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Vietnam's legendary long-haired army

In the history of Vietnam, there was a unique unit that contributed a great deal to the war against the Americans. Consisting entirely of females, the force, known as 'Long-Haired Army', was formed in the Dong Khoi (General Uprising)

 that started throughout the South in the 1960s, after the Party Central Committee’s Resolution No15 was issued, combining political and armed struggles.

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UPRISING: The Dong Khoi Movement, which originated from Mo Cay District, flowed across Ben Tre Province and then throughout the south, to the Central Highlands and other central provinces. VNA/VNS File Photo

After the great victory of the Spring Offensive 1975, this Long-Haired Army continued to contribute to building the armed forces, protecting the nation that had recently been reunified.

Such female fighters, despite their small and slender figures, faced immense danger to stop the destruction of villages. They also launched the insurgence of the Dong Khoi Movement throughout the southern region that became widely known beyond the borders of Vietnam.

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VISIONARY: Commander Nguyen Thi Dinh (centre) was one of the leaders of the Dong Khoi Movement. VNA/VNS File Photo

Breaking the enemy’s grip

Vietnam has now been reunified for 45 years, but 86-year-old Ca Le Du in Tan Thanh Binh Commune in the southern province of Ben Tre is still overwhelmed when she recalls the Dong Khoi Movement and the Long-Haired Army.

The movement that broke out in Ben Tre before spreading throughout the South was a consequence of accumulated resent, she said.

The US and the US-backed administration of the Republic of Vietnam under its head Ngo Dinh Diem broke the 1954 Geneva Agreement, making South Vietnam a new-typed colony and a military base for the American empire. Diem issued Law 10-59, publicly “placing the communists outside the law”, resulting in the executions of thousands and the imprisonment of even more who were suspected to have communist affiliations, which led to the uprising to break the shackles of the regime.

In Du’s memories, both Vietnamese in the North and the South felt great anguish that the country was divided though peace had been established for about five or six years. Many in the South saw their houses destroyed, were separated from their relatives and resistance activists were killed by the Sai Gon administration.

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RESISTANCE: The Long-Haired Army of Ben Tre Province fought the US-aided and abetted Sai Gon regime. VNA/VNS File Photo

“One day, the enemy troops raided and killed 10 young men in the hamlet. Other female neighbours in the commune secretly and hurriedly took the bodies across the river to reach Ben Tre Market by boats before dawn. When the market opened, we critically demanded the enemy stop raiding and killing innocent people,” the female veteran recalled.

The revolutionary movement in Ben Tre and the South in general was hampered by the brutality of the enemy. From 1957 to 1959, 17,000 villagers in Ben Tre were arrested, imprisoned and tortured while hundreds of Communist Party officials and members were killed. From more than 2,000 members, Ben Tre Party Committee then had only about 160 left.

With the revolution in the South drowned in a sea of blood, the anger of the locals reached its climax. A movement to fight terrorism, oppression and anti-communist policy took place across the South, demanding democracy and social welfare.

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HEROINE: National Assembly Chairwoman Nguyen Thi Kim Ngan (second right, first row) is pictured with a veteran of the Long-Haired Army of Ben Tre Province. VNA/VNS Photo Trong Duc

In this context, Ben Tre Provincial Party Committee decided to start a week under the motto 'Unanimity, Concerted Movement', calling for the villagers to fight against local tyrants, destroy their grip, liberate the countryside and take control of the farms.

Following a plan and under the leadership of female commander Nguyen Thi Dinh, who later became the the first female general of Vietnam People’s Army, the Dong Khoi Movement began in Dinh Thuy, Phuoc Hiep and Binh Khanh communes of Mo Cay District in Ben Tre on January 17, 1960 before diverting to nearby Giong Trom, Chau Thanh, Ba Tri and Thanh Phu communes.

About 10 days later, the enemy counter-attacked and mobilised thousands of soldiers to raid Dinh Thuy, Phuoc Hiep and Binh Khanh communes. They burned down houses, looted, raped, shot and killed villagers.

“In responding to the enemy's plot, Ben Tre Provincial Party Committee gathered forces to organise a political struggle, the core of which was an all-female army, or the Long-Haired Army, of about 5,000 women, travelling to town in hundreds of boats," Du recalled.

Recalling her war memories, Nguyen Thi Khao, alias Nguyen Thi Thang and aka Ut Thang, the former secretary of the Provincial Party Committee, head of the Women's Union of Ben Tre Province, said she was tormented by witnessing the devastation caused by the enemy’s raids on local islets the night before the Dong Khoi Movement.

“My hometown that used to be a peaceful land of endless rows of coconut and mangrove apple trees along the rivers was then covered in the smoke of war. The peaceful Ham Luong River that used to be thronged with local boats was scoured by the enemy’s patrol boats running back and forth regardless of time.

“However, during those dark and hard days, many local mothers and sisters were still secretly supporting the revolutionaries, fearing no guillotine from the Law 10-59,” she said.

“At that time, I was an officer specialising in public relations and in charge of women’s affair in Ben Tre Provincial Party Committee. I was responsible for directing and launching the women's political struggles against the enemy’s policies of terrorism and oppression, protecting the remaining revolutionary bases. In mid-1959, I was assigned to work in Mo Cay District Party Committee to prepare for the Dong Khoi Movement,” Khao added.

Upheaval

Under the leadership of Nguyen Thi Dinh – one of the leaders and the soul of the Dong Khoi Movement – the Long-Haired Army with thousands of female members like Du and Khao fought the enemy, demanding an end to massacres and compensation for the deaths of innocents.

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ENOUGH IS ENOUGH: The Long-Haired Army of Ben Tre Province went on strike, demanding fair treatment from the puppet government. VNA/VNS File Photo

The Long-Haired Army didn't fear guns, imprisonment, torture or even death.

Not only a political struggle, but they also fought with weapons. By the end of 1961, the number of female guerrillas in Ben Tre had reached 3,086, accounting for 1/9 of all female guerrillas in the South at that time.

In 1964, the first all-female armed unit C710 was established, the first female army force on the battlefield of Zone 8, Military Region 9.

Veteran Nguyen Thi Khich (alias Minh Tam), former deputy commander of C710 who joined the unit at the age of 18, recalled that the duties of the unit were to be disguised to scout the enemy's movement, encourage youngsters to join the liberation army.

The unit operated in Ben Tre from 1964 to 1974, accomplishing many excellent tasks and winning major battles in the middle of the enemy’s territory. 

“The unit is the women’s highlight in the history of the resistance war against American and Sai Gon troops in Ben Tre Province,” Khich said.

The Dong Khoi Movement originated from Mo Cay District and flowed across Ben Tre Province and then throughout the South, to the Central Highlands and other central provinces. It created a turning point and changed the whole revolutionary situation in the South. From simply maintaining forces, the revolution in the South turned into a strong, widespread and constant offensive.

The Dong Khoi Movement, the core of which was the Long-Haired Army, was a typical example of an uprising of the masses that creatively and effectively fought the enemy by combining three elements – politics, armed forces and military proselyting.

The success of the movement in Ben Tre and then throughout the South led to the establishment of the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam on December 20, 1960.

In early 1961, The People's Liberation Armed Forces of South Vietnam (PLAF) was also founded by uniting guerrilla forces in each locality and establishing new concentrated infantry battalions.

The spread of the movement in Ben Tre surprised, confused and terrified the enemy. In a report sent to US President John F Kennedy, the US Central Intelligence Agency acknowledged that tough times for Ngo Dinh Diem’s regime were ahead.

“The Long-Haired Army is a special military unit that showcased the creativity of Ben Tre Province in particular and southern Vietnam in general in the political struggle against the enemy during the American War in Vietnam,” said National Assembly Chairwoman Nguyen Thi Kim Ngan.

“It is a vivid symbol of the tradition of the whole national unity in fighting against the invaders – women also fight back when the enemy comes to their house,” she added.

The legendary Long-Haired Army of Ben Tre has honourably been presented with eight golden words by the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Vietnam: “Anh dũng Đồng Khởi, thắng Mỹ, diệt Ngụy” that means "Heroic Dong Khoi Movement, defeating the US and Sai Gon troops".

The all-female force and the women's anti-war movement in Ben Tre Province were also granted with the title of the Hero of the People's Armed Forces as recognition of their outstanding contributions in August 2018. VNS

By Phuc Hau, Hanh Quynh and Hien Hanh

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