Hero’s medal recalls fleeting collaborationVIET NAM NEWS (Please actually follow the link to see the photographs included in the article.)
by Christoph Giebel, Assoc. Professor of History, University of Washington, Seattle, US
On May 10, 2008, in a moving ceremony in Seattle, US, Mr Mac Shin, an 84-year old Chinese-American of Hong Kong origin, received a high honour. On behalf of the Vietnamese Union of Friendship Organisations (VUFO), Deputy Ambassador Nguyen Tien Minh of the Vietnamese embassy in Washington DC had come to confer on Mac Shin VUFO’s Medal "For Peace and Friendship Among Nations."
But who is Mac Shin? Not many people in Viet Nam or the United States know his name. And why did he receive this rare award? Simply put, Mac Shin has a special connection to the legendary Ho Chi Minh dating back more than 60 years. And he is one of the few still alive who played an important part in the historic months of spring and summer of 1945. Here is his story.
During World War II, Germany’s ally Japan, after occupying eastern and coastal China, stationed troops in French Indochina, which at that time was governed by pro-Nazi Vichy French administrators. Yet after France’s liberation in the summer of 1944, a number of Free French in the Vietnamese parts of Indochina began covertly supplying Allied Headquarters in Kunming with intelligence.
Kunming, a city in southwestern China, was the base of the famed 14th US Air Force ("Flying Tigers") under General Claire Chennault that had begun harassing Japanese shipping and supply lines in Indochina. The success of these bombing raids depended on accurate weather reports from within Indochina, as well as on up-to-date intelligence on Japanese troop movements, bases and storage facilities. In addition, a network of agents within Indochina was necessary to rescue shot-down or crashed US pilots, hide them from the Japanese and, if possible, smuggle them out of Indochina back to Kunming.
The OSS, the forerunner to the CIA, was involved in these information-gathering activities from Kunming. But it was in fact a private group of Anglo-Americans, the so-called GBT Group, working from southern China near the Chinese-Vietnamese border regions and utilising their extended network of French business contacts in Indochina, who were more centrally important to these covert operations. Mac Shin, then a 21-year-old British subject from Hong Kong who had fled the Japanese war-time occupation of his homeland, was a radio operator for the GBT group.
In March 1945, the Japanese, by now deeply distrustful of the French, staged a surprise coup against the French colonial administration in Indochina. With most Frenchmen imprisoned, the valuable intelligence from within Indochina to the Allies in Kunming dried up. Both OSS and GBT were now looking for reliable intelligence sources among anti-Japanese Vietnamese.
They had already met a Vietnamese nationalist leader by the name of "Hoo" – none other than Ho Chi Minh – who had already once personally escorted a rescued US pilot from the rugged terrain of northern Viet Nam (then called "Tonkin" within Indochina) through Japanese lines and back to Kunming. Ho Chi Minh, a communist, led a revolutionary-nationalist organisation, the Viet Minh, that sought liberation and independence for Viet Nam from both French colonialism and Japanese occupation.
The Viet Minh was the largest of several Vietnamese nationalist groups in the Chinese-Vietnamese border areas and the only one that had, thanks to considerable popular support, been able to maintain guerrilla bases inside the northern Vietnamese regions of Indochina. Ho Chi Minh had been seeking Allied recognition of the Viet Minh and their cause, but only after the Japanese coup against the French did OSS and GBT personnel give him serious consideration.
It was decided in Kunming to send two GBT operatives into northern Viet Nam/Tonkin with Ho Chi Minh, in order to verify Ho’s claims about the Viet Minh, their strength, popular support and secret bases. If the Viet Minh turned out to be "for real" and trustworthy, these two agents were to begin training and working with the Viet Minh to re-establish anti-Japanese intelligence operations in Indochina in support of the 14th Air Force.
One of the two agents was the Chinese-American businessman Frankie Tan (the "T" in "GBT"). The other was Mac Shin, entrusted with the mission’s indispensable radio communications set.
In April 1945, Ho Chi Minh, Mac Shin and Frankie Tan flew in a couple of small planes from Kunming to the Chinese-Vietnamese border north of Cao Bang. With Viet Minh members chosen for intelligence training and a security guard detail, they sneaked across the border and stayed for a while in the caves of Pac Bo, a Viet Minh base a mile inside Vietnamese territory.
Then they set out on an arduous, dangerous trek through the jungle-covered, mountainous regions of northern Viet Nam/Tonkin, eluding Japanese patrols and reaching the main Viet Minh guerrilla base in Tan Trao, a remote ethnic minority village some 80km north of Ha Noi, about three weeks later in May 1945.
Mac Shin describes this perilous trek of some 402km, mostly on foot, sometimes on horseback, in vivid detail. Both he and Frankie Tan, lightly armed, were clad in regional ethnic minority garb, taught some rudimentary Vietnamese and otherwise told to remain silent upon contact with locals to prevent detection. Avoiding the main roads and open terrain, the group moved slowly and often at night. At times, rains turned the ground to slippery mud, yet Ho Chi Minh, already in his mid-fifties, insisted that the much younger agents ride on horseback in his stead. Mac Shin frequently worried that his radio set, used intermittently to contact Kunming, would not survive these challenging conditions of terrain and climate.
Northern Viet Nam /Tonkin was also suffering a terrible famine at that time, and Mac Shin remembers that food supplies were always low. On occasion, however, villagers loyal to the Viet Minh would greet them happily and supply the group with rice and even a chicken. Sometimes potable water could only be found in bamboo stems.
Mac Shin was drawn to the warmth and caring personality of Ho Chi Minh, whom he only knew as "Ah Kung" (Chinese for "grandfather"). Ho Chi Minh spoke quite a few languages, and they communicated easily in English and Chinese, sometimes singing songs like For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow.
Ho Chi Minh tolerated Mac Shin’s youthful exuberance with good humour, but could also enforce operational principles. Once, upon crossing a river, Mac Shin encountered a crocodile-like animal swimming towards him. He emptied his pistol into the beast, and Viet Minh guards had to finish it off with rifle shots from the riverbanks, whereupon Ho Chi Minh scolded Mac Shin for wasting precious ammunition and creating a ruckus.
Once in Tan Trao, Mac Shin resumed daily or even twice daily radio transmissions to Kunming. His liaison work with his Kunming counterpart, Charles Fenn, ensured regular air drops of supplies and materials.
He reported on weather conditions, relayed intelligence on Japanese troop movements provided by scouts and helped set up a system for the region’s population to aid, if necessary, downed US pilots.
Additionally, he began training young Viet Minh members in simple and then advanced radio operations in the base’s vicinity. One of his closest students was Nguyen Kim Hung, and Mac Shin also forged friendships with his body guard, Nong Quoc Tuan, as well as Viet Minh members attached to General Vo Nguyen Giap’s staff. Meanwhile, Frankie Tan began training Viet Minh members in intelligence techniques.
Being the radio operator, Mac Shin was regarded so crucial to the mission that he was allowed to reside in Ho Chi Minh’s special security zone set up about a kilometre or so from Tan Trao in a secluded bamboo grove. He occupied a simple thatched hut on stilts very close to Ho Chi Minh’s. None of the other Allied agents ever gained that immediate access to the future leader of independent, revolutionary Viet Nam. For Mac Shin, the "128 days with Ah Kung" remain unforgettable.
For several weeks, Frankie Tan and Mac Shin remained the only Allied agents with the Viet Minh, preparing in crucial ways the groundwork for a much larger Allied-Viet Minh war-time collaboration against the Japanese envisioned for the future. Beside their training and communications work, they also supervised local people in building a rudimentary air strip in the valley of Tan Trao.
In June they were joined by the first OSS officer, Dan Phelan, but it wasn’t until mid-July 1945 that the main OSS operation began. At that time, a group of OSS officers under Major Allison Thomas, code named "Deer Team", parachuted into the Viet Minh base. They supplied the Viet Minh with substantial amounts of modern military equipment and began training them in advanced combat tactics and weapons operations, in the process setting up a joint Vietnamese-US company. Eventually, these troops were supposed to disrupt Japanese reinforcements from Indochina to China where the Allies were planning major offensives.
But the war’s end came suddenly in August 1945. Just three weeks into their mission, the Deer Team’s training program was halted. The Viet Minh were now making rapid plans to seize the revolutionary moment after the sudden Japanese surrender, move into the plains of the Red River Delta, take control of Ha Noi and other areas of Viet Nam, and declare Vietnamese independence. Some OSS officers would move with the Viet Minh and, soon after, provide some assistance to the fledgling government of Ho Chi Minh.
Mac Shin, however, was not among them. He was ordered back to Kunming in mid-August and left by aeroplane. Ho Chi Minh had taken a particular, fatherly liking to Mac Shin and, at the farewell, offering him some coconuts, said that independent Viet Nam would give him a parcel of land and help him find a wife. Yet subsequent events in China and Viet Nam would prevent that from happening, and the two never reunited.
Mac Shin eventually returned to Hong Kong and, in the mid-1950s, emigrated to Seattle where he and his wife Rose have lived ever since.
Many Vietnamese and American participants in this brief moment of US-Viet Minh collaboration look back at 1945 and, cognisant of the horrors of the ensuing wars pitting Vietnamese and Americans against one another, see a lost opportunity. However we may judge that, it is nevertheless clear that Mac Shin played an important, indeed crucial role in this historic encounter of 1945. In historical accounts, the Deer Team of Caucasian OSS officers has received the most attention, while Mac Shin and the late Frankie Tan, who went on the initial, highly dangerous and uncertain mission that only made the Deer Team’s later arrival possible, are much less known.
The conferral by the Vietnamese Union of Friendship Organisations of the Medal of Peace and Friendship Among Nations upon Mac Shin is a high honour, but also a much deserved recognition of his activities of so long ago. Friendships forged and mutual understandings brought about in the spring and summer of 1945 survived 50 years of division and helped lay the groundwork for the rapidly improving relations between Viet Nam and the US in the present.
In 1995 and 1997, GBT, Viet Minh and OSS veterans had enthusiastic reunions. In 2001, Mac Shin was again able to visit Viet Nam, return to Pac Bo and Tan Trao once more, and meet many of his Vietnamese friends. Those still surviving are staying in touch on a regular basis and, undoubtedly, were with Mac Shin in spirit on the day he received the Medal of Peace and Friendship Among Nations. — VNS
All I have managed to find out about the prestigious award for “peace and friendship between nations” Jackie and other members of Operation Smile received Tuesday night is that it is the highest award given by the Vietnam Union of Friendship Organizations (VUFO).