MIA Facts Site

The French
Experience

Summary.  A common mistaken belief is that French prisoners of war from the French Indochina War were never released or were held for many years after the French defeat and later released.  These claims simply are not true.  Most of the MIA "activist" sites contain a reference to the French experience.   I often read the claim that some number of French prisoners were not released until the 1970s.  This article describes the French experience in Vietnam.

The French Government Statement

In a July 1972 press conference President Nixon made the false claim that French POWs had been held by the Vietnamese long after the French withdrawal in 1954.  This statement prompted the French government to issue the following statement:

According to the figures known by the French Government, North Vietnam, at the end of 1954, had returned to the French authorities 12,900 prisoners from the French Expeditionary Corps in Indochina . . . We consider that the last French prisoners have been returned by the North Vietnamese less than three months after the conclusion of the Geneva agreements in 1954.  We therefore consider this question is definitely settled.  To the best of our knowledge, there does not exist any member of the French Expeditionary Corps in the Far East unwillingly kept in North Vietnam.  (Testimony of Anita Lauve, Americans Missing in Southeast Asia:  Hearings before the House Select Committee on Missing Persons in Southeast Asia, 94th Congress, 2nd Session, April 7, 1976.)

The RAND Study

The false claims that French POWs were held for years after the French withdrawal often cite "the RAND study" as proving that hundreds of French POWs were released as late as the 1970's or 1980's.  Such claims are a complete misrepresentation of fact.  

Anita Lauve, for fifteen years a U. S. foreign service officer, researched the French experience under a Department of Defense contract administered by the RAND Corporation.   In that study, she states:

The only French nationals from Metropolitan France who are known to have been belatedly returned to French authorities were 40 enlisted men who were released in 1962 and flown to France with their Vietnamese families.  Some, if not all of these men, were reportedly tried in France as deserters. (Anita Lauve, testimony cited above.)

The French Expeditionary Force

Most Americans are not aware of the fact that the bulk of the French forces in Indochina were not French citizens but were a mixture of Vietnamese conscripts, French Foreign Legionnaires, and troops from the French colonies in Africa, mainly Senegal, Algeria, and Morocco.

The Viet Minh recognized the differences in these forces and they exploited those differences.

Metropolitan French

These were citizens of France serving in the armed forces.  When captured, they were treated as invaders and as prisoners.  The Viet Minh informed the French government of those regular French troops that were captive.

Indigenous troops 

Many of the troops fighting for the French were Vietnamese with some Laotians and Cambodians.  The Viet Minh treated these people as traitors.  They were propagandized and given the opportunity to cross over and fight for the Viet Minh -- which many did.  Others refused and remained in prison.

Foreign Legionnaires

  The Viet Minh looked on these troops as foreign invaders and refused to deal with the French authorities regarding captive Legionnaires.  Instead, the Viet Minh worked through the International Control Commission and released Legionnaires through China and Russia back to their country of origin.  Some small number of Legionnaires were known to have crossed over and worked with the Viet Minh.  I have heard of, though I have never seen, a book in French titled The White Soldiers of Ho Chi Minh (whatever the French for that would be) that reportedly tells the stories of some of these men.

Colonial Troops 

A major source of troops for the French forces in Indochina was the African colonies -- primarily Senegal, Morocco, and Algeria.  For example, the French order of battle at Dien Bien Phu included the following units (this is not a complete listing; see Bernard Fall, Hell In A Very Small Place, Appendix A:  Order of Battle):

bulletRegular French Army
bullet2nd Battalion, 1st Parachute
bullet8th Parachute Assault
bullet342nd Parachute signal Company
bullet3rd Company, 31st Engineers
bullet29th Mobile Surgical Detachment
bulletLegionnaires
bullet1st Foreign Legion Parachute
bullet1st Foreign Legion Airborne Heavy Mortar Company
bullet1/13 Half-Brigade, Foreign Legion (infantry)
bullet1/2 Foreign Legion (infantry)
bullet3/3 Foreign Legion (infantry)
bulletIndigenous troops
bullet5th Vietnamese Parachute
bullet2nd T'ai Battalion
bullet3rd T'ai Battalion
bulletColonial troops
bullet3/3 Algerian Rifles
bullet5/7 Algerian Rifles
bullet1/4 Moroccan
bullet2/1 Algerian Rifles
bullet3rd Group, 10th Colonial Artillery
bullet2nd Group, 4th Colonial Artillery
bullet11th Battery, 4th Group, 4th Colonial Artillery

While this order of battle is for the final battle at Dien Bien Phu, it represents the composition of all French forces in Indochina.  The Viet Minh approach to the colonial troops is of special interest. 

These troops were from French colonies -- Senegal, Algeria, and Morocco.  In each of these colonies, following WW II, resistance movements emerged in opposition to continued French rule.  In Algeria the situation was such that the Algerian war for independence broke out within a few months after the 1954 Geneva Convention that secured French withdrawal from Indochina.  The Viet Minh approached the colonial troops as brothers suffering under the oppression of French occupation.  They directed propaganda at the colonial troops, asking them why they continued to serve under the French master and the colonial troops were encouraged to defect.

When colonial troops were captured, they were treated better than other members of the French Expeditionary Forces and they were encouraged to return to their homes.  Almost all captured colonial troops were returned to their homes from Vietnam through China and Russia, into Eastern Europe then home.  The French protested this practice because there was no way they could account for their people but the Viet Minh ignored the protest and continued repatriating colonial troops and Legionnaires directly to their home countries.

The Manchouli Sighting

This practice by the Viet Minh of returning people through China and Russia is the source of a report that is commonly misrepresented by the MIA "activists."   In the early 1950's, while US forces were fighting in Korea, the US Defense Liaison Office in Hong Kong interviewed an individual -- he may have been Polish -- who reported his observations from the Sino-Soviet border.

If you consult a map of northeast China, you will see the main railroad line from China crossing into Russia at a town named Manchouli.  The railroad goes from China across the border and continues to where it joins the Trans-Siberian Railroad.  Chinese and Russian rail lines are different gauge -- that is, the wheels are set closer together in one country than in the other.  Thus, at Manchouli, trains stop and one of two things happens.  (1)  Passengers disembark, walk across the border, and board another train, or, (2) passengers disembark and the undercarriages of the cars are changed.   Either way, passengers mill around at the Manchouli border crossing point.

The individual who reported to US officials at Hong Kong stated that he had crossed the border at Manchouli and, while he was waiting for the undercarriage of his train to be changed, he observed a "large number" of foreigners who were transiting from China into Russia.  He described some of them as wearing partial military uniforms and he commented on the large proportion of "black men" in the groups that he saw.

The MIA "activists" claim that this was a sighting of US captives from Korea being taken into the Soviet Union.  Not true.  This report describes French colonial troops (and possibly Legionnaires) being transported into Russia, thence to Eastern Europe, then returned home -- a movement that was documented in Anita Lauve's study.  The source's comment that a large proportion of the troops were "black men"  suggests that these were colonial troops -- Senegalese, Algerians, and Moroccans are dark-complexioned and there were black Africans among the French troops.

The French Military Cemeteries

One final matter is the recurring claim by the MIA "activists" that in the late 1980's the French paid millions of dollars in "ransom" for the return of "thousands" of French POWs.  Not true.  

Over 25,000 French troops were buried in French military cemeteries in Vietnam.   Following the 1954 agreements, the French paid the Vietnamese to maintain the cemeteries.  From time to time, French veterans groups would return to Indochina for remembrance ceremonies at these cemeteries.  In 1986, the Vietnamese approached the French, stating that they needed the land that was occupied by these cemeteries.   Negotiations went on for a while and, in 1989, the French exhumed all remains from their military cemeteries in Vietnam and returned them to France.

News reports of the return of these French dead  pointed out that in the years since 1954, the French had paid a total of several million dollars for maintenance of the cemeteries.  Also, the French paid for the exhumation operation, another few million dollars.  The MIA "activist" cult misrepresents and distorts the facts of this matter by claiming that the French paid millions of dollars for the return of thousands of French POWs from Vietnam years after the end of the French Indochina War.

The End

And that, folks, is the story.  The facts of the French experience are this:

bulletAll French POWs who were alive in captivity at the end of the French Indochina War were released under the terms of the 1954 Geneva Conventions.
bulletFrench Legionnaires and colonial troops were, in the main, returned home through China and Russia, thereby making it impossible for the French to account for all their troops.
bulletThe Manchouli border crossing sighing refers, not to US POWs from Korea, but to French Expeditionary Force troops being repatriated.
bulletIn 1962, 40 French soldiers who had deserted during the war were returned to France -- they were not POWs.
bulletThe "thousands" of French soldiers who were returned to France in the late 1980's were actually the remains of over 25,000 Frenchman who had died in the French Indochina War and were buried in French military cemeteries in Vietnam.
bulletThere were French soldiers, Legionnaires, and colonial troops who got out of the service in Indochina and continued to live there, even through the years of the US Indochina War.
 
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