How do you say, ‘Bless you, my son’ in French? It was not a phrase I had learned in my French training at the State Department’s 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 priest’s long black gown) over my head, that was one of many urgent questions on my mind. I was in Hue, the Tet Offensive had begun the day before, and the North Vietnamese Army 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 there. How I came to be a make-believe priest behind NVA lines in Hue during the Tet Offensive is a complicated story. I was first assigned to the U.S. Consulate in Hue in 1965, to report on political, security and economic developments in the country’s five northernmost provinces, the I Corps region.
Hue was a special sort of place. As Washington Post correspondent Don Oberdorfer put it in his 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.’
Hue was not without a darker side, however. In 1966, the consulate was destroyed by a largely student mob in one of the Buddhist-led political upheavals centered in Hue that so destabilized the South Vietnamese governments of that period. Following these events, I was transferred to the U.S. Embassy in Saigon as staff aide to then Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr.
By the time my assignment with Ambassador Lodge ended, I was finding Vietnam, and especially its lovely young women, much to my liking. Moreover, from a career point of view, I relished the idea of being at the center of the principal American security and foreign policy issue of the time. I also enjoyed the wartime camaraderie of good friends. During my time in Vietnam, I had seen death and destruction and had even had a few close calls myself. But like many young men, I felt I was somehow invulnerable.
So I volunteered in 1967 for another tour of duty in Vietnam. This time, I was assigned to work for Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support (CORDS). This was the integrated military and civilian effort to destroy the VC 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 wanted to return to I Corps, and there was nothing immediately available in Hue, I chose to go to Quang Tri, a province just north of Hue along the DMZ set up by the 1954 Geneva Accords to separate North and South Vietnam.
Unfortunately, by 1967 the ‘Demilitarized Zone’ had become very militarized indeed, and Quang Tri was the scene of more heavy combat than any other province in the country. The Marines’ great battle at Khe Sanh is the best known, but there were many other battles at places like Con Thien, Dong Ha, Cam Lo, Quang Tri City and all along Route 9, which led west from Route 1 near the South China Sea to Tchepone, in Laos (an important junction on the Ho Chi Minh Trail).
My main job in Quang Tri was organizing assistance to the tens of thousands of refugees generated by the fighting. I was also responsible for assisting the provincial government with such economic development activities as were possible under the circumstances.
My principal reason for wanting to return to I Corps 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 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 Venerable Tri Quang, their political chief.
After the burning of the consulate, she was also transferred to Saigon, and our courtship continued to develop. During a period when the romance waned a bit, however, she requested a transfer to Da Nang, where the former Hue consulate had been reopened as a consulate general.
It was largely the prospect of reviving this romance that motivated me to volunteer for another tour in Vietnam and arrange that it be in I Corps. Since Da Nang was the Corps headquarters, I had good official and personal reasons to visit there often from Quang Tri.
Soon the romance flourished, and by the end of 1967, Tuy-Cam and I were engaged. The marriage was to be in Hue in March, just before the end of my tour of duty.
Because Tuy-Cam and I would soon be leaving, the Tet holidays that began on January 30 were especially important for her 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. This would also be Tuy-Cam’s last Tet at home before embarking on a new life in a faraway land. Tuy-Cam came home from Da Nang to Hue, and I came down from Quang Tri to join her and her family.
In Quang Tri, intelligence reports had warned of a large-scale attack around Tet, 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–both sides had traditionally declared a truce during Tet.
Nonetheless, on arriving in Hue via the Air America afternoon shuttle on January 30, I checked with some of the Americans to see if anything unusual was afoot. They had heard reports similar to those in Quang Tri but did not 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 (SIPEA) ran the electric power plants in both cities. I had helped him out on a few occasions by putting him on Air America flights when he needed to return from Quang Tri to Hue and the road had been 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 before proceeding to Tuy-Cam’s house for dinner.
Joining us for dinner were two other Americans: Steve Haukness, a Foreign Service communicator at the Da Nang consulate general 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 as the U.S. Information Agency representative in the province. Haukness was to spend the night at Miller’s house.
The dinner that evening was pleasant, with some great Vietnamese food and several bottles of ‘Biere 33.’ Tuy-Cam’s brothers were also there: An, an ARVN lieutenant assigned to the Thua Thien Sector S-2 (Intelligence) office; 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 attacks–raids, really–which involved fighting and danger to be sure but were over by dawn. The enemy would retreat to hide-outs in the countryside to avoid the overwhelming firepower that American and South Vietnamese forces could bring to bear on troops in fixed positions during daylight.
About 11 p.m. I returned to 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 a.m. I awoke to the familiar sound of incoming mortar rounds. I could also hear small-arms fire coming from several directions. Though I did not know it at the time, three North Vietnamese infantry regiments, plus several rocket and combat engineer battalions, supported by VC local force units, were in the process of overrunning and occupying the city. The only installations the enemy forces failed to capture were the ARVN 1st Division headquarters compound in the northern part of the city and the MACV compound, which was occupied by about 100 American military advisers, on the south side.
Since the mortars were not in my immediate vicinity and I believed 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. But then I saw Albert in the power plant, which was across a large courtyard from the guest room, frantically motioning for me to get back inside. Clearly, something was very wrong.
I retreated inside and waited. And waited. Eventually, frustrated because I had no knowledge of what was going on, my curiosity got the better of my prudence. About 10:30 I ventured outside again, walked across the courtyard and into the power plant. There I found Albert.
‘What are you doing here?’ he whispered, wearing 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.
For the first time I began to understand the gravity of the situation. I stayed in the 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 bearing the familiar U.S. Agency for International Development handclasp insignia that I had borrowed from the Hue CORDS office, was parked just outside, advertising that an American was probably somewhere close by.
The knock, when it finally came about 3 p.m., turned out to be Albert. He 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 intent 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.’ This made good sense. ‘But where should I go?’ I asked. 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, he said, and we worked out a plan of movement.
Promptly at 6, 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.
Albert returned in 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. The NVA could easily see me if they looked, but I fervently hoped they would assume I was a Frenchman 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 led me out of the power plant compound and over some backyard walls to the house of Father Cressonier, a priest who had been in Vietnam for more than 30 years.
Father Cressonier took me into the house and introduced me to 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 said, 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 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 VC flag flying over the Citadel, the mile-square fortresslike 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, however, we remained optimistic that U.S. and South Vietnamese government forces would soon retake it. After all, more than any other city, Hue embodied the Vietnamese culture, history, traditions and sense of national identity. Its loss would signal the loss of the war. Surely, we thought, the American and South Vietnamese high commands would not let it remain under enemy occupation for long.
We did not realize, 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 and Saigon authorities. Expecting a large-scale counterattack, we would have been astounded to learn that the Marines initially sent a lone company, then a single battalion, and finally only three battalions for the immense task of clearing the dug-in enemy force of seven battalions from the south side of the city.
By the third day, as we realized liberation was not imminent, our spirits fell. Our anticipation was replaced by anxiety and boredom. We could sometimes see NVA soldiers and groups of refugees moving along the streets, but we never left the house, both to avoid being noticed and to avoid the 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 is where we were when a large shell hit the house. The roof and walls of the second floor were largely blown away, making a two-story house one story. We were shaken but unhurt.
My greatest fear was not artillery but a knock on the door by Communist cadre members, who I guessed (correctly) 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 Istivie and the French priests who had taken me in had no way of knowing this, of course; and, in any case, this benign attitude toward Albert and the priests would have changed had the Communists 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 behind him and he had been shot in the back of the head. Steve Haukness was never found. We assume he was killed somewhere outside of the city.
I was very worried about Tuy-Cam. As a U.S. government employee, she would be in grave danger, I knew, if she was discovered.
Indeed, my fear was well justified. 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. They included government employees, politicians, teachers, intellectuals, business people and religious leaders, as well as U.S. government employees. Although cadre members came to her house, since Tuy-Cam had been working in Da Nang before the offensive, she apparently was not on the hit lists for Hue that had been carefully compiled in advance of the attack.
Finally, on the morning of February 8, liberation was at hand. I heard American voices coming from 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, Captain Ron Christmas, arrived. (Captain Christmas, one of the heroes of the Battle of Hue, went on to a distinguished Marine Corps career, 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 the neighbors would not 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.
When I saw Albert several days later, he told me that they had gone out the next day to look after refugees gathered in a nearby church. On the way back they were stopped by some VC, who shot the refugees and took their jeep. Albert buried the refugees in the backyard of Father Cressonier’s house.
The Marines took me to the MACV compound, and from there I contacted the CORDS office in Da Nang. My superiors there told me to come to Da Nang on the next available helicopter, which turned out to be the following day.
After a bit of recuperation in Da Nang, I was anxious to get back to Hue to look for Tuy-Cam. I had learned before leaving Hue that the area where her house was located 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 that I would not only be in danger but also 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. It was a powerfully emotional moment, since neither of us had known if the other was still alive.
Tuy-Cam and her family had managed to get to safety the day before, and she had come to the helicopter pad to get a flight back to Da Nang. The family had stayed at home for the first eight days of the occupation, with her two brothers–the ARVN lieutenant and the air force academy cadet–hiding in the attic of the family home. They had been visited daily by VC cadre members and NVA soldiers demanding food, but the brothers were not discovered.
Fighting in the area later intensified, however, and NVA troops began digging defensive positions along the railroad just behind the house. With mortar and artillery rounds falling closer and closer, the family 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 members. The two brothers were ‘arrested’ and taken away, never to be seen again. A friendly monk who knew the family hid Tuy-Cam under the altar. After the VC left, the family returned to Hue.
Following our reunion at the helicopter pad, Tuy-Cam and I flew back to Da Nang and I made a quick trip to Quang Tri. Three days later, I went back to Da Nang and picked up Tuy-Cam and some supplies for her family, and the two of us again returned to Hue.
As we moved around the more or less secured parts of the once-beautiful city during the next few days, we were deeply moved by the scenes of death and destruction all around us. Trinh Cong Son, a Vietnamese songwriter-poet and native of Hue who was there during 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?
For our survival, we are everlastingly grateful to Albert Istivie, Fathers Cressonier and Poncet, Venerable Chon Thuc (the monk who hid Tuy-Cam at the pagoda), and to the brave U.S. Marines and South Vietnamese 1st Division troops who fought and eventually won the Battle of Hue City. During that battle, for which the 1st Marine Regiment received the Presidential Unit Citation, 142 Marines were killed and 857 wounded. The South Vietnamese armed forces suffered 384 killed and 1,830 wounded. Enemy losses were estimated at 5,113 killed. Some 2,000 Vietnamese civilians were executed by the Communists, and many hundreds more were killed in the ebb and flow of combat.
Tuy-Cam and I were married on March 16 at the consulate general in Da Nang, and we left Vietnam two weeks later.
After more than 30 years, we are still happily married. Although we had 21 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 Tet Offensive.
This article was written by J.R. Bullington, Jr. and originally published in the February 1999 issue of Vietnam Magazine.
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