Tuan’s thoughts now drift back in time to the Tet Offensive of 1968 and its aftermath.
“When the VC occupied the city of Hue and massacred 3,000 people who were found buried in mass graves, whenever people saw or heard that government troops were leaving, they knew that NVA was going to seize the opportunity to move in.”
“And if the VC came, and you didn’t get out right away, you would never have the chance to leave. So, there was an exodus of people with their belongings crowding all the highway and routes going south. Dai Lo Kinh Hoang (Horror Highway) which happened when VC artillery shells targeted fleeing people on Highway 1, Quang Tri Province, killing thousands,” he said.
Years later, after having escaped Da Nang on the Marine ship, Tuan had this to say:
“Exiting the ship, I followed the flow of people heading south, using all means of transportation: walking, busing, riding on Lambretta 3-wheeler scooters, Camionnettes [minivans]. At that time, people usually gave free access to injured soldiers. That’s why I was wearing my Marine uniform shirt with the hospital pajama pants,” he said.
When Tuan reached the checkpoint at Bien Hoa, he put on his officer insignia epaulettes, was saluted by a Marine MP, and driven to Le Huu Sanh Hospital inside Rung Cam Marine Base, Thu Duc.
The surgeon removed shrapnel from Tuan’s leg and told him he was lucky not to have an infection, and that the salt water during Tuan’s swim to the Marine vessel might have kept his leg from being infected.
“I stayed until the end, and I walked home before the VC came and took over. During my stay at the hospital, I was informed that my unit was stationed at Vung Tau, but because my doctor did not release me, I could not go back. Who knows what would have happened if I had gone back?” he asked, remembering that most of his fellow Marines in the final days of the war used small boats to go out to sea and were picked up by the US Seventh Fleet.
In the last 46 years, Tuan has had ample time to reflect on the final outcome of the war in Vietnam.
“Looking back, the two main factors that decided the outcome of the war came down to the structure, the making of the soldier. First, the NVA soldiers’ mental state had been nurtured in an environment of blind obedience to the Communist Party since birth. They believed that the south suffered under an oppressive regime, and they were willing to sacrifice their lives to liberate the country. Each NVA soldier was brain-washed every day by the commissar political adviser. He feared his own peers would report any weakness. They called each other “Dong Chi,” which meant `same vision, same goal.’ They used any means — lies, threats, misinformation, torture, even killing — to reach their goal,” Tuan believed. “They were robot soldiers.”
“By contrast the South Vietnamese soldier was influenced by his family, his humanity — he could not kill, mistreat elderly, women, children — and most importantly, he could think. He didn’t believe in propaganda. He knew right from wrong. That made him weaker than the robot soldiers who pushed through everything to achieve their goal,” Tuan said.
The second factor, in Tuan’s opinion, was the equipment.
“The robot soldier required minimum basics: food to survive and weapons to kill. Everything else was secondary. He wore sandals and a hat for protection. He required no salary. For one South Vietnamese soldier, you could produce 100 NVA soldiers; the ratio was always 10, 20, 50. or 100 to one in every battle. There must have been a reason why the South lost the war.”
Tuan expands on what he feels that reason was.
As soon as the NVA and VC entered a city, with the help of local followers, they took control of all government facilities, and started patrolling the streets with propaganda themes on loudspeakers. They soon requested people to register their household and encouraged denouncing `anti-revolutionaries’ and reporting all enemies of the people.
“People were confused and scared,” he added. “Who was considered the enemy of the people? Would they be executed? Would there be a new Hue massacre but on a bigger scale?”
A new order came the next day, advising all military and government employees of the “old regime” that they would be pardoned if they voluntarily registered to undergo re-education classes: from Private 1st class to NCOs, three days; for junior officers, ten days; for captains up to generals, six months, according to Tuan.
“They had to bring their own food and clothes, `Failing to do so would face serious consequences,’” the notice said.
“I watched the first `catégorie,’” Tuan said in French, “go and come home. After all, we junior officers were only small potatoes. It would be only ten days, plus the neighbors were watching. The communists were very good at sowing fear to control people. They were masters at lies and misinformation.”
“I showed up at lycée Jean-Jacques Rousseau, my old high school, the pickup point for District 1 in Saigon. I saw some of my friends from university. When we filled out the paperwork, we were told that they knew everything about us, that they seized the Ministry of Defence, and had all the documents. They just wanted to confirm if we were honest to confess our crimes to the people. [They told us] we would be punished if we were not.”
Tuan and the others were organized into ten-person teams with one designated leader to be responsible for each team.
“That night we were loaded into covered Molotov vans. After hours of driving on suburban roads, they made us sit down in columns in a big industrial yard. Then they loaded us into the belly of a big transport ship. I will never forget how dark and suffocating the space was when they closed the lid above us,” he remembered.
“After a few hours, suddenly they opened the lid and released us into the yard to be head-counted again. Then we were loaded back into the Molotov trucks, and the convoy headed back to the city and drove northeast. This time the guy sitting in the back poked his head out from time to time and gave us the information about where we were going.”
At dawn they reached a big walled compound.
“I know this place,” one guy said to Tuan. “It’s Thanh Ong Nam.”
Thanh Ong Nam was the ARVN military civil service base in the Hoc Mon District, in the outskirts of Saigon, not far from the now famous Cu Chi tunnels in what Tuan referred to as “VC country.”