Janos Gereben
Janos Gereben

Fellowship Title:

Report From North Vietnam

Janos Gereben
October 20, 1969

Fellowship Year

Oct. 1969

Lerchengasse 28/43
1080 Wien, Austria

BUDAPEST—Nepszabadsag, the newspaper of the Hungarian Communist Party, has just concluded a series of eight articles from its correspondent in North Vietnam, Laszlo Rozsa.

Entitled “Under Thundering Skies,” the series reports on the current situation in that country, an ally of Communist Hungary. Here are some excerpts from Rozsa’s articles.

“I TRAVELED almost three thousand kilometers between Hanoi and the 17th parallel, the line artificially dividing Vietnam. I reached all the way to the north shore of the Ben Hai river, the most tragic symbol of the war, which is the milestone in this most painful and bloody conflict of current human history.

During the nights spent in bamboo huts between trenches, I heard the ceaseless thundering of guns, the cracking of small arms; saw the bright lights of exploding bombs and rockets; and on the other side of the DMZ, the excited movements of the search lights from the American base at Con Tien sweeping the ground for the freedom fighters.

I felt the trembling of this long-suffering land pounded by B-52 bombers day and night at the near battlefield.

WHILE THE WORLD has more or less ‘written off’ this war and newspapers analyze reports from the diplomatic talks, Ben Hai’s pulse is still moved by the rhythm of war. Over our heads American jets are flying and here in the underground caves live for the fifth year the survivors: men and women carrying the fight on by the light of candles.

He who travels here must come through an ocean of crime, the evidence of the American Army’s insane destruction. And he, who arrives here, to the land of Quang Binh and Vinh Linh, finds proud and brave people who cannot be broken or humiliated.

FROM HANOI to our destination, we had to cross four degrees of latitude, nine large rivers and countless smaller rivers. Descending on the south slopes of the Hoanh Son mountain, we saw the shining surface of the Pacific Ocean; we arrived to the land of Quang Binh.

Quang Binh means ‘land of the great peace.’ It received the name in the long-passed times when Vietnamese tribes were still fighting the Champaks, occupied and pacified this area then moved on toward the south.

But now, after four years of constant American bombardment from the air and from the sea, Quang Binh received its new name: Dat Lua, land of fire. It is a fitting name because of the three million tons of bombs the Americans dropped on Vietnam during the war; 1,200,000 tons rained on the 9,000 square kilometer between Quang Binh and Vinh Linh. These figures are better understood with the reminder that during the entire period of World War II, the Americans dropped 656,000 tons of bombs in the Pacific, including Japan.

THIS MEANS that each resident of the province had seven tons of metal rained down for him by the Americans, not counting the ammunition from small arms fire. Most of the bombing came after the deceptive American claim of stopping the aerial bombardment of North Vietnam.

Around Quang Binh, 20,000 homes were destroyed, and every city and residential area wiped out. The people here rebuilt their factories underground, sent the children and old people to the mountains, and every single person remaining became a fighting soldier.

NATURALLY, THE AMERICANS had a reason for concentrating their fire on Quang Binh. It is a strategic area, the narrow land between the ocean and the Laos border, only 50-55 kilometers in width. It has more than 150 kilometers of seashore and many navigable bays. The ocean is essential to the economy of the province, consisting of fishing, salt and fish oil production; there used to be some agriculture here, too, mostly the production of tea and coconuts. The spread of population mirrored its economy with heavier concentration by the ocean and fewer people in the mountains.

THE RAIN OF FIRE AND METAL on them has transformed these happy, singing and dancing southern people into tough and determined fighters. They used the debris of their own destroyed homes to build new roads, planted bananas in the bomb craters, and kept cultivating rice during the night even under the heaviest bombing. At harvest time, when they didn’t have enough transportation, they used coffins, but at all times they have maintained the steady flow of supplies.

THE DESTRUCTION OF DONG HOI, the ancient city and harbor, provincial capital and home of 13,000 people, was complete by the time of our visit, but its horrible story was told by two provincial officials.

The Americans noticed the city early during the course of the war as they were probing areas of North Vietnam they had believed to be weak. They chose Dong Hoi as their target because it was the southernmost harbor and located in the narrow ‘waist’ of the country. Also, it might have been significant that many Catholics lived here.

Already, on June 30, 1964, well before the Bay of Tonkin incident, the excuse for escalation, the Americans directed a South Vietnamese commando raid and landing near Dong Hoi. The attack was beaten back, the commandos killed and their equipment captured. Then the bombing began. From Feb. 7, 1965, the city was under constant aerial and naval bombardment.

THERE WERE 1964 attacks during three years and Dong Hoi received 7162 bombs, more than 13,000 naval grenades, and 959 phosphor bombs. Homes (3,000 were destroyed), schools, cemeteries were bombed without discrimination. The city’s look today can be compared only to Stalingrad after World War II.

Relatively few lives were lost but this was the result of careful planning and preventive measures; nothing absolves the American military leadership of the guilt for destroying a city in cold blood, not differentiating between military and civil targets.

When military historians write the story of the Vietnam war, they must include the fact that this was the most wasteful war of world history. Bare, uninhabited sections of the shoreline were ‘perforated’ so thoroughly as if they were important and difficult targets. I saw a meadow myself where I could count over 80 bomb craters. And the astonishingly foolish and arrogant aggression of the Americans did not even reach its military objective—the destruction of Dong Hoi cost 50 planes to the Americans, all shot down by the freedom fighters during the siege of the city.

THE NIGHT WAS WARM AND BRIGHT as we felt as the dull thundering of B-52’s bombs shook the walls of the bamboo hut. My hosts didn’t even look up—they are used to it. We were in the middle of the battle of Con Tien.

At dawn, we left in a jeep camouflaged with tree branches for the bay of Ben Hai, just across Con Co island. This is the last military outpost here for North Vietnam before the Demilitarized Zone where the Vietnamese Democratic Republic does not conduct any operations. However, we had to take precautions because the Americans have attacked this area more than a hundred times in the last six months.

Ben Hai is a short, insignificant river, running down from the mountains of the Laos border. Before the escalation, people here talked with their neighbors over the river, which provided water for both North and South Vietnamese. According to the Geneva Treaty this was not to be a border, just a temporary line of demarcation before the unification of the country. For this purpose, a zone of 3-5 kilometers on both sides of the river was designated as the Demilitarized Zone.

When the Americans started their escalation, they needed an excuse to disregard the Geneva Treaty and they soon found one: This is where the Viet Cong infiltrates to the South, they said. Everybody knows that this is a lie—this area is not suitable for transportation of troops, but it didn’t really matter to Washington.

AND SO THE DAILY and bloody provocation began as Americans hunted and killed defenseless peasants here; then the whole area was to be wiped clean by B-52s and the ships of the Seventh Fleet. Today, Ben Hai looks like the surface of the moon.

It was a strange coincidence that the Americans’ moon landing was broadcast on the very morning we left for Ben Hai. It made me think of the incongruous contradiction that the same nation which gained eternal glory in realizing this old dream of mankind can and does at the same time bring eternal shame on itself by bringing hell to this unfortunate land.

WE REACHED VINH QUANG, that is, what used to be Vinh Quang, by a network of trenches. It is not advisable to walk about here because American reconnaissance plances are always overhead. At first, I had trouble finding my way through the trenches, but soon I realized the logical construction of this network: here, everything has been built (and built well) for a complete underground life. I met women working in the underground gardens, resting in comfortable recreation halls, repairing their fishing nets, etc.

Reaching the seashore, we came to the mouth of the river, which was once a resort place with its scenic beauty. Here, Bao Dai, the puppet king of the Japanese, had his luxurious villa.

The ocean, in hues of ever-darker blue, is still beautiful, but today we saw a different picture than Bao Dai enjoyed here some decades ago. There was a whole parade of U.S. Navy ships, I counted 18 units of the Seventh Fleet. This concentration of military might struck me as stupid and ridiculous unless it is for the sole purpose of intimidation. Now, after five years of war, it should be clear to everybody that this muscle-flexing doesn’t do any good. I leave the judgment to the reader about this picture of a mighty flotta fighting the fragile junks of poor fishermen who are just trying to feed their families.

RETURNING FROM THE SHORE, we were introduced to the people of the underground village. Families here are producing and fighting units; the B-52s pushed the people of Vinh Quang right back into the age of the cavemen but they live, work, and fight on with a show of loyalty, patriotism, and bravery cavemen never knew about.

It is impossible to report about this extent of suffering and heroism; I recorded on tape instead the words of Nguyen Me, the vice president of the community’s council:

‘WE ARE FISHERMEN, our tools are sampans and boats.

‘The Americans burned and destroyed our boats, damaged our nets. We repaired the nets to continue our work. We are not using big sampans now, only small boats, these are smaller, smaller for bomb targets than the sampans.

‘Then we changed the time of fishing so that the enemy won’t see us. But still have gotten enough food for ourselves, all the time.

‘In the craters made by the bombs, we are planting batata and manioca. To protect ourselves from the planes, we got together in a group of men which repairs whatever is damaged by bombing while the planes are still seen. We have bomb shelters, and in them homes and community halls.

‘To protect the people, we connected the trenches and underground caves and shelter so that if one place becomes dangerous, we just all go over to the next one. We have only adults living here, organized a school for ourselves and at the end of the year 71 took tests, we learned much and studied while holding the rifle. Now we have a dance group, too, and won second place in the provincial contest.

‘When Bao Dai was king, we were very poor. After the revolution, we got new sampans and nets. Fishing is community work, we live and work in the community, through solidarity. The ocean cannot be divided with borders put on it. When the fish are going from North to South, we cannot stop working as the fish cross the border. If the Americans want to separate the fishermen in the North from the fishermen in the South, it’s like cutting the guts of a living body.’

ANOTHER FISHING VILLAGE near Ben Hai is Ngu Thuy. From 1965, this place was attacked 1241 times by the gigantic American military machine during the day, 1350 times during the night. Almost 10,000 bombs, l,245 napalm raids, 2,242 rockets, 1,154 naval grenades hit here, destroying l,llO houses, including schools, hospitals, pagodas, killing 300 residents, among them 10 pregnant women and many children.

BUT NGU THUY did not suffer idly. The residents organized a shore battery of anti-aircraft guns and successfully engaged American planes and ships. As the men were going away to fight in other places, the village’s women took over the job of the battery. They sank four commando boats.

GIRLS, PREGNANT WOMEN, old people, children—they are all fighting. Their rage against the Americans is burning with a white flame. They say they were not organized to fight by the government, but by the Americans.

The Americans are supplying oil to the flames of a people’s war.”

Received in New York on October 20, 1969.

Mr. Gereben is an Alicia Patterson Fund award winner on leave from the Honolulu Star-Bulletin. This article may be published with credit to Janos Gereben, the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, and the Alicia Patterson Fund.