Saturday, February 6, 2016

The Americans and the Caproni

      The Gold Medals for military valor awarded to Italian airmen during the First World War were very few, fewer than the ones awarded for the Italian conquest of Ethiopia in 1936; but their correct number is not 22, as reported by some books, but 23. 
      By Roberto Gentilli (Translated by L. Pavese).   

         The 23rd medal was awarded to a foreigner, Lieutenant Fenafly Coleman de Witt, of the American Flying Group of the Army of the United States of America. 
As it is well known, many American aviators arrived in Italy in 1918, and were trained for the bombing specialty on Italian Caproni tri-motors, mainly at the Air Training Center in Foggia. While the contribution of other allied Air Forces, mainly French and British, to the Italian war effort consisted of organic air groups, that is, complete and self sufficient reconnaissance and fighter squadrons, the Americans were fully integrated in the fabric of the Italian air arm: from the flying training programs (which for some included the basic training and for others only the specialization) to the learning of the techniques and the Italian language. Therefore, the relations among the Italian and the Americans airmen were excellent, in a spirit of brotherhood and emulation which was unequaled with the other allies in that War, let alone the following one.

Italian and American officers pose with a Ca.5 in the background

The American pilots, the first of whom reached the front on June 20th, 1918, led by Captain Fiorello La Guardia, were assigned to the XI (11th) Bomber Group, consisting of the IV (4th) Squadriglia, (emblem: a black prancing lion), and the VI (6th), (whose emblem was the red disc of a rising sun, and the mottos dear to Italian poet Gabriele D’Annunzio: “Unus non sufficit orbis,” Remember to Dare, Always, and “Avium flammigerum agmen”). 

Captain Fiorello La Guardia and Gianni Caproni

In the summer of 1918 the XI had already accumulated a great deal of experience on the Caproni bomber aircraft, including even a landing on the glacier of the Adamello. Based at the Ca’ degli Oppi air base and led by Major Reggio, the group was equipped with the new Caproni Ca. 5, better known as the Caproni 600 HP. 
The VI Squadriglia, one of the most heroic of the Italian bombing units and the first to receive the new and controversial Ca. 600 HP, to replace the old but irreplaceable Ca. 3, had been established at Aviano, on December 18th, 1915. Among its pilots, the following must be mentioned: Lieutenants Scavini, Baccili, Thaon de Revel, Marelli, Bertolini, the Florentine Manlio Borri, Soliani, who were all awarded the Silver Medal; the great aviator, flight instructor and test pilot Luigi Ridolfi, who would lose his life in the crash of the Caproni transport aircraft, in Verona, on August 2nd, 1919.

Caproni Ca.3

Above all the figure of the Neapolitan Raffaele Tarantini stands out. Tarantini was an Infantry volunteer. He became a pilot at the San Giusto Flying School and, after the war, founded and managed the airline Società Avio Linee Italiane. At the break-out of the war in Ethiopia (1935) he volunteered again and, while leading a unit of Askaris (indigenous Ethiopian troops) was killed by a band of Abyssinian irregulars, after heroic resistance. He was awarded the Gold Medal for military valor.

An Italian officer standing in the bow
     gunner station of a Caproni Ca.5.

 In the summer of 1918, the IV and the VI Squadriglie repeatedly bombed the towns of Mezzolombardo, Levico, Bolzano, the Austrian airfield of Matterello and the areas of the Piave and Tagliamento rivers, during the day and at night, and dropped fliers over the city of Trento several times. The latter, being an eminently Italian town, was never bombed, therefore at night it remained brightly lit. The Austro-Hungarian officers spent in Trento what is now known as “rest and recreation time,” and the harmless Italian flyovers were fiercely opposed by the strong Austrian anti-aircraft artillery, situated on the sides of the surrounding mountains, and even by night-fighters, with which there were several clashes, although apparently without consequences.

The same officer poses near the central FIAT A.12 engine of a Ca.5. The officer's right hand is on the aspiration duct, and his right elbow is touching a magneto.

On August 25th, 1918 the IV Squadriglia lost a Caproni, after a mission over Romagnano, and on September 26th another bomber, belonging to the XI Group, was hit over Mezzolombardo; but the most painful loss was the death of Major Resio, due to the Spanish flu, on October 7th. Major Quaglia became the new Group commander. 
Towards the end of October, the great offensive which, with the battle of Vittorio Veneto, would eventually destroy the Austro-Hungarian Army and end the conflict, was beginning to take shape. The re-organized, well equipped and efficient Italian Air Arm proved up to the task. Employing very modern techniques the Italian Air Arm of the Royal Army deployed a “Fighter Mass,” a “Bomber Mass” and groupings of air squadriglie to support the Armies. That amounted to a daily average availability of about 200 fighters, 200 reconnaissance aircraft and 50 bombers ready to strike from the air, while the infantry massed along the front line and the powerful artillery barrage began.

An American (left) and an Italian officer sit side by side in the cockpit of a Caproni bomber

On October 20th 1918, the XI Group moved from the province of Verona to the airfield of Brentelle, near the city of Padua. On the 27th, the Group flew a daylight mission against an enemy ammunition depot, situated near the Jewish cemetery of Ceneva, a sub-division of Vittorio Veneto. The Austrian fighter force, equipped with excellent airplanes flown by expert pilots, remained combative and dangerous to the last day, and a protracted fight ensued.

The Caproni's crew defended themselves at length, with their on-board weapons, and two Austrian fighters were shot down by the VI Squadriglia's Ca.5 flown by Lieutenant Coleman de Witt. But in the end, two of the trimotors, de Witt's and one bomber of the IV Squadriglia were also shot down. 

The first aircraft crashed near Vittorio Veneto and the other near Conegliano. Besides de Witt, several other airmen died. Among them there was another sadly unnamed American officer and Italian Lieutenant Tarli, Sergeant Cantarutti and the Observer, Lieutenant Cutello, a Sicilian who had boarded de Witt’s aircraft at the last minute, taking the place of Lieutenant Moressi.
These were tragic losses, because the war had clearly reached its end; nevertheless the XI Group didn’t lose heart. The Americans were very eager to fly and fight, and the Italians wanted to measure up. The Americans were also very popular with the ground crews, not only for their personalities and their fighting spirit, but also because they happily shared the very abundant supplies of exotic merchandise from the U.S., including the first chewing gum.

On October 28th, a mission was flown over Felling, on the 29th over Sacile, on the 30th over Fontanafredda; and several others on November 1st, when the Caproni 11664 was hit and forced to alight on the river Piave. The unharmed crew returned to Padua the following day.
On November 2nd, 1918,  in awful weather, the Squadriglia took off to attack Palmanova. The formation was abandoned in the clouds, and the aircraft gained altitude separately to avoid a collision. The cloud cover was pierced at about 14,800 feet and the airplanes navigated by compass and by reference to the peaks of the Julian Alps. Above Palmanova, the aeroplanes or, more precisely, the aircraft that had survived the all too frequent mechanical troubles typical of the Caproni Ca.5, dived again to an altitude of 10,500 feet, until they sighted the target.
The central Fiat A 12 bis engine of Caproni 11660, mounted in the rear of the fuselage, shock-cooled, experienced a carburetor backfire and caught on fire. The gunner, Sergeant Borghi, managed to put out the fire and to secure the unserviceable engine, which vibrated on its charred wooden supports, with the belts of the crew’s flight suits.
The airplane, unable to climb on two engines, overflew Palmanova. The town appeared to have been abandoned by the Austrian troops and, at the train station, which was the intended target, the inhabitants waved enthusiastically at the sight of the tri-color roundels on the Italian aircraft's wing. The primary mission was abandoned, and the Caproni’s crew looked for opportunity targets on the way back. They found them on the bridges of Latisana, over the Tagliamento river. The bridges were crowded with retreating Austrian troops and their carriages. The Italian bombs scored direct hits, causing heavy casualties. The aircraft landed at Padua, by the light of projectors, after more than three hours of flight, on two engines and having been repeatedly hit by anti-aircraft fire. 
On November 3, the Squadriglie were ready to attack again, but rumors were already circulating that a delegation of Austro-Hungarian generals were on their way to Villa Albano, the headquarter of the Italian Supreme Command, to negotiate the surrender, and it was decided not to spread any more grief in a war that was already won. The missions were cancelled. The wartime cooperation between Italians and Americans came to an end. The results had been outstanding and the Gold Medal awarded to Coleman de Witt was their coronation.
We like to believe that the spirit that was created, during those days, was not forgotten and might have reemerged, reaffirming our right to fight as equals when the tri-color roundel reappeared on the wing of the Italian aircraft after the Armistice of  September 8, 1943.


This article first appeared on the January 1976 issue of the Italian aviation magazine JP4.
Your comments, as usual, will be greatly appreciated.
L. Pavese

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Could have it worked on Malta?


      The Taking of Corfu.
      By Roberto Gentilli (Translated by L. Pavese)
      Corfu, or Kérkyra (Corcyra), is the northernmost of the Ionian Islands. Its elongated and sinuous surface measures about mi² 226 and lays just a few miles off the coast of Epirus, just south of the Strait of Otranto.

The high commands of the three Italian armed forces had begun to take into consideration the occupation of the Ionian Islands as early as in the summer of 1940, as the first phase of the military operations against Greece. The operation was code-named “G Emergency”, and the occupation was going to be accomplished by a landing of the Royal Army Infantry Division "Bari".

On October 13, 1940, General Badoglio transmitted to the Italian Royal Navy the advanced notice for the readying of the naval assets necessary for the landing, to which the Italian Royal Air Force (and specifically the 4th Squadra Aerea based in Apulia, and the Air Force of Albania) would provide the aerial cover. Nevertheless, on October 28, the day of the Italian attack against Greece, due to the adverse weather conditions the landing on Corfu was postponed; and it was delayed day after day, until Benito Mussolini himself cancelled it on November 2nd. 

After six months of extremely hard fighting, in which the Italians fought with valor but paid for their aggression with very high losses, the German intervention, in April of 1941, destroyed in just a few days the resistance of the Greeks and of the British forces that backed them.

1940. Two Z.506 of the 190th Squadiglia of the 86th Gruppo of the Regia Aeronautica, Italian Royal Air Force, on a mission above the snowy peaks of Epirus.

On April 20th, the Greek armies of the Epirus and Macedonia agreed to surrender unconditionally to the Germans, extending the armistice to include Italy on the 23rd of that month. At that point, the Italians put the invasion of Corfu back on the agenda, mainly to avoid that the fall of more territory in the hands of the Germans rendered the Italian sacrifices vain.
The Regia Marina, the Italian Royal Navy, got the plans they had devised six months earlier back in motion, but as early as April 27 a CANT Z.506 Airone of the 35th Stormo, overflying Corfu, launched a message ordering the Greek garrison to surrender, and observed that a white flag had been hoisted on the semaphore in response. Immediately, General Ilari, the commander of the 4th Squadra Aerea, phoned Rome; and after talking to the General Staff it was decided to entrust the capture of Corfu directly to the Royal Air Force.
The 35th Stormo, based in Brindisi, was a very peculiar Regia Aeronautica unit. It had been formed on the SIAI S.55, and then it had transitioned on the maritime bomber version of the Z.506. The commander of the Stormo was Colonel Enrico Grande, a very valiant and skilled officer from Apulia, who had already fought as a volunteer in WWI.
In his memories, the somewhat acidic Francesco Pricolo wrote that at the time of his appointment as Air Force Chief of Staff  "…besides the groups in my aerial squadron, only three or four among all the other groups in the rest of the Air Force could be employed trustfully, without the need of further training. The Stormo of seaplanes of the 4th Zone, led by Colonel Grande, was among them".
In fact, the Stormo had already been heavily engaged, first in the battle of Punta Stilo, during which Colonel Grande placed a bomb that failed to explode on the deck of the aircraft carrier HMS Eagle, and later in Greece, carrying out numerous bombing mission on the mountainous terrain of the mainland (with seaplanes!), and losing seven crews.
After having quickly coordinated the action on Corfu with General Ilari and with General Barba, who was the commander of the bombers of the 4th Squadra, Colonel Grande left from Brindisi with five seaplanes the morning after, on the 28th of April.

The preparation of the aircraft for the air invasion. The Z.506 are silver, with yellow engine cowlings, a tricolor rudder and the white band around the fuselage.

The small expeditionary force included a Consul of the Militia, Gianni Cagnoni, with nine Militia troopers, two Navy officers, two Army officers-interpreters and two war correspondents. After having reached the island, at about 9 o’clock in the morning, Grande launched a message on the Old Citadel, the ancient Venetian fortress on which the white flag had been observed the day before, ordering the surrender; but in response the Greeks hoisted a German flag!

En route to Corfu Colonel Grande talks to his Adjutant Lieutenant Luigi Bancassi, in the cockpit of a Z.506.
It wasn’t an encouraging beginning, nevertheless Colonel Grande decided to alight on the water, off the beach of Mandukion.
Although the war against Greece was at the end, it was clear that the occupation of the island of Corfu was not going to be just a mere formality. To begin with, the island garrison, which consisted of 3000 well equipped soldiers, was well entrenched on the hills of the interior, which reached almost 3000 feet, and was not part of the Army of the Epirus that had already surrendered. Therefore, their intentions were unknown, and the possibility that they decided to resist could not be excluded. Furthermore, Corfu had been one of the secondary targets for the Italian bombers, when the interior of the country was obscured by cloud cover, and there was an unconfirmed report that the 41st Gruppo had hit a movie theater with a great loss of life; therefore, among the Greek population the anti-Italian sentiment was very strong.

Colonel Grande and Consul Cagnoni land in Corfu, and below an aerial image of the first two CANT Z.506 that beached on the shore of Corfu

As soon as he had landed, with his small band of soldiers of fortune, Colonel Grande was approached by a few Greek officers. He demanded the surrender of the island and made them prisoners; then Grande reached the town of Corfu, where he raised the Italian flag on the old fortress.

The situation, though, was problematic: the commander of the Greek presidio, Dimitros Polixes, was with his troops in the mountains, for an inspection, and his adjutant had managed to inform him by phone of the microscopic size of the Italian forces and then escape.
The Italians could have been overwhelmed and massacred at any time, but Colonel Grande and his men, with a good dose of impudence, managed to keep the situation under control. In the sky above the island, formations of Italian bombers flew uninterruptedly at low altitude, as a dissuasive deterrent to any inclination of resistance on the part of the Greek forces.

FIAT BR.20 bombers fly over Corfu, during the early phase of the invasion.

Among the bombers there flew the S.M. 79 of General Pricolo, who followed with trepidation the unfolding of the events from above. The Italians negotiated the surrender of the city with the Greek civilian and religious authorities, and in the afternoon the military commander of the presidio, to whom an ultimatum made credible by the airplanes had been given, was finally found. Meanwhile, four more CANT Z.506’s had landed twenty-four more Carabinieri and a few airmen.
The Greek commander declared he had already secretly negotiated the surrender with the Germans, and in fact a few Germans showed up on a motorsailer to see what was going on. 
The Italians moved into the interior, capturing on the way a column of 300 Greek soldiers. The night passed calmly, and the day after the Greek commander finally agreed to surrender. An Italian infantry regiment arrived aboard two ships, reinforcing the occupational force, which remained under the command of Colonel Grande, who was the senior officer.

Under the castle of Corfu Colonel Grande, Consul Cagnoni and an interpreter talk with a Greek officer (with the British style uniform).
 With two trucks and four requisitioned cars the force moved into the interior of the island and obtained the surrender of the three Greek battalions, meeting just a halfhearted resistance, which a burst of sub-machine gun fire in the air was enough to quell.

On April 29, Italian reinforcements landed on Corfu to complete the occupation of the Greek island.

   On April 30, 1941, the Italian Royal Army completed the occupation. In purely Italian fashion, Colonel Grande was transferred to Milan; maybe because he had proved himself too effective.
Besides the personal courage of the participants, the aerial occupation of Corfu was a great achievement for the Italian Royal Air Force. It was probably the first example of an enemy territory conquered by air power alone. Notwithstanding the hesitation of the Italian Royal Navy and Royal Army, the very rapid preparation of the plan, the coordination of the aerial formations that alternated over the entire day on April 28, and the radio communications provided by a Z.506 at anchor in the bay of Corfu, and by reconnaissance airplanes in flight, had been impeccable. 

   It begs the question if in the early days of the war a similar operation wouldn’t have also been possible in Malta. Five Z.506’s and twenty men wouldn’t have certainly been enough: The Britons in Malta were not in the same spirit as the Greeks of Corfu, who were furious but faced the reality of a war that for them by then was over.
Nevertheless, the same audacity could have also paid dividends in Malta, since the Italian airplanes could have obscured the sky of that island as well, and if it is true that the British already considered the loss of Malta inevitable.
History is not made with ifs and buts, but it is certain that people like Colonel Grande and his men wouldn’t have hesitated a second before alighting in the middle of the Grand Harbour.

This article was originally published on the May 1979 issue of the Italian aviation magazine JP4.
You comment, as usual, will be greatly appreciated.
Thank you.
Leonardo Pavese

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

When Buddhists engaged

      Although the recent opening of the first pontifical university in Vietnam is certainly a reason for hope, the Indochinese people's republic remains a country where Catholics are not free to practice their religion, and are subject to many restrictions imposed by the state. A new religious practices act, that hopefully won't be even more oppressive, is due in 2016; but since the reunification of the country under Communist rule in 1975, the law has required religious groups to obtain a government permission to gather, and forced Catholic priests to undergo state reeducation programs.
Of course, that hasn't always been the case. From the end of the 19th century to 1940, when the Japanese occupied the region, French Indochina, even though it was ruled by the enfants of the Revolution, had actually been a Catholic bastion in the continent; and after the war the short lived Republic of South Vietnam was home to a great number of devout Catholics. Many, and their descendants, are now in the United States.


      There is of course a mountain of literature about the various reasons that contributed to the fall of Vietnam into Communist hands. The hostility of the (supposedly Catholic) American president Kennedy towards Vietnamese president Ngo Dinh Diem is well known; but maybe the contribution of the Vietnamese Buddhists to the downfall of the devout Catholic president of Vietnam should be further explored.
In the 19th and 18th century, before the rule of the French, Catholic missionaries and Vietnamese faithfuls had been the victims of brutal repression, and many had undergone martyrdom. Buddhists were certainly aware of that, and in this chapter of his book Contro il Buddismo (Against Buddhism) Italian author Roberto Dal Bosco describes how the pressure of the Buddhist rebellion contributed to the toppling of of the government of South Vietnam, and the sinister reinterpretation of Christian martyrdom on the part of the followers of Shakyamuni.
Dal Bosco's book exposes some of the most obscure facets and menacing aspects of the Buddhist religion,and was very successful in Italy. We have translated into English, and we hope to publish it very soon. The following is an excerpt we hope you will find interesting. (Many thanks to J.J.P. for reviewing he English text).
Your comments will be very appreciated. 
Thank you very much.
L. Pavese

Sacrifice in Viet Nam.
By Roberto Dal Bosco (Translated and edited by L. Pavese). 

When the  Buddha attained enlightenment, he received the following awareness: in Sanskrit it’s called pratityasamuptada, in Tibetan rten-cing ‘brel bar ‘byung-ba, in Japanese innen. In English it is called “dependent origination,” but it can also be translated as “dependent arising.” It is a fundamental concept for the whole Buddhism. The Samyuttanikaya recites:

This being, that becomes.
From the arising of this, that arises.
This not being, that does not become.
From the ceasing of this, that ceases.[1]

 In other words, it is the concatenation of cause and effect; the idea according to which every action (karma) originates a direct series of consequences.
Buddha supposedly understood it meditating under the tree; every thing is a cause; every minor act produces a never-ending chain of composite phenomena, spreading in an edgeless web. This is a metaphysical thought of enormous importance, in front of which the individual is either abolished or given a responsibility that extends beyond every one of his or her conscious action. Every thing we do, says the Buddha, can cause an endless ripple effect of consequences.
Therefore, the conduct of Buddhists should always be examined from behind this philosophical magnifying glass.
We think it is worth considering this point of view in earnest, and examine a particular historical event, that is, the so-called Vietnamese “Buddhist Crisis”: a moment in history during which the entire Buddhist clergy of a country mobilized and launched into some sensational demonstrative actions.

Republic of South Vietnam, May 1963.

The war that shortly thereafter will ravage the country had not yet come. The nation was experiencing the prodrome of disaster, with the Communist North poised to invade. The government of South Viet Nam was headed by President Ngo Dinh Diem, who will eventually pay for the escalation of the conflict, not only with the loss of his power but also with his life.
Ngo Dinh Diem today is considered a monster; the Western media of that time — especially the American’s — did their utmost to render him so.

Ngo Dinh Diem 

Dinh Diem came from a family that belonged to the Vietnamese Catholic minority. His brother Pierre Martin Ngo Dinh Thuc eventually became the Archbishop of Hue.
During the Catholic festivities of that horrible year, many flags of the Vatican State made their appearance, waved by the faithful who used them as emblems of their Christian identity. From a certain point of view, that was a grave problem, because it was contrary to a 1958 law (known as the No.10 Decree) that prohibited the display of religious banners.
The Buddhist monks’ organizations now had a concrete reason to oppose the policies of a government that openly favored Catholics in civic life: for example, according to the critics, government posts as well as those in the armed forces were reserved for Christians.
Buddhists seized the opportunity and called for a total nationwide protest. On Buddha’s “birthday,” the vesak of 1963, Buddhists were not allowed to fly their flags. During the protests in Hue, on May 8, the police intervened. There were eight dead.

    President Diem tried to put an end to it all, stating his reasons regarding the need to reserve a place above all others for the nation’s flag, and publicly proclaimed freedom of religion in the Republic of Viet Nam. As to the accusations of favoring Catholics, he could not admit it, but it was clear to everybody that hiring Christian personnel meant insuring loyal anti-Communist people in the nerve centers of the state. Diem’s Secretary of State, Nguyen Dinh Thuan let slip the accusation that the Viet Cong were taking advantage of the Buddhist rebellion.

The revolt acquired an icon of its own too: the pseudo-martyr Thich Quang Duc, who chose a congested street intersection of the city of Saigon to light himself on fire, in protest against the Diem’s government. The media relayed the truly shocking image throughout the world. The Vietnamese chaos that according to the Karmic cause and effect logic was eventually going to provoke the historical horror that we all know had found its icon.
At the end of the month, the uprising reached Saigon, where the monks surrounded the National Assembly.

In June, Diem fell the heads of the officers who had used too much of a heavy hand in the repression, but even that was not enough for the bonzes. Several skirmishes occurred; tear-gas was launched against the monks; the secret police tried to arrest American journalists, while the monks directed their anti-government action from the Xa Loi pagoda; from which, on August 18, the most massive protest march that had ever been seen in Viet Nam originated: 15,000 Buddhists, under driving rain, marched through Saigon, though taking care to avoid government buildings.

 David Halberstam, the correspondent of “The New York Times,” noted that this could have been a strategy to prepare an even bigger demonstration for the arrival of the American ambassador. Halberstam reported that the monks “were playing a fast and dangerous game.” Since it was well known that the government was about to tighten the screw as to the Buddhist propaganda from the Xa Loi pagoda, the American reporter thought that “the Buddhists seemed to be aware of the possible consequences, while their protest became more and more intense.”[2]

The generals asked President Diem for a conference, informing him that the pagoda by then had been completely infiltrated by the Viet Cong. Diem became convinced of the need for martial law and to deploy the army in various points of Saigon; but he asked that the military intervention be contained, saying that the monks should not be harmed. But the situation got out of hand again: on August 21, the army attacked the pagodas over the entire territory of South Viet Nam. 1400 monks were arrested; others (some alleged they numbered in the hundreds) were killed or kidnapped. Many found refuge with the Americans. Saigon passed in the hands of the military; all airline flights were canceled.

The United States, after having trained the same troops that were now raiding the pagodas, reacted by dumping the Diem’s government: President Kennedy, through the famous Cablegram 243, informed the American ambassador that every effort had to be made to get rid of the government of Ngo Dinh Diem and his family members.

It is now a widely shared opinion that the November 1963 coup d’état — during which President Diem was murdered — was promoted, if not actually completely directed by the CIA. The generals seized power. Diem got away boldly through a tunnel, then he try to gather international support, but he was caught and shot point blank with a semi-automatic pistol. His body was then stabbed repeatedly.

1963. Coupe d'état

And so a new phase of the Vietnamese chaos began. This may be one of the most intricate stories of the 20th century. The administration of Ngo Dinh Diem was certainly corrupt, but the emergency situation of the unfortunate Asian country slipped from the hands of a reprobate President to the hands of the murderous Vietcong. As the old adage says: from the frying pan into the fire.

First of all, the historic situation must be put into context: Buddhism was not the religion of the masses, but of the elites. In the course of the early years of the 20th century, Buddhism was re-injected into the social fabric of Viet Nam, not to the disadvantage of France that financed the Buddhist organizations to better control them. Neither the theories of Confucius — to which traditionally the higher classes subscribed — nor the Catholic religion were for the French suitable to tame the riotous Indochinese people that had just been conquered: inoculating Buddhism into the upper Vietnamese classes might have turned out to be a profitable strategy in the long term.

Consequently, far from having ever been the only religion in the country, Buddhism enjoyed a true revival. Italian missionary and author Piero Gheddo wrote:
“The approach to Buddhism on the part of the upper class and, more in general, the better educated population of the cities could not have been without political consequences: in fact the opposition to Diem […] did not come from the countryside but mainly from the cities; not from the humble classes, but from the educated people who felt more intensely the lack of political freedom. Therefore, in the absence of political parties and associations, this renewed form of Buddhism became the central point of the political opposition, and it was backed also by those who were not at all Buddhist, but saw in a mass religion with international resonance a way to rid themselves of the dictator.”[3]

Nevertheless, the rumor that the Buddhists were in every respect remote-controlled by the Viet Cong was more than just plausible; although Edward N. Luttwak, in his book, Coup d’État: A Practical Handbook (which was a very educational reading in the 1970’s) mysteriously hints at the support given to the monks by the United States.[4]
It was also a commonly held view (especially among the Christian missionaries, who were much more at the forefront with respect to reporters and diplomats) that Buddhism and Marxism, not only as doctrines but also from a geopolitical point of view, shared many points of contact.
Buddhologist Edward Conze maintained that “the doctrinal resemblance between Mahayana Buddhism and Dialectic Materialism is surprisingly close, and a reciprocal influence of ideas is destined to take place, with long term consequences for both.”[5]

 Piero Gheddo gathered a fair amount of proof of this idea, which today is almost totally forgotten. He wrote: “The magazine “Croissance des jeunes nations” dedicated an article about this subject: “Buddha opens the way to Karl Marx” (May 1965), in which the cultural connections between Buddhism and Communism were summarized […] Many observers asked — writes the above-mentioned magazine — whether Buddhism, which is being discussed very much since the fall of Diem, is really an obstacle or, to the contrary, is blazing the trail for a Marxist regime.”[6]
The answer lies in what occurred afterwards: when the Americans withdrew from their painful war, Viet Nam became entirely communist.
But it is not about the story of Ho Chi Minh domination that we would like to venture into a mystical line of reasoning.
Let us apply the logic of interdependence, that is, the Buddhist concept of “dependent origination,” the eternal Karmic law of cause and effect. Let’s do it to launch an imaginary (and probably useless, we agree) game of alternative historical:
If, in 1963, Buddhists had not begun that cycle of protests against the Diem government, maybe things would have unfolded differently. Diem might have been able to stand up to the aggressiveness of North Viet Nam for years, or maybe even decades; in a situation similar to what we see today in Korea, where the democratic South (which has had its share of corrupt dictators) has been containing for more than a half a century the invasion plans of the communist North.
In an even more interesting way, we’d like to fancy about a world without the Viet Nam war and all its consequential conflicts: the Khmer Rouge and their genocidal regime in Cambodia; or the too-often-forgotten 1979 war between China and Viet Nam, a conflict that broke out as soon as the communist unification of Viet Nam was completed. And setting aside the local conflicts, let’s examine the global aftermaths of the war: the atrocities committed by the Americans in Viet Nam legitimized the rise of the so-called youth counter culture, in the United States and Europe. In the face of the horrors suffered by the civilian population in the Viet Nam war, there took hold all kinds of sub-cultures that promised peace and utopia, whether they were hippies or even movements with a clear terrorist connotation.

On the other hand, this state of confusion had always been in the plans of the powerful ally of communist Viet Nam: the Soviet Union. The KGB had always hoped to find the key to undermine the vitality of the American spirit. According to the precepts of Sun Tzu (whose The Art of War was a fundamental text for the cadres of the KGB) the war, the cold war, had to be won even before entering the battle field.
As Soviet dissident Yuri Bezmenov[7] testified, they had to pull down the American enemy through the demoralization of the fabric of society; and it must be said that they almost succeeded: the American nation lived the post Viet Nam war period like a grave post traumatic stress syndrome.

Incapable of welcoming back the veterans and to make sense of what had happened, part of the American psyche — and consequently part of the Western mind too — was damaged forever. In a way, the Americans learned their lesson and tried to serve the Russians the same dish, fomenting a war that from this point of view can be considered an offspring of Viet Nam’s: the Afghan War.
At the end of her intervention in Afghanistan— which mowed down the lives of many young Russians — the Soviet Union imploded. Maybe, without the Viet Nam War, the Cold War would have lasted less; or maybe longer. But today, in the uncertainty of this post bi-polar world, bristling with powerful terrorists and financial crises, we are not given to know what would have been better. Certain it is that, today, in a bizarre twist of fate, there are Americans in Afghanistan.

This state of confusion was generated, in part, by monks who walked in the streets in protest. Maybe a bonze, endowed with the siddhi power of clairvoyance, could discern the boundaries of this deathly design of cultural and material destruction. Perhaps the plan was much more vast; and we mortals should give up trying to understand this twisted chain of events, even if we are experiencing its effects every day. But one thing is certain: even in that tragic hour in which chaos was unleashed in Viet Nam too, the goal of the Buddhists was to substitute themselves for that model which so far has yet to be surpassed by any other organized religion: the Catholic Church.

At the heart of Vietnamese Buddhism “alongside the political drive, there was a sense of religious frustration. In its attempt of renewal and modern re-organization, Buddhism came face to face with the Catholic Church that was already well organized and modernized, with an educated clergy, numerous and impressive works, strong associations of laymen, newspapers, higher education institutions, et cetera…hence the sense of frustration.”[8]

But this basic sense of envy was not just a matter of logistics. During the 1963 crisis, Vietnamese Buddhism went looking for his martyrs too. And that brings us to the case of Thich Quang Duc (1897-1963), the most famous “martyr” for the cause of the bonzes, whose holy picture-cards were copiously distributed to the Vietnamese population.

On June 10, 1963, in the very middle of the Buddhist crisis, an envoy of the Buddhist rebels approached the foreign media reporters, and asked them to be at the Cambodian embassy the following day. To stimulate the natural scoop-hunting instinct of the journalistic crowd, the rebels clearly promised them that something big was going to take place.

Not every one listened to the Buddhist messenger, because the crisis by then had been going on for at least a month and a half. Malcolm Browne, an Associated Press photographer, and David Halberstam of “The New York Times” decided to show up for the date. The two reporters saw the advancing of a long procession of bonzes, divided in two phalanxes, with the folkloristic detail of an old Austin Westminster automobile leading the parade.
The monks waved flags and carried bilingual signs in Vietnamese and English, which is proof of the fact that everything had been set up to manipulate the U.S. public opinion through the media. And they succeeded. The content of the messages, as it is easy to imagine, was a series of slogans against President Diem and its policies.

The procession stopped at the intersection between Boulevard Phan Dinh Phung and Le Van Duyet Street.
The elderly Thich Quang Duc got out of the car, accompanied by two young aids. One of them laid a cushion on the road; the other one carried a tank of gasoline. The old monk sat on the ground with his legs crossed, in the classic lotus position.
The young man with the tank poured the fuel on Quang Duc who was fumbling through a string of beads repeating a prayer to a celestial Buddha that the Mahayana sect worships.
 He said: “Nam mo A di da phat” (Praise to the Buddha Amithaba) and he lit a match, letting it drop on himself. His clothes and his flesh were soon consumed by the flames, and a black cloud of smoke blew in the air.

The police tried to reach the center of the scene, but the Buddhist clergy, who had probably studied the logistics of the performance, formed a human shield that prevented the officers from extinguishing the match.
The crowd was speechless. A monk took a microphone and began to chant: “A Buddhist monk set himself on fire; a Buddhist monk became a martyr.” Naturally the well prepared slogan was repeated in Vietnamese and in English.
Then the body of the Quang Duc was collected by the bonzes and taken to the Xa Loi pagoda, where it was completely cremated. The ashes became a relic, as well as the heart that — according to the monks — had remained untouched. Legend has it that the people of Saigon saw in the sunset sky the face of the Buddha in tears.
Malcolm Browne, who took the pictures of the self-immolation, won the Pulitzer Prize. So did David Halberstam, who recounted in his newspaper article the experience of the suicidal monk.

Those images not only had a political value; they were deeply shocking. In the 1963 Ingmar Bergman’s motion picture Persona, the main character becomes aphasic after watching on TV the images of other Quang Duc-imitating bonzes (until October 1963, there were at least five more instances of self-torching monks, some of which were filmed). Thirty years later, the rock band Rage against the Machine chose to put Malcolm Brown’s photograph on the cover of one of their albums.

Practically speaking, Buddhists had invented the snuff movie: a film that actually shows someone’s death. But snuff movies are not only made for perverse rich collectors. Especially in the course of the last recent years, they have acquired great political value: suffice to recall the videos of the decapitations of Westerners that were broadcast on-line by Muslim Jihadi.
 The Vietnamese bonzes had anticipated the cinematographic-political use of death. After seeing the picture, President Kennedy cursed then said that no other photograph had ever been more significant. William Colby, then head of the CIA, said that, after that, very little could have been done to salvage the situation for President Diem.

The photograph was printed on millions of cards and sent to every continent as the incriminating icon of American imperialism; the same imperialism that shortly thereafter would liquidate President Diem.
The monks had scored a bull’s-eye. The “martyr” had produced the desired effect; the mediatic power of his suicide had nailed Diem and his forces for ever. It was an absolute masterpiece of political propaganda.

But if we consider the Christian meaning of the word “martyr” — that is, its original derivation — we see that the bonze could not be considered a martyr. Because the martiryon — the “testimony,” in Greek — can never be a self-immolation: Christians become martyrs only when they are killed by executioners, who often receive blessings and prayers from their dying holy victims. Catholicism never, ever accepted suicide. The Christian martyr lives his or her life to the end, and loves it until the executioners take it away. The suicide as an act of protest does not exist for a Christian: life goes on till the last moment. Martyrdom is the testimony of an exemplary life.
For the Catholic Church, Viet Nam is a land in which the Divine Providence has arranged a good number of martyrs. Unlike Buddhism, with its self-combusting monks, the Catholic Church has produced men who lived their faith till their death, without looking for the spotlight or the Pulitzer Prize photograph to remind the world of their cause, and without co-religionists that yelled their reasons into a bullhorn for the Western media.

François-Xavier Nguyen Van Thuan (1928-2002) is an emblematic case, also because he was the nephew of Ngo Dinh Diem and of the Archbishop Ngo Dinh Thuc; that is, he was a member of the great catholic political dynasty that had led Viet Nam till the Buddhist crisis and its bloody epilogue.

François-Xavier Nguyen Van Thuan

When the Americans were in retreat and Viet Nam was about to become wholly communist, the Vatican chose Van Thuan as the new archbishop of Saigon, as his predecessor, Paul Nguyen Van Binh was gravely ill and exhausted by the past decade of war. Not even six days had passed from his appointment — Van Thuan had not yet taken his place in the dioceses — when the communist regime arrested him together with dozens of other priests. They all ended up in the reeducation camps.
Archbishop Van Thuan remained in jail for thirteen years; nine of which in solitary confinement.
In the Phu Kanh prison, his cell had only one hole through which a little fresh air came in, and Van Thuan spent one hundred days with his nose pressed into that narrow slit.
Worms, spiders and centipedes insinuated into his cell, and the priest, who later confessed that he had lost all the clear-headedness needed to pray, did not even have the energy to brush off the crawlers from his body.
He found the strength to go on thinking of San Paul and his imprisonment. He felt an unexpected strength spring from deep within himself, which gave him clearness of mind and vigor.

“Give up any superfluous thing and concentrate on the essential. It does not matter how many things we do; just the intensity of the love we put in any single one of our actions counts. I have to preserve my love and my smile for everyone else. I am afraid to waste even just one second living without this awareness.[13] 
The harsh regime of his imprisonment had a specific purpose: to reduce as much as possible the threat that he very clearly posed to society. They had begun to notice, in fact, that a very strange phenomenon was taking place around Archbishop Van Thuan.
A prison guard, who every day became more and  more impressed by Van Thuan’s devotion, told the Archbishop that he was going to pray for him on the site of Our Lady of La Vang, a sanctuary that had been torn down. The guard was not even a Christian; nevertheless he felt he had to pray for the intercession of the Virgin to help the prisoner. In a note that the guard sneaked into the cell, he confided the Archbishop that he went to the sanctuary every week:
“I pray for you like this: Our Lady, I am not a Christian. I don’t know how to pray. I am begging you to give Mister Francis what he wishes for.”[14]
The guard began in secret to provide the Archbishop the necessary to say Mass — Van Thuan celebrated it with an infinitesimally small crumb of bread and a drop of wine that the guard had managed to bring him.
 The warder was eventually transferred, but his replacements had the same experience. They were all converted.

The communists realized the inevitability of this “contamination” and established rotating shifts for the guards, to avoid as much as possible the exposure of the warders to the presence of Van Thuan. But the damage had been done: all the guards looked with admiration at that prisoner who taught them French and English; and there were even cases of guards who wanted to receive Latin lessons.

The Veni Creator Spiritus, the ancient prayer to the Holy Spirit, became an often-heard song in the prison.
Upon a request from the prisoner, he was given a few pieces of wood and some wire with which Van Thuan built a crucifix. A few years later in Rome, after he had been freed and elected Cardinal, he chose to wear it as a pectoral cross.
“Every day I wear this crucifix and this chain, not because they remind me of prison, but because they are the symbol of a profound conviction of mine, and of something that for me is a constant point of reference: only Christian love, and not the weapons, the threats or the mass-media, can change one’s heart.” [15]
No Pulitzer Prize winning picture of the Christian martyrs of Viet Nam was ever in the cards.


[1] Samyuttanikaya, ii, 28.
[2] David Halberstam, The Making of a Quagmire: America and Viet Nam during the Kennedy Era, Rowman & Littlefield, Lanham, 2008, page 140.
[3] Piero Gheddo, Cattolici e Buddisti nel Vietnam, Vallecchi, Florence, (Italy), 1968, page 168.
[4] Edward N. Luttwak, Coup d’État: A Practical Handbook, Harvard University Press, Boston, 1979, page 40.   
[5] Armando Rizza, Buddhismo in risveglio (Buddhism reawakening), P.I.M.E., Milano, 1964, page 106.   
[6] Piero Gheddo, op. cit., page 199.
[7] Cfr. Thomas Shuman, Love Letter to America, W.I.N. Almanac Panorama, Los Angeles, 1984. In this book, as well as in the numerous video-recorded conferences that are now available on-line, the former KGB spy Yuri Bezmenov (who became Thomas Schuman after his adventurous escape from behind the Iron Curtain) deals with the general demoralization produced by the detachment of societies from religion. Schuman says that the KGB had very precise ideas about that, and invested funds and assets to promote a trivialized version of religion in order to provoke the disenchantment of the Western masses. “Every great civilization fell when people renounced God and religion […] It is a manifestation of an innate spirit of self destruction, which, if it is freed, leads to the physical extinction of the entire human kind”. Ibidem, page 29.     
[8] Piero Gheddo, op. cit., page 185.
[9] Robert Royal, Robert Royal, The Catholic Martyrs of the Twentieth Century, Crossroad Pub., 2000; page 356.
[10] Ibidem, page 420.
[11] Ibidem, page 360.
[12] Ibidem, page 360.
[13] Robert Royal, op. cit., page 366.
[14] Ibidem, page 429.
[15] Ibidem, page 430.