1954: Operation WOUNDED WARRIOR
Different than today’s Wounded Warrior Project, 60years ago this week, the U.S. Air Force began execution of Operation WOUNDED WARRIOR. The French were still trying to keep control of their Southeast Asian colony Vietnam.
The Vietnamese independence fighters were a mix of nationalists and communists collectively known as the Viet Minh. The Viet Minh were experts at tunneling and using tropical growth as camouflage. The movement’s political leader was Ho Chi Minh, and its military leader was Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap. Both were communists. The Viet Minh had fought the Japanese invaders during World War II. In 1946, when the French came back to reclaim their colony, the Viet Minh changed targets. The U.S. provided heavy aid to the French during the war.
Over the years, the two sides fought a number of battles. In November 1953, the French, including Foreign Legionnaires, took over the valley town of Dien Bien Phu. The town was near the Laotian border. The reason French Army Corps Gen. Henri Navarre ordered the offensive was to cut the Viet Minh’s supply line into Laos. Laos was an ally of the French. The Viet Minh quickly cut the roads to the town. With that the French went to resupplying their troops by air.
Giap surprised the French when he surrounded the camp with 40,000 troops. His men then hauled heavy artillery up the difficult reverse slopes of the surrounding hills. Having his men tunnel through the hills near the top, he placed the artillery overlooking the French positions. The tactic made Giap’s artillery almost impervious to counter-battery fire. Trench style warfare soon ensued. As the French perimeter shrank, aerial resupply became impossible.
On May 7, 1954, the Viet Minh overran the base. As a result, the French government of Prime Minister Joseph Laniel resigned. The new French government of Prime Minister Pierre Mendés-France wanted to end the war. Shortly after, the French negotiated an official settlement to the conflict. The settlement divided Vietnam into North and South Vietnam, and the French pulled out.
The U.S. Far East Air Forces and Military Air Transport Service took part in Operation WOUNDED WARRIOR beginning June 26, 1954. The Far East Air Forces later became Pacific Air Forces. The Military Air Transport Service was the joint forerunner of the Air Mobility Command. Over the next three weeks, the operation took home 509 French Foreign Legion soldiers.
For political reasons, the journey was a long one. From Saigon, South Vietnam, the legionnaires flew first to Tokyo, Japan, and then to Westover Air Force Base, Massachusetts. They continued their journey to Paris, France, and then on to Oran, Algeria. Ten years later, the United States became heavily involved in military actions in Vietnam. The reason the United States became involved was to keep South Vietnam from falling to the communists.