CHRISTMAS 1972. Folk singer and anti-war activist Joan Baez was in Hanoi celebrating Christmas Eve Mass in a bomb shelter. The sound of bomb explosions could be clearly heard mixing with the peaceful “Silent Night, Holy Night.” The next morning, amid the rubble on Hanoi streets, Baez recorded a Vietnamese woman sobbing while searching for her son, who was killed during the air raids. Baez’s ballad “Where Are You Now, My Son” took the woman’s cry as its title. Listening to it brings back sad memories.
I was a 16-year-old junior at Saigon’s Nguyen Ba Tong High School when President Richard Nixon ordered the Christmas 1972 bombing of Hanoi. During Easter of that year, communist troops from North Vietnam crossed the demilitarized zone to attack the South.
How long will this war last? Everyone wondered. I witnessed the scariest nights when Viet Cong rockets showered the city. Saigon became the target of revenge for the bombing of North Vietnam. Several rockets exploded in my neighborhood, killing many innocent people. Even so, my mother resisted building a bomb shelter. She told us that if God wanted us to die in this war, then we would die, a bomb shelter could not reverse our destiny.
The war took its high toll. More than 50,000 American families and hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese families mourned their children’s deaths. Thousands more are still suffering and searching for their beloved ones.
One afternoon in 1972, I heard the woman next door mournfully weeping. A soldier had just brought the news that her son, Nguyen Van Nam, was missing from an airborne mission to recapture Chu Pao Strategic Post in the central highlands. Nam was my classmate from elementary school. His body was never found.
The same battle took away Nguyen Van Tuynh, one of my relatives. He was also listed as MIA. Tuynh’s mother recently migrated to America. The 72-year- old woman cried when I asked about her son’s fate. In the same year, my neighbor Dinh Van Vu did not come back after his C-130 with its crew reportedly crashed into the ocean while parachuting supplies to the battlefield. No body was recovered.
Le Minh Chau was my best friend in my junior year at Nguyen Ba Tong High. He was a year older than me and therefore his draft deferment could not be extended at the end of school year, regardless of his passing the national examination. We both passed the exam, Tu Tai I, to be promoted to grade 12, that summer. Chau then enlisted in the army and attended military training courses at Quang Trung Camp and Thu Duc Academy. The following fall, I came back to high school as a senior. The 1972-’73 school year was very worrisome. Nearly half of my junior year classmates were drafted. The war intensified when Nixon ordered a naval blockade on Haiphong Harbor and the bombing of Hanoi.
After completing military training, Chau became a second lieutenant and was assigned to a post in Cai Lay District, about two hours by bus from Saigon. By then the Paris Peace Accords were already signed and in effect. The U.S. troops withdrew; prisoners were released. Hostilities were supposed to cease. Tragically, a few months later Chau was reportedly killed during an ambush. His family went to Cai Lay to look for him. They found several headless corpses; they did not find Chau.
Since the communists took control over all of Vietnam in April 1975, none of my MIA friends or relatives have come back, nor have their remains been found. Tuynh and Nam probably still rest on the hillside of Chu Pao Mountains, Vu on the South China Sea’s floor and Chau in the ground of the Mekong Delta’s orange groves.
I have visited the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington several times. A cross, rather than a diamond, is engraved next to some of the thousands of names of American soldiers. The crosses symbolize MIAs like Howard H. Smith and Domenick A. Spinelli. Their names are next to each other; they did not come back from the same combat mission.
Walking along the Wall one will encounter Henry A. Tipping, Larry J. Van Renselaar, Patrick Curran, Larry J. Stevens and many more MIA soldiers whose names are on the black panels.
Changing the cross to a diamond indicates the soldier’s death has been confirmed — the remains have been found and returned. Since the Wall was built a decade ago, several hundred crosses have turned into diamonds, like the ones next to Michael W. Doyle and Donald D. Lindland.
It has been 20 years since the war ended, and Americans still yearn to know what happened to their young men missing in action. Vietnamese do, too. I never stop wondering about Chau and Nam and Tuynh and Vu.
Phu Bui is an Oakland schoolteacher. He previously worked with the Peace Corps in Africa and the United Nations in Southeast Asian refugee camps.
[San Jose Mercury News (CA) – April 23, 1993]