May 6, 2014

1945. Firefight in Saigon

Bill Downs and McGlincy Thru Saigon Mob Lines Singing to Summon Aid
Source: "Ho Chi Minh (standing, third from left) at a farewell party for the OSS in 1945"

By James McGlincy, The Kansas City Kansan, September 28, 1945.

Editor's note—

James McGlincy, United Press staff correspondent, covered the war in Europe and was the first Allied correspondent to send a dispatch out of liberated Paris. Assigned to the Pacific after the surrender of Germany, he was among the first newsmen to enter Tokyo and atomic-bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But it was in Indochina nearly six weeks after the end of the Pacific war that he had what he called his narrowest escape. He tells about it in the following dispatch.

William Randall "Bill" Downs is the son of Mr. and Mrs. W.R. Downs, [address], this city. Before the entry of the United States into the war, he was with United Press in London. Following the entry of the United States he spend a year in Russia as a correspondent for CBS. From Russia, Downs returned to the United States, returning to England in time to land with Allied troops on the Normandy beaches on June 6, 1944, where he made the first radio broadcast, representing CBS. He covered the war until the German surrender was completed. Downs was one of eight top radio and newsmen chosen to make a special plane tour leaving the United States in mid-summer of this year, making stop-overs at London, Paris, Berlin, Cairo, Baghdad, Ceylon and China. Downs reached Manchuria in time for the entry of Russia into the Japanese war. He then went on to Guam and Okinawa, and was present at the time the Japanese signed the surrender terms in Tokyo bay.

Saigon, French Indochina—(UP)

Two American newsmen helped fight off besieging Annamites with carbines and revolvers for two and a half hours yesterday, then walked thru the lines for help lustily singing "For He's a Jolly Good Fellow."

"I don't think anybody would shoot at a man who's singing," said CBS Correspondent William Downs in suggesting the songfest.

I agreed it was worth trying, and it worked. We reached a British-held airfield and sent reinforcements to the four other Americans still holding out in the besieged American headquarters.

We had gone to the headquarters for lunch, only to wind up in a tighter spot than we ever had been in reporting the war in Europe.

It had been eerily quiet as we drove our jeep to the headquarters, and we had to detour around several road blocks made from trees. Japanese sentries at the gate saluted as we entered.



Shooting Breaks Out


The table was laid, but we decided to wait a few minutes for Lt. Col. Peter Dewey of Washington, D.C. and Maj. Herbert Bluechel. Suddenly yelling and shooting broke out along the road 100 yards away.

From a field in front of the house appeared the bedraggled figure of Bluechel. He had a .45 automatic in his hand and was pumping shots toward the road as he half staggered into the front garden.

His head, neck and left side were covered with blood.

"They've killed the colonel!" he shouted as tho in a daze. "They've killed the colonel."

By this time a yelling crowd of perhaps 100 or more Annamites were nearing the house.

"They're after us," gasped Bluechel. "They're trying to get us."



Shots Answer Overtures


He reached the house and collapsed into a chair. He said he and Dewey had run into a road barricade and had told Annamites they wished to drive thru.

"Americans, Americans," they shouted, he said.

But the Annamites opened up with machine guns and blew off Dewey's head. Bluechel made his way afoot to the headquarters, shooting as he came.

Bluechel miraculously escaped unhurt. The blood on him was from Dewey.

By this time bullets were spattering against the house. We quickly took stock. There were six of us altogether, augmented, but not much—by Japanese sentries.

We ran into the garden. I flopped behind the stone wall and looked up to see Downs standing a few feet away firing with a carbine into shrubs beyond.

Somebody in the garden yelled: "There goes one!"

The reply came from a second floor window: "I can get him."

There was a shot, then: "I got him!"

"Nice shooting!" came a shout from the garden.

We all took stations along the garden wall. I felt pretty helpless with my .45, but there were no more carbines left.

For about a half hour we shot at Annamites on the road, in the field before headquarters, and in shrubbery along the side.



Decide to Go for Help


Then during a break, we dashed for the house. I went to the roof with two others. We shared a carbine. Occasionally an Annamite would run across the field or a clearing in the shrubs and we'd shoot.

It became pretty obvious that help would have to be summoned. We went into a huddle and Downs and I volunteered to walk to a British-held airfield a mile and a half away to get a message out.

We struck out across the field giving a wonderful imitation of two scared guys trying to act nonchalant. Then Downs had his inspiration and we burst into song—not good, but apparently effective.

We met three Gurkhas near the airfield and addressed them in pidgin English. They answered in perfect Oxford accents and promised to go to the headquarters



Report to Headquarters


At the airfield, we found Air Transport Command Frank Rhoads of Wilkes Barre, Pa. He telephoned British headquarters.

Then Rhoads, another major, a GI and I jeeped back to American headquarters. We waved our hates and yelled "Chiw"—"Americans." It worked this time, and we passed thru eight road blocks without incident.

When we reached the American house, we told them relief was on the way, then set out to find Dewey's body. We had to call off the search, however, when a force of Gurkhas advanced toward us firing automatic weapons in all directions as they advanced.

We finally drove back into Saigon.
________________________
In 1945, Tex McCrary let a group of war correspondents across the world as they covered the world in the aftermath of World War II.

The corps included:

Clark Lee, International News Service

Bernie Hoffman, Life Magazine photographer

Vern Haugland, aviation editor for the Associated Press

Bill Lawrence, New York Times

Homer Bigart, New York Herald Tribune

Charles Murphy, Fortune

George Silk, Life

Frank Fulton, NBC

Bill Downs, CBS

Jim McGlincy, United Press

In 1947 Clark Lee wrote about their time in Saigon, particularly the lead-up to the death of Lieutenant Colonel A. Peter Dewey and the skirmish that broke out afterward in September 1945. James McGlincy published his own account almost immediately after it occurred, and Downs recounted it twenty years later in 1965:

This Week magazine, July-August 1965 - "This We Remember..."

SAIGON IN 1945
By Bill Downs
Some day I hope a good historian chronicles the deep-seated disappointment of the people of Southeast Asia that followed the Allied victory over Japan. In China, Burma, Thailand, the Malay archipelago, Indo-China—and even native Hong Kong—Tokyo's surrender was supposed to produce a world that never was, nor ever could be.

In the propaganda-cluttered minds of millions of Asiatics V-J Day was supposed to be followed by waves of rich and smiling Americans bringing food and medicines. More importantly, the U.S. soldiers were supposed to arrive with a form of instant democracy which would promptly bring justice to the people's oppressors and establish a functioning government of, by, and for the people.  A new brotherhood of man would bring prosperity and independence and all would live happily ever after.

Americans were big in those hopeful, post-victory days. Never was U.S. prestige so high among the peoples of Asia, including the citizens of what now is called Vietnam, North and South.

Col. Tex McCrary's airborne correspondents corps, of which I was one, made a diversionary flight into Saigon about a month after the the Japanese surrender. The overlay of French provincial charm, seemingly the only positive heritage from French colonial rule, could not conceal the confusion and chaos seething through the city. The Japanese surrender had left French Indo-China like a battered, misused orphan asylum. The orphans, both the French and the natives, were fighting for possession of the ruins.

Saigon was in the death throes of outdated colonialism. The final stages had begun back in 1940 when the Japanese moved into the country. The Nipponese colonials were surprised when, instead of fighting, the resident French colons merely moved over to make room. Using the excuse of Vichy, these Frenchmen continued to exploit their rubber and rice holdings for the Axis war machine. Not even the shame of Paris nor the disaster of Pearl Harbor deterred their pursuit of the lush life as they deposited their war profits in the Banque de l'Indo-Chine.

The Japanese were more cooperative, and at the same time played the other side of the coin by wooing the Indo-Chinese with their "Asia for Asiatics" program.

But as Allied counter-strategy pushed the Japs back, Tokyo's proconsul in Saigon became distrustful of the resident Frenchmen. Six months before V-J Day he ordered the colons into internment camps.

Meanwhile, the Japs allowed the wispy, intellectual Ho Chi Minh to marshal the nucleus of a coalition government made up of various Annamite factions from all sections of the country. And on August 17, 1945, the occupation authorities recognized Ho's new Republic of Vietnam, the first all-native government in the country's modern history.

The Vietnamese fully expected that since Americans immediately occupied Tokyo after the surrender, U.S. troops would also move in to cleanse the defeated Japanese from their land.

But instead of smiling GI's, there arrived a stiff, pukkasahib corps of red-tabbed British officers leading a glowering force of Gurkha troops. Gen. D.D. Gracey, Blimp-born and -educated, immediately made it clear that His Majesty's soldiers were not there to preside over the dissolution of the French colony. He summoned the closest Frenchmen at hand—the resident Vichy collaborators who now touted their brief Japanese internment as patriotic credentials—threw the new Vietnam government out of Saigon's municipal building and set up his headquarters there.

The Annamite patriots—Christians, and Buddhists, democrats and Communists—took to the hills. Using liberated Japanese weapons, they formed small guerrilla bands and struck back, burning rice stores and warehouses claimed by the resurgent colons. They floated through Saigon's canals and burned huge stockpiles of rubber collected by the Japanese.

So threatening and irritating were these rag-tag raids that General Gracey took political reverse action. He ordered the defeated Japanese troops to retain their rifles and guard vital Saigon buildings from the native peoples in whose name the victory had been won!

The British commander refused to talk with the Sorbonne-educated Ho Chi Minh, a fellow-traveling friend of Josef Stalin (who was a U.S. ally at the time also, remember). But he got little help in his pacifying mission from the French colons. With regressive arrogance, these gentlemen appeared on the streets of Saigon to search out and beat their former Annamite employees and servants who refused to return to work. The low point of the comic tragedy was the sight of a fully armed Japanese soldier standing at solemn, bow-legged attention, carefully guiding a warehouse burning like a haystack behind him.

The one calm and detached personality in Saigon's post-victory chaos was a youthful American officer, Col. Peter Dewey. Dewey was the commander of an OSS team which had parachuted into Indo-China to aid the release of some 130 Americans interned there. The OSS group had stayed on to be joined by a small group of U.S. Army Military Air Transport personnel who set up a headquarters at the Saigon airport.

The British made no secret of their resentment of those few Americans with shortwave radio communications to Allied headquarters in Singapore. Besides, MI-5 was reporting that Colonel Dewey was making friends with the natives—even trying to contact that trouble-maker, Ho Chi Minh.

The Vietnamese could not distinguish Americans from British, and this led to a tragedy that is particularly memorable in light of what is happening in Vietnam today. One afternoon UP correspondent Jim McGlincy and I were invited to lunch at the OSS headquarters in a luxurious villa on the Saigon outskirts. Colonel Dewey was to join us after checking at the airport. On the shortcut road back to the villa, a Vietnamese guerrilla force ambushed his jeep. One of their leaders later told us they thought the vehicle was British.

Peter Dewey was killed. Ironically, the colonel believed in Vietnam's struggle for independence against the returning colonialism.

Instead of eating lunch that day, McGlincy and I, both out-of-trade correspondents from a war that supposedly was over, joined the OSS men fighting off the guerrillas. Later we failed in an attempt to recover Peter Dewey's body.

So did the French colons, who quit the search long before Dien Bien Phu.