The Tiger of Dien Bien Phu

Out of the turbulent last decades of French Indo-China emerges an anti-hero, larger than life. He is Claude Lellange, product of a mixed marriage between a French Army colonel and a Vietnamese woman, Claude fights his way up from  enlisted ranks to officer in the airborne forces of the Foreign Legion.

His heroic exploits and his ferocity in battle in the many combat actions leading to the final battle at Dien Bien Phu, earn him the sobriquet,  “Tiger.” He emerges as an assassin who kills indiscriminately for pay and is, at the same time, a tragic figure.

History buffs will enjoy this historical adventure tale and true to life look into the turbulent final years of French Colonialism during the period 1932-54 and its ties to the later American Involvement in South Vietnam.

My book covers major world upheaval during the span of time from 1932 and the birth of our protagonist, Claude Lellange, to 1961. Events in the story take place .World War II in Vietnam and North Africa followed shortly by the Frech Indo-china war, ending in 1954 with the French defeat by the Viet Mingh Battle of Dien Bien Phu. The story begins with a flash-forward to 1961, then moves backward to about 1933 in Chapter 1.

Bangkok. Early 1961. A tall stranger walked the dark streets, carefully avoiding the light. To any casual observer who happened to catch him in the light, his height of more than two meters indicated that he was probably Caucasian, possibly European. A wide brimmed fedora shadowed most of his face. His military cut mustache helped mask his features. That, and his long, loosely draped overcoat, lent him an aura of mystery. He stalked through the night with the grace of a cat.
The streets were mostly deserted. It had rained and the wet pavement glistened in the dim light cast by the occasional street lamp. Taxis sped or cruised by at random intervals depending on whether or not they carried a fare.
The tall foreigner stopped in the shadows along a stone wall, behind which resided the Temple of the Emerald Buddha. He looked closely at the two story brick building across the street. It had no markings to indicate its function. There were no windows facing the street. A single, unlit recessed doorway was the only break in an otherwise blank façade.
The man studied the building. He knew the roof was festooned with antennas, though none could be seen from the street. He had learned all about the goings on inside from his personal observation and his contacts in French intelligence. He knew the building was used by the Americans for intelligence operations.
He watched the building every night for a week; each night from a different shadowed location. On two of those nights he followed an individual, apparently the same person, who exited the building and hurried up the street. The diminutive size of the person indicated it was either a woman, or an Asian man, undoubtedly a Thai national. The object of the tall stranger’s interest walked like a man, and wore a long trench coat with a fedora, much like himself. On both occasions the subject kept to the shadows and walked quickly through the streets, frequently changing directions. Often the subject stopped and looked back to ensure he wasn’t followed, then hailing a cab, rode to different destinations, exited and entered nearby buildings.

The tall foreigner followed stealthily, waiting several minutes for the subject to emerge, and then followed that person’s return to the American intelligence building by roundabout means. Both times he learned the next day of the violent death of someone in a building at the same time the subject of his surveillance had been there.
On a third occasion, the person left the intelligence building and walked speedily as before. This time the stranger closed quickly and silently, on his prey. Closing in on the subject, he pulled from his pocket a garrote about 150 centimeters long and made from double-strand WD-l, military communications wire.
Grasping the ends in each hand, the man crossed his arms at the elbows, raised his arms, and dropped the loop of wire over his victim’s head. The tall stranger jerked the loop so violently, he nearly decapitated his victim. He disappeared into the dark, but not before he extracted a Walther PPK pistol from his prey’s coat pocket.
The victim lay on the sidewalk, dead.

The tall stranger left the shadows and crossed the street. He walked up the three steps in the dark doorway to a single door, and paused to study the walls on either side. No means of contacting the occupants of the building was evident. Finally he saw a small button close to the door. He pushed it once and waited. He sensed he was being watched, but couldn’t detect the location of the watcher.
A voice spoke from somewhere behind the door. “Yes. May I help you?”
“I am here for the position.”
While both voices spoke English, it would have been obvious to any listener that this was not their native language.
A light came on. The tall man stood exposed to his questioner.
“Wait here,” the voice commanded.
The light went out. The tall man stood patiently in the dark for long moments.
Then the door opened. A Thai man of indeterminate age stood in the doorway. “Follow me,” he said.
The tall stranger doffed his fedora as he followed his guide down a dimly lit hall toward a door at its end. On either side they passed by closed doors. The man’s footsteps were muffled on the tiled floor. His guide made no noise. He seemed to glide across the tiles.
They stopped before the door at the end of the hall. The guide knocked discreetly, as if afraid of disturbing whoever was inside.
“Come.” A muffled voice sounded from beyond the door.
The guide opened the door, stood aside, and invited the tall man to enter. The door shut behind him. He stood in a smallish office before an oversized oaken desk. A Caucasian man sat behind the desk with arms folded, studying him as he looked around. The walls held no decoration. The only other furniture was a scarred straight chair against one wall, and a similar chair placed in front of the desk.
The tall stranger felt too big for his surroundings. He appeared to study them while catching furtive glimpses of his host, a medium sized man with brown hair, parted on the left side. He wore military issue plastic framed bifocals that enlarged his blue eyes, as he stared at his visitor for some minutes.
Finally he unfolded his arms and motioned for the tall man to sit in the chair before him.
Again a period of silence as each of them appeared to be trying to stare the other down.
Finally the man behind the desk said, “Why are you here?” He spoke like an American.
“I came for the position.”
“What position?”
“The vacant position.”
“We have no vacant position.”
“Yes you do.” The tall stranger spoke with a slight accent, French possibly or Algerian.
“What is your name?” the American asked as he leaned forward and picked up a Dixon Ticonderoga. He began to fidget with the pencil. He was surely an American, from the East Coast, New England probably.
“Claude? Claude what?” The American cocked his head and frowned.
“Claude Lellange. What is your name?”
“Anthony. I am called Tony. Your name sounds French? You look Eurasian.”
“My father was French. I was born in Vietnam. My mother was Tonkinese. More recently I resided in Morocco.”
“Was your mother from the north?”
“My mother was born and died near Haiphong . . . in the north.”
“And your father? What did he do?”
“My father was an officer in the French Army. He died at Dien Bien Phu.” Claude raised his head slightly, proudly.”
“And you? What is your occupation?”
“Until lately I also was in the French Army, the First Parachute Regiment of the Foreign Legion. I too was at Dien Bien Phu. I watched my father die there. When it was over, I was posted to Algeria with the Legion.” Claude started to say more, but suddenly realized he’d said too much. He cast his eyes downward.
The silence lasted some moments.
“And now? What do you do now?”
He has that blunt way of speaking shared by most Americans. “My profession is that of the man I am to replace, only I am much better at it than he . . . was.”
Tony’s eyes widened. He began to twirl the pencil. “And how do you know that?”
Claude leaned forward and looked sharply at Tony. He started to say something.
Tony dropped the pencil, and held up both his hands. “Never mind. Don’t say anything. I believe you.”
Claude relaxed and sat back in his chair
Tony continued, changing the subject. “We must do a complete background check. That will take some weeks, maybe months. If you are cleared and you pass a preliminary test, you will be hired on a year’s probation. If you are selected, you will be expected to reside in this building. What are your questions?”
“What is this preliminary test?”
Tony reached down and pulled a file folder from a desk drawer.

Claude left the building before dawn carrying a briefcase. Furtively, as was his habit, he walked the streets until the sun came up. He sought out a sidewalk restaurant. A waitress was just placing the chairs under the tables when Claude sat down at one of them. He ordered tea, and sat back to think. His mind was racing. His short interview with Tony brought back remembrances he had hidden deep within. His first memories were his happiest. He pictured himself sitting with his Mother and Father in an outdoor restaurant much the same as this one . . . .
Chapter 1 . . .