The author looks back on the massacre of French Catholics during the Second World War
Book describes Japan’s role in rise of Khmer Rouge, Viet Cong and Pathet Lao in Southeast Asia
The family of author Thierry de Roland Peel was caught in the crossfire in Saigon in the final months of World War II. (Photo: Steve Porte)
For decades, author Thierry de Roland Peel was fascinated by the stories his grandparents told of how their family and their dog named Mephisto survived the Saigon Massacre as World War II drew to a close. in 1945.
Hitler had been defeated and the Japanese realized they had lost. In Japanese-occupied Southeast Asia, local communists were trying to assert their independence with encouragement from Tokyo before the inevitable arrival of the British and French.
“Before the surrender of the Japanese, it was total confusion, disorientation. There was no security and Saigon was ripe for trouble,” said De Roland Peel, author of Ashes of Annam: A Mother’s Tale. “Nobody knew what was going on or who was responsible.”
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He says very little was published about the southern Vietnamese city – now known as Ho Chi Minh City – at that time, but the political machinations that evolved resulted in civil wars that will last for decades.
“The Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, the Viet Minh in South Vietnam and the Pathet Lao in Laos all started with what happened back then,” said De Roland Peel, whose family roots in Indochina date back to Nineteenth century.
In the center of Ashes of Annam is the Franco-English parentage of De Roland Peel – his mother Josette and his parents Emanuel and Germaine.
“Mom was very, very quiet about what happened throughout her life. But my grandparents were a great source of information”
Their family villa in Saigon was caught in the crossfire as the front lines shifted several times after the Japanese ended Vichy French administration in March 1945 and began arming independence groups.
“Mom was very, very quiet about what happened throughout her life. But my grandparents were a great source of information,” he said, playing with a double pinch of single malt at Raffles’ Elephant Bar in Phnom Penh, the Cambodian capital.
De Roland Peel also carried out a considerable amount of research and fact-checking with official records, aided by a cousin who had written a diary during the war.
Daily life was as spartan as it was dangerous, and their only link to the outside world was Mephisto, a lively Groenendael who delivered secret messages hidden in his collar to sympathizers of the French colonial community.
Hundreds of families were targeted for slaughter by the Viet Minh, Communist insurgents who would become known as the Viet Cong in the 1960s and 1970s.
He said women and children had their throats cut and in many cases buried alive by the Japanese-backed militias demanding independence from France before the allies could restore order. pre-war colonial.
“The Viet Minh buried children alive in front of their parents, and vice versa,” said De Roland Peel. “Women have been raped. They skewered men and women with bamboo poles – like pigs in a market – and continued to prick them to death.
The massacres lasted for over six months and the family was forced to move into a compound with other foreigners after a Japanese general commandeered their villa.
“Communists don’t believe in religion or religious people. Churches had to be destroyed – that was their mindset”
On September 2, 1945, the day Japan officially surrendered, Father Tricoire, a French Catholic priest, was assassinated alongside five French civilians.
“He was a very well-known priest because he was based at Saigon Cathedral. If people had any problems, he would be there to help them,” said De Roland Peel.
“Of course, as soon as the Viet Minh was in charge, he was at the top of their kill list and he was dragged through the streets of Saigon. Communists don’t believe in religion or religious people. Churches had to be destroyed – that was their mindset.
His death also sparked fears of reprisals, so Vietnamese Communists began arresting French civilians and mestizos while Vietnamese looters targeted colonial businesses, culminating in the Hérault massacre when more than 300 Europeans were you are beautiful.
The British, under General Douglas Gracey, arrived later that month and attempted to restore some sort of order, but the situation was further complicated when he rearmed the Japanese soldiers and used them to repress the Communists they had supported.
“My family survived on faith, hope and charity, and Mephisto was an unexpected bonus. My parents were allowed to keep Mephisto, which was a surprise when they moved into the compound and he continued to deliver messages to outside contacts,” De Roland Peel recalled.
“It included words of encouragement and advice like ‘stay put’ and ‘don’t move.’ under a tree in a Cambodian-made silver jewelry box.
“Wars are great tragedies that mark generations to come. Eight decades ago my mother witnessed it and we still see it today in Ukraine”
Gracey was soon joined by Free French General Jacques Philippe Leclerc and gradually Saigon was subdued and foreign civilians were ordered home.
“When the French evacuated, there was a man wandering naked on the deck of the ship. He had gone mad, lost his mind, lost his children, everything he had,” said De Roland Peel. “It was a great tragedy.”
After the end of World War II, the family moved to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), where De Roland Peel was born and another civil war was raging, then to Britain, where he spent three years in the British Army before embarking on a career in finance.
For the past 30 years, De Roland Peel has worked as an investor in Cambodia following a request from King Norodom Sihanouk – transmitted through his mother – to help with post-war reconstruction, which began after the end long civil wars in 1998.
More recently, he toured Cambodia to promote Ashes of Annamreleased last month, which received rave reviews.
De Roland Peel notes that the legacy of the tumultuous events his family survived all those decades ago is still being played out today in Phnom Penh, where an international tribunal is winding down after securing convictions for war crimes committed by the Khmer Rouge.
“Wars are great tragedies that mark generations to come. Eight decades ago my mother witnessed this and we still see it today in Ukraine,” he said.
* Luke Hunt is the author of the Punji Trap, Pham Xuan An: The Spy Who Didn’t Love Us.