First military advisors of Viet Minh

Sunday, 2020-03-29 19:26:10
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Mac Shin visited to the Tan Trao Safety Zone in 1995. (Photo: Dao Ngoc Ninh)
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NDO – Twenty years ago, I received a letter from Seattle, the USA. The sender was Mac Shin, one of the first two intelligence agents of the Allies who accompanied Uncle Ho to the safety zone in Tan Trao in a coordination task on anti-Japanese fascists between the Viet Minh and the Allies in the days before the historic August Revolution.

Part 1: Mac Shin and 128 days with Uncle Ho

During the 1992-2002 period, I was the Secretary of the Vietnam - US Society (VUS), a mass organisation working to promote friendly relations between the two countries’ peoples. In 1995, in the context of the two countries’ normalisation of diplomatic relations, the VUS sent an invitation to those from the Allied forces who had operated in the Tan Trao war zone, along with Vietnamese revolutionary veterans who fought against fascist Japanese. So, I met with Major Thomas and Sergeant Henry Prunier. They were members of the “Deer Team” - a special task force of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), a predecessor to the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). I also met with Frankie Tan and Mac Shin, the first two intelligence agents who accompanied Uncle Ho from Kunming (China) to Vietnam. In 1995, during their visit to Vietnam, they were all elderly and of course, they were extremely moved when they had the opportunity to visit places from the unforgettable memories in their lives.

I noticed Mac Shin with my curiosity because he was Chinese, and one of the two intelligence agents who arrived at the Tan Trao war zone even before the “Deer Team”. In every story, at every moment, Mac Shin always spoke of President Ho Chi Minh with respect. He called the late President with a beloved name - Uncle Ho. On May 10, 2008, in Seattle, Vietnamese Deputy Ambassador to the US Nguyen Tien Minh came and presented the medal “For Peace, Friendship among Nations” to him. But who is Mac Shin? Not many people in Vietnam or the US know his name as well as his relationship with President Ho Chi Minh.

During the World War II, the Japanese fascists invaded and seized French power in Indochina. However, in the summer of 1944, after France was liberated by the Allies, some French who joined De Gaulle in some parts of Vietnam in Indochina began to seek ways to provide intelligence information to the headquarters of the Allies in Kunming.

Kunming, a city in southwest China, was the base of the US 14th Air Force (also known as the Flying Tigers), led by General Claire Chennault. At that time, they began to harass shipping and supply routes of Japanese fascists in Indochina. The success of these bombing strikes depended on accurate weather reports from inside Indochina, as well as intelligence on movements, bases and treasures of Japanese fascists. In addition, an intelligence network in Indochina was also needed to rescue the US pilots when their aircrafts were shot down or dropped, and to hide them from the Japanese troops, and if possible, take them out of Indochina back to Kunming.

The OSS had participated in this information gathering activity from Kunming. An established intelligence network called the GBT group (assembled from the first letter of the team members’ names) worked in southern China near the China-Vietnam border area, using the network in their French business bases in Indochina. Mac Shin, born on October 29, 1923, in Hong Kong (China), fled to Kunming when the Japanese fascists occupied Hong Kong, then worked as a radio operator for the GBT.

In March 1945, Japan overthrew the French colonial government in Indochina. Since most of the French were imprisoned, the valuable source of intelligence from inside Indochina to the Allies in Kunming was exhausted. The OSS realised that it was necessary to find a way to organise the collection of reliable intelligence from anti-fascist Vietnamese people.

In November 1944, Lieutenant Shaw, a pilot of the US 51st Air Force landed in Cao Bang due to an engine failure. Shaw was protected by the Viet Minh. Uncle Ho directly took him back to China for the Allies. With that, the relationship between the Viet Minh resistance force and the Allies began. The US military in Kunming decided to send two GBT intelligence agents to northern Vietnam to train and work with the Viet Minh forces in order to re-establish anti-Japanese intelligence operations in Indochina, thereby supporting the 14th Air Force. The two agents were Chinese-American businessman Frankie Tan (the T in the GBT group), and Mac Shin who was in charge of the radio.

In April 1945, Uncle Ho, Mac Shin and Frankie Tan were taken in a US military aircraft from Kunming to the China-Vietnam border area in north of Cao Bang. From there, along with some Viet Minh members who were selected for intelligence training and a group of security guards, they secretly crossed the border to come to the revolutionary base of Pac Bo. To keep it a secret, Frankie Tan had an alias of Tam Xinh Shan while Mac Shin was Nguyen Tu Tac. After that, the group continued to go through the mountains of Viet Bac to avoid the Japanese patrol teams, followed the revolutionary bases, and in May 1945, they arrived at the Tan Trao base.

Mac Shin described this dangerous journey as mainly walking, sometimes riding horses. Both Mac Shin and Frankie Tan were armed with light weapons, dressed in ethnic minority clothes for disguise, and kept quiet when interacting with locals to avoid detection. The group moved slowly and often at night, as well as avoided large roads and open places. Occasionally, rains turned the ground into slippery mud, but Uncle Ho, who was over 50 years old at that time, still refused to ride his horse (according to Mac Shin).

At that time in the North, Vietnam was suffering from a terrible famine. Mac Shin recalled that the food supply was always limited. However, people at Viet Minh’s facilities were still happy to greet and provide them with food, sometimes even with a chicken. On occasion, the group had to drink water from the trunk of a bamboo.

Mac Shin was fascinated by the warmth and caring of Uncle Ho, whom he at that time only knew as Ah Kung. Uncle Ho and Mac Shin could communicate easily in English and Chinese. Mac Shin also said that Uncle Ho was very generous and tolerant with his “young” style, but he also showed strict implementation of secret operating principles. Once, when crossing a river, Mac Shin caught a strange animal swimming towards him. He pulled out a pistol and fired a full magazine at the animal. Later, Uncle Ho criticised him for wasting precious bullets and making loud noises that could reveal all of them.

At Tan Trao, Mac Shin established and conducted one to two radio communication sessions with Kunming daily. He reported information on the weather and Japanese troop movements collected by the Viet Minh reconnaissance network. In addition, he also instructed some Viet Minh officers to use the radio. Mac Shin was in a simple hut not far from Uncle Ho’s. That was quite special as this area was in the Safety Zone, where no Allied employee was allowed to access freely, except Mac Shin. For Mac Shin, the 128 days with Uncle Ho, with “Ah Kung”, are unforgettable days.

Mac Shin sent me two photos. The first is a picture of him and the Viet Minh guerrillas practicing with US weapons. On the back of the photo, Mac Shin noted, “45 Thomson submachine guns, 30 carbines, 45 automatic pistols.” The second picture shows him taking a shower with a team member of the guard force of the area, with the caption “Brother Nong Quoc Tuan, the youngest member of Uncle Ho’s security unit at Central Safety Area in Tan Trao, during World War II, 1945”.

For a few weeks, only Frankie Tan and Mac Shin were the two Allied agents present at the Viet Minh base. Besides training and communication work, they also supported the construction of a field runway in Tan Trao Valley and preparations for the parachute jump of the “Deer Team” shortly after.

After the success of the August Revolution, agents Frankie Tan, Mac Shin, and members of the “Deer Team” were ordered to return home. The short time spent living in the Viet Minh war zone with Uncle Ho left good memories that never faded in Mac Shin’s mind. For him, President Ho Chi Minh was always been respectfully and cordially called: “Ah Kung - Uncle Ho”.

By Dao Ngoc Ninh