The Survival Spirit
"TẾT MẬU THÂN OFFENSIVE"
I graduated from the Naval Academy on 14th of July 1962. My wife Minh who had to take care of our two small daughters, Thanh Nhàn, 2 years old and Thanh Trang, 8 months old; was unable to attend the graduation ceremony that presided by the President Ngô Đ́nh Diệm.
Year 1968 - Year of the Monkey
On 1963, I was the navigation officer of Landing Ship Mechanized (LSM) - Hải Vận Hạm Hậu Giang HQ 406. The Commanding officer of my ship granted me permission for two weeks leave due to the birth of our first son Lê Bá Trí.
My wife Minh was staying in the hospital of Doctor Thân Trọng Phước in my hometown near our house.
The Army had blocked all roads leading to Huế City. Martial Law was in effect in this old royal capital and only authorized personnel were allowed to travel. Therefore, I had to wear my Navy uniform in order to visit my wife and our newborn baby.
While we were conversing in the recovery room inside the hospital, we heard running steps outside. Suddenly, the unlocked door was pushed opened and to our surprise, we saw a young man with blood running down on his face, rushing into the room. He begged me to let him hide under the bed because soldiers were chasing after him. Without thinking, I accepted his desperate request, then showed him the way, and told him to stay down there.
After checking to make sure of the young man could not be seen, I stepped out and stood in front of the door. A moment later, a group of soldiers with weapons in their hands was running toward me. As soon as the non-commissioned officer saw the rank on my shoulders, he saluted and politely asked me if I saw young students running by. I said, "Yes," then pointed to the rear of the hospital. The NCO saluted again, thanked me, and led his soldiers toward the other side of the building. I realized that my reaction was based on what my mother had taught me when I was young; to assist helpless and innocent people whenever possible.
The young student who had just escaped from the government troupe thanked us for hiding him. I told him to wait for me to check and make sure that it was safe. Then we both shook hand and he left the room to join his other friends.
Two years later, I transferred to The Maritime Patrol Force in Đà Nẳng and brought my family along, While in Đà Nẳng in the summer of 1965, I got another dog from a Navy friend for my eldest daughter, Thanh Nhàn. We named him "Mina".
Minh had gone to Huế City to stay with my parents and been ready for another child. At this time, the political situation of the country became a big problem for the government to handle. I waited for my wife to give birth to our baby, and then I would arrange to go home and to bring both mother and child back to Đà Nẳng.
The Buddhist movement in the center of Vietnam had created a far more serious crisis than any other movement in previous times. The protest that the Monks and their followers had carried out day after day in the streets of Đà Nẳng and Huế City increased the instability of the local government. Consequently, the local authority requested assistance from the Central government in Saigon. The government, led by military generals decided to send troops to take charge and control the unlawful protests in those cities. Martial law was in place again. Military personnel barricaded Highway 1, which connected Huế City and Đà Nẳng.
Upon arriving in Đà Nẳng from my mission, I returned home and found out that Minh had given birth to my second son Lê Bá Dũng, three days before. Both mother and child were fine. They were waiting for me to find a way to bring them back to Đà Nẳng by sea because there was no other land route except for the barricaded Highway 1 between Huế City and Đà Nẳng. I radioed to my Navy friend who was the Commanding officer of the Coastal Junk force in Thuận An, located about 5 kilometers from Huế City and asked if he could send a truck to pickup my family and bring them to his base.
After making that arrangement, I requested permission to go aboard a Coastal Security Service Swift boat that was on a mission nearby to pick up Minh and my family. Due to the urgent and very special situation, my superior kindly approved my request and on a sunny day in late March 1966, the Navy boat brought my family back to Đà Nẳng while the sea was very calm. Minh and Dũng, my newborn son, never forgot the journey that they had endured during the national crisis in 1966 that eventually led the country to select a new President.
My dog Mina later lived with my parents in Hue when I kept moving due to my assignment and Minh was too busy with our four young children. We had no spare time to take care of Mina in that kind of situation.
In the Lunar New Year day of the year of the Monkey, the Việt Cọng violated the military cease-fire agreement between Allied forces and the Communist. There was a nation-wide attack carried out by the North Vietnamese communists to all cities and provinces of South Vietnam including the Huế metropolitan area. That cease-fire violation was later known as the "Tết Mậu Thân Offensive."
I had two weeks of vacation and brought my five-member family home at Huế City to celebrate Tết with our folks. My oldest daughter, Thanh Nhàn visited my mother-in-law and stayed there with her grandmother, later they were safe when they evacuated to another remote area, Bao Vinh town away from Huế City, the other three children were with us at our parents’ house.
I did not know that on the day of the New Year, I would have to hide underground for almost 26 days in different hidden places in my parents' house, surrounded by the Việt Cọng. They had occupied the area from the first day of the Lunar year.
After the Việt Cọng occupied Huế City, they ordered men and former government soldiers and personnel to report to their local committee to register then, they started searching to capture men and young men who were hiding from their authority, Because of the situation was getting worse I talked to my parents and my wife and decided to escape from our area to other side of the Perfume River where the Republic of Vietnam Army and U.S Marines still had been fighting and holding their positions.
So, on early next morning, I said goodbye to my love ones and I went out by the rear door in the cold, down the dirt road, across my old aunt’s house, toward the main road to the Perfume River. As soon as I almost passed my Aunt’s house, I heard loud dogs’ barking and voices of people talking from not far away; I ran into my Aunt’s house and asked her to show me the hiding places. She led me to a low, dark handmade bunker in the back room and told me to get inside and to hide myself at the farest corner. About ten minutes, I heard the voices of Việt Cọng militias questioning my Aunt, Cô Thiệp who tried to span the blanket that she used to keep herself warm, across the small and low entrance of the bunker and asking if they wanted to have cups of tea. She intended to distract them from looking down to the bunker where she stood in front of its entrance.
The Việt Cọng went to the living room up front and finally left the house after they apprehended two young students hiding over there. I waited for a moment then came out of the bunker and kissed my Aunt, Cô Thiệp to thank her for saving my life then deciding to get back to my parents’ house to meet my wife and my parents who were so nervous and worry and afraid if I got caught or not.
Two days later, when hiding in the house, I was told by my wife that a girl in our neighborhood being lightly wounded at her right ankle. When she went to the riverbank of Perfume River to get drinking water and got hurt by warning shots shooting by Việt Cọng soldiers guarded there to stop people trying to escape to the South Vietnamese Forces stationed at the other side of the river. One of our relatives who was a medical student living nearby was treating the poor girl.
Another week waiting and listening to the news from my transistor radio about the activities and movements of the US Marines and SVN Rangers, on a cool morning in Huế City, I heard many noisy AK47 gunshots, Việt Cọng guerillas were attacking from the direction of the riverbank in front of our neighborhood. The "tac tac tac" sound were breaking the silence of the cool morning and the sound of boats engines were heard too. Immediately all US Navy boats returned fire with all of the power of the Navy guns mounted aboard the vessels. By my experiences with the Navy, I knew right away that was a supply convoy of US Navy boats from Thuận An, passing by and heading toward their base near the Trường Tiền Bridge.
The noise of the 12.7 mm machine guns blended with the "pup pup pup" of the 81mm mortars, the "tac tac tac" of the automatic rifles. The gunfire continued for about ten minutes and US Navy boats destroyed the Việt Cọng 's bunkers and gun positions along the riverbank.
After that day, I made up my mind to dig more hiding caches and stayed in the house to hide rather than ventured out to the unknown situation in Huế City then I prayed and waited for the escaped opportunity. One morning on a week later, I heard the barking of my dog Mina, I jumped immediately into my hidden reserve nearby. I knew that the enemy soldiers were about to search this neighborhood again. They were looking for young men, South Vietnamese officers, and the government employees.
My wife, Minh who was pregnant our fifth child at that time, opened the front door when the 2 Việt Cọng militias knocking at the door. They pointed their AK47 at Minh and asked her if there were men in the house? When Minh replied “no men here”, they threatened her that if they searched and found any man, they will shoot and kill the whole family. Minh was scared but calm and responded to them that “no men in the house”. They then left and went away to search another house in the neighborhood.
Two weeks went by without any search from the Việt Cọng, perhaps they were busy planning to withdraw from their positions according to the reports that I heard from my transistor radio while hiding in my hideouts.
The movements of the US Marines and SVN Rangers seemed to advance in all directions around Huế City over the last week and the enemy was being defeated on all fronts.
I kept moving and changing from one hideout to another at night so nobody except my parents and my wife knew that I had been hiding in the family’s compound.
On the night of 26th day of hiding, about 1100pm I was under ground in my hideout, I heard sounds of rockets coming from the other side of the Perfume River. Suddenly, the rockets hit our fruit trees in the back yard in the rear of my family’s house that was located in the compound Thoại Thái. My chest was hurting so bad. Then another rocket hit out side of the window above my hiding place, I could not continue to stay under ground any longer, therefore I must come up and rushed into the family’s bunker where everyone was taking cover. They all were happy and thought that I was coming back to rescue them... We were safe until next morning then as soon my father took a walk outside the house, he hurried back inside to inform everyone that he saw SVN Rangers on the way to rescue us.
I wore my Navy uniform with my Lt rank on my shoulders and reported to the SVN Army Captain and told him that I requested to accompany his platoon to fight the Việt Cọng. The Capt handed me a rifle and told me to stay close to him.
I said “goodbye” to my family and left with the platoon of SVN Rangers to search for and liberate people in all of our neighborhoods.
When we crossed the Gia Hội bridge that connects the area where my parents’ compound was located and the main city street Trần Hưng Đạo, in front of Đông Ba Market, I saw three bodies of dead Việt Cọng militias scattered above holes of mortars on the bridge span.
Thanks to my parents, my Aunt, Cô Thiệp and my wife, Minh, I survived through that desperate and hopeless time of the Tết offensive until the South Vietnamese Rangers liberated our town. I was able to return to my unit in Đà Nẳng without my family, after 26 long days in the hideouts. Minh joined me in Đà Nẳng later to give birth to our fifth child, a girl; Thanh Nhă was born on April 1968.Fifty First Anniversary "Tết Offensive in Huế City"
by Lê Bá Thông
Virginia, Updated winter 2019