Fought Canada in Vietnam
“The boys fell like flies” - Czechoslovaks in the Vietnam War
To this day, Rudolf Němček can't stand Reis. He had not eaten anything else for 18 months, 18 long months that Němček had spent in Vietnamese captivity.
The Vietnam War is now the proxy war in the context of the Cold War from the beginning of the 1960s to 1975. It was primarily shaped by the military involvement of the USA. However, this was only the last phase - albeit a particularly lossy one - in the longest armed conflict of the 20th century. For 30 years, Vietnam was the scene of a devastating war that began in 1946 with the resistance of Vietnamese guerrillas against the colonial power of France. These guerrillas, the so-called Viet Minh under their charismatic leader Ho Chi Minh, mostly professed communism. Their goal, however, was primarily the independence of Vietnam, which as a French colony was then still called Indochina. At first they could do little against the military superiority of the French. The tide turned when Mao Tse-tung came to power in China in 1949 and proclaimed a People's Republic. Communist China supported the Viet Minh with arms. A key event was the battle of the French fortress Dong Khe in North Vietnam, which was captured by the guerrillas in September 1950. Rudolf Němček also fought on the French side:“The boys fell like flies. There were an awful lot of these Vietnamese there. They couldn't get to us from one side, there was a steep slope. So they shot us down from below. Luckily I was on the other side of the bunker, not that many fell. But it was terrible. I was wounded by fragments from a mortar shell, twelve small fragments and one large one. That happened the day I was captured. "
Němček was a member of the French Foreign Legion, as were about 2000 other Czechoslovaks who fought in Vietnam; about 500 of them fell there. In the 20th century, only during World War II were more Czechoslovaks under arms. The historian Ladislav Kudrna has written a book about this little-known chapter of 20th century Czechoslovak history: “They fought and died in Indochina” (Bojovali a umírali v Indočíně). In it, Kudrna examines the individual fates of Czechoslovak Vietnam veterans such as Rudolf Němček. Her path to the French Foreign Legion and thus to the battlefield in Southeast Asia began, according to Kudrna, as early as 1948 when the Communists came to power in Czechoslovakia. It is estimated that around 40,000 to 100,000 Czechs and Slovaks emigrated in the following years. Many of them found their first shelter in refugee camps in the western zones of occupied Germany. Ladislav Kudrna:“The conditions in the refugee camps were very dreary. It was only shortly after the war. The hygienic conditions there were poor and there was not enough to eat. And the agents of the French Foreign Legion took advantage of that. They visited these camps and lured young guys, often minors, to the Foreign Legion under false promises. "
The agents promised good food and a lot of money and promised the young people a relatively carefree life in North Africa. There, in the Algerian Sidi bel Abbès, the new legionaries, however, awaited a tough military training lasting several months. After that it got worse. The ship went to Indochina - straight into the fighting. Otakar Hašek, then 20 years old, remembers:“You were scared and just shot without knowing where. Shot to calm down. That was a strange war. Worst of all, nobody could be trusted. An old woman was seen in a village carrying a heavy bag. Either you checked them out or you just let them go. Because it could be that her bag was full of grenades. That was risky. Or you kept vigil, and there was rustling in the jungle, then you shot. In the morning it was found that a woman and a child had been shot. It was just dark and you just wanted to defend yourself. You were young, stupid and carried the Colt low. "
Otakar Hašek served as well as Rudolf Němček and many other Czechoslovaks in the north of Vietnam, which the Viet Minh brought under their control in autumn 1950 after the fall of some French fortresses. Many Foreign Legionnaires deserted during this time. Others - like Hašek - were captured by Vietnamese prisoners of war.“The conditions in the prisoner-of-war camps were terrible. My research showed that the death rate was around 80 percent ", says Ladislav Kudrna. The main reasons for the high mortality rate were the extreme climate for Central Europeans, illnesses, food shortages and the like. The legionaries had been told that the Vietnamese would cut off the heads of their prisoners with machetes, but that was not true. The French army command only wanted to ensure that the soldiers fought to the last drop of blood. Most prisoners of war reported that they had been treated properly by their Vietnamese guards. Vietnam had signed treaties with friendly governments - including the communist one in Czechoslovakia - on the repatriation of the Foreign Legionnaires. This guaranteed that the returnees would not be harmed in their homeland. This was important to the Vietnamese, as it was supposed to induce more legionaries to defend. But the Czechoslovak regime did not stick to the agreement. The second and largest of a total of four repatriation transports arrived in Prague in the spring of 1952. Hašek, Němček and 19 other Czechoslovaks also sat in it.
“These men were held in prison for over a year. Prosecutions were suspended and released for those who defected to the Vietnamese side. The others were tried, but ended with an amnesty. The prisoners were released in September 1953 ", says Kudrna. However, many veterans then had to do forced labor for years, for example in coal and uranium mines.
Otakar Hašek turned his back on Czechoslovakia a second time. After the crackdown on the Prague Spring in 1968, he fled to Canada and then lived in the United States for decades. Only in 2003 did he return to the now democratic Czech Republic. Today, 81-year-old Hašek lives in Luhačovice in south-east Moravia.
Rudolf Němček, also 81 years old, still gets shocked looks today when a doctor comes across his war injuries from Vietnam during an examination. He never received a war disabled pension from the French state. He was informed that he was listed as killed in the Foreign Legion files - as were all other members of his company at the time.
The statements by Rudolf Němček and Otakar Hašek are taken from the collection of the non-profit agency Post Bellum, which has been questioning contemporary witnesses since 2001. You can find more information about Post Bellum at this internet address: http://www.postbellum.cz.
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