A day in the life Pravat Kositsawat, June 1st, 1954
It has been a long time my friend! I feel like we lost touch after leaving Oxford four years ago. I hope the time has treated you well. I only write to tell you about our friend Benoit. He wrote to me not too long ago when he was stationed nearby with his troops. He turned out to be a paratrooper, just like he always said he wanted to be. He only had time to write me once. He said he was being moved to French Indo-China[i] to reinforce some of his brothers, to spread around the “élan vital” he was always bragging about in the dorms.
It was strange to get a letter from him after so long, and such a serious one at that. The paper has been talking a lot about this place called “Dien Bien Phu,” where the French are being overrun by the communists. For the past few months there has been more and more talk of peace over there, especially when the French keep dying. I mean, two months ago today the front page in the Bangkok Post said that 1,350[ii] men were killed. You studied military science, right Andrew? I remember I took that class with you. 1,350 killed probably means twice that many injured, that is if the paper has their story straight.
And then the next day, April 2nd, the paper said that these men were desperately calling for reinforcements, and that the 11,000 men stationed there were up against 40,000 communists![iii] Can you believe that Andrew? When Benoit wrote me, he said he was only with his company.[iv] That is not very many people Andrew. That is two hundred people maximum. What chance does Benoit have? He is so young, just a lieutenant and that place is already so dangerous. I hope he makes it out of there.
The paper also says that the Americans, your countrymen, are helping out the French. It says your airplanes are dropping people like Benoit, paratroopers, into this place. I read that the communists are digging holes all around Dien Bien Phu, and that they are pushing the French so far back that the paratroopers hardly even have a place to land[v]. Have you heard anything about this? You said at graduation that you were going to be in the air force, wouldn’t you be working with things like this?
I hope the U.S. helps out. At this point, the French are losing more and more ground, and even more men. Even when it seems like they are getting closer to battling back, like last month when the weather finally cleared, not very common in monsoon season, and the French gunboats and airplanes bombed and shot the communists all day long[vi], but the next day, the very next day the French commander was talking about surrendering.[vii]
Navarre said that with all the peace talks back home, it is hard to ask the French troops to fight.[viii] Why kill more boys like Benoit when peace is just around the corner? The paper is always talking about this Geneva conference, which is supposed to be a meeting between everyone involved to decide the fate of the whole area to the east of Thailand[ix]. I guess the French are not just getting beat up in Indo-China, but in Cambodia and Laos too. [x]
Yeah, it says here that the communists crossed the Mekong River and are near the place where Cambodia, Laos and Thailand meet. They are fighting the French there, in Laos less than forty miles from where my father was born.[xi] I bet his sisters are scared. They married and stayed in the town to farm with their new husbands, but my father came to Bangkok to work at the University here. Since he died, I have not heard anything from these aunts of mine. They are probably too busy, and they only came once when I was a child. Remember Andrew? You thought it was funny because they spoke Thai, but cold not write or read it, so they could not understand why we had all those books and they would stand there and look at them and hum to themselves.
I am lucky my father moved away from that town. I would have made a very poor farmer. You remember my bad back, don’t you? How some days I could not even roll out of bed in the dorms, and you would have to sneak food out of the cafeteria for me. And Benoit would always tell me to go to the infirmary, even though it was really called the hospital. Benoit always talked like that, he was made for the military. You would always have to translate what he was saying into simple English for me. You always knew how to make his army-baby talk understandable for a city boy like me.
I think if the communists invade, they will kill my aunts. They are not that pretty, and their farms are small, so they will be useless to the communists. I hope the French can hold out until the meeting I was talking about. I read in the paper that the communists are holding the French garrison hostage. The paper says that the communists could have destroyed them a long time ago, but are sparing them to have a bargaining chip at the big meeting.
It has been like this for a long time around here. In America, you are all pretty much the same and safe. In my area, we have almost every big country left over from World War II trying to expand and influence our neighbors. Thailand has never been occupied officially, but one of the things my father moved to the city for was a better opportunity for me and my brothers and sisters. We learned English from the teachers, and even got a chance to study in England or France or America! I am grateful for everything I have received from the west, but mostly for you and Benoit.
Without those chances, I would not have any friends outside of the small school here, and my apartment building. Even when my father died, you two were the only two who sent regards. That was the last time you and I wrote each other. I guess we got busy with our own lives. Are you are in the air force, like you said you wanted to be? I hope you don’t end up like Benoit, parachuting into a huge mess of dead brethren and defeated countrymen, dodging bullets and saying rosaries in your foxhole.
I am not worried for you. I read in the paper that the U.S. wont need to send troops. Joe Martin says that the people here can defend against communism, as long as we get the “materiel and moral support from the people of the free world.”[xii] I am not so sure though. If you look at it from where I am, one of the people here, it is daunting to say the least. I mean, the French are here. They are getting help from America and England, and they are fighting, and still losing. They beat the Germans and the communists are beating them now, what are we going to do?
If the U.S. does not come to help, I think we will all be forced to be communists. I wont be able to write to you anymore, and if Benoit survives, he could not come visit. I mean, without the U.S. people like me will have to fight. That scares me, because of my back, and also because the communists have been fighting for ten years and they know how. Plus, if they get beat, they have China and the Soviets just to the north, less than two days’ train ride away.
Thailand has never been conquered, never been invaded. I cannot imagine what it would be like to have a new group of people running our country. I mean, the only thing close to that happened right before you and I were born, when my father still lived in the east. It was pretty different from an invasion, but some people like me, those Thai who were fortunate enough to get a European education were against what King Prajadhipok was doing. Long story short, he was holding the nation back from advancing towards a more democratic state; holding pay raises for non-royals and placing royal family members in high level, merit-based positions. Most Thai people were indifferent, until the depression, then the lack of money made them join the radicals who had a solution to end the problems that were blamed on the king. There was a coup and a lot of confusion, but the military ended up taking control, and the king abdicated. Leaving power in the hands of the young radicals and the military group, but still young Thai radicals and Thai military, not some communist foreigners who lack any knowledge about how things work here. [xiii]
I am torn Andrew. On one hand, I want us all to be safe; you, Benoit and I. but on the other hand, I want these communists to stay away. Judging by what the papers have been saying, Benoit is probably dead, and I am next because the communists are so close and the U.S. wont get involved. But if the U.S. gets involved, that means you may have to come and fight the communists. That does not make sense to me, to have two of my friends fight and possibly die for my freedom on my soil and me to not help. I wish these communists would lose Andrew. I wish they would all just sneak back into china one night while everyone was sleeping. If not, I wish that peace comes at that meeting the papers have been talking about. I hope Benoit makes it out of Dien Bien Phu. I know he has my address. Do you think he knows how close he is to my home? Do you think he is still alive? I don’t. Be safe Andrew.
[i] “Bangkok Post.” April 8, 1954. “Paratroops Reinforce; VM Nearing Thailand.”
[ii] “Bangkok Post.” April 1, 1954. “3 divisions hit fortress; 1,350 killed.”
[iii] “Bangkok Post.” April 2, 1954. “’Help! Urgent,’ FU Appealing.”
[iv] “Bangkok Post.” April 8, 1954. “Paratroops Reinforce; VM Nearing Thailand.”
[v] “Bangkok Post.” April 2, 1954. “’Help! Urgent,’ FU Appealing.”
[vi] “Bangkok Post.” April 30, 1954. “Nine Hour Air Raid Hurts VM.”
[vii] “Bangkok Post.” May 1,1954. “Navarre asked to state terms of Armistice.”
[viii] “Bangkok Post.” May 1,1954. “Navarre asked to state terms of Armistice.”
[ix] “Bangkok Post.” May 1,1954. “Navarre asked to state terms of Armistice.”
[x] “Bangkok Post.” April 8, 1954. “Paratroops Reinforce; VM Nearing Thailand.”
[xi] “Bangkok Post.” April 8, 1954. “Paratroops Reinforce; VM Nearing Thailand.”
[xii] “Bangkok Post.” May 4th, 1954. “’U.S. Won’t Need to Send Troops.”
[xiii] Chandler, et al… Modern Southeast Asia. University of Hawai’I Press, Hawaii, 2005.