on104611-050-D8F711CE North Viet Nam and later Cambodia and Laos, than was applied against the entire Japanese force in World War II.

It was a modern war machine in which the allied forces at their peak in 1968, numbered over 600,000, were backed by the US 7th Fleet and with an armada of aircraft that could blacken the skies for days. Even though it was the most deadly bombing and ground force mission since the end of World War II, it was a war in which the allies would seldom see the face of the enemy and, worse, had no idea how infiltrate his hiding places.  Second, it was largely a war run by politicians, not by the military.

While the Viet Con (Viet Communists or VC), were supplied by China and other communist sympathizers with largely inferior weapons and weapons systems, they simply began a war of attrition using guerrilla tactics in which the jungle, tunnels, primitive mantraps and an uncanny ability to infiltrate the enemy lines, slowly took the will to fight out of that vastly superior fighting force just as had happened to the French in Dien Bien Phu.

3.  Ho Mhin Trails and Cu Chi Tunnels 

A prime example of the ability of the Viet Cong to infiltrate was the Cu Chi Tunnelslocated just a few kilometers from the giant USAF Air Base at Bien Hoa the base itself located just 25 kilometres from Saigon.  The Cu Chi tunnels and a number of other front line points of the VC were effectively supplied by troops and civilians travelling by foot and pack animals along the seemingly endless Ho Chi Mhin Ho Chi Minh TrailsTrail and its tributaries that stretched over 1600 km from Hanoi to Saigon.  The Cu Chi tunnels were a constant thorn in the side of allied forces as it placed enemy soldiers right next door to the hundreds of USAF and other aircraft stationed at the Ben Hoa.

Map: (Click to Open).  The Cu Chi network of tunnels show just north of Saigon near the end of the Ho Chi Mhin trails. Lynn, Esther and Garth managed to crawl through about 40 metres of one tunnel (attached photos). Harold kept photo watch from above.

As the war dragged on, the crews of aircraft returning from bombing runs in the North were ordered to save part of their bomb load to drop on the tunnels as they came in on their landing runs. It must have been unnerving for the flight crews and base personnel to see their their bombs dropping on territories they supposedly controlled and just a half dozen kilometers from their own base. Even with all those bombs and hundreds of ground assaults into the Cu Chi area, the tunnels remained an effective tool for the VC until the closing years of the war.0104SG-Cu-Chi-Tunnel-Dia-dao-Cu-Chi

Diagram: The tunnel system was located on a fifty food land rise that placed most tunnels well above the water table of the Saigon River.  

Documents later revealed occupants of the tunnels and surrounding area had successfully infiltrated the allied base command structures, as well as other military facilities from which undercover VC operators provided a steady flow of sensitive military information to their HQ in Hanoi.  When one looks back at what the French faced in Dien Bien Phu, the Ho Chi Minh was essentially using the same tactic in the South – war of attrition. As things became more desperate, the war soon expanded beyond the borders of Viet Nam.

4.  The Bombing of Cambodia

Although Cambodia had declared neutrality during the conflict, it became evident that neutrality was a rather fluid concept as large parts of the Ho Chi Minh trail passed through both Cambodia and Laos enroute to Saigon. In response, carpet- bombing, the setting of land mines and other anti-personal weaponry, as well as clearing large swaths of jungle along the trail with agent orange soon devastated large sections of the both countries.

The bombing forced the displacement of hundreds of thousands of rural Cambodians into the capital city of Phnom Pen and other large centres, yet it had little effect on the VC supply lines as the VC could change trails and storage locations on a moments notice. It was a system of battle the VC had perfected over the decades and which had thwarted every adversary.

For the United States, it was the most costly war in history and one that galvanized the citizens of that country and many others around the world against a war in which a steady stream of body bags and 20SaferObit2-1463696437045-master675broken/injured warriors were broadcast daily. It was the first war in which embedded journalists and television reporters (The Television War) provided a steady stream of live reports from the front lines of both sides.

Web: Morely Safer, who would later become a mainstay on 60 Minutes, cut his teeth as a Television correspondence on the front lines in Viet Nam.

As the tragic images became seared in the memory of people around the world, particularly in the United States, opposition to the war would grow to a deafening crescendo. During the early 1970s thousands US ‘draft dodgers’ left their country to take up a new life in Canada. This caused considerable friction between Canada and the United States which would take many years to heal.

P1050705The Paris Peace Accordwas signed in 173, but over the next two years there were may violations of the accord by both sides.  It was not until 1975 when North Vietnamese tanks rolled into Saigon and the Allies pulled out their remaining troops, that hostilities came to an end. Following the war an immense political vacuum developed in Cambodia into which stepped Pol Pot and his deadly Khmer Rouge party.

5.  The Killing Fields of Cambodia

Over four years, from 1975 to 1979, the Cambodian leader Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge began one of the most vicious acts of genocide in the second half of the 20th century. This began with the forced P1050116removal of 2.5 million people who then occupied the capital of Phnom Pen and continued throughout every other city and town across the nation.  Ordinary labourers, including children having farm working potential, were marched off to collective farms as Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge were intent returning Cambodia to the 15th Dark Ages.

Photo: Killing Fields memorial that sits on the outskirts of Phnom Penh. Mass graves of city residents fill the fields around this memorial.

In the process tens of thousands of men, woman and children died of malnutrition, disease and if not able to work hard enough or to carry out orders as explicitly directed, summarily executed.  Our tour guide while in Cambodia, a man in his late forties, lost many family members and, when 12 years old, nearly lost his own life when he was unable to make his quota of 30 rat tails a day required of him.

The rat bounty was implemented by Khymer Rouge as rats had taken over the countryside during the war and were consuming vast amounts of rice. Every male child in their early teens was required to met this daily quota and if they didn’t, death awaited them at one of the ‘re-education’ camps. There is much more to this story, but this one was sufficient to bring tears to the eyes of our guide, a former monk who left the service to marry and have children of his own.

Tens of thousands of others marched out of the cities were considered enemies of the state as they comprised the intelligentsia – teachers, professionals, considered intellectuals because they wore glasses, or were suspected of being property hoarders because they owned a home or business – all were sent to re-education facilities outside the city.  These facilities, which numbered in the hundreds across the country, were nothing more than execution centres where men, women, children and babies were summarily killed in the most brutal of ways. The bodies were often beheaded and then dumped in mass graves that now dot areas around every city and rural community in Cambodia.

While the exact number exterminated is not know, it is estimated that of a total population of five million living in Cambodia in 1975, between 1.5 and 2.5 million were killed or otherwise died of malnutrition and disease.  A majority of native Cambodians living in the country today can trace their ancestry back to members killed during Pol Pot’s rein of terror.  While modern day Cambodia has moved forward there were still an attempts to bring justice to those responsible for so much damage to the country and its people as reported in this 2009 Time Magazine article.

While estimates of the number of deaths in North and South Viet Nam, countries which in 1970 each had populations estimated at 15 million each, have varied greatly, but a 1995 demographic study published in Population and Development Review: “…calculated 791,000–1,141,000 war-related  deaths, both soldiers and civilians, for all of Viet Nam from 1965 to 1975. The study came up with a most likely  death toll of 882,000, which included 655,000 adult males (above 15 years of age), 143,000 adult females, and 84,000 children. Those totals include only deaths, and do not include allied military deaths which amounted to about 64,000.[2]

Following the departure of the allied troops in 1975, North and South Viet Nam were unified as the Socialist Republic of Viet Nam (SRVN) under a system of “one-party” Communist rule. After ten years of full out war, the country was an economic basket case as much of the infrastructure was destroyed and the farming systems left in chaos. With the takeover complete, all businesses and farms were seized and turned into collectives by the ruling party. While there were isolated communities in the backcountry of Viet Nam and Cambodia that survived nearly unscathed, they did not thrive under the new leadership.

As a first move the Communist party implemented a “five-year plan” that included communal farming and loss of all privately property that had been a staple in South Viet Nam.  All did not go well and after five years of abysmal production and increasing starvation, a system of private ownership for both farms and small businesses was slowly returned, but the return stalled as the war was not over.

6. Sino-Vietnamese War

After the end of the second Indochina War, Viet Nam and others were so consumed by their own internal problems, that no one paid much attention to genocide being carried out by Pol Pot upon Cambodia people. While I won’t go into the details of the skirmishes between Viet Nam and Pol Pot’s Cambodia, in 1978-79, Viet Nam finally carried out a full invasion that deposed Pol Pot and the Khymer Rouge.  A provisional government was established and Viet Nam occupied the country for the next ten years.

Because China had backed Pol Pot and the Khymer Rouge, conflict with Viet Nam began to escalate with various intrusions into Viet Nam by the Chinese. At one time China occupied, several cities in the Northeast of Viet Nam and had declared Hanoi and “open city”.  It was not until 1989 that peace was finally reached between the two countries and China withdrew its troops. Again, there was much more to this story than I have sketched here, but suffice it to say, all the turmoil that Viet Nam and Cambodia suffered through for the 50 year period from 1940 – 1989 finally ended.

7. Peace Achieved

Once peace was achieved, the real challenge of rebuilding both countries began. The return to a regulated free-market system that included both home and business ownership, particularly for family run businesses, was the beginning of an amazing transition that continues to this day in both North and South Viet Nam. Cambodia is following suit, but because of the devastation inflicted by the Pol Pot regime, the country lags a bit behind Viet Nam.

For the past two 26 years, both countries have benefited from an influx of grants and loans from various countries as well as the United Nations and other international aid agencies.   For the Socialist Republic of Viet Nam, normalization of relations with the United States that began with President Clinton’s visit in 1990, signaled the beginning of an exponential rise in tourism that by 1995 reached one million and by 2015 ten times that amount as it reached ten million.

This has happened not just because of improving infrastructure with hundreds new and renovated of tourist hotels and services, but because the people of Southeast Asia must be among the most industrious, peaceful and welcoming in the world.

There is not an area in either of these countries I would be afraid to travel on my own, without a dime in my pocket and with only a rudimentary knowledge of the local language. It is easy to believe that no person (or a people) in either country would ever be cast aside or disparaged because of race, religious creed, colour, mental health, disability, sexual orientation or had simply fallen on hard times.  This is certainly not the case in the western democracies. Later paragraphs of this article will explain why I think this to be true. All this will be outlined in Part II, Resilience of the Human Spirit (link below).


Join Part III of the Travelogue: Resilience of the Human Spirit


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  • Harold McNeill

    February 28, 2022 |

    Hi Robert, I do remember some of those folks from my early years in Cold Lake (Hazel was my aunt and our family spent many fond times with Uncle Melvin, Aunt Hazel and Family. I knew Lawrence and Adrian. Having read a half dozen accounts it is clear their were many false narratives and, perhaps, a few truths along the way. I tried my best to provide an even account from what I read. Cheers, Harold. (email:

  • Robert Martineau

    February 25, 2022 |

    Its been a long time since any post here, but its worth a shot. My Grandfather was Hazel Wheelers brother Lawrence, and son to Maggie and Adrien. Maggie Martineau (nee Delaney) is my great grandmother. The books and articles to date are based on the white mans viewpoint and the real story as passed down by the Elders in my family is much more nefarious. Some of the white men were providing food for the Indians in exchange for sexual favors performed by the Squaws. Maggie was the product of one of those encounters. Although I am extremely proud of my family and family name, I am ashamed about this part of it.

  • Julue

    January 28, 2022 |

    Good morning Harold!
    Gosh darn it, you are such a good writer. I hope you have been writing a book about your life. It could be turned into a movie.
    Thanks for this edition to your blog.
    I pray that Canadians will keep their cool this weekend and next week in Ottawa. How do you see our PM handling it? He has to do something and quick!
    Xo Julie

  • Herb Craig

    December 14, 2021 |

    As always awesome job Harold. It seems whatever you do in life the end result is always the same professional, accurate, inclusive and entertaining. You have always been a class act and a great fellow policeman to work with. We had some awesome times together my friend. I will always hold you close as a true friend. Keep up the good work. Hope to see you this summer.
    Warm regards
    Herb Craig

  • Harold McNeill

    November 26, 2021 |

    Hi Dorthy, So glad you found those stories and, yes, they hold many fond memories. Thanks to social media and the blog, I’ve been able to get in touch with many friends from back in the day. Cheers, Harold

  • Harold McNeill

    November 26, 2021 |

    Well, well. Pleased to see your name pop up. I’m in regular contact via FB with many ‘kids’ from back in our HS days (Guy, Dawna, Shirley and others). Also, a lot of Cold Lake friends through FB. Cheers, Harold

  • Harold McNeill

    November 26, 2021 |

    Oh, that is many years back and glad you found the story. I don’t have any recall of others in my class other than the Murphy sisters on whose farm my Dad and Mom worked.

  • Harold McNeill

    November 26, 2021 |

    Pleased to hear from you Howie and trust all is going well. As with you, I have a couple of sad stories of times in my police career when I crossed paths with Ross Barrington Elworthy. Just haven’t had the time to write those stories.

  • Howie Siegel

    November 25, 2021 |

    My only fight at Pagliacci’s was a late Sunday night in 1980 (?) He ripped the towel machine off the bathroom wall which brought me running. He came after me, I grabbed a chair and cracked him on the head which split his skull and dropped him. I worried about the police finding him on the floor. I had just arrived from Lasqueti Island and wasn’t convinced the police were my friends. I dragged him out to Broad and Fort and left him on the sidewalk, called the cops. They picked him up and he never saw freedom again (as far as I know). I found out it was Ross Elworthy.

  • Herbert Plain

    November 24, 2021 |

    Just read you article on Pibroch excellent. My Dad was Searle Grain company agent we move there in 1942/3 live in town by the hall for 5 years than moved one mile east to the farm on the corner where the Pibroch road meets Hwy 44. Brother Don still lives there. I went to school with you and Louise.