Railway Progress, February, 1953



FROM the Air France Constellation which once a week takes off from Saigon for Hong Kong and Tokyo, passengers occasionally can see tiny clouds billowing skyward amid swamps and jungles. They are the smoke coming out of the stacks of the locomotives of five or six trains traveling in convoy through guerrilla-infested country. Once known as the State Railways of Indochina, the system to which they belong has been renamed the Railways of Vietnam after the French protectorate of uncertain status which includes the rich coastal lands of what used to be the colony of Indochina. The Vietnam railroads, although badly mauled by the guerrillas, are the backbone of United Nations defenses against Russia's Stalin and China's Mao in Southeast Asia. Had it not been for these railroads, the French together with the Vietnam administration of their puppet, the former Annamese emperor Bao Dai, might have been thrown into the sea by the guerrillas who have the support of a large part of the intensely nationalistic population.

The survival and continued functioning of the network is a feat of typical French bravery and improvisation. It succeeded thanks to the Vietnam Railway men's devotion to their system, which they are determined to keep going despite their dislike, not of the French personally, but of colonial style interference with their administration.

After more than ten years of war and civil war the railroads no longer are the same. Of the original 1,355 miles of right of way only 570 miles are in operation. The rest either has been destroyed or has fallen into the hands of the rebels who, the Moscow monthly Economic Questions reported last November, have started to restore the sections they control and to operate small trains of their own. It is a curious and nerve-racking service which the Vietnam railroads continue to perform. Once they were among Asia's finest railways. Swift rail cars moved at top speed from Hanoi, in the north, through the Red River Valley into China, and the service on the 1,074 mile coastal route between Hanoi and Saigon, the capital, was reliable and adequate.

Guerrilla Control
Today nothing remains of the once prosperous French colony of Indochina except two narrow strips along The coast. Almost the whole interior is controlled by the Vietminh guerrillas whose government has been recognized by Moscow and Peking. Only in the coastal towns and in the surrounding regions does the French sponsored Vietnam administration of Bao Dai retain a foothold. It is from here that the French, reinforced by American equipment and a few Vietnam divisions, now are trying to cut the noose of the guerrillas.

Since last fall French and Vietnam forces have been gaining strength. This spring, tonnage unloaded in Vietnam ports was three times as large as in 1938. These are supplies from America and France. With ports which are that busy, coastal shipping, which formerly moved most of the heavy traffic from one end of the country to the other, cannot be expanded much further. Its possibilities are also limited by the poor condition of lighter services and warehouses at the open roadsteads between Saigon and Haiphong, the port city of Hanoi. This means that much of the traffic has to go by land. In the area along the coast there is little highway transportation.

The railroad alone has withstood the combined onslaught of nature and human destructiveness. Its maintenance was so essential to the coastal towns and to the central administration, whether it was French, Japanese, Vietnam or Vietminh, that wrecking crews were sent out immediately to repair the damage. Throughout the troubled years the railroad thus remained the symbol of the superior technology of the industrial revolution.

Esprit de Corps
Another factor also helped the railroad to survive. In Vietnam, as in most of Asia and Africa, railroad men have a peculiar esprit de corps. They are a social and technical elite. Among a people whose spirit and habits are still those of earlier civilizations, railroaders as well as truck drivers and the personnel of service stations, garages and airfields—are the vanguard of the forward-looking part of the population. They usually are young, energetic, full of ambition and intense patriots, but not of the fanatical, fuzzy and dreamy variety. The esprit de corps of the railway men is much more pronounced than that of the truck driver who is concerned with his truck only, or the mechanic who stays in his repair shop or garage. Railroad m e n are part and parcel of their system.

Rail services have taken on an entirely new character. The deluxe passengers of prewar years travel mostly by air. The train of His Majesty, the president or chief of state, as Bao Dai incongruously is called, has been transformed into a mobile hospital. Trains no longer run on set schedules. To move a train from one town to another has become a military operation. Guerrillas are swarming everywhere. They sally forth out of the jungle, blow up bridges, mine tracks, take up rails. To escape the guerrillas, trains have to move through the countryside in a way which resembles the procession of America's covered wagons through Indian territory a hundred years ago.

Vietnam and French railway engineers have developed their own technique to meet the emergency. Instead of traveling singly, five or six trains are joined in a convoy, each train keeping in sight the one it follows. Most trains are "mixed," carrying between 150 and 250 tons of freight and a number of passenger cars. The speed is usually between twenty and twenty-five miles an hour. This may seem slow to us, but the more imaginative French refer to such a jungle convoy as "la rafale." A "rafale" is a sudden gust of wind, a squall. This colorful name suggests that every so often the movement is brought brusquely to a stop either because night falls or because guerrillas have tampered with the track, making further progress impossible.

Ahead of "la rafale" moves a pilot train consisting of locomotive, tender and an armored caboose with guards and repairmen. This pilot train pushes a freight car with reserve rails. The tail end of "la rafale" is the "wagoncanon," an armored car with field artillery. Somewhere in the convoy is the train of the commandant made up of the car of the commanding officer and his staff, a radio car, cars for the accompanying soldiers and the sacred heart of the commandant's train: "le wagon-cuisine" with its paraphernalia of casseroles, pans and salad bowls. There the chef in white head gear, flanked by an experienced assistant and a butler, keeps France's jungle warriors in good spirits and supply. With him in the "wagon-cuisine" travels a lively squad of waiters, kitchen hands and pot-wrestlers, every one of whom at a moment's notice is ready to grab band grenade or gun. If the other trains have enough passengers, there may be one or two more "wagon-cuisines" for Vietnam civilians, complete with rijstafel and chop sticks and additional detachments of fighting culinary specialists.

Train Encampment
Before nightfall the convoy comes to a stop. It would be too dangerous to travel in the dark. But distances are great, and the convoy cannot always reach a major city. The smaller stations, on the other hand, were not equipped to accommodate that many trains. The solution was found in special train encampments with barricades and watch towers established at convenient points between terminals where the convoy is re-arranged for shelter and defense.

Armored Train
Freight cars, armored cars and the "wagon-canon" are placed in position at the outer boundary. Locomotives, coaches, radio car and, above all, the essential "wagon-cuisine" are in the center. Except for the peculiar layout of the rails and the shunting arrangements, the setup is not so different from the one adopted in this country in the days of the great trek to the West when covered wagons were lined up for the night.

While "la rafale" is at rest, an armored train patrols the section of the track over which the convoy is to travel the following day. These armored trains, of which there are about half a dozen, carry powerful searchlights, artillery, repair and radio equipment. For especially long trips, they too may have their "wagon-cuisine," immediately behind the car of the commandant. There is probably no other part of the world where armored trains ever played a greater role. Vietnam railway engineers believe that without these nocturnal train patrols which whisk ghostlike through dark rice paddies and jungles, suddenly lighting up the track or stopping for inspections and forays, the rail service could not have been carried on.

The exploits of these trains have taken on a legendary quality. Their commandants and crews are among the most daring heroes of the Vietnam war. Night after night they are fired on; rocks are rolled down an embankment, bombs and mines are thrown from trees, or hidden in mangroves which overhang the track. Several trains have been damaged badly, but new units constantly are being equipped in Saigon and Hanoi so that "la rafale" can safely go on during the day.

The guerrillas who captured some rolling stock on the coastal sector south of the French base of Tourane and north of the town of Tuyhoa—halfway between Hanoi and Saigon—also have one or two armored trains. Earlier this year a Vietnam and a Vietminh armored train shot it out across a vale where thick jungle growth had invaded the right of way. Their encounter was unique in railway history. As the beams of the searchlights swept through the mangrove brush and guns flashed and thundered, swarms of screaming birds rose into the night, and for seconds the swish and rustle of panicky gazelles, wild pigs and zebu bulls drowned out the clanking of the moving trains. One of the men on the Vietnam train whose home was not far from there, swore that he had seen a panther, the terror of his village, swoop through a light cone. After a few minutes the gunfire stopped. Either the distance between the Vietnam and the Vietminh tracks was too great or the gunners did not aim right in the confusion. The purpose of either train was not to fight the other but to clear the track. Mission accomplished, they returned to base.

Transportation Battle
Little is known about the rail service of the guerrillas. It seems to meet local transportation needs and to carry contraband arms and equipment which Chinese junks smuggle in at night through the blockade. The railroads allegedly help the guerrillas to build up underground supply dumps from where this material is distributed inland on mule back or carts. Lately the guerrillas were found to be in possession of Russian two and one-half ton trucks made in the Molotov works at Gorky on the upper Volga and brought in by way of the Transsiberian and the great Chinese north-south line which earlier this year was connected with the Vietnam border at a point less than a hundred miles off the coast.

The big engagement in Southeast Asia's battle of transportation right now is being fought for the control of this interior route in the Red River Valley on both sides of what used to be France's proud "Chemins de Fer de l'Indochine et du Yunnan." This line connected Hanoi with the frontier point of Laokay. From there it extended 280 miles into China where it reached the city of Kunming or Yunnan-fu, a major United States air base during most of the second world war.

Now the Chinese own their part of the line which France ceded to them by an agreement made in 1946. It is not certain whether the Chinese section of the Yunnan railroad has been restored all the way to the border. Even if this were the case, it would not allow for through transportation as long as its northern end has not been connected with the main Chinese rail system south of Chungking.

In a series of violent sallies French and Vietnam forces in the last part of the year struck out from isolated strongholds on the lower Red River toward the Black River Valley in order to cut the enemy supply line. The guerrillas, in turn, are trying to clean out the French from the Red River Valley. Should their counter-offensive ever succeed, the Chinese and their Vietminh allies might rebuild the southern section of the old Yunnan railroad and extend it toward Hanoi and Haiphong.

United Nations long range strategy in this struggle is to reopen the routes from the sea into the interior, while the communist aim is to extend their land transportation system into Southeast Asia to the Gulf of Siam and the Bay of Bengal. Both the United Nations and the communist strategies hinge upon control of the Vietnam railroads.

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