Luca Fregona with Giorgio Cargioli: Over there where you die. The Vietnam of young Italians with the Foreign Legion

Luca Fregona with Giorgio Cargioli
Ed. Athesia Buch, Bolzano, 2023
pp. 359

This book deals with a topic that probably not many people know about. This is what happened to some of our compatriots who entered the Foreign Legion and were sent to Vietnam to fight against Ho Chi Minh's troops (theLiberation Army).

The text is introduced by the beauty Preface di Gianni Oliva from the title The anti-French uprising in Vietnam 1945-1954 – see, in Online Defense, review by Ciro Metaggiata, from Oliva's book Fighting - From the daring to the marines, history of the Italian special forces – and consists of seven chapters; in the final part the Timeline, REFERENCES and Thanks.

The author, Luca Fregona, is the newspaper's editor-in-chief South Tyrol, and is no stranger to similar endeavors, having published Soldiers of Misfortune. In the Foreign Legion, the forgotten Vietnam of young Italians. Hell 10 thousand kilometers from home (Athesia Buch, Bolzano), a work that aroused considerable interest.

In his research and analysis work that led him to write Over there where people die, Luca Fregona had the opportunity to collect numerous stories of young Italians and South Tyroleans hired by, or more often trapped in, the Foreign Legion (these were mainly clandestine economic migrants who, stopped by the gendarmerie, had only two options: prison or Legion); young men who, at some point, were sent to fight in Vietnam.

This is how Luca Fregona introduces the text: “After the publication of Soldiers of Misfortune in 2020, I received dozens of emails, messages, phone calls from children, brothers, sisters, grandchildren of Italian legionaries who had fought in Vietnam in the first Indochina war from 1946 to 1954. They sent me everything the material in their possession: photographs, letters, postcards, newspaper clippings, fragments of uniforms, war crosses, commendations, and military booklets..." (p.4).

It is the first chapter (which covers the first two hundred pages or so) that gives the volume of the volume, narrating in five paragraphs the story of Giorgio Cargioli, born in La Spezia in 1935, who at the age of eighteen entered France as an illegal immigrant in search of a job; soon stopped and arrested, he chose to enlist in the Foreign Legion in order to avoid detention, and from then on an unknown and terrible world opened up to his eyes.

But before Vietnam, for the very young Giorgio Cargioli, the account of the grueling training period in Algeria and the escape attempt unfolds - “the thought of spending five years in the Legion for a handful of francs with the risk of dying, torments me” (p. 46) – with everything one can imagine at the time the escape failed.

It is December 20, 1953 when Cargioli knows where he will have to go to fight: “I was assigned as punishment to the riflemen… in northern Indochina, where Ho Chi Minh is tearing the French Expeditionary Force to pieces… Infantry means: hundreds of kilometers on foot, twenty-kilo backpack on the shoulder plus ammunition and weapons. Infantry means cannon fodder" (p. 63-64). This is followed by dozens of pages written in a direct, immediate way: a first-person account that leads the reader to be there, to live the atrocious experiences of the battles that will lead the protagonist towards desertion - another daring event that at the time had a huge echo. But while “Reports from Tonkin and Dien Bien Phu filled the front pages of newspapers. And everyone knew, in Italy, that there were thousands of Italians in their twenties, and that hundreds had been killed, maimed, injured, missing or gone completely crazy." (p. 194), Vietnam has gone down in history as a American war.

To give an idea of ​​what Cargioli tells, these passages will suffice: “The Viets are coming. It's over: if we get up to run away they'll cut us down like calves. We only have one option: play dead. We lie down with our faces in the mud. The uniforms mixed with the blood of their comrades. The hand grenades under the belly. His hand on the safety. Just try to touch me and I'll take you to the creator with me" (p.88).

The second part of the text discovers and rediscovers the stories of other boys, and of people who heard for the first time news of their dead, missing relatives, who vanished in those years, in those swamps, as can be seen from passages like this: “It took seventy years to find out where, when and how the second class legionnaire Alfredo Decarli died….” (p.272).

Further testimonies consist of diaries and letters, and even reports that narrate the effects of those who saw torture, mutilate and finally kill not only soldiers but also civilians taken as prisoners, or hostages for temporary protection in a transfer. Visions that constitute “the point of no return. 'From that moment on I have never killed anyone except to defend myself. I was shooting in the air. And I no longer took prisoners: I made signs to hide. There were many like me, disgusted by the war. But we also had to live with sadists, criminals and traumatized legionnaires who were completely out of their minds." (p.283).

What to say about these pages? One remains speechless, as often happens, in the face of such horrendous and often banally cruel destructiveness, the prevailing case that condemns one comrade and saves another, the situations of friendly fire, the camaraderie mixed with competition and perverse provocation, the situations of total mental obfuscation that develop in the midst of the harshest phases of battles or after fire conflicts...

On the one hand, the experiences narrated and reconstructed by these people, on the other, Luca Fregona's ability to represent them, make it practically impossible to give a real account of this text, which is also illustrated by previously unpublished images and photographs, and enriched by countless comments. , memories and documents.

Andrea Castiello d'Antonio