Frenchy, Knarley and Barbwire Johnny were guiding hunters on the Muskwa River for Elk and Grizzly. They had some decent guys to guide. The hunters had done a lot of hunting and were not complainers. This was important to guys who often worked in the dark, before the day’s hunt and after the hunt.
The best hunters were there for the hunt and not just to take a trophy animal. These guys measured up in the eyes of a guide, but one of the hunters stood out; he was quiet and didn’t try to make a joke of every little thing. He sat a horse like he owned it and asked intelligent questions about tracks and other signs of game. The other hunters talked of hunts and kills in exotic places, but this hunter talked of the places and the people who guided him.
His name was Bill Custis, he was a geologist, about fifty years old, and originally from the Dallas Fort Worth area. On the third night, after the other hunters had told their life stories, Bill had a small glass of rye and told us about a charmed life of survival and constant danger during World War II.
This was in the fall of 1965 and the war in Vietnam was beginning to heat up. There was only one person at the campfire who could find French Indochina (originally Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam) on a map without looking all over Asia and that was Bill.
In 1939, he graduated with a degree in geology and his first job was consulting with a French Petroleum company, exploring the highlands of what was to become Vietnam.
In 1940, France was defeated by Nazi Germany. The Vichy government, a puppet government of the German occupation forces, was set up to govern France and consequently, French Indochina.
The Vichy government ceded control over Hanoi and Saigon to Japan. In 1941, Japan extended its control over all of French Indochina; although, control was dubious, there were few roads and most of them were seasonal. Beyond the cities, the peasants lived on a subsistence level and without the French plantation system there was almost no value in the jungles, plains, and mountains of French Indochina.
The United States became concerned with Japanese imperialism and set up embargoes on steel and oil to Japan. Losing the source for steel and oil was a threat to the war machine of Japan and forced Japan to become aware of the need to be self-sufficient. Attacking Pearl Harbor was inevitable if Japan was going to extend its designs of imperialism and empire.
Bill and the rest of his crew were indifferent to the Japanese presence in the cities. The Japanese let the French colonial system of plantations proceed normally; after all, they weren’t set up to exploit the country or its resources and the French already had everything under control.
Of course, the embargoes forced Japan to either end its wars or become self-sufficient in raw materials. Destroying the Pacific Fleet was one way Japan could assert its power over the entire Pacific and control its own destiny.
A few days after December 7, 1941, Bill decided to travel north and try and hook up with some allied forces in China.
Bill had served in the Tennessee National Guard Cavalry for four years, while pursuing his degree, during the 30s, and the idea of surrendering didn’t appeal to him. With nothing but a compass mounted in oil, a few inaccurate maps, and a 45 ACP pistol with 50 rounds, Bill bid his French friends, au revoir, and headed north. He had heard rumors there was armed resistance in the North and he figured he’d rather die with a bullet in his belly than have a katana slice through his neck.
Bill made it all the way to China before he found the resistance groups he was looking for. His clothes had rotted away and he had lost half his body weight to dysentery. He learned to speak Vietnamese with a measure of French. It endeared him to the peasants who were usually helpful towards the big green-eyed barbarian, dressed in traditional peasant clothes, who was traveling through the country. He would rest in different villages and learn the culture as well as the language. He treated the women with respect and made friends with the children and men. He was well liked and thought of as a hero in those early days.
The Japanese didn’t travel beyond the roads and the resistance was negligible in the beginning; although, there was resistance in the north to both the French and the Japanese in 1941.
Bill made it into China in late June of 1942. He found a Chinese nationalist group, the Dong Minh Hoi (DMH), which was committed to the allied effort against Japan. The group included Communists, but was not controlled by them.
Bill was interrogated at length, but his knowledge was little more than a peasant could offer. He retraced his trail as accurately as possible, but the peasants knew almost nothing of the Japanese occupation and he had nothing of value to offer.
It was during the interrogations that he met Ho Chi Minh. Ho had been released from prison in China because intelligence beyond the level of illiterate peasants was needed to launch campaigns. Ho was assisted by Western intelligence agencies, including the American Office of Strategic Services, and the Free French Intelligence service.
Bill was impressed with the soft-spoken Ho. He was extremely intelligent and spoke eloquently of the need for a free Indochina and of how their efforts to defeat the Japanese should convince FDR of the importance of helping rid Indochina of the colonial grasp of France.
Bill worked with Ho until the end of the war. He mapped the roads and plotted ambush sites. He moved like a ghost with one or two helpers. They observed convoys and Bill drew the topography. Bill continued his work with the resistance for three years, until the Japanese surrender.
In, March of 1945, the Japanese became suspicious of the Vichy French and imprisoned them.
The Japanese surrendered in August and a provisional government was attempted, but the French once again took control of Indochina in 1946, aided by ship loads of American supplies and munitions.
At the end of the war, Bill still had the 1911, 45 ACP and the 50 rounds of ammunition. During the entire war, he had never fired a shot. He gave the pistol and the box of ammunition to Ho as a present, while waiting to board a ship for home at Haiphong Harbor.
Back home, he watched as Truman became distrustful of Ho. There was a strong distrust of all Communists and the French were seen as a force that could keep Indochina from becoming a Communist country. However, the people of Indochina, from both anti-communist and communist groups wanted independence and
to be rid of French Colonialism.
Ho became disenchanted with the US, when they continued to supply the French Colonial troops with military surplus munitions and equipment. Ho depended on China and the Soviets to supply him with the munitions he needed to defeat the French and we lost a potential ally.
When Bill finished his story, the hunters were deathly quiet. Barbwire Johnny and Knarley were overwhelmed with the information, but Frenchy, was more intelligent than most, and he had a question.
“Bill, the US is sending Marines there now, how do you think that will play out?” Frenchy asked with his thick French Canadian accent.
Bill took another small glass of rye and drank it all down before saying a word. “That’s a tough question, but I will let you answer your own question. Remember when I talked about hunting lions with the Masai?” Bill asked.
Frenchy replied with his naïve honesty, “Yes, sir, I remember well, those Masai are some tough guys.”
“Yes Frenchy, they are much tougher than you know. I was hunting lion with a 30-06 rifle, not the biggest rifle, but big enough. Do you now what the Masai hunt lions with, Frenchy?”
“No sir, I don’t have any idea,” Frenchy replied honestly.
“They have four weapons. Their most lethal weapon is a five foot stick, they carry a long knife, they have a two foot club with a natural wooden knot on it, you would call it a type of mace, and a short stabbing spear, but when a lion is ready to attack their family or one of their cattle, they go after it with their stick or the short spear and they usually win. Can you imagine going against a mountain lion or a bear with a stick?”
“No sir, I don’t think so.”
“They have a completely different outlook on life, Frenchy. You know that humans and horses often live long past a practical age. With horses we put them out of their misery and we consider ourselves to be humane, but with humans, it’s a different story.”
“My guide invited me to a birthday party for his grandfather. It was to be a joyous occasion and I was honored by the invitation.”
“I arrived at the party and everyone was getting roaring drunk, especially the grandfather. He thanked me over and over for coming to his party. The liquor was fermented cow’s milk, so I didn’t really partake, but maybe I should have. There was a deep hole in the ground, about six feet deep. A reed mat was laying next to the hole with a pile of small boulders off to the side, each rock was about the size of a watermelon.. The old man became so drunk, I thought he laid down on the mat to pass out, but his grandson rolled him up in the mat and inserted mat and man in the hole with just his head above the ground. My guide, the old man’s grandson, picked up a boulder and held it above his head, before throwing it at his grandfather’s head with a great force. He quickly threw the rest of the boulders in the same manner, until his grandfather was completely buried under the boulders. The party continued well into the night.”
“Do you think you could do that Frenchy?”
“No, I’ll not be dropping rocks on anybody. No, that’s not for me,” Frenchy said.
“Nor could I, Frenchy, but you see, I went native in Indochina. I survived against all odds and many different types of ethnic people accepted me and protected me; because I adapted to their life, instead of expecting them to be like me. The US is headed for trouble over there, you can bank on that, because those people are like the Masai; they are not afraid to take the switch to the lion.”
A professional horseman for over 50 years, Skook continues to work with horses. Skook has finished an historical novel, Fifty Thousand Years, that traces a mitochondrial line of DNA from 50,000 years ago to the present. The story follows a line of courageous women, from the Ice Ages to the present, as they meet the challenges of survival with grit and creativity. These are not women who whimper of being victims, they meet the challenges of survival as women who use their abilities without excuses or remorse, these women are winners, they are our ancestors.