WITNESS TO HISTORY
The following account of the author’s adventures during the harrowing days of the Tet Offensive in Vietnam in 1968 could as well be placed under a heading of “Remembering Vietnam” or “Life in the Foreign Service.” But let Ambassador Bullington tell his tale as a “Witness to History,” the journals newly inaugurated series.
By J. R. Bullington How do you say “Bless you, my son” in French?
This was not a phrase I had learned in my French training at the Foreign Service Institute. Nor, as an East Tennessee hillbilly raised in the Church of Christ, was the vocabulary of a Catholic priest something I had ever imagined using.
Yet, on a dreary January 31, 1968, as I pulled a soutane, a black priest’s gown, over my head, that was one of many urgent questions that raced through my mind. I was in Hue; the Tet Offensive had begun the day before; and the North Vietnamese army (NVA) had occupied the city. It was a strange, grim situation for a young diplomat.
Vietnam was my first overseas assignment in the Foreign Service, and I was nearing the end of my third tour of duty in that country. How I came to be a make-believe French priest behind the North Vietnamese lines in Hue during the 1968 Tet Offensive is a complicated story.Hue: A Special Sort of Place
I was first assigned to the Consulate at Hue in 1965, as a “provincial reporting officer” covering political, security, and economic developments in the country’s five northernmost provinces, the I Corps — universally called “Eye” Corps — region.
Hue was a special sort of place. As Washington Post correspondent Don Oberdorfer put it in his 1971 book, Tet!, “Its bittersweet charm and faded glory were deeply affecting to almost every visitor. The city radiated a haunting attraction difficult to define or explain.”
A Vietnamese writer expressed it more floridly:
And here, see Hue! with its craftsmen, singers, scholars and maidens. Who can forget the disturbing memory of those dainty figures — those living flowers? How enchanting in the moonlight, to walk leisurely along the River of Perfumes, the soul open to poetry, the heart bursting forth with tenderness. Hue! Refuge of romantic loves.
(From Les Hommes d’au-dela du Sud ,
by Tran Van Tung, Editions de la Baconnière, 1957.)
Hue was not without its darker side. In 1966, the Consulate was attacked and burned by a largely student mob in one of the Buddhist-led political upheavals centered in Hue which so destabilized the South Vietnamese governments of that period. I was transferred at that time to the Embassy in Saigon as staff aide to Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge.
By the time my assignment with Ambassador Lodge ended, I was finding Vietnam, and especially its lovely young women, very much to my liking. Moreover, from a career point of view, I relished the idea of being at the very center of the principal American national security and foreign policy issue of the time; and I enjoyed the wartime camaraderie of good friends. I had seen plenty of death and destruction and had even been involved in a few close calls myself. But like many young men, I suppose I somehow felt I was invulnerable.
Bhuddist monks demonstrate in front of U.S. Consulate
Student demonstrators in front of U.S. Consulate
Students burning U.S. Consulate — Hue, 1966
On to Quang Tri
So, after a brief home leave, I volunteered in 1967 for another tour of duty in Vietnam. This time I was assigned to work in the pacification program, known as CORDS (Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support). This was the integrated military and civilian effort to destroy the Viet Cong infrastructure and build stronger support for the South Vietnamese government in the countryside.
Because my work with Ambassador Lodge had enabled me to get to know all the senior U.S. leaders in Saigon, I was able to influence the location of my assignment to a considerable degree. Since I very much wanted to return to I Corps, and there was nothing immediately available in Hue, I chose to go to Quang Tri, located just north of Hue along the DMZ, the demilitarized zone set up by the 1954 Geneva Accords to separate the Communist North from the pro-Western South.
Unfortunately, by 1967 the demilitarized zone had become very militarized, indeed, and Quang Tri Province was the scene of more heavy combat than any of the forty-three other provinces in the country. The Marines’ great battle at Khe Sanh is the best known, but there were many other major battles at places like Con Thien, the Rockpile, Dong Ha, Cam Lo, Quang Tri City, and all along Route 9, leading west from its intersection with Route 1 near the South China Sea to Tchepone in southern Laos, an important junction on the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
My principal job in Quang Tri was organizing assistance to the tens of thousands of refugees generated by the heavy fighting. I was also responsible for assisting the provincial government with such economic development activities as were possible under the circumstances. It was exciting, challenging work.
My main reason for wanting to return to I Corps, however, was not to be close to the combat, but to be close to a certain young lady. Tuy-Cam was a Foreign Service National employee at the Consulate in Hue when I arrived there in 1965. We had worked together and had shared a good deal of excitement and danger during the political turbulence. She was my interpreter when I called on some of the Buddhist leaders who spoke no French, including The Venerable Tri Quang, their political chief.
After the burning of the Consulate, she was also transferred to Saigon, and our courtship continued to develop. However, during a period when the romance waned a bit, she requested a transfer to Danang, where the former Hue Consulate had been re-opened as a Consulate General.
It was the prospect of reviving this romance, together with a rejection by an American girlfriend, which largely motivated me to volunteer for another tour in Vietnam and to arrange that it be in I Corps. Since Danang was the Corps headquarters, I had good official as well as personal reasons to visit it often from Quang Tri.
Soon the romance flourished, and by the end of 1967 Tuy-Cam and I were engaged to be married. The marriage was to be at her home in Hue in March 1968, just before my tour of duty was to end.
The Tet holidays that were to begin on January 30 were especially important for Tuy-Cam and her family. Tet, the Chinese lunar New Year, is the principal Vietnamese holiday, sort of like Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s Eve, and everyone’s birthday all combined; and this was to be her last Tet at home before embarking on a new life in a far-away land. Tuy-Cam came home from Danang to Hue. I came down from Quang Tri to join her.
In Quang Tri, intelligence reports had warned of the possibility of a large-scale enemy attack around the Tet period, but intelligence of pending attacks was commonplace in that beleaguered province. Moreover, it was expected either before or after, not during, the three-day holiday period, when both sides had traditionally declared a truce.
Arrival in Hue
Nonetheless, on arriving in Hue via the Air America afternoon shuttle on January 30, I checked with some of the Americans there to see if anything unusual was afoot. They had heard reports similar to those in Quang Tri, but didn’t seem to take them too seriously. So Tuy-Cam and I continued with our plans for a holiday dinner that evening at her house.
During my time in Quang Tri I had gotten to know a Franco-Vietnamese resident of Hue, Albert Istivie, whose company ran the electric power plants in both cities. I had helped him out on a couple of occasions by putting him on Air America flights when he needed to return from Quang Tri to Hue and the road was closed by fighting. He had invited me to stay in a guest room at the power plant when I visited Hue, so I stopped there to get the key and deposit my bag before proceeding to Tuy-Cam’s house for dinner.
Joining us for the dinner were two other Americans: Steve Haukness, a Foreign Service communicator at the Danang Consulate who worked with Tuy-Cam and had come to Hue for a bit of tourism in the old capital of the Vietnamese Emperors, and Steve Miller, a Foreign Service Officer classmate of mine who was assigned to Hue on loan to the U.S. Information Agency as its representative in the Province. Steve Haukness was to spend the night at Steve Miller’s house.
The dinner was pleasant, with some great Vietnamese food and several bottles of Ba Muoi Ba, one of the local beers. Tuy-Cam’s brothers were also there: An, an Army lieutenant assigned to the provincial headquarters, and Long, a Vietnamese Air Force Academy cadet home on leave.
During the dinner, one of Tuy-Cam’s elderly uncles warned that he had heard the enemy was planning to attack the city that night, but the rest of us were either unconcerned or fatalistic. Most were veterans of other Communist attacks — raids, really — which involved fighting and danger, to be sure, but which were over by dawn as the enemy retreated to their hideouts in the countryside to avoid the overwhelming firepower American and South Vietnamese forces could bring to bear on troops in fixed positions during daylight.
An Unpeaceful Night
So about 11 p.m. I returned to my room at the power plant; the two other Americans went to Steve Miller’s house; and Tuy-Cam and her family settled in for the night.
- Whump! Whump! Whump!
About 3:00 a.m. my sound sleep was interrupted by the familiar sound of incoming mortar rounds. I could also hear small arms fire coming from several directions. Though of course I didn’t know it at the time, three full North Vietnamese infantry regiments, plus several rocket and combat engineer battalions, supported by various Viet Cong local force units, were overrunning and occupying the city. The only installations they failed to capture were the South Vietnamese First Division headquarters compound in the northern part of the city and the compound occupied by about 100 American military advisers on the south side.
Since the mortars were not in my immediate vicinity, and realizing I was in a relatively safe place under the circumstances, I went back to sleep.
When I awoke not long after daylight, the sounds of fighting had died down. Thinking this meant the enemy forces had as usual withdrawn after their raid, I started out the door of the guest room. However, I saw my friend Albert in the power plant, which was across a large courtyard from the guest room. He frantically motioned for me to get back inside. Clearly, something was very wrong.
I retreated back inside and waited. And waited. Eventually, with no knowledge of what was going on, the waiting grew unbearable. My curiosity got the better of my prudence, and about 10:30 I ventured outside again, walking across the courtyard and into the power plant. There I found Albert.
“What are you doing here?”, he whispered with a shocked expression. “I told you to stay inside. They’re here, the North Vietnamese are right here, they’re all around us. You’d better get back in that room and stay there!”
I hastened to comply.
A Grave Situation
For the first time I began to guess at the gravity of the situation. I stayed in the small guest room the rest of the day, fearful that any moment could bring a knock on the door and my capture. My vehicle, an International Scout with the familiar U.S. Agency for International Development handclasp insignia on its doors, was parked just outside, advertising that an American was probably somewhere close by.
The knock, when it finally came about 3:00 p.m., turned out to be Albert’s. He brought me a ham sandwich and a bottle of Biere LaRue. Although I hadn’t had anything to eat or drink all day, I was mostly hungry for information. Albert explained the situation as best he knew it, including the fact that the North Vietnamese had set up a company headquarters at the power plant and were digging in, with the apparent intention of staying indefinitely.
“It seems they’ve taken everything,” he said, “the whole city of Hue. You can’t stay here. If they find you, it would be bad for both of us.”
His words made good sense. “But where should I go?”
Albert said he would try to make arrangements and come back at 5:30, when I was to listen for four knocks on the door, a signal to spare me the terror of thinking it might be the North Vietnamese.
The knocks came at the appointed time. Albert said that he had arranged for me to go to the nearby house of a French priest. He would return at 6:00, he said, and we worked out a plan of movement.
Promptly at 6:00, the four knocks came again. I eased open the door and watched Albert move across the courtyard. When he reached the power plant, he looked back at one of the buildings where the NVA soldiers were located, then moved away without signaling me to follow. Something had gone wrong.
Escape from the Power Plant
Albert returned in about half an hour. He explained that one of the NVA had been looking out the window, but now they appeared to be busy cooking and eating dinner, so we would make another attempt. This time, after Albert crossed the courtyard, he signaled me to come ahead. It was clear that the NVA could see me if they looked, but I fervently hoped they would assume I was one of the Frenchmen who worked at the power plant rather than the owner of the American-marked vehicle parked nearby. So I tried to walk deliberately, as if I belonged there, betraying no haste or panic.
I got to the other side of the courtyard, where Albert was waiting just out of sight of the NVA. He hastily led me out of the power plant compound and over a couple of back yard walls to the house of Father Cressonier, a priest of the Société des Missions Étrangères, a group that had been in Vietnam for over thirty years.
Father Cressonier took me into the house and introduced me to his other guest, Father Poncet, a younger priest who had recently been forced to flee his post at Khe Sanh because of the fighting there. ”
“You’re welcome here as long as you need to hide,” Father Cressonier said. “But I’m sure your Marines will retake this area by tomorrow or the next day, and you’ll be safe.”
I shared his optimism, little thinking that this was only the beginning of the ordeal.
“Here, try this on,” Father Cressonier urged, handing me one of his soutanes. Fortunately, he was a big man, like me, so the gown looked as though it might have been mine. “If anyone asks,” he said, “we’ll claim you’re a Canadian priest here for a visit.” My French was fairly good, but it would have been obvious to anyone fluent in the language that I was not a Frenchman.
The next morning we looked out the second floor window at a huge Viet Cong flag flying over the Citadel, the mile-square fortress-like palace of the Vietnamese Emperors across the Perfume River on the north side of the city. It had replaced the equally huge South Vietnamese Government flag that normally flew there. This was striking evidence that the bulk of the city was in enemy hands.
For the next couple of days we remained optimistic that the U.S. Marines and South Vietnamese government forces would soon retake the city. After all, more than any other city, Hue embodied Vietnamese culture, history, traditions, and sense of national identity. Its loss could well mean the loss of the war. Surely, we thought, the American and Vietnamese high commands would not let it remain under enemy occupation for any length of time.
We failed to imagine, however, the strength of the North Vietnamese forces in the city, the near-totality of their initial victory, or the confusion, misjudgment, and sometimes ineptitude of the American command and the Saigon authorities. Expecting a large-scale counter-attack, we would have been astounded to learn that the Marines initially sent a lone company, then a single battalion, and finally only two battalions for the immense task of clearing the dug-in enemy force of at least six battalions from the south side of the city. (For the definitive military history of the Battle of Hue, see Fire in the Streets: The Battle for Hue, Tet 1968, by Eric Hammel, Contemporary Books, 1991.)
By the third day, as we realized liberation was not imminent, our spirits fell. Fear and anticipation were replaced by gnawing anxiety and boredom. We could sometimes see NVA soldiers and groups of civilian refugees moving along the streets, but we never left the house, both to avoid being noticed and to escape bullets and occasional mortar and artillery rounds that fell in the neighborhood. Sometimes, when the shelling became intense, we would move to the relative safety of a closet under the stairwell leading to the second floor. Fortunately, that’s where we were when the house was hit by a large shell, possibly a 105mm artillery round. The roof and walls of the second floor were mostly blown away, making a two-story house one-story. We were shaken but unhurt.
My greatest fear was not artillery, however, but a knock on the door by Communist cadre who I guessed (correctly, it developed) would be out organizing the city’s inhabitants and looking for enemies. That knock never came. Subsequently, it was discovered that in the initial stages of the occupation the cadres were instructed to leave French residents alone. (France was perceived as being opposed to American involvement in the war.) Albert and the French priests had no way of knowing this, of course; and in any case this benign attitude would have changed if it had been discovered that they were hiding an American. It was extraordinarily brave and generous of them to take me in.
Meanwhile, other American civilians in Hue were not so lucky. After the battle, the body of my friend Steve Miller was found in a field behind a Catholic Seminary that had been used as a prisoner collection point. His arms had been tied, and he was shot in the back of the head. Steve Haukness was never found. We assume he was killed somewhere outside of the city.
Beyond my own immediate danger, I was also very worried about Tuy-Cam. As an employee of the U.S. Government, she would be in as much danger as I would if discovered. Indeed, this fear was well placed. During the occupation of Hue, there were some 2,000 documented cases of execution and mass murder of Vietnamese civilians whom the Communists saw as enemies. These included South Vietnamese government employees, politicians, teachers, intellectuals, business people and religious leaders, as well as U.S. Government employees. Although cadre came to her house, since Tuy-Cam was working in Danang at the time, she apparently was not on the hit lists for Hue that had been carefully compiled in advance of the attack.
The Marines Arrive
Finally, on the morning of February 8, liberation was at hand.
“Where the hell is Jones’ squad?” This was the first English I had heard for nine days, except for a small battery radio that would occasionally bring in the U.S. Armed Forces station from Saigon. It was coming from no more than a couple of blocks away. I climbed to the rubble of the blown-away second floor and saw them: honest-to-God U.S. Marines, cautiously moving our way.
They reached the house in a quarter of an hour. When I introduced myself, the sergeant said, “Oh yeah. They told us there might be some sort of VIP hiding around here. I’d better call the captain.”
Soon the company commander, Capt. Ron Christmas, arrived on the scene. (Capt. Christmas, one of the heroes of the Battle of Hue, went on to a distinguished Marine Corps career, eventually retiring as a Lieutenant General.) After giving him all the information the Frenchmen and I had about the situation in the immediate area, we had some of the Marines wrap me in a blanket and carry me out as if I were a wounded Marine. This was so that the neighbors wouldn’t see that the priests had been hiding me.
I had invited the priests to leave with me, but they declined, saying their duty was to stay and tend to the spiritual needs of their flock, especially now that they could get out of the house and start working again.
When I next saw Albert several days later, he told me that Father Cressonier and Father Poncet had gone out the next day to look after a large group of refugees gathered in a nearby church. On the way back, the priests were stopped by a group of Viet Cong, who shot them and took their jeep. Albert buried them in the back yard of Father Cressonier’s house.
The Marines took me to the American military advisers’ compound, from where I contacted CORDS headquarters in Danang to let them know I was safe. My superiors there told me to come to Danang on the next available helicopter, which turned out to be the following day. I was glad enough to do this, since I hadn’t had a bath, a change of clothes or a proper meal in ten days.
Back to Hue
After a bit of recuperation in Danang, I was anxious to get back to Hue to look for Tuy-Cam. The area where her house was located, I had learned before leaving Hue, was still firmly in enemy hands but would probably be cleared sometime in the next few days. My bosses told me not to return, since the battle was still raging (it would continue until February 24), and I would not only be in danger but in the way. This was perfectly logical but emotionally unacceptable. I knew my way around well enough to go to the air base and hitch an unauthorized ride on a chopper to Hue.
When I got off the chopper on the morning of February 14 — Valentines Day! — at a makeshift landing pad the Marines had cleared near Hue University, I noticed a group of Vietnamese civilians nearby. As I approached them, Tuy-Cam suddenly emerged, hurrying toward me. I could hardly believe it was she at first, but it clearly was. It was a powerfully emotional moment, since neither of us had known until then whether the other was still alive.
Tuy-Cam and her family had managed to get to safety in a nearby refugee area the day before and she had come to the helicopter pad to get a flight back to Danang.
The Family Saga
Tuy-Cam’s family had stayed at home for the first eight days of the occupation, with her two brothers — the army lieutenant and the air force academy cadet — hiding in the attic. They had been visited daily by VC cadre and NVA soldiers demanding food, but the brothers were not not discovered. However, fighting in the area intensified, and NVA troops began digging defensive positions along the railroad just behind the house. With mortar and artillery rounds falling closer and closer, they decided to flee, along with some other refugees from the neighborhood.
The group got as far as a pagoda just west of the city. There they encountered VC cadre. The two brothers were arrested and taken away, never to be seen or heard of again. A friendly monk who knew the family hid Tuy-Cam under the altar. After the VC left, the family returned to Hue and the refugee camp near the University.
Following our reunion at the helicopter pad, Tuy-Cam and I flew back to Danang, and I made a quick trip to Quang Tri. Three days later, I went back to Danang and picked up Tuy-Cam and some supplies for her family, and the two of us again returned to Hue. We arrived just in time for an enemy counter-attack and had a close brush with a sniper; but after what we had already experienced it was a minor affair.
Truong Tien Bridge across Perfume River in Hue, destroyed during Tet Offensive, 1968
Scenes of Death and Destruction
As Tuy-Cam and I moved around the more or less secured parts of the once-beautiful city of Hue during the next few days, we were deeply moved by the scenes of death and destruction.Trinh Cong Son, a famous Vietnamese songwriter/poet and native of Hue who was there during and after the battle, expressed his feelings about these scenes this way:
The bodies of the dead float on the river.
They lie exposed in the fields,
On the housetops of the city
And in the winding streets.
The bodies of the dead lie lonely
Under the roofs of the pagodas,
In the aisles of the churches,
On the floors of the deserted houses.
The bodies of the dead lie all around, in those cold rains.
Alongside the bodies of the old and weak
Lie the bodies of the young and innocent.
Which body is the body of my little sister?
(Trinh Cong Son, “Ballad to the Dead: Hue 1968”)
During the Battle of Hue City, for which the First Marine Regiment received the Presidential Unit Citation, there were 142 Marines killed and 857 wounded. The South Vietnamese armed forces suffered 384 killed and 1,800 wounded. Enemy losses were estimated at 5,113 killed. Some 2,000 Vietnamese civilians were executed by the Communists, and several hundred more were killed in the ebb and flow of combat.
When the fighting largely ended in the southern part of the city, and after getting her family resettled as best we could, Tuy-Cam returned to Danang and I went back to Quang Tri. (Both of these cities were also attacked at the beginning of the Tet Offensive, but these attacks were quickly repulsed.)
|Jim and Tuy-Cam Bullington at their wedding, U.S. Consulate General, Danang|
We were married on March 16, not in Hue, now largely destroyed and still insecure, but at the Consulate General in Danang. We left Vietnam two weeks later, first for temporary duty on the Vietnam Desk in the State Department, and then to my ongoing assignment for mid-career training at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.
After thirty years, we are still happily married. Though we had twenty-one more years in the Foreign Service and several exciting adventures, there was nothing — thank God! — so intense and memorable as our days in Hue during the 1968 Tet Offensive. For our survival, we are everlastingly grateful to Albert Istivie, Fathers Cressonier and Poncet, Thich Chon Thuc (who hid Tuy-Cam at the pagoda), and to the brave U.S. Marines who fought and eventually won the Battle of Hue City.
© Copyright 1998 by J.R. Bullington. All rights reserved.
Tuy-Cam’s brothers, Army Lieutenant Than-trong An (above) and Air Force Academy Cadet Than-trong Long (opposite). Both were captured and killed by Communists forces during
the Tet offensive.
J. R. Bullington has had two articles published previously in American Diplomacy. Currently director of the Center for Global Business and Executive Education at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia, he served as ambassador to Burundi during his twenty-seven-year career in the U. S. Foreign Service.