By Mark McConville
MEET the lone British officer who was sent to fight the Japanese in World War Two but at just twenty years old ended up commanding them in the fight against communism in Vietnam.
John Cross was originally sent to Southern Vietnam because his battalion, 1/1 Gurkha Rifles, was part of 100 Brigade, 20 Indian Division who were sent from Burma to what was then called French Indo-China to disarm the occupying Imperial Japanese Army.
With the French initially incapable of taking back control of their colonies the British relied on Japan to run things and worked with them to fight the Vietminh guerrillas.
Stunning pictures document Lieutenant Colonel Cross’ time there in the months after World War Two ended and again during the 1970s when he was stationed as an attaché in the region.
The exploits of John Cross’ time in South East Asia have been revealed in his new book, First In Last Out, which is published by Pen and Sword.
“Indo-China was never in the British sphere in SE Asia,” he said.
“To help disarm the Imperial Japanese Army and find myself, with 10 months’ commissioned service, commanding a Japanese battalion against the Vietminh is unique. To see French colonialism compared with British ditto was a stark and unnerving experience.
“Thirty years later, as the Defence Attaché, using seven of my nine Asian languages, I got closer to both sides, royal and communist, that any other attaché, even helping the queen get in contact with her daughter, Princess ‘Golden Fairy’ in London.
“I learnt enough Lao to lecture the Royal Lao Army in Lao.”
Mr Cross’ service in Asia is remarkable for its longevity as he spent 37 years and 324 days of his 39 years and 80 days’ service in the continent.
His incredible language skills were just one of many things that earnt him respect among the local people and allowed him more access than any other outsider once the communists took over Vietnam.
“Thirty years later I was sent as the Attaché to Laos,” he said.
“Britain was the Right-Wing Member of the 1962 Geneva Accords for Laos so my previous Far Eastern experience was considered of great advantage to have me in post.
“I was the only attaché who spoke Lao, including the Thais and Soviets. I was allowed to go anywhere I liked in the Vientiane area after the communists took over – no one else was.
“The villagers, knowing me from my long walks with my dog, knew that I helped feed the hungry and pay for sick to go to hospital.
“I was the ‘eyes and ears’ of the Lao Commander-in-Chief, apparently ‘because they like and trust you and will tell you the truth which they won’t tell me.’
“I was the only outsider introduced to their secret troops who went over the border in a subversive manner and about whom the Americans (who paid for everything from the Prime Minister’s pencil sharpener to the B 52 and F 111 raids) did not know.
“I was the only foreigner allowed in the govt offices after the communist take-over as I spoke good Lao and never offered advice or criticised, as the Soviets were wont to.”