A PEOPLE UNCOWED BY US BOMBS by Amado Doronilla, Philippine Daily Inquirer, 2008

Inquirer Headlines / Nation


Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted 07:22:00 10/22/2008

(Editors’ Note: Philippine Daily Inquirer columnist Amando Doronila’s distinguished service as a foreign correspondent forms the backbone of the first volume of his reminiscences, “Afro-Asia in Upheaval: A Memoir of Front-Line Reporting.” In this string of excerpts from the chapters on North Vietnam, he details scenes from a country under intense US bombardment in 1967. “Afro-Asia in Upheaval,” an Inquirer book, will be launched Thursday, Oct. 23.)
(Second of three parts)

ONE AFTERNOON, WHILE strolling down the street around Hanoi’s beautiful Lake of the Restored Sword (Petit Lak during the French colonial period), considered the city center, I was caught in a raid signal. I observed how the people reacted to the raids. I thought they were a little too careless and self-confident. People cleared the streets calmly—no panic at all. They merely sat on the edge of the foxholes looking skywards, as though waiting for the bombs to fall before they jumped in. Alerts usually lasted 15 to 20 minutes, and after the all-clear siren had sounded, people reappeared in the streets just as calmly as they had disappeared.

In my hotel, pretty Vietnamese reception clerks, barmaids, and waitresses turned instant militia fighters at the sound of the alert. They removed their aprons, posted themselves in battle stations, which could be in bunkers or in camouflaged machine-gun nests on the rooftops. Every tall building—most were no more than two stories—had some sort of machine-gun nest made of brick battlements and turrets manned by militia. The ambition was to shoot down an American plane with their Chinese-made rifles and light machine guns.

Every man and woman who could carry a rifle was armed by the government, and, according to one diplomat, that showed the confidence the politburo had in the popular support for the war effort. “If the Hanoi government does not have the support of the people,” the diplomat said, “it will fall tomorrow, considering that almost everybody is armed.”

THE RECEPTION ON THE 22ND anniversary of North Vietnam’s independence from French rule was scarcely over when I set out at 9 p.m., 30 August, for a tour of the Red River Delta south toward the 17th parallel. National Day itself was 2 September, but, as a security measure, the politburo of the Vietnam Workers Party secretly celebrated it days earlier at 6 p.m. at the National Assembly. A program was held followed by the reception at the presidential palace, while anti-aircraft batteries vigilantly scanned the skies: this was one of the first times the politburo, including Ho Chi Minh, sat together under one roof since the air war started.

The government took no chances. It issued invitations to journalists and members of the diplomatic corps [only] two hours before the official program. Prime Minister Pham Van Dong was to deliver a much-awaited policy speech. My guides came quietly to my hotel room after lunch and hustled me to the National Assembly. Such was the secrecy I didn’t have the slightest idea where they were taking me. It was a rare chance to see the politburo leaders. There were no interviews, despite requests from journalists. Between the meeting and the reception, I obtained a text of [Pham’s] speech.

As soon as the reception ended, my escorts took me back to the hotel to collect my bag. That was the beginning of nearly two weeks of nocturnal tours in bomb-devastated areas in the Red River Delta. “Nhan Dan,” the party newspaper, carried a daily scoreboard of US planes shot down since February 1965: a total of 2,232 against the Pentagon’s claim of 600, by the previous day’s published count. I took a Russian jeep, accompanied by my guide, Lang, and two interpreters.

We took Route Nationale No. 1, the old French main highway to Saigon in the south, running parallel to the narrow-gauge railway. Our jeep traveled with dimmed lights. A few kilometers outside Hanoi, I saw a convoy of five trucks mounted with camouflaged anti-aircraft guns moving south. Crates were piled along the sidings of the railway tracks, with mounds of sand, gravel, and railway tiles. The crates were stenciled with marks indicating they came from Poland. Truck traffic was heavy moving south. Women militia directed traffic at checkpoints and detour routes. We made a detour at 40 km from Hanoi, where women gangs protected from rain by straw conical hats were breaking rocks and piling them piece by piece on cratered roads that had been hit by bombs. We had a quick meal of sandwiches as we waited for traffic to move on. Empty trucks were moving in the opposite direction toward Hanoi.

The railway stations along the way had been bombed. People were waiting on the platforms. Repairs were going on in the night on damaged railway tracks. Air raid shelters dug in the mud and ditches were filled with water.

Route No. 1 started to narrow as we moved farther south. Trucks traveled with dark taillights and only with one headlight, with shaded beams. Trainees in small groups were marching at militia centers in self-defense exercises. Bicycles carrying loads of 200 kilos each and bull carts hauling charcoal and sacks of rice were also traveling on the highway. The traffic was an eerie procession of shadows and twinkling dots of faint lights, like fireflies dancing in the horizon.

AS WE TOOK THE FLAT BOAT across the river, I was always on the lookout for aircraft. From our base in the village to the dikes, we drove early in the morning at 7 a.m. in two Russian jeeps. My guides told me it was risky to travel late in the day. They cautioned me that if there was a raid I must stay calm and do what they said.

We took Route No. 1 again, entered village roads, crossed a wooden bridge, one of four, and a pontoon bridge built after the main bridge was destroyed. Gangs of women were reinforcing the road bed with rocks so it could take heavy truck traffic. Three anti-aircraft guns were concealed under trees on the roadside. There was a dummy of a US plane from a bamboo pole. It was used as target practice by the militia. On a hill across Route No. 1, villagers made signs from white painted stone. The signs were large enough to be visible from aircraft. They read: WE ARE DETERMINED TO FIGHT U.S. AGGRESSORS (yes, it was written in English).

At 12:30 p.m., I heard airplanes and explosions—I was having a cool bath (it was autumn in North Vietnam) from a well. We had lunch inside an air raid shelter carved inside the rocks of the hill. Despite the raids, the Vietnamese managed to maintain the amenities of normal life. We had a lunch of vegetables and boiled chicken. The food was served by young Vietnamese women on a table covered with white tablecloth. A flower vase was at the center of the table. Food was served with fortified Vietnamese liquor made from fruits. Always, food was washed [down] by rounds of strong Vietnamese black tea. Lunch was followed by siesta at 2 p.m.

After lunch, the telephone rang. Village officials were informed that a dike 10 km from where we came had been bombed. The bomb hit a dike but missed the sluice gate.

THE BOMBING ON FRIDAY came while I was interviewing the bishop of the diocese of Khiet Ky, a village five km from the town center. An hour after the bombing, we hurriedly inspected the bombed sites with town officials. Eight bombs had been dropped. Two exploded amid the ruins of a building that had been bombed in 1966, some 50 meters from a tiny bridge connecting the main street and the road leading into the town. Two of the bombs did not explode. Two other bombs fell on the hamlet a kilometer away across the irrigation canal, killing a 40-year-old peasant, a dog, and a pig, and destroying four huts made of straw and mud walls.

The peasant’s wife was in the fields working and the couple’s son was in the army. The peasant lived a wretched life. In the rubble of his hut, the only possession I saw was a shattered ceramic rice bowl and chopsticks. The peasant was having lunch when the bomb fell. Apparently, according to the officials, the target was a one-lane wooden bridge, one hundred meters long. On 29 August, a US plane bombed and missed the same bridge. The rockets fired from the plane decapitated a man and killed two water buffalos.