The forgotten Vietnam of the Italians of the Foreign Legion

The forgotten Vietnam of the Italians of the Foreign Legion
The forgotten Vietnam of the Italians of the Foreign Legion

Vietnam during the twentieth century it became synonymous with war hell, first of all due to the very hard war of independence fought by the Indochinese guerrillas of Ho Chi Minh and Vo Nguyen Giap against the French colonial forces, defeated in 1954 in the decisive battle of Dien Bien Phu, and later for the conflict between the two Vietnams, that of the socialist North and that of the pro-Western South, which saw the intervention of the United States which ended, in 1975, with the most serious strategic defeat of Washington until the recent checkmate of Kabul.

French and American Vietnam have overshadowed many small, but no less tragic Vietnam. There was a South Korean, Australian and New Zealand Vietnam in the shadow of US intervention in the 1960s and 1970s. And a few decades earlier there had been an Italian Vietnam. A Vietnam in which the Italian soldiers framed in the troops of the Foreign Legion.

7 thousand fighters, of which a considerable number, 1,300, lost their lives in battle, due to injuries sustained, in Viet Minh ambushes or due to illness: the commitment of the Italian fighters in the French units was considerable and always on the front line. Of this epic, like many others of the Legion, there is a faded memory that in our country a recent essay wanted to fill.

Soldiers of doom is the title of the work of Luca Fregona, which speaks of the Vietnam of the Italians and the hell experienced by our compatriots 10 thousand kilometers from the Peninsula. A hell that for the fighters catapulted into French Indochina in the process of decolonization between 1946 and 1954 was often the only escape from a present of hardship. After a first moment, between 1943 and 1945, in which the Italians enlisted in the Legion were largely ex-fascists, ex-soldiers and people with pasts to hide or rewrite, in the second post-war period it was often misery and the will to seek a stable work to bring many compatriots to illegally cross the Alpine border and, once they arrive in France, choose the Legion as the only alternative to prison or forced repatriation.

French Vietnam was tragic for the soldiers of the Republic sentenced to fight a colonial war beyond the deadline. It was even more so for the men of the Legion, who, behind the aura of defenders of France’s ability to project its values ​​in a universal sense, were often called upon to carry out the most daring and risky operations in a war that was not theirs. And even less was that of the people whose human parable Fregona, editor-in-chief of the newspaper South Tyrol, describes in the essay. The story of three young countrymen who came out of a region that in previous decades had gone from being the periphery of the Austro-Hungarian Empire to the Alpine periphery of Italy, to find themselves on the periphery of a colonial empire in disintegration in a war without exclusion of hits, out of time and history.

There is the story of Beniamino Leoni, a true adventurer. Italian military internship, enlisted in the Italian Social Republic in 1943 to escape, for the first time from hunger, among the guardians of the Nazi concentration camp of Buchenwald, then a deserter who passed to the partisans in 1944 after being sent to the Bobbio area to operate in the roundups. Finally a miner in France after the war and joined the Legion to escape, once more, hunger. A man who in the course of his life would have received honors for his role in the guerrilla war, who in the Indochinese hell ended up deserting and going with the separatists, which he told Fregona. “In the Legion you transform. You are no longer a man, you are just a warrior who must also be careful of his companions. There are German fascists and Nazis, but also many communists. When they find out, the Communists, they are dicks. When that happens, you curse one more time for being in the Legion. The corvée bois, the corvee wood, start. It only means one thing: one of us will not come back from the jungle because it has been decided that he must die. Except nobody knows who. You are killed like a dog while the others collect twigs and branches. The blame is then placed on the Vietcens“.

Then there is the story of Emil Stocker, a man who left Merano to reach the Red River Delta, who with the Legion stayed in Vietnam for four years, surviving Dien Bien Phu and then dying in the silent massacre of a generation coinciding with Covid-19, in March 2020. “Emil – explains Fregona in the newspaper he directs – he had no heirs. After the book came out, I had the opportunity to go inside his house to save documents and photos from the shredder. I found a lot of material that helped me to understand even more the drama experienced by his family from the annexation of South Tyrol to Italy in 1918 up to the options of 1939.“, in which they chose to go and live in the Third Reich. His memories speak instead of a combative Legion, indomitable even in the moment of the twilight of Dien Bien Phu, of evidence of the senselessness of the attempts to stem the Viet Minh advance by condemning itself to encirclement.

Lastly, the history of the man from Bolzano Rodolfo Altadonna, who fell in 1954 after a long pilgrimage between Germany, childhood in Hitlerjugend, the return to Italy, the naja in the paratroopers of the Nembo Regiment, a brief experience as a chimney sweep and, finally, the passage in the Legion after the end of the military service. A short and tragic passage, given that Altadonna fell in combat when she was 25 on 21 April 1954 in Dien Bien Phu, three months after leaving Oran for Saigon at the end of her training on Algerian soil. A pilgrimage that ended in a tragic way, but which shows the enormity of the experience linked to the passage into the Legion of those Italian citizens who, not always by their will, they discovered the world in their personal Vietnam. Up to making the Legion their own homeland, as the motto of the transalpine corps says. A homeland honored or denied, sometimes cursed, to which one must remain bound forever. A homeland that brought children from a European periphery to another periphery of the world that claimed its existence.

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