Brothers in War and Peace

(Part One by Thong Ba Le)

Welcome to My Novel "Brothers in War and Peace" ... Thanks for visiting... Thong Ba Le


Section I

The husband and his wife were walking barefoot on the dirt road in the direction of An Lỗ village. They wore old black áo dài (long dresses) that were soon wet from the extreme heat of summer in Huế's regional area. They each carried 10-kilo bags of rice on their shoulders. The husband's thin body bent under the weight of his two bags. His wife, shoulders also bent, had blackened her face with charcoal in an effort to escape the notice of any soldiers they might encounter.
From time to time, they slowed down to wait for their young son who struggled manfully to keep up with them, a small two-kilo bag of rice across his narrow back. Thông also wore an áo dài, but his only reached to his knees. His face reddened by heat and wet with sweat, he was exhausted but kept running nonetheless, keeping up with his parents' longer strides so that they could arrive at La Chữ village before sunset.

La Chữ village was located about 11 kilometers northwest of Huế City, on the edge of Truờng Son Mountain, west of Highway 1 to Quảng Trị Province. His father's old friend had moved to La Chữ and lived there for years. His father had asked his permission to stay at his house during the attack of French troops in Huế City.
His father looked back and stopped to see if Thông was alright, taking a sesame sugar candy from his pocket. Once the boy caught up, he kissed Thông’s flushed cheek, gave him the candy and ruffled his hair. They continued on their way to the unknown villageÖ

The family was in La Chữ village for about two weeks and every day Thông's mom brought their old clothes to sell in the market to buy food. There were his father's suits and shirts and his mother's silk áo dài, which her husband had bought for her when they were rich, that she'd had since the day she became his wife. That was before he lost his business due to an unfortunate investment plan and now they only had a little money left for daily living expenses. Thông's mother was sad that she had to sell their belongings but they needed money to buy food, so she made the sacrifice. Her husband was always at her side at the market until it closed. In the meantime, Thông was allowed to play with the neighbor's kids and their water buffalo.
Their peaceful and uncertain evacuation lasted about three weeks, and everyday his father met business people who had been making trips up and down to Huế City to buy merchandise. He asked them about the activities of French troops and life in Huế. One night, Thông’s father come home to tell them that the French Army occupied Ṭa Khâm Post and Fort Mang Cá. Their Navy boats patrolled the Perfume River from Thuận An and they had built piers for their boats at Đập Đá by Truờng Tiền Bridge. They had also begun to send troops for operations south to the Huong Thủy district, and north to An Ḥa village, only three kilometers to the east of La Chữ village on Highway 1.

When he discovered that the French had begun to search for young Vietnamese in the An Ḥa areas, Thông’s father was frightened. He went to the backyard, to the dry creek behind the vegetable garden which surrounded by a dense bamboo range. He made a hidden reserve with trenches and then he covered the top of this hiding place with dry bamboo leaves; even if there were anyone standing close to it, he or she still would not realize that there were people hiding under the leaves.

That morning, when the sun had risen, everybody heard the sound of an airplane flying low over their houses. Thông’s father was in a hurry because from his experience, he knew that this was a Cessna-type aircraft that was used in reconnaissance missions. The artillery units usually bombarded the area with shells before they sent troops to search out the enemy. He got a fresh water canteen, some rice cakes and yelled for his friend to go into his hidden spot in the house which he had built for him. Then he grabbed Thông in his arms and guided his wife to the hiding place in the dry creek, approximately 300 meters behind the house.
His father put him and his mother into the hiding place and then covered them with thick dry bamboo leaves and stood back and checked his work. Due to his handy building skills, nobody would know that there were people hiding under the dry creek.

After he took care of his family, he hurriedly built a hiding place for himself not far from his loved ones so he could observe the landscape from down there. As soon as he finished his job, he could hear the sound of artillery shells falling in the marketplaces and in the areas of the people pagoda. By the time the sun had risen above the top of the bamboo ranges, one could hear the shells coming closer. Thông felt his mother quivering and knew that she was very scared. He kissed her cheek and they held onto each other for comfort. His father kept an eye on the village's main gate through the hole in the hidden reserve.

Over two hours after they had rushed to their hiding places, dogs started barking loudly and continuously. Then they heard shooting from rifles and automatic weapons all around the village; it was a sunny morning in the village 13 kilometers northwest of Huế City.
Thông’s father knew that the French Legionnaires had come and he pulled more leaves to cover his body. He waited quietly. Thông felt his heart beating rapidly when they heard the neighbor's barking dog running past their hiding places...then a "tach...tach...tach", the sound of an automatic rifle and the dog was crying painfully. The crying stopped. Thông’s father guessed that the French Legionnaires were searching the houses From time to time they heard the sounds of shooting and people crying, running in all directions. Suddenly they heard French voices on a PRC communicator come closer and there were footsteps walking toward their hidden reserves. Thông realized that there was actually a person coming towards the small creek. He heard the sound of dry leaves cracking and breaking under this Legionnaire's feet.

All of them held their breaths in fear. Thông’s mom began to sweat and she trembled even more violently. Thông did not move a muscle. Finally the hidden family heard his steps slowly receding from their hiding places. Thông’s mom began to breathe again and seemed to relax a bit. His father waited a moment and then pushed the bamboo leaves away to peer out. He whispered to his family to stay in put in case the French soldiers returned. The barking of dogs was now only heard from time to time and only from a distance. Everything was quiet. He crouched as he ran along the creek and climbed onto a mango tree behind the house to see if the French soldiers had left the village. He saw that two houses near the village temple were on fire, the black smoke billowing in the cloudless autumn skyÖ

People started crawling from their hiding places, whispering to one another while pointing to the village's main gate. From experience, Thông’s father knew that the Legionnaires had gone to search for young Vietnamese men in the neighboring hamlets. Somebody might be shot and killed before soldiers left.
He climbed down from the mango tree and came to the hiding place to help his wife and Thông out. The next day it started raining very hard and lasted all day. The backyard was flooded up above Thông’s ankle. Thông’s father told his old friend that they planned to leave early the next day to return to Huế City. He had made his decision based on what they had seen the previous night at the temple ground. He could not predict what might happen to "Nguời trên dinh," or-People from the City- like him and his family. He also did not know when the French soldiers might come back and it would be too dangerous, and impossible, to hide from them forever. Therefore, he would take a chance and return to Huế City and let destiny see to the rest.

That morning, when the roosters started crowing joyfully and the first light of the day began to break through the pink clouds in the horizon, Thông and his parents left the friend's house and headed for Highway 1, about 3 kilometers east of La Chữ village. They had already said good-bye and Thông’s mom had very kindly left behind all of the food, rice and cooking utensils that she had bought while they stayed in the house, along with a thank you note for his hospitality. Thông’s father had discovered a shortcut along the dry creek, a dirt road that might cut their travel time by one third. They also wore rubber shoes made from old tires that he had bought in the market, so unlike their last journey, Thông and his mother did not suffer any pain.

The raindrops were still hanging on the leaves and dripping on the tall green grass. Far away to the east, the sun began shining with its multicolored beams and over the horizon, pink clouds were drifting in the blue sky and a pair of long-necked cranes were flying over the ripe rice paddies that had not yet been harvested. Thông loved feeling one with nature and inhaled the clean unspoiled air. It was a beautiful morning. He chased the colorful cardinals along the edge of a rice paddy until his father called him back. He then ran in front of his parents and felt fine because he did not have to carry a bag of rice like last time.

When they reached Highway 1, there were people all over the road heading toward Huế City, which made them feel a more at ease. All along the road, wagons full of household goods were pulled by skinny cows or old horses--they were loaded with whole families returning from their short evacuation. Now they were returning to Huế City with the hope that the French government, who now controlled everything, would not capture them and put them in jail. What Thông’s father had heard so far was very encouraging and he felt that his decision to return to Huế City was the right one and it made him very happy and more relaxed.

The French government supposedly wanted to ease the fears of the native of the old Capital, so they had allowed them to continue their routine daily activities. Children were going to school again. Đông Ba supermarket had reopened for business, but the poor merchants had to pay high taxes to the French government and its administration, run by a handful of people who could speak French and consisting of clerks, policemen and profiteering Việt Nam politicians. Life in Huế City seemed to have returned to normal. Thông’s father seemed very happy with his decision and he thanked the Buddha for coming up with the idea to return to Huế City as a result. If not, he and his family would have stayed forever at La Chữ village...

When they were about to reach Huế City, the sun had almost set behind the Truờng Son Great Mountains... The defeat of French Army in Huế City.
In the early morning of March 9, 1945, loud gunshots from the other side of Cầu Trường Tiền (Truong Tien Bridge), across Sông Hương Giang (Perfume River) broke the silence in the darkness of Huế City. The sounds came from the French quarter at Ṭa Khâm and in the direction of Fort Mang Cá which stationed and was guarded by more than one company of French Legionnaire.

Everyone was startled awake, frightened and confused, including Thông, not knowing what was happening. He and his family rushed down to the hiding place that his father had prepared in the house. The family covered themselves under the counter or wooden beds. Thông and his parents had just returned to Huế City from La Chữ village after seeking refuge with a friend’s family to avoid the French troops who occupied Huế City. After making sure the members of his family were all right, Thông’s father ventured to the front door to peek through the darkness into Hàng Bè Street. He observed through the door, a column of military trucks with headlights illuminated, moving towards the Thanh Long Bridge. Under the lights, he noticed that on the front of every vehicle, there was a white flag with a red circle in the center. He knew this red circle represented the rising sun. He realized but could not believe what he was seeing. It was a Japanese flag. The Japanese were attacking the French Army in Huế City.

Over the past few years, international news was communicated verbally in Thành phố Huế (Huế City) and related that Germany and Italy had occupied countries in Europe. The locals also learned that the Japanese had attacked and seized part of China and Burma in Southeast Asia.

After a night of shock and fear, the people of Huế woke up to the sound of military trucks and heard the voices of some local Vietnamese over loudspeakers who had taken advantage of the opportunity to cooperate with the Japanese. They assured everyone that the Japanese military had come to help the Vietnamese people and defeated the French colonial Army to liberate Vietnam from Western domination.

The Japanese general commanding the forces in Huế, asked people to remain calm and to continue on with their daily lives. Chợ Đông Ba, the main city market, remained open and students continued going to school. This was to inform the general population that throughout the territory of Vietnam, the Imperial Japanese Army had controlled all activities, particularly in Huế City, and the French Army was defeated. An interim Vietnamese federal government would be established to run the country with good governance at the local level.

On September 11, 1945, Vua Bảo Đại (Emperor Bảo Đại), the last King of Nguyễn’s Dynasty declared Vietnam’s independence under the protection of Japan and a new government was established. With the Japanese occupation, the Viet Minh (League for the Revolution and Independence of Vietnam) became more organized and began to attack Japanese posts in northern Vietnam. The Viet Minh developed their organization through propaganda to recruit idealistic Vietnamese youths wanting to fight for independence for their homeland.


The Family’s dogs

When I opened the side door and pushed the bicycle to the front of my parents' house to go to school, Berna, my half brother's German shepherd, was ready and waiting for me as usual. He always got up very early in the morning and woke everybody up with his loud barking as soon as he saw Mr. Tu's sandwich truck passing by with the ringing bell. My half brother, Lê Bá Lễ acquired this dog after he returned from the resistance in which he had fought for ten years against the French colonists. He liked dogs and I heard that he had his own "French Berger" when he was 13 year old, the year I was born.

The dog Berna was big, almost as tall as my Sterling bicycle. Since my brother was preparing to join the Vietnamese Officer Candidate School, he asked me to take care of his dog. I was so pleased and happy to do so. This was the first time I had a dog to play and run with. It was like the story of the dog Lassie in the movie that I saw many times before. I was so proud of having Berna with my friends in the neighborhood.

It was a beautiful, sunny, and breezy Sunday morning in April with high clouds in the blue sky. Berna barked noisily because I chained him in the house. He wanted to go out and see people who were ready to cast their votes to elect the first President of the Republic of Vietnam.
Many military trucks carried high school students who raised banners with the slogan "Put the blue ballots in trash cans and cast your red vote in envelopes."

They were running the promotion for this general public election. The teachers told me that the reason for the election was to elect Prime Minister Ngô Đ́nh Diệm to replace the Vietnamese Emperor who currently resided in France. I had already participated in this propaganda at school and on that morning, I would join other students for the mission. My father did not like the idea of overthrowing the Emperor because he knew the mother of the Emperor. He often took me to the Imperial Palace on his trip to visit the Emperor's mother and played cards with her. I still remember the sweet, small seeded Chinese prunes that Her Majesty used to give me on those visits. My brother graduated from the Military training school nine months later and transferred to Đà Nẳng, a coastal city south of Hue. He decided to take Berna with him. On that day, I was so sad that I did not want to eat anything. I just locked my door and stayed in my room. I did not wanted to talk to anyone either. I felt like I was losing one of the most precious things in my life.

Berna stayed with my brother until he transferred to a combat unit. My brother later gave him to the owner of a famous restaurant in Đà Nẳng. By that time, my parents had given me another dog, a French Berger.
This dog was over a year old. I named this Berger "Đô", pronounced "Dough." This was truly the first dog of my life. Đô was a female with soft black fur and big round eyes. She was not as big as Berna but bigger than a Vietnamese dog. After a couple years, she and a brown Vietnamese dog became the parents of six puppies, two males and four females. Poor me, I did not have any experience taking care of puppies. I had to feed them and give them baths. My father told me that I was their grandfather so I must take care of them.

Thanks to my girlfriend who lives in my neighborhood for helping me carry out of these difficult tasks. Minh and I had fallen in love about six months before. She was my beautiful sweetheart, with a lovely and nice smile. I did not know when "my love at the first sight" happened. I knew I fell in love with her each time I rode my Sterling bicycle by her house and saw her standing beautiful like an angel on her front porch. Her tender smile had caught my breath.

After many weeks dreaming of her, I decided to write her a long love letter. Then like a miracle, Minh wrote back to me and soon we became a pair of romantic lovers.
Two years later, Minh and I became husband and wife and I joined the Navy after graduating from Quốc Học high school in 1960. One of Đô's puppy grew up and became the family’s dog; Đa was there to witness the birth of our first daughters in the same year.