October 31, 1969
"At first the men did not dare step into the stream," one of the searchers recalled. "But the sun was going down and we finally entered the water, praying to the dead to pardon us." The men who were probing the shallow creek in a gorge south of Hue prayed for pardon because the dead had lain unburied for l9 months; according to Vietnamese belief, their souls are condemned to wander the earth as a result. In the creek, the search team found what it had been looking for--some 250 skulls and piles of bones. "The eyeholes were deep and black, and the water flowed over the ribs," said an American who was at the scene.
The gruesome discovery late last month brought to some 2,300 the number of bodies of South Vietnamese men, women and children unearthed around Hue. All were executed by the Communists at the time of the savage 25-day battle for the city during the Tet offensive of 1968. The dead in the creek in Nam Hoa district belonged to a group of 398 men from the Hue suburb of Phu Cam. On the fifth day of the battle, Communist soldiers appeared at Phu Cam cathedral, where the men had sought refuge with their families, and marched them off. The soldiers said that the men would be indoctrinated and then allowed to return, but their families never heard of them again. At the foot of the Nam Hoa mountains, ten miles from the cathedral, the captives were shot or bludgeoned to death.
Shallow Graves. When the battle for Hue ended Feb. 24, 1968, some 3,500 civilians were missing. A number had obviously died in the fighting and lay buried under the rubble. But as residents and government troops began to clean up, they came across a series of shallow mass graves just east of the Citadel, the walled city that shelters Hue's old imperial palace. About 150 corpses were exhumed from the first mass grave, many tied together with wire and bamboo strips. Some had been shot, others had apparently been buried alive. Most had been either government officials or employees of the Americans, picked up during a door-to-door hunt by Viet Cong cadres who carried detailed blacklists. Similar graves were found inside the city and to the southwest near the tombs where Viet Nam's emperors lie buried. Among those dug out were the bodies of three German doctors who had worked at the University of Hue.
Search Operation. Throughout that first post-Tet year, there were persistent rumors that something terrible had happened on the sand flats southeast of the city. Last March, a farmer stumbled on a piece of wire; when he tugged at it, a skeletal hand rose from the dirt. The government immediately launched a search operation. "There were certain stretches of land where the grass grew abnormally long and green," Time Correspondent Wllllam Mormon reported last week from Hue. "Beneath this ominously healthy flora were mass graves, 20 to 40 bodies to a grave. As the magnitude of the finds became apparent, business came to a halt and scores flocked out to Phu Thu to look for long-missing relatives, sifting through the remains of clothes, shoes and personal effects. "They seemed to be hoping they would find someone and at the same time hoping they wouldn't," said an American official. Eventually, about 24 sites were unearthed and the remains of 809 bodies were found.
The discovery at the creek in Nam Boa district did not come until last month--after a tip from three Communist soldiers who had defected to the government. The creek and its grisly secret were hidden under such heavy jungle canopy that landing zones had to be blasted out before helicopters could fly in with the search team. For three weeks, the remains were arranged on long shelves at a nearby school, and hundreds of Hue citizens came to identify their missing relatives. "They had no reason to kill these people," said Mrs. Le Thi Bich Phe, who lost her husband.
Negligible Propaganda. What triggered the Communist slaughter? Many Hue citizens believe that the execution orders came directly from Ho Chi Minh. More likely, however, the Communists simply lost their nerve. They had been led to expect that many South Vietnamese would rally to their cause during the Tet onslaught. That did not happen, and when the battle for Hue began turning in the allies' favor, the Communists apparently panicked and killed off their prisoners.
The Saigon government, which claims that the Communists have killed 25,000 civilians since 1967 and abducted another 46,000, has made negligible propaganda use of the massacre. In Hue it has not had to. Says Colonel Le Van Than, the local province chief: "After Tet, the people realized that the Viet Cong would kill them, regardless of political belief." That fearful thought haunts many South Vietnamese, particularly those who work for their government or for the Americans. With the U.S. withdrawal under way, the massacre of Hue might prove a chilling example of what could lie ahead.