Buried Cries - Dân Làm Báo

Bài Mới


Buried Cries

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Tuấn Cao-Đắc (Danlambao) - The following is the short story "BURIED CRIES" ("TIẾNG KHÓC VÙI CHÔN") (Cao-Đắc 2014,178-208) in the short story collection “FIRE IN THE RAIN,” (Cao-Đắc, Tuấn. 2014. Fire In The Rain. Hellgate Press, Oregon, U.S.A.) Every story in “FIRE IN THE RAIN” is accompanied by relevant historical and factual notes. The Vietnamese version is translated by the author from the English original text, "FIRE IN THE RAIN." "BURIED CRIES" is a fictionalized account of what happened in Huế during the Tết Offensive in 1968, as told by witnesses Phan Văn Tuấn and Nguyễn Thị Thái Hòa.

Buried Cries
The Year 1968
"Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." 
George Santayana (1863 - 1952)


His fragile physique and thin face made him look much older than his real age. His grey hair had receded, showing his high forehead. His beard had shrunk into a few sparse white strands hanging under his chin. With sunken cheeks and dull eyes, he had lost the distinguished, though pretentious, appearance of an elderly patriarch. 

He had been in bed for several weeks due to declining health. After being sick on and off for several years, many months of which were spent in a neighboring country, perhaps his time had come. He’d had his will updated in anticipation of his death, and this was the third time he had done so.

He was awakened by his aide, a middle-aged man who had been with him for almost twenty years. The aide told him that his expected guest was waiting outside. He nodded and asked him to send his guest in. 

He sat up, leaned against the wall and smiled to his guest when he entered the room. His guest sat on the edge of his bed and held his hand. They exchanged the usual pleasantries. His guest was a close associate who had worked with him for more than twenty years.

“Everything is ready,” his guest said. “We just need your approval.”

He nodded. “Yes, please proceed as soon as possible.”

“Including the code-red operation?”

“Of course. Why does it need to be approved?”

“You know how our system works. They cannot carry out such an operation without an explicit order from the top.”

“Fine. Give them my direct order to carry out the code-red operation. Tell them to maximize the terror to make examples to others.”

His guest soon left, leaving him alone. 

He looked out the window at the huge pond outside his stilt house with tired eyes. He knew his guest’s visit was merely a formality. They didn’t actually need his approval. He was just a figurehead. They had already approved it themselves, but they still wanted to use him to legitimize their decision. The people still looked up to him, and his approval, though only a formality, would boost their morale. His men had learned his tricks well.

The operation was a secret directive as part of a campaign that his men had devised many years earlier. It was now at a crucial point of the campaign and it had been increasingly important for the operation to be carried out to support the campaign. 

It was a critical campaign, one that could decide the fate of his country. This was a moment he had been waiting for, and he had been afraid he might not live to witness its success. But now the moment was at hand. He was happy. He could die with a smile on his face.

A light breeze swept in through the window, carrying the sweet smell of the flowers in his garden. He felt light-hearted. His thoughts wandered. He relived his years, as he had been doing in the past few months. He recalled events, remembering conversations, speeches, letters. He wanted to make sure he would not miss anything before he died. He wanted his death to be a legacy for many generations to come. 

He thought about how he had reached the point he was now. A quote by Abraham Lincoln crossed his mind: “You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.” He giggled like a young girl. Each time he was reminded of that quote, he just laughed. Why not? He was living proof that Lincoln was wrong. He was one who could fool all the people all the time, most likely even after his death. All of the people. Not just his people. The world was full of stupid people, except, of course, for him. The people of his country had been fooled for a long time. The outsiders, the foreigners, were fooled even more. They knew nothing about him. How could they possibly know? They didn’t understand the language and the culture, they didn’t breathe the air here, they didn’t live on this land, their parents were not killed here, their properties were not confiscated, their landowner grandparents were not accused by their servants or even their children of committing crimes against the people. His enemies and his victims knew his tricks, but nobody would believe them. After their upcoming defeat, they might make noise, but who would believe the losers? Soon, their voices would be ignored or dismissed. Soon, everybody would be fooled forever. Abraham Lincoln was a fool.

He had too many secrets. Not just about his names, his past whereabouts, his birthdate, his insatiable craving for young and beautiful women, and his illegitimate children. Those were mere trivia. There were many more. The plagiarism of Nguyễn Ái Quốc's political writings and the anonymous Prison Diary, the sell-out of Phan Bội Châu, the fraudulent Soviet Nghệ Tĩnh revolt, the Vietminh lies and deceptions, the fake August Revolution and the pretentious Declaration of Independence, the exploitative Golden Week, the rigged elections, the massacre of the Nationalists, the agreement with the French, the bloody Land Reform Campaign, the obsequiousness to communist China and the Soviets, the violations of the Geneva Agreements, the brutal Nhân Văn Giai Phẩm crackdown, the deception about ceding the Paracel and Spratly Islands to China, the deceitful formation of the Liberation Front of South Vietnam, and the secret infiltration of troops into South Vietnam. His cohorts had agreed to protect all of his secrets in a mutually beneficial deal. He would be made a hero, having god-like stature that would exceed all of the forefathers of his country, and his cohorts were free to exploit his image in any way they saw fit. It was a win-win situation for him and his cohorts. The losers? The people of his country. Too bad! They had suffered for thousands of years. Let them suffer for another thousand.

He smiled. His thoughts brought him comfort and relaxation. He had everything figured out, so there was nothing left for him to worry about. He stretched his legs, heard the birds singing outside and imagined the soothing sound of the water trickling through the rocks in his garden. 

He touched the pillow and felt its softness, felt renewed by the smell of daffodils inside his room. The noisy chirping of a group of birds outside attracted his attention. He cocked his head, listened to the familiar melodic sounds, knowing that they would not change until the last rays of sunlight left the window. He took a deep breath and enjoyed the fresh air and the aroma. He felt energetic and in a moment of joy, he laughed uncontrollably. He coughed but still laughed into tears. 

He had to take all of his secrets to his grave.


Trần Thất Thu’s secret was about to be revealed, but he made no effort to conceal it. On the contrary, he was ecstatic to tell the world who he really was. Things happened smoothly according to plan. The regular North Vietnamese bộ đội soldiers and the fighters of the Liberation Front of the South, referred to as the National Liberation Front (NLF) by the Western press, of which he was a proud member, had overrun several sections of Huế in the first few days of the general uprising. He had received orders from Lê Minh, the Communist District Security Chief, to begin the next phase of the operation. The mood was one of excitement. Everybody had been anxious for the moment and now it had arrived in all its full glory.

Earlier in the morning, he had summoned his team, consisting of long-rooted underground agents and newly recruited fighters, to assign the tasks of gathering all the Huế residents whose names were on the black list. He distributed weapons, mostly AK-47s, to the team members and gave them copies of the list with names and addresses.

“Go to each house and call them out,” he said to his team.

“What if they resist or don’t come out?” one member asked.

“Use any necessary means to carry out the order. We are authorized to use Revolutionary Violence to maximize the terror. We must make examples for other reactionaries.”

“Should we spare women and children?” 

The order contained no provision about women and children. But if the order didn’t mention it, it meant that the provision was not important.

“No,” he said without hesitation. “Take any necessary steps to accomplish the task. Don’t let emotion interfere with your mission. You know our motto: the end justifies the means. We have a higher objective to achieve.”

Several bộ đội’s wanted to join his team in the hunt. They had never been to a city belonging to the puppet government and they wanted to find out what it looked like and how the people would respond to their liberation mission.

“By all means, please join us,” he said, smiling at the young bộ đội leader. “But bear in mind that the people we are about to bring in are reactionary. They haven’t yet appreciated our sacrifice and kindness.”

They formed into groups of about ten members each. Some rode motorcycles. Some walked. The bộ đội preferred walking because they didn’t know how to ride motorcycles and they were used to running on their feet. With green pith helmets on their head, loose khakis, supplies and food bags on their waists, and half-baked faces, these teenaged bộ đội’s looked like lost uniformed schoolboys. But it didn’t matter; their AK-47s were not toys.

He had rounded up over fifty black-listed reactionary men, mostly low- to middle-ranking officials of the local puppet government. Other than the usual begging and crying, the Huế people behaved remarkably well. At first, he talked nicely to them because some of them knew him as their friend. He reassured the families that their loved ones would be taken for reeducation for one day and they would return. But when he saw their terrified expressions at the sight of his menacing AK-47, he was thrilled with his newly acquired power. He began shouting and beating them with the stock of his AK-47. The sensation was indescribable, and he loved it.

His last target for the day would be Vũ Tấn Phong, an anti-communist student at Huế University where Thu was an enrolled student. He hated Phong’s guts. He had befriended Phong and pretended to be anti-communist. He gained Phong’s trust with his concocted story about how his relatives were killed by the Vietcong (VC). They had gone out on several occasions to chat over coffee and lunch. Phong believed that he was his close friend, and had shared with him stories about his family. The guy acted as if he were an intellectual, knowing all the Marxist theories and Communist doctrines. His father was a South Vietnamese officer stationed in the highland. Thu put Phong’s name on the blacklist for the reason that he worked as an undercover spy student for the puppet government. Why would an undercover agent publicly denounce Communism? his superior asked. It’s their trick, Thu answered. It didn’t matter whether Phong was an undercover agent. He was reactionary and a son of a South Vietnamese military man and that was enough to put him on trial. His crime was compounded further by his friendship with a South Vietnamese infantry officer. He had met this officer once when they were at a café and heard about his courtship with Phong’s sister, Lan, a pretty twenty-year-old university student.

Phong’s house was located in a quiet neighborhood. When his team arrived, the streets were empty--not a soul in sight. Everybody was probably hiding inside.

He knocked at the door. “Open up.”

Nobody answered. He asked his men to pound on the door with their AK-47s and shouted loudly. Finally, Phong’s grandfather opened the door and his team rushed in.

“Where is Phong?” he asked the trembling old man.

The old man was shocked at seeing Thu with a bloodthirsty face. Gone were the polite behavior, the respectful manners, the pleasant demeanor. “Thu, is that you?” The old man still couldn’t believe his eyes.

Thu shouted. “Old man, are you deaf? I asked you a question. Where is Phong?”

The old man stammered. “He is not home. He went out somewhere, maybe to the university.”

“Search every room and bring all of them out,” Thu ordered his men.

Soon, the entire family was gathered in one corner. The old man and his wife, Phong’s mother and her three children, Lan and two young boys. Thu let them sit on the family sofa. He held his AK-47 and walked back and forth in front of them.

“I don’t want to waste any more time,” he said. “Let me know where Phong is and we will leave you.”

He stopped and waggled his finger at them. “And don’t lie to me. If you lie, I will come back and kill all of you.”

Phong’s mother, a middle-aged woman with a pleasant face, begged him. “Thu, I don’t know where he is. He went out this morning without telling us where he went.”

Maybe she was telling the truth. Phong had a habit of going out without telling his family, and he always went to the university. Phong’s mother had always been nice to him. He was wearing the sweater she had knit for him as a gift for his birthday. Thu was about to soften his voice when Giao, one of his men and also a student at Huế university, came in from the backyard.

“His Honda is still in the back,” Giao said.

Thu’s blood was boiling. These people are really stubborn. It’s time to use revolutionary violence.

“He never leaves without his Honda,” he shouted, waving his AK-47. “I told you not to lie to me. This is your last chance. Where is Phong?”

The old man clasped his hands and implored, “Mr. Thu, we are telling you the truth. We don’t know where he went. His friends picked him up this morning.”

As the old man spoke, one of the boys, the old man’s grand-children, glanced at the ceiling. Thu followed his glance and saw a square panel that looked like a cover for an opening to the attic. A stool stood on the floor right below the panel.

Thu smiled. He walked to Lan, grabbed her arm and pulled her up. She trembled and tears rimmed her eyes.

Thu pointed his gun at Lan’s head. “Phong,” he shouted. “I know you are up there. Climb down or I will shoot Lan.” He knew how much Phong loved his sister.

The women cried, “Please, please, don’t shoot.”

Lan squirmed. “Anh Thu, anh Phong is not home.”

Thu ignored them. “I will count to three. If you don’t climb down, I will shoot Lan.”

“One,” he shouted.



As he stepped back and raised his gun, a voice came from the attic. “Don’t shoot. I am coming down.”

Thu smiled.

The panel was removed and Phong’s face appeared. He lowered his body through the small opening, and he dropped to the floor.

As soon as his feet touched the floor, Thu sprayed three rounds at him. The bullets exploded. Phong’s body fell flat on the floor with blood splashed all over, reddening his white shirt. 

The women emitted shrieking screams like animals being slaughtered. Phong’s mother sprung to her son’s bloody body and collapsed next to him. She screamed hysterically, “Oh my God. My son. My son.” She pounded the floor with her fists. Her head bobbed up and down. Her face was distorted, covered with tears and blood.

The grandfather stood up. He clenched his teeth and pointed his finger in Thu’s face. “Thu, you are an animal. God will not forgive you.”

Thu turned his AK-47 toward the old man and shot a single shot at his face. The old man dropped on the sofa. 

Thu walked out of the house. He ordered his men. “Bring the girl along.”

Five kilometers from the murder scene at Phong’s house, in the citadel, the Hotel company, 1st Battalion, of the U.S. Fifth Marines was making virtually no progress. They advanced twenty meters, only to be pushed back the same distance by enemy machine guns firing ferociously from the roof of a building. Lieutenant Hummel was calling for air and artillery support, but he had difficulty getting through.

Toàn and Brad took a brief break when the firing stopped. They sat down and leaned against a wall alongside the sidewalk of a wide street. Brad passed Toàn a Marlboro cigarette. 

Brad took a puff and inhaled deeply. “Aren’t you going to check with your CO to see how your units are doing?”

Toàn put his M-16 down on his lap, and lit his cigarette. “No, I don’t want to bother them. Our men are exhausted at the division compound.”

“Is your CO upset that you haven’t returned?”

“No, he understands. Your LT’s explanation with his American advisor is good enough. My knowledge of the building and the NVA positions is the most valuable intelligence information you guys have right now. You guys need me here to finish this job.”

“Well, it’s not just the most valuable intel info. It’s the only intel info we have.”

“It shocks me that our guys have absolutely no idea what’s going on.”

“It shocks me too.”

He glanced at Toàn and saw the tattoo on the back of his hand.

“Hey, what’s that tattoo?”

Toàn smiled. “It’s for my girlfriend, my friend’s sister. We are going to get married after all of this is over.”

“Does she live around here?”

Toàn flicked the cigarette ash onto the ground. “Yes, she does. In fact, I was planning to swing by her house to see if she is OK.”

Brad smiled. “Now that makes sense. We’ve been wondering why you got stuck in this building in the first place.”

“Hey, I got stuck in the building not because I was planning to go see her. Our unit was retreating and I was supposed to be the last person to pull out when the NVAs swarmed the place. It was too late for me to get out without being seen.”

“Whatever you say, Lieutenant.”

Toàn laughed. “You saw it with your own eyes. If they court-martial me, you are going to be my witness.”

“I will have returned to the U.S. by that time.”

Toàn paused, and his voice turned serious. “By the way, I don’t know if I have said this, but I really appreciate your coming to my rescue. Jimmy and Nick told me you insisted on going to the building when you saw me killing the three NVAs there.”

He extended his hand. “Thank you very much for saving my life.”

Brad shook his hand vigorously in a mocking manner. “No problem, Lieutenant.”

“Corporal, could you cut that ‘Lieutenant’ shit?”

Rounds of a machine gun stopped their conversation. They threw their cigarettes away and grabbed their M-16s.

“We have to silence this annoying son-of-a-bitch,” Brad said.

“What happened to our air and artillery?”

“Let me check.”

Before he darted out of his position, Lieutenant Hummel appeared from the corner of the street. He waved to Brad. Brad hunched toward him behind the low wall.

“What’s up, LT?” Brad asked.

“There will be no prep fire, but we can have tanks and Ontos in an hour.”

“No air or artillery? Why?”

“Weather and arcane rules of engagement. The Vietnamese commanders do not want to destroy their own citadel.”

“What? You are joking, right?’

“No, I am dead serious. We are pinned down here because some shithead in the Command Post wants to preserve their historic site.”

“Fucking shit. By the time it’s all over, they wouldn’t have a site to preserve. The NVAs don’t care about it.”

“That’s OK, corporal. It’s not our concern for now. Can you hold on for an hour?”

“As long as they keep their position, we’ll keep ours.”

“I am not sure if they will keep their position. Sooner or later, they will have to break out.”

“We can’t stop them. That ARVN Lieutenant said there are about two NVA companies in there.”

Hummel frowned. “Damn!”

Brad bit his lip. ”OK, one hour.”

Hummel nodded, smiling. “Good, one hour. I will send Buck’s squad to strengthen your position.”

Brad returned to Toàn. “We have to hold on for an hour until tanks and Ontos arrive.”

“No sweat.”

“Your commanders do not want air and artillery because they want to preserve the historic site of your dead kings.”

Toàn cocked his head. “Why do I detect some bitterness in your voice?”

“I can’t help it,” Brad said, his voice indignant. “We have superior firepower and we can’t use it.”

Toàn didn’t say a word. His silence infuriated Brad.

He blurted out. “Your fucking historic site. They want to preserve the palaces of your fucking dead kings. What did those dead kings do for your country anyway? Let me tell you what history is. If they don’t level those useless halls and palaces, we will be history for sure.”

“What are you talking about?”

“I am talking about the fact that our men are dying because your goddamned Generals don’t want to bomb those gooks hiding deep inside your fucking historic site.”

Toàn’s blood boiled. What the fuck do you know about history? Your country has only two hundred years of history, and that’s not even history. Your ancestors came from the British, the Irish, the French, and occupied the Indian lands. You call that history? Your people didn’t even have an identity. What the fuck are you doing here anyway? Are you helping us to fight against the Communists, against the Red Chinese and the Russians, or are you here because of some Generals in your fucking Pentagon and your congressmen who take so much donation money from the fucking military industrial complex to build airplanes, helicopters, bombs, tanks, that they have to send you guys to this small country of ours to justify your defense budget? 

Of course, he was not going to yell those words to Brad who had saved his life and who was fighting with him against the same enemy. But the suppressed emotional outburst choked him. He clenched his teeth and gripped the M-16 stock.

“Corporal,” he said calmly after taking a deep breath, “are you talking to me or are you talking to yourself? If you are talking to me, I want to remind you that you are addressing an officer. You’d better watch your language.”

Brad was dumbfounded. He knew disrespect toward a superior commissioned officer was an offense punishable by court-martial, but disrespect toward an allied officer? He was not even disrespectful. He was just expressing his opinion. But he knew what he said was uncalled for. The Vietnamese ARVN Lieutenant didn’t have to stay with his squad, exposing himself to danger. He was here because he wanted to help his unit retake the area occupied by the enemy. Brad immediately regretted his outburst. 

“Lieutenant,” he said, “I apologize for my remark. It’s just that one of my men was wasted this morning.” 

Toàn swallowed hard. “No problem. You’d better go tell your men.”

“That’s right.”

“By the way, if you want to know what these dead kings did to our country, perhaps you should consider studying our history when you finish your tour of duty.”

“I will think about it.”

Brad crawled to his men who were kneeling behind the wall. 

Toàn crushed the cigarette butt on the ground. He looked up to the cloudy sky, trying to calm himself. He was shocked at how easily he got upset by Brad’s words. The American was just speaking his mind, and in a way, he had reasons for saying what he said. His men died because the enemy was allowed to hide safely inside the building. Besides, he didn’t appreciate the needs of preserving the historic site partly because he was fighting on somebody else’s land. 

He cursed himself for being overly sensitive. The Communists knew how to fight psychological warfare. Their attack right in the heart of Huế and the Imperial Palace, at the holy days of the Tết festival, indicated how shrewd they were. They didn’t care about the historical value of the Imperial Palace and the dead Emperors, although these were also their ancestors. They didn’t even care about the sacred meaning of the first days of the New Year.

Soon, he calmed down. He decided not to let his anger interfere with his mission. He looked at the tattoo on the back of his hand and smiled. Every time he was upset, looking at the tattoo always brought him joy and peace of mind. It was an orchid tattoo. The long stem ran past his wrist, with a single orchid at the center and several leaves. The colors had faded, but it didn’t matter. Orchid was her name and each time he looked at the back of his hand, he was reminded of her. Images of Lan slowly emerged in his mind and brought him peaceful and comfortable feelings. His thoughts drifted to the days he had spent with her in the past six months.

She was a sister of Phong, a relative of his friend. One day, he and his friend went to a café and bumped into Phong and Lan. Lan’s innocent beauty had struck him in that first meeting, and from there, the love between a young girl and a young infantry officer blossomed. 

Like most love stories in war, theirs was an innocent love story. He would write her letters when he was away on a campaign. She would reply with short poems about war, peace, and their love. Her dream was for peace when there would be no more fighting so that he could return to the civilian life and build a family with her. Whenever he had a day off, he would see her. They would spend a quiet evening sitting under the tree by the Perfume River. 

In one memorable evening, they were holding hands and Lan saw the tattoo.

“What is this flower for?” she asked.

Toàn smiled. “Don’t you know what kind of flower it is?”

“It looks like an orchid.”

“That’s right. It’s your name. The flower is you. You are always with me.”

Lan looked at him. Under the bright moonlight, her lips trembled and her face radiated. He lowered his head and kissed her. It was their first kiss. He held her in his arms. The tingling sensation thrilled him.

She spread the back of his hand and pointed her finger at the orchid. “This is my heart. My heart is always with you.”

“Yes, I will carry your heart with me everywhere I go.”

“Don’t let anything pierce through my heart. I will die if you let it happen.”

“I promise I will not.”

It was such a romantic evening. He squeezed her body with his arm, knowing that he would never forget the moment.

He didn’t know what was happening to Lan and her family. Her house was located in district III, in the area that had been under communist control in the first few days of the attack. Her family might be in trouble because her father was a commander of a tank unit stationed in the highlands. There might be underground VCs in the area who would emerge as informants for the enemy. He hoped they would spare her family. Phong, her brother, was just a university student and she was only a twenty-year-old college student. What would they do to harm them? He had heard of stories of savage acts of the VCs against government officials. Kidnapping and assassination were not uncommon, but these acts were mostly targeted at the officials, not their families. 

A series of grenade explosions interrupted his thoughts. He grabbed his M-16 and switched his position. Brad was crawling back from the other end of the wall.

“What happened?” Toàn asked.

“Some NVAs are moving out of the building,” Brad said. 

“Let’s roll.”

Phú didn’t know what to do. Together with hundreds of other captives, he sat on the ground of the front yard of the Tĩnh Quan pagoda. On his right were an old couple in their fifties. On his left was a young man in his twenties. They looked dazed and tired. Most came from the local neighborhood, but some had walked there from other districts as far as three kilometers away. He had been caught while hiding in a restroom in the Trần Hưng Đạo High School, only two blocks from the Tĩnh Quan pagoda. A group of bộ đội, more than twenty boys and girls about his age, had searched the entire high school, from the classrooms, the principal’s office, to the teachers’ lounge. A bộ đội girl stormed into the restroom when she spotted him. He thought she would shoot him when she pointed her gun at him. 

“What are you doing here?” she shouted.

His teeth rattled and his legs trembled. “Thưa chị, I am cleaning the toilet.”

The girl poked her gun into his stomach. “Get out of here.”

When he got outside, he realized that he was not the only one. A dozen other people, including two of his friends, Duyệt and Huy, had been rounded up. The bộ đội led them to the pagoda at gunpoint.

On the way, Phú was startled to see the bộ đội everywhere on the streets. Hundreds of them, in green khaki uniforms, green pith helmets, with AK-47s dangling from their shoulders, swarmed several blocks. Dozens of VCs in black pajamas also mingled with them. The bộ đội ran back and forth, yelling to the captives in their Northern accent, which, with its heavy intonation, sounded like a foreign language to Phú. He had heard people speaking with that accent before, but not with such distinct enunciation and not that many. At the pagoda, their captors passed around papers and ordered the captives to write down everything about themselves: their names, addresses, occupations, and places where they had been in the past thirty years. He was only sixteen, so he didn’t have to write much. After turning in the information sheets, the bộ đội led them to the front courtyard and ordered them to sit down, row by row, according to the order that they turned in the sheets. 

Phú had silently counted the number of captives and came up with two hundred and fifteen, give or take. Fourteen were women. Half were young people in their twenties and thirties, and half were middle-aged in their forties and fifties. He saw only five or six boys his age. He spotted a few familiar faces. Madam Hai had a stand selling breads for kids like him on the way to school. Mr. Lộc rented out children’s books in his store across the street from where he lived. Miss Lan was a third-year student at Huế University, and was a friend of his sister. She had come to his house a few times to borrow books from his sister. They all looked frightened and nervous, submissively following the bộ đội order without a word.

They sat on the ground, their faces darkened with anxieties. Once in a while, some glanced at the spectators who were allowed to stand around behind a row of barbed wire. Many of the spectators were friends or relatives of the captives. Phú scanned the faces of these spectators to see if anyone from his family was there, but he didn’t spot any of them.

Why was he here? Why were these people here? 

They sat there for a long time without talking to each other. Earlier, one middle-aged bộ đội had announced that they were forbidden to speak. They could go to the restroom if they raised their hand for permission and then only one person was allowed to go at a time. It was like a group of kindergarten kids. The bộ đội and the VCs appeared to be busy preparing for something, maybe a speech about Marxism, or a lecture on the Americans and the puppet South Vietnamese government. They brought a table and a few chairs to the courtyard. Two VCs, a young man and a woman, both in their middle twenties, sat at the table, flipped through the information sheets, stopped once in a while and talked to each other, and scribbled notes on the papers. 

Phú had heard from his uncle that the communists loved to spread propaganda through lectures and discussions glorifying communism and denouncing capitalism and imperialism. He didn’t really understand much about the politics and the war. He was in the eleventh grade and was preparing to take Part I of the National Baccalaureate Examination in the summer. His parents had died many years ago and he was now living with his uncle who was a doctor at the hospital. This morning, when he heard the mortar shell explosions and firings, he ran to the school in hopes of finding some friends. Now sitting on the ground, he cursed himself for his stupidity.

By three o’clock, the bộ đội and the VCs appeared to finish with whatever they were doing. The two VCs finished reading the information sheets and put them on the table. 

A middle-aged man in a white shirt rode a Honda motorcycle into the courtyard. He dismounted and strode to the table with brisk steps, ignoring the captives who were crammed together like a herd of frightened sheep. The two VCs greeted him and ushered him to sit in the middle. As he positioned himself in his chair, whispers spread among the captives. Phú didn’t know who the man was, but from the reactions of many captives, he appeared to be a well-known local man. 

The two VCs took their seats flanking him. The white-shirted man took out a K-54 pistol and held the slide in his hand as if he was holding a gavel. Several VCs in black pajamas spread around, their hands holding AK-47s.

The white-shirted middle-aged man swept his eyes across the captives and cleared his throat. He pounded his pistol on the table to get their attention. It was quite unnecessary because everybody was quiet and all eyes focused on him. He spoke with a clear Huế accent. “I am Mai Dinh Châu Cát, representing the People’s Alliance for Democracy and Peace. Today, I preside over this People’s Court to decide on the crimes committed by the criminals who are detained by the people.”

My God! What is he talking about? Phú asked himself. I committed a crime? I am detained by the people? Are those bộ đội the people?

Châu Cát paused. “Assisting me in this proceeding are comrade Lê Thị Trang Tiết, sitting on my left, and comrade Trần Thất Thu, sitting on my right.” He pounded the pistol on the table. “Let’s begin the trial.”

Without wasting any time, Trang Tiết read the name of the first “criminal” listed on the paper. “Nguyễn Đức Thắng, forty-two years old.”

Two VCs led the man sitting at one end of the first row to the front of the table. The man stood erect, facing Châu Cát. The middle-aged bộ đội had told them that they were not supposed to speak unless they were allowed to do so.

Thất Thu read from a paper. “Nguyễn Đức Thắng is the owner of Restaurant Miền Trung. The restaurant is a disguise for his operation as a secret CIA operative. His activities are reactionary and damaging to the revolution and peace of the people.”

He passed the sheet of paper to Châu Cát, who quickly glanced at it.

“The sentence is death,” Châu Cát said curtly.

Everybody gasped. Whispers scattered in the crowd. Châu Cát pounded his handgun on the table. “Quiet. Quiet. Restore order.”

The VCs waved their AK-47s. The crowd became quiet instantly.

Thắng raised his hand, perhaps wanting to ask permission to speak, but the two VCs pushed him aside to other VCs who quickly led him away. 

The entire trial lasted less than one minute.

Phú was stunned. He thought he was dreaming. Dozens of questions whirled through his mind. How could this be? Can they do that? Are they really serious? Will Mr. Thắng be killed? Is this really a trial? Where is the lawyer representing the accused? He was just a kid, but he knew the basics of a criminal trial. 

A person sitting behind him whispered, “They are just bluffing.”

That’s it! They are just bluffing. They are using scare tactics. They want to scare the captives as well as the spectators. It has to be a bluff because if they really wanted to kill Mr. Thắng, they could have done it without a trial. Why do they need to waste their time with this trial? With that thought, Phú was relieved.

The next one was also a death sentence, also less than one minute. One by one, the criminals were led to face the court, their crime was read, a sentence was announced, and they were led away. Within an hour, one-third of the criminals had been sentenced with assembly line efficiency. The majority, almost ninety nine per cent, received death sentences. A few criminals screamed in protest when their sentences were announced. The VCs immediately beat them with their gunstocks and they were led away. Some received light sentences with various types of punishment, like labor or fines. Only one case was acquittal. When it was Duyệt’s turn, Phú was anxious. 

Trang Tiết read, “Trần Văn Duyệt, sixteen years old.”

Thất Thu followed her. “Trần Văn Duyệt is a student at Trần Hưng Đạo High School. His father works for the puppet government as a city clerk.” 

"Because of his age and his father is only a low-level government official, Duyệt receives a light sentence of labor,” Châu Cát announced.

Phú let out a sigh of relief. Duyệt was led to the right side of the courtyard, joining the few others who received the same sentence. Duyệt lowered his head, avoiding the stares.

Soon, Lan was led to stand in front of the court.

Thất Thu smiled. He whispered in Châu Cát’s ear and Châu Cát nodded. Lan was shaking; tears rolled down her face. 

“Vũ Thị Lan is a student at Huế University,” Thất Thu announced. “Her brother was an extremist with extreme reactionary thoughts. Her father is a high-ranking officer serving in the army of the puppet government.”

“The sentence is death,” Châu Cát said.

Lan emitted a shriek and fell to her knees. Two VCs immediately dragged her away. They pulled her tiny body like a dead animal. Her head flopped down and her legs trailed on the ground.

The sight agitated Phú. Lan’s reaction was somewhat extreme but it showed that whatever tactic they were using, it had worked. He didn’t know if they were playing a game. The way they conducted the trial, though peculiar and arbitrary, appeared serious. Could they spend time bluffing in such a serious manner?

When his name was called, he tried to be calm and walked straight to the table. He crossed his arms and gazed at Thất Thu. He knew his fate was decided by whatever Thất Thu said.

Thất Thu didn’t even look at him. He just read directly from the paper. He seemed to be tired and just wanted to get it over with.

His voice was a monotone. “Phạm Đình Phú is a student at Trần Hưng Đạo High School. He is an orphan and lives with his uncle who is a doctor at the hospital. Although his uncle works for the puppet government, he is helpful to the people.”

“Because of his age and his uncle’s position as a doctor who is useful to the revolution, Phú receives a light sentence of labor,” Châu Cát said impassively.

Phú didn’t have time to react when a VC poked his AK-47 into his back and pushed him to where Duyệt was standing. He and Duyệt exchanged glances with no expressions on their faces. Phú didn’t know if he should laugh or cry, but he was afraid that any emotion he showed might cause him trouble.

By six o’clock, the entire trial was finished. Six criminals received light sentences of labor. Four had to pay fines. They were allowed to go home to get the money. One was acquitted. The rest received death sentences.

Châu Cát then gave a speech to the rest of the audience, including the spectators. Phú didn’t care to listen to what he said. He was thinking of what would really happen to those who received the death sentences. Lan’s haunting scream and her tiny frame lingered in his mind.

The VCs led Phú and the other five boys inside the pagoda. Phú felt hungry but he did not dare ask for food. He doubted they would feed him anyway. But he was thrilled when he saw several Buddhist nuns preparing meals in the kitchen. 

A middle-aged VC with a scar on his face pointed to a table in a corner. “You boys have fifteen minutes to eat and then go to work.” 

The boys ate in silence. Strangely, Phú had a big appetite although he was not fond of vegetarian food.

After their meal, the scar-faced VC ordered them to carry bags of rice and ammunition from across the streets to the pagoda. Phú was appointed to be the team leader because he looked muscular and taller than the others. While working, Phú heard gunfire and explosions from a distance. He saw smoke rising in the direction of the citadel. His hope heightened.

In the evening, the boys were allowed to rest for a while so they could continue working during the night. Phú and his friends exchanged little conversation because they didn’t want to upset their captors. The people’s court had shown how capricious these people were.

Each found a place in the backyard of the pagoda to rest or take a nap. Phú sat down and leaned against the wall; he was exhausted. Images of what had happened during the people’s court replayed in his mind. He wondered what would happen to the people who were sentenced to death. Where are they now? He hadn’t spotted any other local residents after the end of the trial. The spectators had been allowed to return to their homes, perhaps to bring the news to the loved ones of the captives. Phú hoped his uncle would be fine. From what they said, it appeared that they had some respect for doctors. They might need doctors and nurses later. 

Soon he drifted off to sleep.

Phú was awoken by a shout. “Wake up.”

He opened his eyes. The scar-faced VC was kicking him. He immediately stood up. It was dark. He must have slept for about an hour.

The scar-faced VC rounded up all the boys. He gave them shovels and picks and led them to a corner in the back of the pagoda.

“Dig a trench here,” the scar-faced VC ordered, pointing to an empty area behind a large tree and bushes.

“Sir, may I know how long, how deep and how wide?” Phú asked.

“Make it about two meters deep, two meters wide, and ten meters long.”

Before he left, the VC said, “Do it as quickly as you can. I will check back with you guys in an hour.”

The boys started working immediately. Once in a while, a VC poked his head out from the window of the kitchen and looked in the direction of where the boys worked. While working, Phú glanced around. The streets were dark but there were some lights. He saw dozens of bộ đội walking on the streets, holding AK-47s. 

Escape would be impossible.

During a short break, the boys started to talk, but tried to keep their voices low. 

“We have to get out of here as soon as we can,” Phú whispered.

“How? They are everywhere,” Duyệt said.

“Even if we run out of this area, where would we go?” Huy said. “There may be more of them on the other side and they may catch us.”

Huy was right. From what the VCs said, they had already occupied the entire district, and possibly the adjacent districts.

“We can’t stay here,” Phú said.

“Let’s wait till our soldiers come.”

“They are not coming. It’s been two weeks since the fighting started. If they planned to retake the city, they should have come by now.”

“Are you saying that they abandoned us?”

“I don’t know. We just don’t know the situation. But it seems that they are not coming, at least for a while.”

“But when I was peeing, I overheard them talking about not wasting bullets and to avoid making loud noises at night for fear of revealing their location. It seems that they are afraid that our soldiers are coming.”

“Maybe they are just being cautious; I doubt that our soldiers will come here to rescue us like commandos.”

“If they are not coming, why do they want us to dig this trench? Isn’t this for their defense?”

Phú paused. He looked at what they had dug so far, only about two meters long, but two or three men could fit in with their weapons and still have room to move around. The only thing that was peculiar was that the location of the trench was in the back of the pagoda, somewhat hidden from the front. If the trench was for defense, shouldn’t it be located right behind the front gate? 

They returned to work to avoid suspicion from the watchful eyes of the VCs. The scar-faced VC returned just before midnight and ordered them to dig a few more trenches.

The night was cold, and chilly breezes lowered the body heat of the sweaty boys. They worked silently under the weak lights from an electric generator. Phú gave up thinking about escaping. He was so tired that he just wanted to finish his job so that he could be allowed to sleep. His hands were numb and his body was soaked with sweat. 

By three forty-five in the morning, they had finished several trenches in the backyard. Piles of soil and dirt stretched along beside them. By this time, Phú believed that the trenches would be used for something else other than defense dugouts because the layout of these trenches looked random. He thought of these trenches being used as graves. But for whom? He didn’t want to think about the people who had been sentenced to death. 

Sounds of steps from a distance stopped the boys. A group of people were marching toward them. Phú rested his hands on his shovel, gazing at the approaching crowd. A helmeted VC in a white shirt and green bộ đội trousers appeared; he was holding an AK-47 at his waist. Behind him were a dozen men and women escorted by three VCs in black pajamas; AK-47s dangled from their shoulders. Phú jolted when he saw the familiar faces of the death-sentenced criminals. They walked with some difficulty. It was only when they came closer that Phú knew why. They were tied with their hands behind their backs and chained together with telephone cords. One after another. Some walked barefooted, some with sandals.

Phú was shocked at how a day had changed them. They all looked worn out. The dirty rags stuffed in their mouths left their eyes as the only source of expression; their sunken and dazed eyes exhibited no vitality. 

The VCs in black pajamas ordered their tied captives to stand next to the trenches. Phú saw Lan standing there; she was pale and haggard. Her dazed eyes stared at some invisible target.

The VCs stepped back, their cold faces darkened. One held his AK-47 as if he was about to shoot. Phú trembled. 

“You all committed crimes against the people and the revolution,” the white-shirted VC announced.

The VC in black pajamas raised his gun and shot a single round at the face of the man standing at one end of the chain. Without emitting a sound, the man fell into the trench, pulling others with him. As one fell, the next one fell, and all the rest tumbled into the trench. They screamed but their screams were muffled by the rags in their mouths to mere whimpers. Some tried to get up but couldn’t because of the weight of others. 

“Fill it up, quick!” The white-shirted VC shouted to the boys.

Phú was petrified. He couldn’t move. The other boys stood still.

The VCs poked the boys with their AK-47s. The white-shirted VC struck Phú on his back with the gunstock. “Do it now, or I will shoot you!”

“No,” Phú cried. 

The men and women in the trench squirmed violently. One man pushed himself up above the ground at the rim of the trench, his hands still tied behind his back, but a VC struck his head with the AK-47 stock. The man emitted a dull screech from his gagged mouth and fell down. The VC turned around and poked his gun into one of the boys. “Fill it up!”

The boy wiped his tears. He hesitated, then slowly scooped the soil from the pile on the ground and tossed it into the trench. Phú, Duyệt, Huy and the other boys stood still, tears covering their faces.

The white-shirted VC raised his AK-47 and aimed at Phú’s head. “I am serious, fill it!”

Phú swallowed hard. He pushed the shovel into the pile of fresh soil, held the handle in one hand and wiped his tears with the other hand, pressed the edge of the shovel with his foot, pulled it out with soil on it, and hurled the soil into the trench. The rest of the boys followed him. Clumps of soil dropped on the heads of the writhing victims in the trench. Some looked up at the boys, but had to turn their heads to avoid the soil splattering on their faces. Soil and dirt quickly filled up their gagged mouths. Another man tried to climb up on his knees, but was struck with a gunstock and fell back. 

Lan was buried under two men. She kicked and pushed them out, but they fell back, toppling on her. She wriggled under the weight of the men. She looked up. Pieces of black cloth in her mouth stifled her scream. Her face was distorted with agony and terror. Her eyes met Phú’s. In one brief instant, the distressing expression of her teary eyes pierced his heart. 

He shoveled with fury. He clenched his teeth, gripped the handle, plunged it into the pile and flung the dirt up without looking. Fistfuls of soil flew into the trench. His eyes were blurry. His ears were ringing. But he kept plunging and hurling. 

Somewhere from a distance, an explosion echoed in the quiet night.

Toàn heard the explosion. It must be from a mortar shell by the enemy somewhere in the west. He paused and raised his hand. From a distance, Brad and Jimmy stopped, waiting for his signal. He let one full minute pass. 

It was four o’clock in the morning. The streets were dark, but the sun would rise in about two hours and the Citadel would be bombarded with ferocious firing and shelling. Toàn gestured to the two Marines to continue their cautious trot toward the building occupied by the NVAs. They crossed the street one by one, at two-minute intervals. If the enemy saw any one of them and fired, at least the other two would be alerted.

The building was now only about two hundred yards ahead. Dark and quiet. But Toàn knew that dozens of the NVAs were still wide awake. He had stayed there with them one night and he knew their routine.

Earlier, Lieutenant Hummel had approved their request to carry out the mission of stealthily getting inside the building to neutralize the machine guns that had pinned the Marines at their positions for an entire day. Hummel had been reluctant to authorize the mission, but after seeing the ineffectiveness of the tanks and the Ontos vehicles, he had no choice. Repeated requests for air and artillery support had been denied. At the same time, orders from the top command had become more and more urgent and compelling. The Marines had to retake the building as soon as possible. The Generals were very nervous. Washington didn’t want to see Huế constantly in the headlines.

When Toàn first told Brad about his idea to infiltrate the building to knock out the machine guns, Brad thought the South Vietnamese Second Lieutenant was insane.

“Are you on drugs?” Brad asked incredulously.

“No, not at all. On the contrary, I am thinking as clear as a bell,” Toàn said calmly.

“So, why do you suggest that we commit suicide?”

“It’s better than sitting here watching our M-48s or Ontos squeezing through the narrow streets and getting blown up by B-40 rockets.”

“And you think your strategy of kamikaze would work?”

“How can it be a kamikaze mission when the plan is to get inside their building without their knowledge?”

“How do we do that?”

“I know a secret way to get inside without being seen,” Toàn said with a cocky smile. “Don’t forget that I searched the building thoroughly and I stayed there one night.”

“What secret way?”

“There is a tunnel connecting the sewer underground in the street to the utilities room in the building and there is a stairway from the utilities room to the roof.”

Brad stared at Toàn, not knowing whether he was joking or serious.

Toàn’s face turned serious. “Trust me, Brad. I don’t know why the tunnel is there. The building is old; it was built by the French and occupied by the Japanese during World War II. It has many secret passageways. Perhaps the tunnel is used for a hideout.”

“And the stairway?”

“I think it’s mainly used by the maintenance people for quick access to the roof.”

“OK, I believe you. But suppose we are able to get to the roof without being detected, and suppose we are able to kill all the gooks manning the machine guns there. How do you plan to get out of the building?”

“The same way we get in. As soon as we’re done, we’ll leave through the tunnel and there is no way they can find us.”

It sounded like the plot of a poorly written war novel, but Brad was intrigued. He and Toàn talked more about the plan and in the end he was convinced that it was doable. The two walked up to Hummel and presented the idea. After several hours of back and forth discussions, Hummel agreed to let Toàn lead Brad and Jimmy to carry out “the most impossible fucking” – Hummel’s words - mission he’d ever heard.

The manhole that led to the tunnel was located in an alley near the sidewalk on the street behind the enemy building. Toàn and his American comrades had to walk around the blocks through a shortcut so they could approach the building from behind. Even with the shortcut, it had taken them almost an hour and now they were only two hundred yards from the building.

The streets were completely empty. Residents must have run away from the area when the fighting started. Toàn was quite familiar with this particular block because he had been here several times over the years. The alley where the manhole was located was next to the grocery store that he frequented each time he came to this part of the city. The enemy would not believe they could approach the building from behind. They didn’t know there was a shortcut to get here from the streets across the building. Their watch posts were fully alert, but they didn’t know about the tunnel.

From this location onward, Toàn didn’t want to go out on the streets to avoid exposure. It was dark, but the enemy could still spot movements. He led Brad and Jimmy through the houses and stores, navigating the two-hundred-yard distance through the small alleys and detours. Soon, they reached the manhole. It was completely shielded from view by high walls on both sides of the alley.

The silence and darkness gave Toàn an eerie feeling. He signaled to Brad and Jimmy to remove the lid on the manhole. It was unlocked. The two Marines lifted the lid slowly while Toàn stood guard. It was a medium-sized opening, large enough for an American Marine loaded with gear to get through. Toàn had drawn a diagram to show them the tunnel. It was on the right about two yards from the manhole, partially hidden behind a wall. The sewage was on the left.

Toàn was the first to go. He lowered his body through the hole, trying to keep his M-16 from touching the rim. One by one, they eased down through it. Jimmy was the last one in. He raised the lid above his head and carefully brought it down to exactly the same position as before.

Once on the ground, Toàn was relieved. At least they didn’t have to worry about being seen by the enemy. He turned on his flashlight and led the Marines to the tunnel. Ignoring the stench from the filth in the sewage, they held their breath, crawled through the tunnel on all fours while keeping their gear off the ground. It was an agonizing and tiring exercise, something that they had never practiced during their military training.

After half an hour of crawling on their hands and knees, they reached the end of the tunnel. They were now inside the enemy compound. Toàn gave a signal to rest. They sat on the ground, looking at each other with white-circled eyes in soot-smeared faces. They sat in silence for a full five minutes while focusing their attention on any sound coming from above them. 

Toàn slowly stood up and peeked through a narrow slit between two rocks blocking the tunnel opening. It was dark in the utilities room. He stared into the darkness for a while to adjust his eyesight. He couldn’t see the entire room, but there was no sound, no steady breathing of a sleeping NVA.

He nodded to Brad and the two slowly pushed the rocks aside, revealing a windowless empty room with a helical staircase in one corner.

Toàn pushed himself up and crawled to the door. Brad and Jimmy followed. They clustered around the staircase. Brad was baffled by its small size and narrow construction; it was like a staircase built for boys in a playhouse. The foot-sized brick steps were connected together by two helical copper pipes as handrails that wound up and around a vertically straight steel pole. Toàn had assured Brad that the staircase was solid and should be able to sustain the weight of both of them, but now that he faced it, he was not sure how Toàn could make that engineering estimate. Toàn knew he was skeptical, but he didn’t want to explain. He pointed to the watch, telling them that they didn’t have much time left. Brad looked at Jimmy and shrugged.

There was no point in hesitating. They would have to try it and see how it went. Toàn climbed up first, followed by Brad. Jimmy would stay behind to provide back up when they retreated in case the enemy discovered the utilities room. The staircase sank slightly as the two men made their initial climb, but it appeared stable. It led the way up three floors to the roof. It was confined within a small hollow vertical space and was blocked by the walls at each floor. The enemy would not be able to see them, but they could hear them if they made any noise.

It was another agonizing climb. They took one step at a time. At each step, they paused and listened for any indication of enemy presence. It was really quiet. At one point, Brad wondered if the NVAs had already left the building. However, as they approached the roof, they heard whispers and smelled cigarette smoke. Definitely, there were NVAs on the roof.

The staircase led to an open space under the sky. As they climbed closer, the whispers became louder. Toàn exited the staircase and glued himself to a wall. There was a tiny space for both of them standing at the edge of the roof behind a wall. One slip and both would plunge three stories to the ground below.

They held their breath, waiting. The NVAs were talking and smoking cigarettes. Brad smelled the familiar Pall Mall scent. The NVAs must have picked up the American cigarettes in the building or stores on the streets. They quietly and slowly took out their grenades with one hand while gripping their M-16s with the other. Toàn took a peek around the wall onto the roof. He held up fingers so that Brad could see the count, then opened and closed his hand twice. Four gooks and two machine guns.

Toàn turned back and faced Brad. He nodded. It’s time for the assault. They mentally counted. One. Two. Three.

Like a flash, both jumped away from the wall and fired their M-16s. Brad tossed his grenades to the NVAs. The blast tore the silent air. The four NVAs didn’t have a chance. 

The entire building woke up. NVAs swarmed out into the courtyard and looked up to the roof. They screamed frantically while firing AK-47s in the air. Brad jumped to a DShK 0.51 caliber machine gun, shoved away the NVA collapsed on top of it, squatted down and loaded the cartridge. He pointed the machine gun downward and fired non-stop at the NVAs running every which way in the courtyard. Caught by surprise, they didn’t know where the gunfire was coming from and in the initial confusing minutes became easy targets. 

Toàn darted to the other machine gun, a Russian made PK, mounted on the corner of the roof. Brad reloaded the cartridge and looked up at Toàn. Under the pastel tones of the pre-dawn light, he saw Toàn look back at him with a strange expression on his face. Before he knew what was going on, Toàn raised his M-16 and fired several rounds. A shriek was emitted from behind him. He turned around and saw the bloody face of the NVA they had shot earlier, but not enough to kill him, until now. A pistol fell out of his hand. 

Brad smiled and gave Toàn a thumbs up. Thank you for saving my life. We are now even.

Heavy running steps echoed from the main stairway leading to the roof. Toàn rushed back and emptied his cartridge into the NVAs who were coming up.

“Let’s go. They know where we are,” Toàn shouted.

Brad shot several more rounds and rushed back to the staircase at the edge of the roof. He tossed his grenades at the machine guns and fired his M-16 at the smashed guns, knocking both of them off of the roof.

Brad climbed down the stairs while Toàn reloaded his M-16.

“Toàn, go, go,” Brad shouted.

“OK, you go first,” Toàn shouted back, emptying his M-16 at the NVAs and tossing grenades down the main stairway. He darted back to the edge of the roof.

The utilities staircase shook violently as the two rushed down. As they passed each floor, they heard heavy running steps and hysterical screams from the NVAs.

Jimmy was looking up at them with an anxious face. As they came down, they darted through the tunnel opening and rolled down amid heavy steps outside the utilities room. They hunkered down and ran as fast as they could through the tunnel. Their helmets banged into the ceiling but they kept running. Jimmy crawled backward, watching for the enemy before following his comrades. His effort was unnecessary. The NVAs were busy running for cover and didn’t care about an unused utilities room.

As soon as they emerged from the manhole, they ran back to the alleys behind the stores and the houses. The screaming and firing from the building faded but they kept running. They were no longer afraid of being seen by the enemy, but they wanted to be out of their firing range as soon as possible.

After several blocks, Toàn slowed his pace. Right after he threw the grenades, he had felt pain in his hand, but didn’t pay attention. The pain now became unbearable. He looked down and saw blood flowing out of his hand. He dropped his heavy M-16 and staggered. 

Brad turned his head and saw Toàn squatting down on the ground.

“Are you OK?” he shouted.

Toàn didn’t reply. He flapped his hand with agony.

Brad squatted down next to him. “Are you hurt?”

“I don’t know.”

Jimmy shouted from behind. “We are OK here.”

Toàn raised his hand. The blood had stopped flowing, but a piece of shrapnel stuck out in the middle of his hand. It must have been from one of his own grenades when he threw it at the enemy.

He turned his hand over. In his horror, he saw the shrapnel piece piercing through the back of his hand right at the center of the tattooed orchid. 

A chill ran down his spine.

“Lan,” he cried out. 


Tuấn Cao-Đắc

The massacre at Huế is well known and well documented (Chính 1998, 134-137; Willbanks 2007, 99-103; Vennema 1976; Robbins 2010, 196-208; Oberdorfer 2001, 198-235; Pike 1970, 26-31). However, despite its scale and brutality, the Huế massacre was virtually not reported in the United States at the time and is now largely forgotten (Braestrup 1994, 215; Robbins 2010, 196).
Despite overwhelming evidence of a massacre of more than 2,000 victims, a few scholars dispute that there was a real massacre. D. Gareth Porter, together with his colleague, published a series of articles (Porter 1974; Herman and Porter 1975) accusing the South Vietnamese and American agencies of fabricating evidence in reporting the number of deaths in the 1968 Huế massacre. Herman and Porter (1975) dispute a report by Douglas Pike about the number of civilians killed by the Communists and conclude that the term ‘massacre’ applied to Communist killing of civilians at Huế was simply a deceptive propaganda ploy (ibid., 4). Herman and Porter (ibid.) agree that the Communists killed some civilians during their occupation, but express that there was no evidence that they executed large numbers. One major source that Herman and Porter rely on to establish their theory is the report by Dr. Alje Vennema, the only Western physician to have examined the graves, who, according to Herman and Porter, found that the number of victims in the grave sites were inflated in the U.S. Saigon count by over seven-fold, totaling only 68 instead of the officially claimed 477 (ibid., 2). Herman and Porter further assert that according to Vennema, most of the bodies were clothed in military uniforms and had wounds suggesting that they were victims of the fighting (ibid.). However, the accounts provided by Vennema contradict what Herman and Porter report. Dr. Alje Vennema, an anti-war sympathizer, presented his own version of the massacre in his book, The Viet Cong Massacre at Hue, published in 1976, one year after the Herman and Porter paper. In his book, Vennema detailed the account of the massacre. His account included his own witnessing of the graves and his interviews of other eyewitnesses and survivors.
Porter relied on Vennema for his conclusion that the South Vietnamese government inflated the number of actual executions. According to Porter, Vennema “happened to be in the Hue province hospital during the Tet Offensive and . . .  made his own investigation of the grave sites” (Porter 1974, 3). Therefore, Vennema’s account should represent the most reliable account of what happened at Hue and should be the single most trustworthy evidence. Let’s hear what Vennema actually said of the massacre.

Regarding the discovered gravesites and the number of bodies, Vennema reported the following sites:
1)    Gia Hoi Secondary School (Vennema 1976, 129-131): Total gravesites: 14 and an additional unknown number of graves. Total number of bodies: 203, including men (young and old) and women. Among the dead were a 26-year-old woman “with legs and hands tied, a rag stuffed into her mouth” and who “had no obvious wounds”; a 42-year-old policeman who was buried alive; a 48-year-old street vendor woman whose “arms had been bound and a rag stuffed into her mouth.” She had no wounds to the body so probably had been buried alive.

2)    Theravada Pagoda, called Tang Quang Tu (ibid., 131-132): 12 trenches containing 43 bodies. Among the dead were a tailor, arms tied and shot through the head; some people having their arms tied behind their backs with barbed wire; and some had their mouths stuffed with rags. “All the dead were victims of reprisal and vengeance” (ibid., 132).

3)    Con Mo Bai Dau (ibid., 131): 3 trenches with 26 bodies.

4)    Behind a small seminary where the tribunal had held its sessions (ibid., 133): 2 trenches with 6 bodies (3 Vietnamese employed by the U.S. Embassy, two Americans employed by U.S.O.M., and a French high school teacher mistaken for an American). “All had their hands tied.”

5)    Quan Ta Ngan (ibid.): 3 trenches with 21 bodies, “all males, with hands tied, and bullet holes in the head and neck.”

6)    Five miles east of Hue (ibid.): 1 grave with 25 bodies, “all had been shot in the head, hands tied behind the back.”

7)    Near the tombs of Emperors Tu Duc and Dong Khanh (ibid., 133-135): 20 trenches with an additional unknown number of small graves. A total of 203 bodies had been discovered. Among the dead were a French priest, Father Urbain, who had his hands tied and no wounds to his body, and another French priest, Father Guy, having a bullet wound in his head and neck. No bodies of women and children were found, indicating that “the victims were killed in cold blood and not during military activity.”

8)    An Ninh bridge (ibid., 135): 1 trench with 20 bodies.

9)    Dong Ba gate (ibid., 135): 1 trench with 7 bodies.

10) An Ninh Ha Elementary School (ibid., 135): 1 trench with 4 bodies.

11) Van Chi School (ibid., 136): 1 trench with 8 bodies.

12) Cho Thong, a marketplace (ibid., 136): 1 trench with 102 bodies. “[M]ost had been shot and tied; there were several women among them, but no children.”

13) Area of the imperial tombs of Gia Long (ibid., 136): nearly 200 bodies were found. Several people had their hands “tied behind the back, and they had been shot through the head.”

14) Halfway between Ta Quang pagoda and the Tu Gy Van pagoda, 2.5 km southwest of Hue (ibid., 137): 4 bodies of Germans (3 doctors and a doctor’s wife).

15) Dong Gi, 16 km directly east of Hue (ibid.): 110 bodies, all men and “most had their hands tied and rags stuffed into their mouths.”

16) Vinh Thai village, Phu Luong village, and Phu Xuan village, about 15 km to the south and southeast of the city (ibid., 137-138): 3 sites with over 800 bodies (including 135 at Vinh Thai, 22 at Phu Luong, 230 and later 357 at Phu Xuan): Most were male with a few women and children. Among the dead were Father Buu Dong and two of his seminarians.

17) Thuong Hoa village, south of Emperor Gia Long’s tomb (ibid., 139): 1 grave with 11 bodies. “All bodies showed the same type of wounds to head and neck, presumably inflicted at execution.”

18) Thuy Thanh and Vinh Hung villages (ibid.): over 70 bodies, “mostly males with some women and children.” “[S]ome had died presumably during warfare as they had various types of wounds and dismemberments; others exhibited a single wound to the head and neck, the victims of execution.”

19) Da Mai creek (ibid.): 500 skulls. “Among the many skeletons lay pieces of ordinary clothing, not khaki nor the green cloth of North Vietnamese or Viet Cong uniforms. The skulls all exhibited a similar compressed fracture of the frontal bones as a result of a blow with [a] heavy instrument.”

The above list of gravesites shows a total of 19 gravesites and about 2307 bodies. Most of them exhibited wounds caused by execution and not a result of warfare. Many had their hands tied and rags stuffed into their mouths. As late as September 1969, several hundred people were still unaccounted for (ibid., 140). In addition, Vennema noted that “[b]esides the mass graves, there were the individual, cold-blooded murders” (ibid., 141).

Porter attempted to shift the blame to heavy fighting at one of the burial sites where 22 bodies were found. According to him, “American planes bombed the village repeatedly, destroying hundreds of homes and killing civilians” and “some 250 communist soldiers were killed” in one all-day battle (Porter 1974, 4). He wrote further that “the 250 skeletons found at Da Mai Creek (not 400 as claimed by Pike) were also killed in battle or by American B-52 strikes” (ibid., 5-6). However, Vennema (1976, 140) pinpointed with the precision of a doctor that the creek contained 500 skulls and “[i]nvestigation of U.S. Army records does not reveal any wide-scale action or B-52 bombing in the area except for a battle fought near Loc Son, some 10 km. away from the area, in late April, 1968.” Vennema (ibid.) stated that “to assume that any dead from a B-52 strike were taken through the rough terrain to be buried in the creek does not seem justified.” He (ibid.) further asserted that the “skulls all exhibited a similar compression fracture of the frontal bones as a result of a blow with a heavy instrument” and the “other bones did not exhibit evidence of fractures which surely would have been the case if they had died as a result of warfare.”

Porter’s conclusion that “the overwhelming majority of the bodies discovered in 1969 were in fact the victims of American air power and of the ground fighting that raged in the hamlets, rather than of NLF execution” (Porter 1974, 6) stands in contradiction with the testimony of a doctor eyewitness whom Porter himself relied heavily on.

Many other sources provide estimates consistent with Vennema’s report.  Bùi Tín (Bui 2002, 66), a former Colonel of the North Vietnamese Army, confirmed that the Huế massacres did occur. According to him, Colonel Minh, the District Security Chief of the communists during the Huế massacre in 1968, estimated the number of people killed to be two thousand, but he added that the number could be an underestimate. Other estimates report 2,500 to 3,500, mostly civilians or families of Saigon government officials (Prados 2009, 240; Hammel 2007, 159); 2,800, including government officials, soldiers, teachers, priests, intellectuals and other counter-reactionary elements, and unlucky ordinary civilians, with some of the victims being shot, clubbed to death, and burned alive (Braestrup 1994, 215; Isaacs 1984, 360; Oberdorfer 2001, 232; Pike 1970, 30-31). Woodruff (2005, 244) states that a total of 2,810 bodies were eventually found in shallow mass graves by the mid-1970s. Also, 1,946 people remained unaccounted for. These numbers appear to be taken from Pike’s monograph (Pike 1970, 30-31). A document, claimed as captured from the Communists, reported that the number of victims included 1,892 administrative personnel, 38 policemen, 790 tyrants, 6 captains, 2 first lieutenants, 20 second lieutenants and many noncommissioned officers (Woodruff 2005, 244; Willbanks 2007, 101).

While it is certain that Hồ gave his approval, though maybe only as a formality, to the decision to launch the general uprising (Duiker 2000, 557), it is unclear if he specifically approved the plan to use revolutionary violence against the Huế residents. According to Bùi Tín (Bui 2002, 68), the massacres occurred because the NVA troops became hysterical, and lost their bearings – and even their humanity. Bùi Tín (ibid., 67) asserts that there was no order from above demanding the mass extermination of POWs or civilians.  According to Trương Như Tảng, Minister of Justice of the Vietcong, Huỳnh Tấn Phát, chairman of the Communist Provisional Revolutionary Government (PRG), stated that there was absolutely no policy or directive from the Front to carry out any massacre, but Tảng expresses that he does not find this explanation particularly satisfying (Truong 1986, 154).  However, neither Bùi Tín nor Trương Như Tảng appears to be aware of the people’s court and the death sentences handed down to the victims.  The nature of the preparation for the massacre, including the gathering of people from the black lists and the organization of the people’s courts, clearly indicates that the massacre was a planned operation with specific purposes, ordered from, and supported by, the high command of the Hanoi Politburo (Robbins 2010, 196; Oberdorfer 2001, 232; Vennema 1976, 183), or at least was foreseen and counted on by Hồ (Hubbell 1968, 67). Vennema (1976, 184) notes that fomenting terror was important to the communist Party and its members were unable to refrain from it. Robbins (2010, 208) notes that the Huế massacre was not a spontaneous act of excess but the cold-blooded implementation of the communist North Vietnamese policy.

Accounts of the massacre and the existence of tribunals holding court have been told by eyewitnesses (Robbins 2010, 198; Vennema 1976, 94). In one account, Phan Văn Tuấn, then 16, was captured by the VCs and was ordered to dig graves to bury several victims alive. He described his experience in an interview (Vimeo 2008). In another account, Ms. Nguyễn Thị Thái Hòa retold her story of witnessing the murder in cold blood of her brothers by Hoàng Phủ Ngọc Phan, brother of Hoàng Phủ Ngọc Tường (DLB 2013). She also described the killing of innocent victims by Nguyễn thị Đoan Trinh. According to several sources, a drumhead court had been presided over by Hoàng Phủ Ngọc Tường at the Gia Hội school in District II, acting as a judge to hand down death sentences to 203 people (Vennema 1976, 94). Another man, Nguyễn Đắc Xuân, also participated in the killing of innocent victims. Tường, Phan, Đoan Trinh, and Xuân were part of a political force organized during the Communist temporary occupation of part of Huế. This political force was called Liên minh Dân tộc, Dân chủ và Hòa bình (People’s Alliance for Democracy and Peace) (Chính 1998, 131-132). Some of the victims were shot in cold blood, sometimes for trivial offenses ( Vennema 1976, 94.). The tribunal holding court at Gia Hội was known by the local residents who had managed to hide after their first appearance at the tribunal and subsequently survived, or had escaped (ibid.). After this court session, the whole school site eventually yielded 203 bodies of young men, older men, and women (ibid.). It should be noted that Gia Hội was not the only place where a tribunal court was held. Drumhead court trials were being carried out in the name of the people and revolution, where verdicts and sentences were passed by those who had no legal powers (ibid., 185). Typically, a cadre presided as judge, and also performed as attorney, prosecutor, jury, and executioner (ibid.). 

The battle at Huế has received extensive coverage by American authors. The rules of engagement that didn’t allow the use of air power caused a lot of frustration to the U.S. Marines (Nolan 1996, 140; Warr 1988, 100-102, 123, 125). Air support was not provided until later (Warr 1988, 153).



Braestrup, Peter. 1994. Big Story – How the American Press and Television Reported and Interpreted the Crisis of Tet 1968 in Vietnam and Washington. Abridged Edition. Presidio Press, California, U.S.A.

Bui Tin. 2002. From Enemy to Friend, A North Vietnamese Perspective on the War, Naval Institute Press, Maryland, U.S.A.

Chính Đạo. 1998. Mậu Thân 68: Thắng Hay Bại (Tet Offensive 68: Victory or Defeat). Tái bản có bổ sung (Reprinted with supplements). Văn Hóa, Houston, Texas, U.S.A.

Duiker, William J. 2000. Ho Chi Minh: A Life. Hyperion, New York, U.S.A.

Hammel, Eric. 2007. Marines in Hue City: A Portrait of Urban Combat, Tet 1968, Zenith Press, Minnesota, U.S.A.

Herman, Edward and D. Gareth Porter. 1975. The Myth of the Hue Massacre, Ramparts, Vol. 13, No. 8, May-June.

Hubbell, John G. 1968. The Blood-Red Hands of Ho Chi Minh. Reader’s Digest, November 1968, 61-67.

Isaacs, Arnold R. 1984. Without Honor: Defeat in Vietnam & Cambodia, Vintage Books, New York, U.S.A.

Nolan, Keith William. 1996. Battle for Hue: Tet 1968. Presidio Press, California, U.S.A.

Oberdorfer, Don. 2001. Tet! The Turning Point in the Vietnam War, The Johns Hopkins University Press, Maryland, U.S.A.

Pike, Douglas. 1986. PAVN – People’s Army of Vietnam. Da Capo Press, New York, U.S.A.

Prados, John. 2009. Vietnam: The History of an Unwinnable War, 1945-1975, University Press of Kansas, Kansas, U.S.A.

Robbins, James S. 2010. This Time We Win: Revisiting the Tet Offensive, Encounter Books, New York, U.S.A.

Truong Nhu Tang (with David Chanoff and Doan Van Toai). 1986. A Viet Cong Memoir: An Inside Account of the Vietnam War and Its Aftermath, Random House, Inc., New York, U.S.A.

Vennema, Alje. 1976. The Viet Cong Massacre at Hue, Vantage Press, New York, U.S.A., 1976.

Warr, Nicholas. 1988. Phase Line Green: The Battle for Hue, 1968, US Naval Institute Press, U.S.A.

Willbanks, James H. 2007. The Tet Offensive: A Concise History, Columbia University Press, New York, U.S.A.

Woodruff, Mark W. 2005. Unheralded Victory: The Defeat of the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese Army, 1961-1973, Presidio Press, New York, U.S.A. 2005.


It should be noted that Internet sources may not be permanent. A blog may be taken down by the author, a news article may be deleted, or a Website may be closed.

DLB (Dân Làm Báo). 2013. Mậu Thân Huế - Câu Chuyện Của Nguyễn Thị Thái Hòa (The Year of the Monkey at Huế – Story of Nguyễn Thị Thái Hòa) http://danlambaovn.blogspot.com/2012/01/mau-than-hue-cau-chuyen-cua-nguyen-thi.html (accessed September 29, 2013).

Porter, Gareth D. 1974. The 1968 ‘Hue Massacre.’ Indochina Chronicle, No. 33, June 24, 1974, pp 2-13. http://msuweb.montclair.edu/~furrg/Vietnam/porterhueic74.pdf (accessed September 29, 2013).

Vimeo. 2008. Nam Dao pv Phan Van Tuan: Mau Than - Anh Con Nho Hay Anh Da Quen (Nam Dao interviewing Phan Van Tuan: The Year of the Monkey – Do you still remember or do you forget). http://vimeo.com/9093448 (accessed September 30, 2013).


Hai: (fictitious) A captive by the VCs and the NVAs during the Huế massacre in 1968.

Minh: District Security Chief of the communists during the Huế massacre in 1968.

Thị Trang Tiết: (fictitious) A Vietcong underground agent who participated in the Huế massacre 1968. Based on real-life character of Nguyễn Thị Đoan Trinh, alleged killer of many innocent Huế civilians.

Lộc: (fictitious) A captive by the VCs and the NVAs during the Huế massacre in 1968.

Mai Dinh Châu Cát: (fictitious) A Vietcong underground agent who participated in the Huế massacre in 1968. Based on real-life character of Hoàng Phủ Ngọc Tường, alleged chairman of the People’s Court at Gia Hội High School who sentenced 204 innocent civilians to death and ordered them to be buried alive in the school ground.

Miller, Brad: (fictitious) Corporal (1968), Hotel Company, 1st Battalion, 5th Marines, friend of Trần Ngọc Toàn (fictitious).

Nguyễn Đức Thắng: (fictitious) A victim sentenced to death in the People’s Court during the Huế massacre in 1968.

People’s Alliance for Democracy and Peace: An alliance formed by the Communists during the Tết Offensive in Huế in 1968.

Phạm Đình Phú: (fictitious): A student at Trần Hưng Đạo High School (fictitious), sentenced to labor in the People’s Court during the Huế massacre in 1968.

Trần Ngọc Toàn: (fictitious): First-Lieutenant (1968), Captain (1975), 1st Division of ARVN. One of the boat people in 1980. Husband of Liên. Father of Trần Ngọc Kiệt (fictitious), Grandfather of Madeline ( Linh) Trần (fictitious) and Melanie Trần (fictitious).

Trần Thất Thu: (fictitious) A Vietcong underground agent who participated in the Huế massacre 1968. Based on real-life characters of Nguyễn Đắc Xuân and Hoàng Phủ Ngọc Phan, alleged killers of many innocent Huế civilians.

Trần Văn Duyệt: (fictitious) A 16-year-old student, sentenced to labor in the People’s Court during the Huế massacre in 1968.

Vietcong: VC, or Việt Cộng: a communist organization and army in South Vietnam. It fought the United States and the South Vietnamese government during the Vietnam War (1959-1975).

Tấn Phong: (fictitious) An anti-communist student at Huế University, killed by Trần Thất Thu (fictitious) in 1968.

Vũ Thị Lan: (fictitious) A student at Huế University, girlfriend of Trần Ngọc Toàn (fictitious), younger sister of Tấn Phong (fictitious). She was one of the victims who were buried alive in the Huế massacre in 1968.

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