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The South Vietnam lost its Quang Tri Province on May 1st, 1972. There was only one exit out of the bulge: the National Highway No. 1. On this day, the ARVN fled the city and abandoned their posts. Thousands of innocent people who had also been abandoned found their escape in the same line as soldiers.
Unfortunately, the bridge Truong Phuoc in front of them has been blown up. And the bridge Ben Da behind them has also been knocked down by the VC. Finally, countless amount of shells and mortars exploded right on the civilians' heads.
60 days later on July 1st, I was one of the first two combat–photographers (with DKT) to cross the Truong Phuoc River and witnessed too many stinking bodies of children among adults; some of them still have their arm around the toy, or holding their mothers shirts. At the sad moment, I called my editorial office in Saigon and named this "THE STREET OF HORROR".
(NgyThanh, Song Than reporter & ARVN combat photographer)
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THE STREET OF HORROR
May 1, 1972 will never be forgotten by people in Quang Tri and Thua Thien provinces not because it is the International Labor Day, but because the horrible carnage on the Vietnam Highway 1 about ten kilometers south of Quang Tri City. Thousands of civilians, mostly the elders, women, children and scores of soldiers were killed by artillery and infantry weapons in hours of shooting.
Until 1975, the victims' families and their friends, commemorating the massacre on the highway close to Truong Phuoc Bridge, had held memorial services every year in May. After Vietnam Communist forces took control over all of South Vietnam in April 1975, people in the area were secretly praying for them only at their homes to avoid troubles from Communist authorities.
This week, according to news sources from Vietnam, for the first time since 1975, local people are holding rites and memorial services out of their homes, in memory of those who were killed on the "Street of Horror,"a portion of the highway where many hundreds of civilians were massacred on their way fleeing their home village heading south for safety from imminent heavy fighting. According to news reported from Hue, from April 28 to May 2, 2002, the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam in Quang Tri was conducting Buddhist traditional services at Long An Pagoda in Trieu Phong District, dedicating to the dead on the Street of Horror.
There are hundreds of participants – a few thousands at the peak – coming from the two provinces although local Communist authorities were trying every measure to scare people in the area out of joining the memorial services. Public Security set many checkpoints to stop people from reaching the pagoda and banned the renting of cars, trucks or buses that would be heading for Long An Pagoda.
No clash has been reported but people predict that some new measures may be taken by local Communist authorities to suppress the possible establishment of a new anti–Communist anniversary that would promote more dissension from the Buddhists, if not from all Vietnamese people.
If the May 1 memorial became an annual ritual practice, it would be the third commemoration of the war dead around Hue City area. The first occurred on July 5, 1885 (the 23, Fifth Moon, Year of the Rooster), French bombarded the ancient royal city to compel the King and his court into accepting their further demands besides clauses already agreed upon in a covenant. The attack killed about 3,000 Hue residents. Since then, Hue people have been holding annual services to the soldiers and civilians who were killed that night. Each family may pick any day in the Fifth Moon of the lunar calendar to pray for the victims' wandering souls and to present them food offerings.
Since the 1968 Tet Offensive, Hue people have had another month of sorrow. An estimate of 3,000 to 7,000 civilians including a small number of non–combat soldiers and a lot of students from high schools and the Hue University were slain by Communist troops.
They were executed by guns, machetes, bayonets or simply wooden clubs in strings of about ten victims tied by each rope or electric wire. In one of the largest mass graves at Khe Da Mai, many in the thousand of victims were found dead after being buried alive. They were massacred on the withdrawing route of the North Vietnamese Communist soldiers after the 25 days of fighting in the inner imperial citadel.
Similarly to the 1885 incident, since 1968, people living in the area have held annual memorial services in memory of the 1968 Tet victims on any day in the First Moon of the lunar calendar. After 1975, they have held the services covertly. Communist authorities are aware of the practice but they have to yield a little ground to those who will never forget the tragic deaths of their relatives and those who saw with their own eyes the scores of mass graves and the strings of corpses, some headless, others dismembered or with smashed skulls.
Now comes the memory of victims on the Street of Horror. The name appeared on South Vietnam newspapers in June 1972 during the Communist general offensives launched against the three objective areas: Kontum, An Loc and Quang Tri. South Vietnamese press corps named the 1972 campaign as the "Flaming Summer."
The battles in Quang Tri broke out on March 29, 1972. The two South Vietnam divisions and supporting units were to defend the two provinces against the enemy 6 divisions newly equipped with Soviet–made self–guided anti–aircraft missiles and anti–tanks wire–guided rockets and other modern equipment. After 30 days of intense fighting and outnumbered by the Communist fresh troops, the RVN 3rd Division soldiers withdrew from Quang Tri to be re–deployed on the new line along My Chanh River, about half way between Quang Tri and Hue. The retreating soldiers were followed by many thousands of panic civilians who were still horrified by the 1968 Tet massacres.
The last column of the war refugees got stuck at Truong Phuoc Bridge because of traffic jam after an enemy artillery shell heavily damaged the bridge. Chaos occurred when enemy artillery began a rain of many hundreds shells from their 130mm guns on the refugees. A moment later, Communist foot soldiers attacked the crowd with infantry weapons that included mortars and grenade launchers.
It was obvious that Communist commanders had deliberately ordered the attack when they must have known well that 90 percent of people moving south along the highway were civilians. Some tacticians believe that in doing so, Communist commanders might have hoped that they could create a great obstacle of human and vehicles remains to deny the withdrawing SVN troops the safe route to their new front line. In fact, SVN major units had been using other routes to the east.
The savagery of artillery assault on civilians at the Street of Horror were described the best by the Vietnamese combat reporters. Following is a simplified compilation of what a number of reporters' witnessed at the Street of Horror the first hours after SVN elite Parachutist Division reoccupied the area around it in the counter–attack starting on June 28, 1972. (Vietnamese readers could find more about the campaign in "Nhung Tran Danh Lich Su Trong Chien Tranh Viet Nam,"Historic Battles in the Vietnam War, by Nguyen Duc Phuong, Dai Nam Publisher, California 1993.)
On nearly 9 kilometers of Highway 1, a thousand, might be more, bodies of the victims were burn black and rotten under the scorching sun of early summer. However, the remains were still recognizable only as male or female due to their clothes. The smelling of decomposing corpses is heavy and carried away by hot light wind. All human remains and vehicles and various subjects had been intact after two months under tropical climate. No enemy soldier had ever reached the site.
In some places, many women lied hugging their babies whose tiny skeletons look like toys made of white plastic. Some reporters estimated that more than 400 cars and trucks, mostly civilian, were abandoned or destroyed on the road. Some motorcycles were still operable after filling of gas. There were two military trucks with Red Cross painted on the two sides in which dozen of wounded soldiers on their way of evacuation to the higher medical facilities.
Not far from them were two coffins with the red–stripes–on–yellow flags still stuck to the cover. About a dozen gaping slots were visible all around the coffins left by penetrating shell fragments. Poor fallen fighting men, they were killed twice or even three times. In a roadside lonely bush, the blackened body of a baby girl about three years old was lying with her tiny sandals near her feet that combined with a cheap dress, indicated that her parents were poor farmers.
One of the color pictures taken by a military photographer showed a damaged bus where a young mother lying dead with her upper body hanging down from the open window. Her son of about five years old was clinging to her arms. Blood trickled from her head along her arms to the crying son.
Right behind the bus was an RVN soldier, standing with legs apart and shooting his M–16. Ejected bullet cases were seen flying like traces of smoke. On the background, about 50 yards from the bus was a Communist soldier recognized easily by his pale green baggy uniforms and a pith hat, the brand of a North Vietnam Communist regular. On his shoulder was a B–41 grenade launcher held fast by his hands, ready to launch. The picture showed how close the enemy troops were when they attacked the civilians.
For those who have seen such massacres would never accept the idea of reconciliation with the Communist regime without Hanoi offering its first honest steps.
There are many people from foreign countries who are shedding tears – or crocodile tears – over the slaying at My Lai where American Lieutenant Calley and his platoon killed from 300 to 500 Vietnamese civilians. But they are not saying a word about the many thousand Vietnamese souls perished under the gunpoint of the Communist troops in mass graves and on many other streets of Horror in the Vietnam War. Their one–sided attitude is not only sinful but also barbaric and must be condemned first by their own consciences.
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