The Cité Héraud (Saigon) Massacre of September 24–25, 1945
Dubbed the Cité Héraud Massacre of September 24–25, after the French-Eurasian quarter of Saigon of that name, a Vietnamese mob eluding Japanese guards began attacking European houses. Shouting ‘Death to the Europeans,’ some 300 men, women and children were taken hostage. The men were killed or tortured, and mutilated. Around half the hostages survived, mostly women and children, but they too had been abused and mutilated. With Japanese guards standing aside, Gurkha units reached the scene an hour later. Some accounts suggest that 100 plus French simply ‘disappeared.’
Candidates canvassed by the British for the massacre included the Trotskyists (unlikely given their strictly political goals), the Binh Xuyen gangsters (more likely given their proclivity to violence), Cao Dai (strong candidates as they were also worked over by the Japanese), or the Viet Minh (not consistent with their political goals). The French (and victim survivors and supporter groups) blamed the Viet Minh. But neither were the Japanese exonerated. Much responsibility for the disorder and inaction of Japanese troops in keeping order fell upon Field Marshal Terauchi. Following the Cité Héraud massacre, the Allied Commander of Land Forces in Indochina, Maj.-Gen. Douglas Gracey severely reprimanded Japanese commander Terauchi Hisaichi and threatened him with ‘prosecution as a war criminal’ if he did not rein in his forces.
The following day, 25 September, saw a range of Viet Minh armed actions around the city. The Vietnamese launched passive resistance, imposed boycotts and raised roadblocks in the suburbs. They also seized electric power facilities, the slaughter house and the central market, which was burnt. The British recapture the power plant. American personnel guard the Palace Continental Hotel. The atrocities took place in an atmosphere where a number of French civilians were being abducted. But the racial dimension of this outrage – a Japanese card – should not be ignored.
According to a French account, following the March 9 coup de force, Japan sequestered 20,000 French and other Europeans in Saigon, as with those in the Continental Palace Hotel. The Cité Héraud district, home to a large number of Eurasian families, was included in this order (representing one-sixtieth part of the total). Measuring 250 m. on each side and lodged between the Vietnamese-populated districts of Dakeo and Tan Dinh, the four streets making up the quarter were lined by small ‘compartements’ or villas. During the Japanese occupation the population had swollen with an influx of French families. The French and mètis included lower-level bureaucrats, junior officers, or working for business firms. One or two were well-to-do. Relations with neighbouring Vietnamese, mostly employed and middle class, reportedly were always 'good.' As the report signaled, 25 September 1945 was a ’day of infamy standing out even in the bloody history of 1945–46.’
Not subject to war crimes investigations, which focused upon Japanese perpetrators, relatives of the victims struggled for years with the French government to facilitate an official inquiry into the brutal killings, and to pay compensation. A petition sent on 3 March 1947 by the ‘Association of Families of Victims of the Massacre of September 24–25, 1945 in Saigon’ to Marius Moutet, French Minister for Overseas France, named Col. H.J. Cédile, senior French officer in Saigon, as the responsible person (presumably for failing to act to protect the victims). In no uncertain terms, however, the French blamed the Viet Minh for the massacre; this view can be read out of archival documentation relating to the event. The massacre became a major sticking point in negotiations between the French and the Saigon-based Viet Minh, contributing to a complete breakdown. It is true that over the longer time-frame, the Cité Héraud massacre has receded – even disappeared – in memory just as actual quarter has long been lost in Saigon's urban redevelopment but, at the time, the event deeply affected French attitudes and may have called down a harder military approach to handling the nationalists, just as the southern Viet Minh vacated the city to launch a 30-year struggle from the countryside (See also Neville 2007.)