Such tactics became more commonplace. My sisters worked harder to get more food because our grandmother was no longer able to travel to the market to buy and sell goods. My two sisters and I shared responsibilities for her wellbeing. My older sister My, who by 1972 was in third grade in the local high school in Long Tang, dropped out of classes, something she did reluctantly. Ha and I worked in the fields after school and would bring back some rice and sweet potatoes, but when Ha came home one night, we were shocked by her appearance. She was dirty, looked unhealthy, and often went without meals. By contrast to the amount of rice and other foods that Ha and I consumed, my older sister took very little.
At the end of 1972, Son Hoi continued to resemble a battlefield, and my entire family in Son Tinh Hoi An had to be evacuated. When the fighting had temporarily ceased a few weeks later, the signs seemed promising — maybe the war would finally stop. However, a bomb from a U.S. fighter plane destroyed my grandmother’s house, with a large crater hole evidence of its destruction. Thankfully we were all safe and accounted for, although it took us two months to erect another bamboo house that yet again seemed far from being a home. War instills a legacy of fear, that nothing is permanent.
My siblings, grandmother and I ventured towards the coast, looking for rice seeds in the fields along the way as part of returning to a stable routine. In Soi Hon, I saw my friends enjoy their childhood, laughing together as they flew kites and played football in the fields. This life is one I could have only dreamed of, but I resigned to letting them go, thus cutting off my communication with them. Survival was my first goal. If I acted in a carefree manner, then neither my family nor myself would have food to eat.
This war had deprived me of many things; half of my family, my childhood, and my innocence. Here I stood, a boy forcefully thrown into the life of an adult possessing only a discoloured hat and rags as clothes, a hoe in which to dig the earth and a Korean-made bag to carry whatever I owned. I had no money to buy even the smallest of items.
In the two years leading up to Vietnam’s reunification, I became obsessed with finding any long lost relatives that may have survived the war. My father’s fate was still unclear, but I guessed that having spent so long in the mountains, there must be a chance that he could still be alive, for soldiers were often away for long periods of time. I was excited when at the sight of seeing Hong, a long-time friend and son of a local man Mr. Ho. But this feeling of ecstasy was cut short when I received a visit from my father’s friend, Mr. Phan The Manh, who held a high rank in the resistance unit.
“Your father was a very brave man and sacrificed himself heroically,” he said, and immediately consoled me. These few words confirmed my worst fears. My father was shot and killed by American soldiers when his ambulance team attempted to help a wounded fighter. It was a crushing blow for me; I remembered his message about the importance of learning and making the most of every opportunity.
When I learned that I would be elevated from the sixth grade at Son Hoi school to attend a higher level in nearby Son Hoi Thanh, the pride and joy that I felt was immense. But the teacher turned me away from class on the first day because I did not wear long pants. If only she knew just how difficult life had been for me up until this point, then maybe her heart would have been kinder. When I went home and relayed the news, it must have seemed like just another setback. But this one seemed more significant. My aunt gave me a pair of black khaki pants once owned by her late husband, and for the first time I now possessed my first pair of long pants and could attend school. After three lessons, the teacher who refused to let me into class was reduced to tears when I told her what had become of my family. What more could one do?
History books will tell you that on April 30, 1975, the tanks rolled into Saigon, signalling the end of Vietnam’s war and that my fellow people could start to rebuild their lives. But the difficulties of years gone by were not automatically erased from my memory, like the time when I was nearly beaten to death while collecting crops.
Some of my family began moving back to our former village of Son My, ending my two year absence. This meant that I commenced attending a local school. Compared to my classmates, I was relatively large, but this did not stop my obsession with hunting for extra food to supplement our diet. One afternoon, two of my friends, Dinh and Lien, joined me in trekking into the mountains in hope of harvesting potato tubes, but our afternoon’s toiling yielded no potatoes or Oi [a Vietnamese fruit]. As the sun set in the distance, we walked down the mountain and to our good fortune, stumbled upon a dense clump of tubers, which were very good. All three of us cleared the grass to create a path and in front of us were plenty of onion bulbs to collect. Within a short time, we collected half a bag full. But up ahead we spotted a young man armed with a stick that he used to collect bags and we immediately we sensed danger.
Our first instincts were to lay low in the long grass in the hope that we would not be discovered, but I was caught and without having any chance to think about what punishment awaited me, I found a hoe being pointed in my face. The man pulled me out of the grass roughly and used the hoe to beat me in the stomach, and across my shoulder and back. I cannot remember how long the beating lasted because I had passed out, but it ceased only when my body stopped twitching. All the food my friends and I had gathered was handed back to the man who inflicted the beating. My whole body was swollen and I was unable to attend school or work in the field. When my sister Mỹ and my grandmother asked what had happened, I told only half of the story. The man who inflicted the thrashing, it turned out, lived behind the house of our family friend, Mrs. Bon Thuong. My sister recognised him and other young people he associated with quite often. To this day, I believe that he feels guilty about the incident. Maybe it is because he instigated the attack and now realizes that I have no desire to seek revenge.
My pain and anger is not aimed at only those who took the lives of my family members, but at those who have covered up mistakes years after and have refused to say anything to me. Many reporters from around the world have come to My Son. They have worked with the Quang Ngai municipal staff in their offices and talked several times about the deceased. But I believe the media has been misled by authorities on certain matters. A number of survivors and their relatives have never been asked about their wishes. These include Mrs. Pham Thi Tro, daughter of Mrs. Nhieu, Le Thi Em, Pham Thi Hien, Bui Thi Ha, and Bui Sanh, the grandson of Mr. Huong Tho. They still live less than 800 yards from the memorial house, each one in dire poverty.
You only need look at photographs of the victims taken by U.S. Army officer Mr. Ronald Haeberle. These include:
Mrs. Nguyen Thi Tau, photographed with her closed mouth covered by a straw hat, may have lost her children but this certain that many soldiers have shot her children. Two of them were saved.
Mr. Nhieu’s wife and daughter escaped through the back door of their hut and hid in the rice field. They were lucky to flee, for five members of their family were killed. They also witnessed many gruesome images and experiences in their home.
Mrs. Pham Thi Thuan lost five people in her family, all killed by gunshots. I estimate that about 20 people who ran from the corner of her house sought shelter in the ditch, or other lay down in the garden. Others were hiding behind the altar where the family burned incense and gave offerings to their ancestors. They were all pulled out and shot by U.S. soldiers.