Southlands Snuffys

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Status: In Progress  |  Genre: War and Military  |  House: Booksie Classic

Chapter 5 (v.1) - Mademoiselle Béatrice de Funès. Tante Bee.

Submitted: February 17, 2014

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Submitted: February 17, 2014

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Mademoiselle Béatrice de Funès. "Tante Bee".

 

“Ok, standing orders for Saigon. No one,and I repeat no one, other than duty Officers who are allowed one holstered sidearm, will enter the city armed. In addition, those of you I can see who are wearing jungle camouflaged gear will change into suitable walking out rig. Yeah, and any smart-ass who thinks he can wear a helmet as an alternative cover will feel my wrath!"

 

Furlough Warning order, Colonial Boat Yard, South Vietnam, 1967.

 

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The City of Hue to the French was known as La cité-jardin, the garden city, and those of us seeking a more cultured in-country furlough would head for it. Saigon was known as Le Paris de l'Orient, the Paris of the east, and was aptly named. For although graced with many handsome buildings, tree lined streets and flower beds, it was just as corrupt and seedy as 1960’s Paris, and was effectively run by one of the same crew, the French Mafia, the Union Corse. But they had their rivals in the shape of the Chinese Tongs, and regardless of their internal wars where disappearances and murders were rife, and just like everyone else running a “business”, both had to pay “tribute” to the Saigon Head Honchos, the City's politicians.

Just like the out-country R&R hot-spot of Hong Kong’s Kowloon, Saigon in 1967 was the perfect “Sin City” for in-country, a place to be for those out seeking sex, alcohol, and drugs.  The most sought after marijuana was “Cambodian Red”, sold openly on the sidewalks by cigarette sellers in “reloads”, cigarettes emptied of their tobacco and refilled with weed, and for only $1 US a pack they sold faster than a fresh- made New York bagel.

The Saigon Cowboys, the street pimps, individually known as a “lonesome cowboy” because they didn’t have the protection of neither the Union Corse nor Tongs, would ride up wearing local made jeans and cowboy boots on a Jap manufactured 50cc motorcycle or Italian scooter, and offer his pillion, some clap packed with “Heinz 57”, a variety of clap that had no known cure, for $10 US.

The "lonesome cowboys" who were not feeding the Viet Cong with cash, or paying tribute, ran the terrible risk of being murdered along with their prostitute, but the money to be made was an irresistible incentive to ignore the risks involved, for a single “pillion” could earn in the region of $900 US a month for their pimp in a time when $30 US a month was classed as being top earnings. The going monthly “tribute” rate for owning and running a business was 12,000 piasters. Anyone unwilling to pay or payed short suffered execution by disembowelling or beheading and their corpse then left in a rice field as a warning to others.

For us, the streets of Saigon, such as Tran Hung Dao or Truong Tan Buu, were in many ways just as dangerous as being out in the “Boonie”, up-country, for the city was nothing more than an overloaded urban jungle full of pornography peddlers, black marketers, pimps, drug dealers, thieves, and murderers. The worst of it was the Viet Cong controled shanty district of Gia Dinh, and the docks area where we would have to berth our "Mike" boat when on a duty run up to Saigon. It was a place the “Soul Brothers”, our colored guys, congregated, away from “rabbits”, white guys, who were not welcome, and it went by the name of Canh Hoi.

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All of our various boating excursions in and around the Mekong Delta on behalf of the CIA had thrown up and involved some dynamic, interesting, larger than life individuals. One of these was the “Cabaret Club" owning, petit and slender, Mademoiselle Béatrice de Funès, a woman of sturdy independence who had been recruited into the murky world of military intelligence by our agency operating out of Saigon. Being a natural linguist blessed with a phenomenal eye for detail, which ensured any observations were astonishingly precise, made Béatrice invaluable to the "agency" clandestine activities.

In addition to her various socialite connections she had others via the “Cabaret Club", a more up-market establishment near to Saigon's Hai Bu Trung thoroughfare that catered for Saigon’s nouveau rich, and where dodgers, deserters, nor any others she classed as "living the low-life" were never welcome. The "Club" was stocked with the more graceful of Saigon ladies rather than the hard-assed, opium wrecked, working girls of downtown. Where as in the establishments lining each side of Tu Do, main street, anyone partaking of pleasure had to “Buy-out” their chosen date from her mamasan with hard cash or MSC, military script currency, Tanta Bee sent a more discreet monthly invoice to her clientele.

Tante Bee's Club was not a place for raucous behaviour such as catcalling and whistling during the floorshow, unless it was Béatrice herself as the main attraction doing her Edith Piaf impersonation. Then and only then, such a noisy appreciation was acceptable, at every other time without exception appreciation had to give given using the respectful decorum of hand clapping, termed as displaying the art of conducting oneself in a proper fashion.

Fate had played many a foul trick upon Béatrice and the one she most bitterly resented was the enforced heritage of poverty but she never let the painful memory of it mock her, so the whole business model used was one of making vast amounts of money, and  of course gathering intelligence. It wasn’t that she didn’t want to fleece the lower deck of their dollars, she had an adjoining "Social Club” specifically designed for that purpose, it was simply due to the lower decks habit of getting drunk as quickly as possible, behaving like inmates of Bedlam, and then wrecking a joint. To put it the Navy way, Tante Bee ran as tight a ship as any serving fleet Captain would.

As an old sidekick of Madame Nhu she had a unique relationship with the Can Lao a shadowy political party of the Diem government, which pervaded the entire administrative, intelligence, and military structures of South Vietnam. Our military intelligence people rightly judged these alliances perfect for information gathering, especially within the Can Lao, as they had a strong suspicion that some within their ranks were playing the old two-card-shuffle, the double game, and hedging their bets with Hanoi against the final outcome of the war.

After the "agency" backed an overthrow of Diem in 1963, some of the Can Lao did exactly what was suspected of them, and swapped sides. Their defection put Béatrice in an even stronger position within our military as she now had contacts on either side of the fence.

Béatrice de Funès was reputedly her given name, but was never officially confirmed, neither to me, nor for that matter, anyone else. If the "agency" knew for a fact either way, they never said, this being standard practice in all cases. However, those who self-styled themselves as being close friends to 
Béatrice claimed that it was. Intriguingly, and true to her frosty personality, she always coldly stated that she never had friends, only acquaintances.

Known to the majority by her intelligence operative name of Tante Bee she was unmistakably French, and with all certainty, by birth a product of La Troisième République, the third French Republic. By her personal account she was the only female child within the strata of an haute bourgeoisie, upper class, family living on the Rue du Faubourg-Saint-Denis, who enjoyed partaking of the decadent Paris style of the time. That Parisian lifestyle could well have been a gilded one for Béatrice, and would possibly have remained so indefinitely, had not the Great War come along and destroyed it forever in an avalanche of violence. Not only did that war so violently take her beloved and devoted father from the family, it also removed her brothers and uncles from her young life in exactly the same cruel manner.

Shells and other war ordnance have no particular preference as to social class when doing their work. By the war’s end the complete male line, seven in all, of the de Funès who lived in a grande maison on the Rue du Faubourg-Saint-Denis, lay amongst the near million and half other French military dead.

The fall in fortune for the now all female de Funès was not a swift one; it was more a case of just gently withering on the vine. Eventually the money started to run out with the Great Depression speeding up the process, and thus allowing their creditors to eagerly strip away what few assets remained.


Descending the social ladder to complete financial insolvency their life was unceremoniously uprooted and transplanted by their new found poverty. Being now destitute, the female de Funès found themselves without money or friends having to live hand-to-mouth in the Mediterranean city of Marseilles, for with few options left, it was by far a better choice than having to do the same when forced to endure the bone-chilling cold of a harsh Paris winter. However, they had not guessed the physical repugnance they would experience in the heat and squaler of the Marseilles slums.

Proof that she was not a coward who would placidly accept their fate but one of life’s survivors, it was by sheer determination, and supreme personal effort, that Béatrice eventually dragged herself out of the Great Depression’s induced gutter. Escaping the
despair and poverty, the suffering wave after wave of faintness brought about by constant hunger and living in a narrow box of a so-called room filled with a faint stench of sewer-gas, but a little fresh verveine each day kept the worst of that stench at bay. Life was many a time full of bitter tears in that room which gathered heat all day and remained like an oven all through the night’s dark hours, and it could have broken her. However, she had been cast in a brave mould, and so it was a resilient and eyes fixed towards the future Béatrice who
 emerged from the slums of Marseilles just as les années folles, the crazy years, were drawing to closure.

Around the time when the Yen Bai Mutiny heralded the slow demise of French colonial rule in Indo China, Béatrice became romantically involved with a low ranking French government official, who was to be banished to serve in Morocco. This posting was regarded as a punishment for a minor financial transgression. To Béatrice it was to be one more recovering step on society’s ladder.

By the time German jack-boots were crashing their way through much of Europe, and with the fall of France, Morocco’s carefully constructed French society started to split and fall apart, into which, due to her original social standing, Béatrice fitted so well, started to lose its appeal.
It had been like Paris old times, and she had chosen to forget all her past troubles but it was at this point her life took another completely different direction.

Whilst her previously disgraced Official grasped the opportunity for his redemption within l'État Français, the French state, by returning to Marseilles and enthusiastically serving Doriot’s Parti Populaire Français, the French Popular Party. Béatrice, on the other hand, not wishing to be considered as directly supporting the Vichy regime, made a much more intellectual choice by heading for pastures anew in Guyane Française, French Guiana, on South America’s northern coast. Securing, using various contacts, a lucrative post assisting in the planned closure of Bagne de Cayenne, the French Guiana penal colony.

Having not emulated her lover’s folly did prove, by passage of time, an astute decision on her part. Following the allied victory in Europe, her Official, who so dedicatedly followed the French fascists, went into hiding in Sète. There he was tracked down and treated to a swift, summary execution for treason by members of a local resistance group, maquisards.

Within months of the Japanese surrendering in Vietnam, and the reestablishment of French colonial rule, Béatrice was once more on the move. Her excellent administrative work in Guyane Française and her
being intelligent academically had not gone unnoticed, nor in a certain way unrewarded. On hearing that a city secretariat post had become available in Saigon she immediately took interest.

The prospect of being marooned in Guyana, or returning to France, when the penal system finally ceased held no appeal. Making full use of a portfolio containing influential acquaintances she had compiled, the post in Saigon was soon to be guaranteed. Vietnamese Independence was just a fire glow on the horizon when the then vibrant and elegant, cosmopolitan city of Saigon with its tree lined boulevards  first encountered Mademoiselle Béatrice de Funès, and she it.

The area from the west of Saigon, all the way up to the Cambodian border, and to the south west, a vast Everglades swamp called “The Plain of Reeds”, which reminded us of our training time in Florida’s “Sea of Grass”, was of the greatest interest to our intelligence agency.

Those areas were where the VC and NVA had started to concentrate the majority of their infiltration, and supply efforts. The Delta, as a whole, did see similar enemy activity, but it became to a lesser degree once our Riverine forces engaged the problem more forcibly. Firstly, by directly taking on the “no flag fleet” of Chinese built fishing trawlers which were smuggling arms, personnel and equipment, in the coastal waters. Then progressively punching our way into even the smallest of waterways the Delta had to offer.

In the years of Riverine warfare, Béatrice and her ilk participated in Operation Phoenix, the intelligence-based campaign to disrupt, and whenever possible eliminate, the Viet Cong. Had it not been for them producing accurate, detailed reports, regarding many VC and NVA planned activities, in and around Saigon and the Delta; our tasks would have been made that much harder, and certainly more deadly. They were amazingly adept at gleaning all sorts of important intelligence, but exactly how this was done I was never made privy to.

Béatrice did give me one piece of valuable advice regarding any possible clash of cultures, if or when I would have to deal directly with the Vietnam populace, by saying, “never forget you are in their world, not of their world”. I took this as meaning mutual respect will achieve more than mutual mistrust. Interestingly, during an alcohol fueled candid moment, a senior officer confirmed that which most of us had already come to realize, by saying, “For us to win here will take replacing our natural contempt for an enemy with respect. Unfortunately, as our arrogance will never allow this, we are going to lose.”

Regardless of the projected air of ice cold indifference which she gave out to others, I always found Béatrice to have a motherly concern as to my wellbeing, which I believe arose from my personal connection with Montréal, having told me that it was her hearts desire to quietly live out the remainder of her life in either the French speaking parts of Canada, or the United States. Returning to her beloved France was not an option for it held too many painful memories for her.

In the spring of 1968 when on an enemy enforced visit to the military hospital in the King’s Park area of Hong Kong, I lay on a hospital beds rock-hard butchers slab of a mattress with a badly infected wound. The offending limb, my leg, was strapped to a board, and a broad smile decorated my face. This out of place cheerful look soon attracted puzzled interest from the ward nurses and corpsmen orderlies, for being marked down as possibly requiring an amputation they were unable to fathom out just what I had to smile about. It was beyond the effort of explanation, for I was listening to an unknown in the adjoining ward rendering a whistled version of non je ne regrette rien. As the tune echoed around the ward, once more, in my mind’s eye, I could see Béatrice.

Just as Piaf who had dedicated the song to them
Béatrice adored the French Foreign Legion, and had backed their putsch against the leadership of Algeria in 61. On any occasion when an ex Legionnaire, most of whom were Union Corse, entered the Club, she would vigorously bang on the Club’s bar with a bung-starter for silence, ascended a short staircase to the cabaret stage, and sing the timeless, and haunting, non, je ne regrette rien in their honor, the song being an imbedded part of French Foreign Legion heritage.

For this compelling performance she received an enthusiastic, raucous chorus, of appreciative whistles and shouts of bravos, accompanied by a near deafening storm of applause. In response to such an accolade, as an encore, she would sing in her clear vibrant voice la vie en rose, followed by, ne me quitte pas. Had anyone in the early years of the 1960’s wished to seek a later-in-life Édith Piaf look-alike, and in their quest took to the backwaters of the Mekong Delta, there was available, the one and only, redoubtable, Béatrice de Funès.

Two of my crew hailed from Louisiana and couldn’t get enough of those impromptu programs of song, which laid waste to many French Foreign Legion hearts. Being sons of that state they had an understandable natural love for anything French, and especially their born to Cajun music. They used to drive us to near insanity, by playing on a little portable player their collection of bayou classic records, at a near eardrum bursting volume, as if doing a brainwashing exercise! Over, and over again, they would relentlessly play their favorite tunes, with la danse de mardi gras being the most often chosen.

This activity we had to suffer in silence, for one reason, and one only, in that they were a tremendous asset to our boat. Being used to a humid, subtropical climate similar to that found in Vietnam, and from an area made up of delta marsh and swamp, the Mekong Delta was a second home to that Acadian pair; they just fitted right in, and understood all of its little quirks and mysteries. Something crews on other boats always tended to struggle with.

It is beyond doubt that some of those who still live in Saigon, now called Ho-Chi-Minh City, will ever forget Mademoiselle Béatrice de Funès, also known as Tante Bee, for her efforts undoubtedly saved many lives, both Vietnamese and ours. Unfortunately, the heroes and heroines of the Military intelligence services regrettably, but in normality, remain unsung. It took a particular style of courage, which very few possessed, to brave-up and accept being an overt or covert in-field operator, surreptitiously gathering intelligence during the Vietnam War.

 

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Addendum.

 

Mademoiselle Béatrice de Funès was someone impossible not to want to meet and once having met impossible to forget, and often I wonder if she managed to live happily ever after once the war ended, but such knowledge is lost to me. All I know is that the brave charming lady who befriended me in 1967 had lived happily in Saigon, after that I have nothing but an old memory and photograph now shared.

 

 

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Mademoiselle Béatrice de Funès. "Tante Bee".

 

 


© Copyright 2020 Sergeant Walker. All rights reserved.

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