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War memories still haunt

Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

Pondering Vietnam after many years, many memories resurface. I recorded some of these personal flashbacks.

I remember Lau, a boy of about 10, whose spinal cord was severed by an explosion. He was one of hundreds of thousands of war victims. For me what made him different was that I knew him. He underwent years of rehabilitation, some of it in the United States, where he was fitted for braces and learned to walk with them. Eventually, my wife, Hoa, returned Lau to his village, an event so unusual it was photographed by famed Life magazine photographer Larry Burrows, who later died in a helicopter crash over Laos. I was with Larry, as a journalist, the day he died, traveling in another helicopter. I have often wondered what happened to the boy.

* * *

I remember Vo Tanh, who was also in the care of my wife. He had been playing with a hand grenade when it blew up, riddling his face, chest and arms with metal fragments. Deaf, mute, blind and missing one hand, he lived with Hoa in a world of darkness and isolation. Only through touch, by feeling faces, could he know who was with him. I remember holding the stump that was his arm and cursing the war.

* * *

I remember Hoa Da village. One morning in October 1967, after hearing about a village bombing I set out to see the results for myself. The story was familiar by then. North Vietnamese soldiers entered the village, killed two officials and prepared for the battle they knew would surely follow. South Vietnamese soldiers eventually surrounded Hoa Da, fired on it, but were unable to drive out their enemy. So U.S. air strikes were called in. The bombardment lasted more than 24 hours.

The village was still smoldering as I entered to assess the damage. A U.S. Army major, assessing for himself, but speaking to no one in the village, called the bombings “a successful effort.” Hoa Da was nearly destroyed. The alleged “success” could be calculated by counting the number of dead North Vietnamese soldiers, 50 in all. What he had missed as clearly as if he wore a black bag over his head was what most Americans were missing -- this was a political, not military war. And with each new village bombed by U.S. planes, North Vietnam had only further revealed U.S. imperial intent.

More than 50 villagers of Hoa Da, mostly the old, the weak and some pregnant women, those unable to flee, died under the bombs. As I was taking pictures that day, a young man in tattered pajamas asked what I planned to do with my film. Then he said: “Be sure to send some pictures to your president!” It was then another man walked toward me, two children clinging to his legs, and said: “Your planes killed my grandfather and my nephew.”

The United States dropped 4.6 million tons of bombs over Vietnam during the war, one and a half times more tonnage than all the allies dropped during World War II. Dong Tac refugee camp sat adjacent to a U.S. Air Force base. Day after day I watched fighter-bombers, painted with devils, shark’s teeth and American flags, take off and land. They would bomb. The survivors would later find their ways into the local refugee camps.

* * *

I remember a visit one evening. I recall about a dozen refugees, all men, some in frayed shirts and pants, others in pajamas, who came to my one-room, cinder-block house in Tuy Hoa. Apparently they thought I could be trusted and decided to take me into their confidence. Variously squatting and sitting in a circle, they said they came to talk about my work. They smoked some cigarettes and drank tea I had offered them, and eventually got to the message they wanted to deliver. What they told me was this: “If you want to help us, then tell your people what war is doing to our country.”

I felt commissioned. After finishing my refugee work I began writing more. I traveled throughout the country and saw more than I ever want to remember.

* * *

I remember Kim Phuc, the little nine-year-old Vietnamese girl who ran naked from the napalm strike near Trang Bang on June 8, 1972. Two of her cousins were killed in the attack. Several days after the attack I visited her in a Saigon hospital. An Associated Press photographer, Carl Robinson, and I took her some candy and spoke to her briefly. I still remember the smell of her burned flesh.

* * *

I remember the Dinh Tuong province hospital and the words of a 58-year-old survivor of a B-52 bombing attack. In the spring of 1972, the U.S. Air Force began a particularly ferocious bombing campaign over the Mekong Delta. Most Vietnamese feared to admit being in an area hit with bombs lest they be pegged as Viet Cong sympathizers. But Van Si was one exception. He told me he had been cutting rice one morning with 10 other elderly men when suddenly a B-52 struck. Seconds later, only he and one other man remained alive. “I dived when the bombs began rumbling,” he said. “When I got up, eight of the men had disappeared.”

I wrote the story for Time magazine. The U.S. Air Force denied the bombing ever took place.

* * *

I remember Khe Sanh. It was six miles from Vietnam’s border with Laos, 1,500 feet above sea level, and the site of one of the most famous battles of the Vietnam War. In 1968, 5,600 U.S. marines had been under siege there for 75 days by massed North Vietnamese regulars, in a bloody battle that seized the attention of the public back home. “The eyes of the nation,” President Lyndon Johnson had declared, “are on that little brave band of defenders who hold the pass at Khe Sanh.”

Once, reporting for The New York Times, I ended up at the base to gather information about a military campaign called Lam Son 719. Its purpose was to cut the Ho Ch Minh trail in Laos, and it was one of the bloodiest battles of the war. Khe Sanh was surrounded by North Vietnamese soldiers, who every 15 minutes or so would launch artillery into the base. I remember the sound of the incoming shells and the sheer fright they brought with them.

Quang Tri was a staging area for Lam Son. I stood once in a large canvas tent, stepping over rows of mangled bodies of South Vietnamese soldiers who were being carried out of Laos in what turned out to be a rout. One young man, one leg completely severed at the thigh, both arms torn open, lay looking up, whispering through his bloody face that he wanted a cigarette, which I fetched and placed in his mouth. He died smoking it.

Today Khe Sanh, like many other battle sites, is a tourist attraction. Locals say that 30 to 40 foreigners, some of them U.S. veterans, make the journey every day to this remote location. It takes a grueling one-day minibus tour from the central city of Hue to get to Khe Sanh. I used to fly there in an Army helicopter. During the 20-minute flight between mountains, North Vietnamese soldiers would attempt to shoot the aircraft out of the sky. Sometimes you could hear the bullets hitting the sides of the helicopter.

* * *

I remember the five o’clock follies. That’s what the press called them. That was when U.S. and Vietnamese press officers would paint the brightest picture they could on the day’s events, lying when they had to. Late one evening, at a particularly desperate time, New York Times correspondent Gloria Emerson and I returned to the press briefing room with a plan. I talked with the guard to distract him while Emerson sneaked inside. On the briefing room wall, using black spray paint, she wrote in large letters: “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” A lot of questions were asked next day. We kept our silence.

National Catholic Reporter, April 28, 2000