Category Archives: Southeast Asia

Hue 1968: Round 2, March 1975

From Hue 1968: A Turning Point of the American War in Vietnam, by Mark Bowden (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2017), Kindle Loc. 8377-8420:

The city of Hue fell again and for good in March 1975, and Saigon followed a month later, as US helicopters scrambled to evacuate remaining American personnel and as many South Vietnamese officials as they could carry. The final images of desperate civilians clinging to the skids of American choppers as they lifted off framed the futility of the decade-long effort.

Nevertheless, in the nearly half century since, some American military historians and many American veterans have insisted that the Battle of Hue was won, and that, indeed, the entire Tet Offensive was an unqualified American victory. Westy certainly felt that way. Eight years later, in his autobiography A Soldier Reports, he was still insisting that he had not been surprised by the Tet attacks—he said he had forecast the attacks on the city but that word apparently did not reach the MACV compound in Hue. He conceded at long last that on the morning of January 31, 1968, “the MACV advisory compound was under siege and most of Hue was in enemy hands, including much of the Citadel.” Yet the battle to win back the city warranted only two pages in his 566-page book. He portrayed it in perfunctory terms, complimenting the American and South Vietnamese commanders on their excellent leadership, exaggerating enemy deaths, and underreporting the number of Americans killed by nearly a third. He lamented the destruction of the historic city, and effectively lay blame for all civilian losses on Hanoi, citing only those killed in the purges. He makes no mention of civilians killed by American and South Vietnamese bombing and shelling. If your knowledge of the Battle of Hue came from Westy alone—from his public statements at the time and from his memoir—you would view it as a thumping American victory.

You have to give the general credit for consistency. On the day after the Saigon flag was run back up the pole at Ngo Mon, he gave a long interview to reporters in Saigon, in which he again declared that the Tet Offensive had been a “military defeat” for Hanoi. He was still anticipating the big attack at Khe Sanh and did not even mention Hue. Even the fact that the enemy had surprised him (slightly) by the number of forces they deployed, to him this was not a setback but an opportunity: “In a very real sense, when he [the enemy] moved out of his jungle camps he made himself more vulnerable and gave us an opportunity to hurt him severely.” He denied that his official casualty estimates were inflated and said that the enemy’s offensive was a sign of desperation. Westy added that many NVA and VC had fought “halfheartedly.”

This was certainly not the experience of those who fought them in Hue. To a man, the American veterans I interviewed told me they had faced a disciplined, highly motivated, skilled, and determined enemy. To characterize them otherwise is to diminish the accomplishment of those who drove them out of Hue. But taking the city back qualifies as a “victory” only in a narrow sense—they achieved their objective. In any larger sense the word hardly applies. Both sides badly miscalculated. Hanoi counted on a popular uprising that didn’t come, while Washington and Saigon, blindsided, refused to believe the truth. Both sides played their roles courageously, and to terrible effect. In sum: Hanoi’s troops seized the city and were then forced at tremendous cost to relinquish it, while the city itself was leveled in the process. The status quo was upheld but greatly diminished, and it lasted for only a few more years. How is this victory? It takes a determined act of imagination for either side to make that claim. It makes more sense to consider the ways both sides lost.

If we use Westy’s favorite measure, the body count, the battle’s clearest losers were the citizens of Hue. In the city today, where memories of that nightmarish month are still bitter, it is said that there is a victim under every square meter of ground. It remains a shameful fact in the Socialist Republic of Vietnam that many hundreds, perhaps thousands, of its citizens were dispatched deliberately by their “liberators.” The ruling Communist Party labors to promote national unity by remembering the conflict not as a civil war but strictly as a struggle for independence, so reprisals against its own countrymen are an inconvenient memory. The party has never named or punished those responsible, not least because they were following clear orders from above. Many of those who carried out the purges have been celebrated as heroes of the state. The official position is that while there were some excesses, some “mistakes,” the numbers have been exaggerated by Vietnam’s enemies.

Of those who perished, by far the greatest number were killed by accident, either in the cross fire or by allied shelling and bombing. Accidental deaths do not equate morally to mass execution but, as the writer Tran Thi Thu Van has pointed out, the effect is the same. Today we rightly weigh the cost in civilian lives whenever violent action is taken, but I found very little concern expressed in 1968, not in any of the official papers I reviewed, not in contemporary press accounts or the dozens of books and papers written since, and not, for that matter, in any of the interviews I conducted. Vietnamese civilians, when they do come up, are described as a nuisance, even though the battle, like the war, was ostensibly about them. Nearly every marine I interviewed recalled seeing dead civilians in the streets, inside buildings, and in bunkers underneath those buildings. The Citadel, in particular, was a confined area, where escape was all but impossible. Nearly all the civilians I interviewed who survived the battle described losing family members, most often to shells and bombs. The survivors described, without hesitation, bombardment as the most terrifying memory, even those who’d had family members executed. If Hanoi did not win many new friends by taking Hue, neither did the allies in taking it back.

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Hue 1968: Winning and Losing

From Hue 1968: A Turning Point of the American War in Vietnam, by Mark Bowden (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2017), Kindle Loc. 8484-8494:

Still, there is no question that the Vietnamese people lost something precious when Hanoi won the war. One young woman from Ho Chi Minh City, born decades after the war ended, told me that her generation looks at Seoul and at Tokyo and asks, “Is this what we would have been if we hadn’t chased the Americans away?” And while the Communist Party has relaxed its hold on the economy, to great effect, Vietnam remains a strictly authoritarian state, where speaking your mind, or even recounting truthful stories from your own experience, can get you in trouble. Researching the Battle of Hue was tricky. In telling the story I was revisiting a heroic chapter in the national struggle, but I was also reopening old wounds. The purges in 1968 left many citizens with profound grievances against the state that they remain frightened to voice. Many were reluctant to speak candidly to me, particularly those with sad stories.

On my first visit I worked with an independent translator and guide, Dang Hoa Ho, a former Vietnamese military officer (he is too young to have fought in the American War and served in Vietnam’s modern army), who was skilled at putting people at ease and who fully understood my desire for uncensored memories. On my second trip, against my expressed wishes, Hoa was nudged aside by Dinh Hoang Linh, deputy director of Hanoi’s Foreign Press Center, part of the country’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Linh proved to be unfailingly helpful and charming, and a skilled translator, but his presence had a chilling effect.

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Hue 1968: Viet Cong Girls in the Fight

From Hue 1968: A Turning Point of the American War in Vietnam, by Mark Bowden (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2017), Kindle Loc. 6259-6275:

Che spoke no English, but she had been warned that when she heard the Americans shout “VeeCee,” it meant they needed to move fast, they had been spotted. She exchanged fire with the marines but never took careful aim. There were too many of them coming. When she used the rifle, she would just spray fire in the general direction of the enemy. After one skirmish she recovered a newer, more lightweight American rifle, an AR-15, which she preferred. Teams of the young people brought her ammo for it, looted from ARVN depots.

Whenever Lien fired her B-40 they would immediately run to a different trench, because it gave away their location and drew a hail of return fire. It took seven seconds for the launched grenade to explode. For some kinds of grenades it was only three seconds. For days they shot and ran, shot and ran. They moved so fast they rarely had a chance to see if they hit anything.

At the nearby Cong Market, her friend Hoang Thi No was engaged in a similar running street fight. She found the marines easy targets, because they were big and because they did not move confidently in the streets the way she and her team members could. She was very familiar with the blocks where she fought, so she knew which way to run when the shooting came close. To her, the Americans with all their heavy equipment were like men who had fallen from the sky to a strange planet. She picked them off individually, and when she found them in a group, she and her comrades threw grenades. The carnage she saw around her did not so much frighten as enrage her. Hoang resolved to fight to the death. She expected she would be wounded or killed because so many others had been. She didn’t think about it. She just fought. She was seventeen and excited and filled with pride and she did not tire easily. At night she and the others in her squad took turns sleeping for an hour or two. Four of those in her group were killed before they were finally ordered to withdraw to the forest and regroup.

Hoang’s team lasted longer than Che’s, which was in the path of Lieutenant Smith’s company. It held its own until the air and artillery bombardments started, which were unlike anything the girls had ever experienced.

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Hue 1968: Sensations of Battle

From Hue 1968: A Turning Point of the American War in Vietnam, by Mark Bowden (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2017), Kindle Loc. 6136-6148:

Men learned firsthand how to gauge the severity and type of wounds. Shrapnel burned. It was hot metal. If you were hit by shrapnel it felt like someone touching you with fire. With a bullet the first thing you felt, after the shocking impact but before the pain, was wetness. Shrapnel cauterized the wound instantly, but bullets made you bleed. You tried not to think too hard about it. Thinking about it was tempting fate. And fear? Fear was just the air you breathed.

Most kept going. The sun would rise and they would form up and wait to be told to run across another street, climb through another wall, barge through another door, knowing each time it might be their turn to pay the price. Art Marcotte, a private from Boston, would feel sick to his stomach with fear when he was ordered to step out into a street or run across a courtyard under fire. But he went.

Hygiene was a memory. Since many had been plucked from the field and sent directly to Hue, they had not washed in weeks. At night they shared a toothbrush. All of the men gave off a pungent odor. One of Connelly’s jobs as corpsman was to find a safe spot to dig a latrine, a trench. He would find a chair and knock the seat out of it to serve as a commode. One day in his second week Fox Company passed through a wastewater treatment facility near the canal. It had large circular vats made of concrete divided into reeking pie-shaped segments where human waste settled out before the water was drained off for the next step in its purification. A rocket blast knocked three marines into one of them, and because they were loaded with gear, there was a danger they might drown. Connelly and another corpsman had to plunge in to pull them out. They hadn’t thought it possible for men to smell worse, but after that, they did.

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Hue 1968: The People, Trapped

From Hue 1968: A Turning Point of the American War in Vietnam, by Mark Bowden (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2017), Kindle Loc. 4739-4764:

NHAN DAN, THE people, had nowhere to go. Far from being liberated by the invading Communist army, they had been trapped by the Tet Offensive in a nightmare of bloodletting. For some it began on the first day, but as the battle entered its second week, it encompassed all.

At first there were enough eager converts to swell the sails of the true believers. The young commissars proclaimed the war all but won. Citizens were rising up not just in Hue, they said, but throughout South Vietnam. Independence and reunification were at hand! For Xuan, the poet propagandist, these first days were like a dream. Small red flags came out and flew from dwellings up and down the crowded streets. Even some of his old friends who had shown no enthusiasm for the revolution were now active recruits. At his political headquarters in the post office inside the Citadel, there were three lines of people waiting to sign confessions about their past sins and to enlist in the righteous cause. Some told him they had been inspired by his rhetoric, that he had spoken to their hearts.

Nguyen Van Quang, the local organizer who had smuggled arms into the city and then led troops through Chanh Tay Gate, moved in with a local family. They prepared celebratory feasts with food they had collected for the holidays and shared freely.

It felt right that the revolution in the city’s streets was being led by Hue’s own youth. After all, in China the zealous young Red Guards were upending their own society with Mao Zedong’s “Little Red Book.” All over the world in 1968, like some global fever, young people were challenging authority and demanding change. While in the United States and Europe “revolution” was an excuse to sell pop music, stage protests, and hold festivals, it was being played for keeps in Asia. Young people were not just challenging their elders but pushing them aside, expelling, imprisoning, and in many cases executing them, all the while extolling the young as the righteous vanguard, their very youth a badge of purity. They were, by definition, forward-thinking. And in Hue they were armed.

In stories and songs and lectures the commissars celebrated the people as the wellspring of all power and virtue, but there was, nevertheless, need for instruction and guidance. Some things would have to change. Decadent Western influences were everywhere, and not just in politics. The modish hairstyles and short skirts favored by the more fashionable girls, for instance . . . these were unseemly and un-Vietnamese, as were wealth and corrupting ideas. With an army behind them, the commissars were hastily remaking Hue in their own image.

The first priority was the city’s defense, and for this everyone able was put to work. Then there was the business of correcting errant thinking. For this there were public lectures on the seven tasks of all party members and on the slogans of Uncle Ho, which were to be memorized and shouted in unison. The Front had issued stern prohibitions on looting, but the commissars and their local militias had a different understanding. They saw strong revolutionary logic in confiscating whatever was needed—food, shelter, supplies . . . or those things that caught their eye. They took cars, scooters, and bicycles. Boys and girls in Hue were amused by the young rebels trying to ride them. There was prudent acceptance of this plunder.

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Hue 1968: Vietnamese Strategy

From Hue 1968: A Turning Point of the American War in Vietnam, by Mark Bowden (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2017), Kindle Loc. 4314-4330:

[Viet Cong Lt. Hoang] called his strategy for resisting the coming counterattack bam vao that-lung dich (“hold on to the enemy’s belt”). It was how he hoped to overcome the Americans’ overwhelming firepower. The marines would typically hammer an enemy line with bombs and shells before advancing. By “clinging to their belt,” Hoang meant keeping his men so close to marine lines that it would be too risky for them to shell—he did not believe reports that Americans would not use heavy weapons in the city. His battalion was arrayed in two flexible and irregular defensive lines, one directly across the street from the marines and another two blocks back. During an attack the front line could bend in one place and hold in another. It would hold off an assault for as long as possible, and then fall back to the second line. If the attacking marines failed to occupy and hold the block they had just taken, as had mostly been the case so far, Hoang’s men would move back up at night, always staying directly across the street. If things worked out as he planned, this would force the marines to advance with small arms alone, evening the fight. In that kind of fight, Hoang believed his men had the advantage. Most were veterans with far more experience than the marines, and so long as their lines of supply stayed open they could resist for days, maybe even weeks, bleeding the marines for every square foot.

By necessity, military commanders are realists, and to Hoang it was already apparent that the “general uprising” part of the Tet plan was not happening. While some had rallied to the cause, and others seemed willing to follow orders to help dig and carry and cook (keeping their true feelings to themselves), there had been no swell of popular support. The citizens of Hue had either fled or dug in. What he saw were people in shock over the violent disruption of their lives. Refugees ran to the countryside, if they could get there, or huddled in places they hoped would be safe: in churches, behind his defensive lines, or behind the American ones at the compound and now the university. They were not rallying to one side or the other; they were trying to stay alive. They hung close to the front lines for the same reason that he stayed close to the marines, to escape bombardment. So Hoang had no illusions about keeping Hue permanently. But he was going to make the Americans pay to take it back.

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Okinawa Diary, 1975: Atrocities

My late brother worked as a guide at the U.S. Pavilion at the Ocean Expo in Okinawa in 1975. While there he typed up many pages of observations about people, places, and words of interest there. I scanned and edited the pages, added Japanese kanji for some of the words, and publish them here as a series.

Mr. Higa got the job as U.S. pavilion bartender, or “lounge captain” thru an employment agency and a friend he had in it who thought this might be a possible part-time job until the organic chemistry prof. began teaching at RYUUKYUU University next year. Mixology was more than likely the foundation stone of the chemical sciences anyway, and goes back a long, long way in history. Having studied abroad at Ohio State and the University of Hawaii for some eight dedicated years, he is now in his mid-thirties, and so has rather vivid childhood memories of the dreadful, bloody, blitzkrieg invasion of Okinawa that resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths, a majority of which were Okinawan civilians, over a few short months.

When his house was burned by the U.S. troops in their clean-up operation of Japanese troop hideouts, his family went in afterwards and ate all of the cooked, garlic that had been stored on the shelves for seeding the next crop. The mountains were a refuge in those days, and most of the people of his village, KATSUYAMA [勝山], spent the daylight hours hidden in their cover, slipping down to their homes at nights to dig out SATSUMA [sweet] potatoes from the fields. Sometimes they would find rice and hard crackers in the quickly deserted camps of Japanese troops who had long since fled those posts. Everyone was desperate for grub, and he can remember dirty army deserters who came to their house fully armed and demanded food at the point of a gun. Not every Japanese soldier committed suicide in the face of defeat.

One day, before the clean-up burnings, a few U.S soldiers came to the HIGA home and sat on the front porch. The family was home and they all raised their hands in surrender and waited. The soldiers offered the children candy, but the parents told the youngsters in their tongue that they were not to eat it. Seeing the fear, the squad took the candy and bit off bits of it to show the locals that it was safe. Mr. Higa and his brothers then ate the goods quickly, altho Higa-san claims that he can’t remember if “it was good or not.” The youngest brother, still quite unaware of the whole situation, tried to play with the rifle of one soldier. The man took out the ammunition cartridge and gave the child the weapon to fiddle with.

Since Mr. Higa’s father was the KUCHOU [区長] ‘village head’, their house had been chosen as the temporary living quarters of WATANABE, the commander of a camp of Japanese soldiers who were setting up tents and settling in caves in the area before the invasion. This was an honor of a sort for the HIGA family, and when the commander’s private servant didn’t cook for him, the HIGA family included him in their humble meals. The village was expected to give provisions to the small Japanese post there in the foothills, most of whose men were from the Japanese mainland.

Altho the Okinawan people had been under Japanese gov’t for long enough to feel part of “the nation,” the mainlanders treated them like inferiors at times, even in the midst of a “united” war effort.

When Mr. Higa saw the negative press coverage that Japanese news media gave the My Lai Massacre in Vietnam, he said that the big headlines seem to indicate they had “forgotten their own” atrocities. He mentioned the “massacres” at KUMEJIMA [久米島], and KERAMA [慶良間] of Okinawan civilians who were shot because they tried to surrender, or were given hand grenades to carry into the enemy lines and to blow up their families with. One supposedly responsible Japanese commander by the name of AKAMATSU is reputed to be living in Kobe, Japan, today and is a businessman. Some years ago, he came back to Okinawa and the papers got wind of it and the whole devilish drama was unburied though he denied guilt or responsibility.

One thing that surprised many of the mountain refugees was how little they came in contact with the poisonous HABU [波布] viper which loves the rocky mountains. Only two cases are recalled by Mr. Higa, one being a lovely young girl who was bitten in the arm, the other being a boy a few years younger than young HIGA, who was bitten in the face. The girl’s arm festered and swole up, and was later amputated by the American medical team who treated her area. She is now living in Brazil, one of the many Japanese immigrants. The boy still has an ugly scar on his face, but survived.

When the war finally finished, and families came out of the hills, the U.S. troops relocated them in camps, the villagers of KATSUYAMA [勝山] being assigned to HANEJI [羽地] in the flatlands south of there. Some food was supplied by the Occupation forces but many of the families dug up all the SATSUMA [sweet] potatoes that they could find in their fields, and carried them on their backs to the shoreline shacks. It was there that young HIGA started school, in April, one year after the invasion began.

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