Bernard’s infection was getting worse, and had become a gangrenous abscess. “I thought I’d gotten off lucky,” he kept saying; almost his entire battalion had been annihilated when the Vietminh took redoubt Eliane 2, and he had escaped to join Dubois in redoubt Isabelle with only a deep scratch from barbed wire.

“We all got off lucky,” was Dubois’ constant response. After watching the Vietminh overrun the last French positions around the Dien Pien Phu airstrip through their field glasses, the nearly 2,000 troops at redoubt Isabelle had attempted to break out to the west. The Viets had blocked the route east to Hanoi, and the river route from Vientiene in Laos was the only other safe haven for a thousand kilometers. The 2,000 men, their ranks swelled by stragglers from the overwhelmed redoubts to the north, were chewed to pieces as they left their fortifications.

By DuBois’ estimate, less than a hundred had made it through the enemy lines, a number whittled down over the intervening week by desertion or disease. And now, with roving patrols of Viets still hunting for them, the survivors had come to a place even stranger than the one they had fled: a vast plain strewn with enormous, empty jars.

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