French Foreign Legionnaires and their Indochinese Sexual Partners

I’ve become hopelessly addicted to the British Imperial War Museum’s web page, and have spent hours listening to the recorded interviews that they have there.

This one, by a British man (Edmund Murray) who joined the French Foreign Legion and served in Indochina during World War II is incredibly fascinating on many levels, but I seem to have gotten the most excited about the “lowest” level – what he has to say about sex.

legionnaire

For instance, this is how he responds (in reel 7, and the picture above is not of him) to questions from his interviewer about relations between Legionnaires and Indochinese troops who found themselves stuck on the same ship for three months. . .

Interviewer: Did the Legion and the Indochinese mix?

Murray: No, we didn’t mix, but as I say in my book [I still need to identify this book], I’m quite sure a lot of homosexuality went on, in the middle of the dark night, in the dark night.

Interviewer: Between the Indochinese. . .

Murray: Between the Legionnaires and the Indochinese.

Interviewer: Really?

Murray: Oh the Legion were quite famous for that sort of thing really, and the Indochinese also. . . it was remarkable how. . . attractive. . . you know, I suppose 50% of the Indochinese were. . . really attractive lads, young lads, who it wasn’t surprising really they were I suppose for the main part homosexual. . .

youngman

Murray then goes on (in reel 11) to talk about his concubine in Indochina.

Murray: I had a concubine, and you know, instead of going to the brothels and that sort of thing [some words here I don’t understand]. . .you went to your [??] every evening, and she was available for anything you wanted, and what’s more you knew you were going to get it when you got there, then you had a chicken sandwich or a cooked chicken and you had vegetables and things like that, and vegetables that she had bought with your money that you paid her every month, and also vegetables and herbs and things like that that she’d been out to collect.

Most of the money that I paid. . . Thi Sach [?], that was her name. Nguyen Thi Sach. . .

Interviewer: You found her or she was issued?

Murray: No, I found her. When we got there, you got out on an evening and they lined up opposite there. And you go along and you chose. Or you know if they are carrying a basket or carrying something like that in which they’ve got food then you know they are married already, but if she’s not got anything and she’s standing there and has one of these conical hats on, and well-dressed, then you know that she’s more or less available. And I just picked her out I remember.

And I’m sure that she was faithful to me, and I’m sure that I was generous to her, but most of her money went down to Cambodia to her family in Cambodia, to her father, and she used to. . . I was teaching her to write as a matter of fact, and she was teaching me Indochinese, but nevertheless she used to go out to a corner there on Tuesday morning or something like this and she would get the local scribe to write the letter for her.

youngwoman

This gentleman had many more things to say, and about many other topics. It’s all fascinating.

11 thoughts on “French Foreign Legionnaires and their Indochinese Sexual Partners

  1. Just want to thank you for sharing this fascinating document! I can see how one can get addicted to listening to such stories.

    The numerous posts from you have greatly helped unveil so many less known and myths about the past.

      1. Edmund Murray was my father. He wrote a second book which was never published sadly. I have a ver faded manuscript which I will now revisit to see if it can be resurrected.

      2. It’s a shame that you are ceasing your blogging. I love to see the professorial classes venture from their book lined offices and lecture halls and engage with the world as you have been. It’s also been wonderful to see these short essays translated into Vietnamese. I think your blog has had a greater resonance than your books and articles could (as important and interesting as I find your formal scholarly work to be). It also can bring you into contact with the unexpected and unknown as the comment from Aileen Pengelly demonstrates. Your blogging has had and continues to have an impact.

        I recommend that you stop seeing the blog as a chore – something that requires continuous attention and updating. You should post when you have something to say and not worry about the blog the rest of the time.

        Your videos are fun and informative, but video is as not conducive (at least to me) to deep reflection and thought.

      3. Yea, actually my decision to stop is related to all of the things you say here. I see very little purpose in academic writing. I have an article (finally) coming out this year that I researched and wrote in, I think, 2008. . . and after that much time, how many people will read it? 3? 4? It’s absurd.
        Expressing ideas through a blog is much more important and meaningful. However, after doing essentially the same thing for 5 years, it isn’t so meaningful anymore. 1) I need to research more and get some new insights, and 2) I need to come up with new ways to convey ideas.
        At the same time, for the academic world, I still need to jump through the hoop of writing a second book. . .
        The videos to date have been rudimentary, but they’ve given me a sense of where one can go with that medium. I now have a “vision” of how to make videos that are “conducive to deep reflection,” but it’s going to take some time before I have the ability to deliver.
        At the same time, I can see how I can connect that to the writing of book #2.
        So it’s frustrating to have a blog hanging over one’s head when one has ideas that will take months to bring into fruition.
        Therefore, rather than tossing out mediocrity to keep something alive, I think it’s better for now to just shut things down until it’s time to open the doors again and let the band play again. 🙂

  2. Mr. Murray has an amazingly clear memory. And the interviewer is excellent at eliciting information. He knows little about his subject, but asks all the right questions to clarify things and get more deeply into the story. Oral history and oral historians are so important.

    1. Yea, you know the “ivory tower” really strengthened itself in the 1990s with the proliferation/promotion of academic jargon.

      In that world, “oral history” was something utterly amateur and peripheral.

      However, it’s completely awesome. And I don’t know to what extent platforms like Scalar will ever get used (I wrote about that somewhere on this blog), but Scalar allows you to link in your text to actual passages in online recordings/video like the ones that are there in the IWM.

      So the potential to write in word and sound and to interact with the voices of people like Mr. Murray is there. I think academics are by and large changing much more slowly than the world around them is.

      So I hope oral history doesn’t remain peripheral.

      I’ve always wanted to interview Vietnamese who were there for the invasion of Cambodia. Those people should be interviewed (as well as the Vietnamese who were sent there for whatever reason in the 1980s). Their memories are so valuable, but all of that will be lost unless someone interviews them.

      That’s just one of countless examples. In looking around at the IWM web site, it made me realize how “awesome” the period from the end of WWII to the mid-1970s was. There was just so much change in the world at that time. And there are people whom the IWF interviewed who experienced it all, in one way or another. It’s incredible.

  3. I tried out Scalar, but without success. I just couldn’t get it to work. It seems buggy.

    The parts you focused on in Murray’s interview were fascinating. Of course his view is extremely skewed by the environment he was in, but it’s apparent that he had done a great deal of reflection to come up with his explanations of that time and place.

    It’s obvious that his characterization of Vietnamese being “in the main part homosexual” does not hold water. But he definitely was basing his observations on something. In an ideal world we would also have the account of the Vietnamese to help us understand their feelings and motivations.

    The same thing with his concubine. He speaks of her with affection and admiration, but he because of his service he left and she became a temporary comfort. We cannot know much about her motivations, and certainly nothing about her subsequent life. I would suppose that her motivation would be in some part material, and also to better her situation and her family’s situation (through education, understanding of the world). At the same, she must have been stigmatized in her own society. In an ideal world we would also have her oral history, or that of some one with a similar life experience.

  4. Frank Proschan published a couple of articles several years ago that are related to this topic: “Eunuch Mandarins, Soldats Mamzelles, Effeminate Boys, and Graceless Women: French Colonial Constructions of Vietnamese Genders” and “Syphilis, Opiomania, and Pederasty: Colonial Constructions of Vietnamese (and French) Social Diseases.” He basically engaged in a discourse analysis and looked at all of this stuff that the French had written on homosexual relations between French men and Vietnamese boys, but he makes a very good point at the end, where he says something like “ok, I’ve just looked at all of these writings, and we can’t say for sure that it’s all true, but what we probably can conclude is that at the very least there were boys who got raped.”

    I think you can do the same thing with Mr. Murray’s comments. No, half of the Indochinese were not homosexual, and we can’t say for sure how “famous” the Legionnaires really were for sleeping with men, however, his ideas come from somewhere, and yes, “in the dark night” on boats at sea, some young Indochinese soldiers and Legionnaires probably had sex (or some guys were raped). Did the Indochinese soldiers consent? Were they pressured in some way? What exactly happened? That’s the hard part to understand. However, to make a guess I think it would be possible to look at what people have written about what happens at sea/in the military in other contexts, and maybe one could then come up with a reasonable guess about what might have happened.

    Yesterday I was listening to Mr. Murray talk about life with the Japanese. The interviewer asked a question like “So what did the blokes think of the Japs?”. . . and it’s really interesting to hear him talk about how the French and Japanese “co-existed” throughout much of the war. “They went to the same bars but didn’t drink together.” Surreal.

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