Railway Progress, February, 1953
INDOCHINA'S RAILROAD WAR
BY PAUL WOHL
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.
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
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
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 airfieldsare 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.
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.
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.
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 Tuyhoahalfway between Hanoi and Saigonalso 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.
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
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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