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Historical Dictionary

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COURT MARTIAL, DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF VIETNAM

One of the few known cases of a court martial in the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) occurred during the battle of Dien Bien Phu. It became known as the “T59” or “Kilometer or Station (tram) 59” affair. Dr. Nguyen Thi Ngoc Toan, who was directly involved in the events leading to the trial of three military medics, revealed in 2007 that she transferred to station 59 in charge of treating seriously wounded soldiers arriving from the battlefield. She replaced an individual who had been disciplined for failing to protect corpses from being stripped of their personal belongings by passing porters in need of good clothing. Meanwhile, due to heavy rain and the increasing flow of incoming wounded, a backlog of wounded soldiers soon overwhelmed the medical staff working in this station. Instead of tending to the capacity of 100 wounded, the medics were faced with caring for 300. Food, water, medicines, and clothing soon became scarce. The chaos was such that the ranking political cadre in charge of the station began disciplinary action to restore order and to set an example. He summoned Nguyen Thi Ngoc Toan and informed her that she and two others were guilty of negligence in their care of the wounded soldiers complaining of their plight. The court martial of each of the three was held in the compound for the wounded. Supported by the wounded soldiers present at this surrealistic scene, Nguyen Thi Ngoc Toan successfully defended herself, escaped indictment, and transferred to another medical unit. Her two other co-workers had already been convicted of negligence for having eaten when the soldiers went hungry. Nguyen Thi Ngoc Toan disagreed strongly with the court’s verdict against these two men. In light of their strenuous work transporting the wounded and dead, they had to eat in order to carry on, she insisted. To no avail. She then spoke out publicly in their defense saying that the party was wrong to have court martialed them. One of the men court martialed was a war veteran who had lost his arm in battle. In 1991, in one furtive sentence, the Ministry of Defense’s official medical history of the Indochina War confirmed that the “disciplinary case T59” (vu ky luat T59) did indeed occur but provides no other details than confirming that food, water, and care were lacking until this disciplinary action happened.

Recently released DRV sources confirm that other cases of insubordination occurred during the battle of Dien Bien Phu, especially after the second wave attack. In mid-April, general Vo Nguyen Giap singled out for severe criticism and punishment growing cases of insubordination, cowardice, and lack of morale among other weaknesses. He pinpointed cases of soldiers, officers and cadres failing to enter into combat or to use their weapons. To fix these “rightist problems”, the Politburo dispatched dozens of political cadres, who organized study sessions, propaganda drives, and mini rectification campaigns to raise morale and return as many men to their combat units as possible. For those who refused to carry on, military discipline was de rigueur. Executions for insubordination or cowardice occurred. General Vo Nguyen Giap signed orders authorizing court martials and disciplinary actions pour l’exemple (nham muc dich giao duc). A military court tried a battalion leader of the 102nd regiment of the 308th division for cowardice. See also COURT MARTIAL, FRENCH UNION; CROSSOVERS; DESERTION; INDOCTRINATION.