The American plane landed in Manila, Philippines and was curiously taken out into what Lowell Gardenhour describes as the “boondocks,” where it would have its insignia furtively replaced with French ones. At the same time, Gardenhour and his fellow Air Force servicemen, unable to know their location until they arrived , were “indoctrinated” to their mission. This mission was to fly into Haiphong on the northeast coast of Vietnam. There they would keep their planes operable and ready to launch daily supply flights to the recently reconquered French position in the northwest of the country known as Dien Bien Phu. In 1954, the regions of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia were collectively known under the colonial term French Indochina.
America’s interest and involvement in Vietnam before our own war there in the 1960s and 1970s isn’t understood by many. Fewer know that Eisenhower sent roughly 200 servicemen (Gardenhour among them) to the region in 1954. This is because it was top secret at the time.
Joining the Air Force in part to avoid being drafted into the Korean War, Gardenhour became a Crew Chief with the responsibility of maintaining his plane, which was named The Hawk. The story of Gardenhour’s involvement in Vietnam and the larger story in which he plays a role is engrossing and impactful, demonstrating America’s bellicosity wherever communism was involved.
On Sept. 2, 1945 the Japanese signed the terms of their surrender aboard the U.S. Missouri. At about 13 years old, Gardenhour must’ve experienced the celebratory excitement, though he had no way of knowing what else was occurring simultaneously. On this same day in Vietnam, with Japan defeated and no longer able to subjugate the region since taking it from the French, the educated and well-travelled Ho Chi Minh introduced his new government to a crowd of around 400,000 people. Declaring independence for his country, he sought Western recognition of his government. His opening words undoubtedly struck a mighty chord with the few American OSS members in the crowd as he recited the preamble to Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence. Not only were all men created equal, he said, but France had recognized this sentiment since the French Revolution and had disgraced it in her treatment of colonial subjects abroad. No longer would they wait.
The pestering obstinacy of Roosevelt’s anti-colonialism during the war inspired hope in Ho, but Roosevelt’s death and succession by Truman would see those hopes slowly eroded. Through an American OSS operative in Indochina Ho forwarded a letter to Truman asking to have his Viet Minh involved in any talks about the fate of the region and particularly Vietnam. As with all subsequent letters, Truman gave no reply. He had, after all, assured General de Gaulle that America would not oppose a French recolonization of the region.
It’s difficult not to be awed by the opportunity we were given to live up to our espoused principles. Historian Frederick Logevall writes, “…at that occasion of Japan’s surrender, the United States had an extraordinary political power in Asia of a kind never seen before (or since). For tens of millions of Asians that summer, the very remoteness of America added to her allure, to her perceived omnipotence.” Many Asians saw America’s assurance that the Philippines would soon gain its own independence as evidence of our good will. So why did we support a French return?
At the time, the specter of communism was growing by the day and ate at the American mind. Indeed, half of Germany was occupied by the USSR. With France as the next line of defense geographically, it had to be bolstered. The way to ensure its survival as a democratic capitalist nation was to ensure its economic stability and security. This meant supporting the remunerative recolonization of French Indochina. America would foot much of the bill as war broke out and continuously encouraged France to stay in the fight. Remember, the Domino Theory was taking shape and gaining articulation by U.S. leaders. If Vietnam fell, communism might spread through South Asia.
Gardenhour was involved in daily supply runs from Japan to American forces on the Korean peninsula as our war there neared its end. Then, in January of 1954 he was sent with others to Vietnam to help supply the French base in the far northwest of the country. The base was in a large basin known as Dien Bien Phu. Local Tai people called it Muong Thanh (“Arena of the Gods”). The French thought the surrounding mountains and steep hills would provide protection. Ho’s autodidactic military leader Vo Nguyen Giap proved them wrong. He amassed over 40,000 men, and the intrepid fighters dismantled and drug their artillery, through manpower alone, through steep, muddy, treacherous and nearly impassable terrain up the mountains. This allowed them to shoot “down the tube” at the French defenses.
In preparation for the fight and during it, U.S. planes were used to fly supplies there on a daily basis. Gardenhour (as a crew chief) had to keep his plane, The Hawk, in top flying shape after each run. The American planes were rented from us for two dollars a day and were flown first by the Flying Tigers and then by French pilots.
The French ultimately lost the battle and the war. While there to help, Gardenhour produced some remarkable photos that are now valuable pieces of historical evidence. In 1954, a young soldier with a camera was hardly worth worrying about. He was able to take over 100 photos ranging from common street views to the famous Saigon Palace Hotel and a snapshot of Napalm being loaded into his transport plane upon wooden skids. (These transport planes were in fact repurposed as makeshift bombers at times, of which this is direct and intriguing evidence.) His photos are now archived at West Chester University.
After returning home to Waynesboro, Pennsylvania, did he think much about what he was a part of? Not really. Gardenhour began a normal life and, like many servicemen, did not begin to understand the larger story in which he was a character until some time later. As part of the West Chester University community, the Student Veterans Group will hold an event in his honor on April 13. His story and memorabilia have been valuable resources for learning about a little known part of our involvement in Vietnam well before war there began. His recognition has been well deserved.
Brandon Langston is a third-year student majoring in biology with a minor in history. ✉ BL882717@wcupa.edu.