|Over the top: Liberation soldiers attack the Dau Mau US military base in Quang Tri Town in 1972. — VNS Photo Doan Cong Tinh.
|Place to remember: A corner of Quang Tri's Thach Han River. — VNS Photo Hoai Nam
|Paying respects: Visitors burn incense at Quang Tri Town's Cemetery of Heroes and Martyrs.
|Tales to valor: A group of visitors hear stories of soldiers who fought at Quang Tri Town. — VNS Photo Thanh Tung
Soldiers recall one of the fiercest battles of the American War and heaviest bombing, which turned Quang Tri Provincial capital and Dong Ha Town into a moonscape. Almost 3500 villages in the area were wiped out. Hoai Nam
The tears came unbidden as the tough, battle-hardened veteran spoke.
Forty years ago, he had seen his injured friend crushed by fragments of an artilerry shell in front of a bunker, and the pain is fresh even today.
"I only saw a few pieces of bone, skin and cloth on the ground," he recalled, oblivious to the wetness on his cheeks.
The gruesome images are an indelible part of Nguyen Thanh Binh's life.
The 58-year-old soldier was one of the thousands of soldiers who fought in probably the fiercest battle of the American War. In 1972, for 81 days, the Viet Nam People's Army (North Viet Nam) fought against the US-backed Sai Gon troops in Quang Tri Province.
It is recorded that Quang Tri had to bear the brunt of the heaviest bombing campaign ever.
According to one description on a memorial website.
"At the war's end in 1975, the entire province was devastated, and most of the population had evacuated. The Quang Tri provincial capital and Dong Ha Town were both destroyed.
" Not a single building remained standing or useable. Of 3,500 villages scattered throughout the province, only 11 remained at the end of the war. The intense bombing, combined with US use of the Agent Orange defoliant, turned the land into a virtual moonscape with only a fraction of the original triple canopy jungle forest remaining after the war."
"We were assigned to defend at the (Quang Tri) citadel that was under round the clock shelling and bombardments," Binh said.
"Many mates in my battalion were killed in the fight, but we vowed to defend the town," he said.
Binh was garrisoned in the citadel town when four bombs crumbled the citadel's walls near his bunker in an air strike.
"We sheltered in bunkers to avoid bombardments and shelling, but we pushed Sai Gon troops and tanks back with AK-47 assault rifles and grenade launchers in the fight at street corners and the citadel," Binh said.
The ceaseless bombardments hit bunkers and buried many soldiers.
"The continuous air strikes and artillery attacks kept us in bunkers all day. We even buried killed dead soldiers at the back of bunkers, but shelling and bombardment unearth the bodies."
The ghosts and memories of war have not been lost in the dust of a record one million people visiting the Quang Tri citadel in the first six months of the year.
They stand out as stirring testimony to the courage and sacrifice shown by the liberation soldiers, prevailing against a far-better equipped enemy.
The 19th century citadel (built in 1837) is the most visited site in the central province in summer when the country commemorates the National Day of War Martyrs and Invalids on July 27, and the 40th anniversary of the famous battle.
After the People's Army liberated the province on May 1, 1972, the US-backed Sai Gon troops launched a major offensive to reoccupy the province, leading to 81 days fighting from June 28 to September 16.
The citadel is located in the centre of the Quang Tri Town which was shelled and bombarded day and night.
It is estimated that over 328,000 tonnes of bombs and ammunition – equal to seven atomic bombs that the US dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 - were dropped during the fighting.
The town was reconstructed on an area of 7,000ha and it becomes now home to 22,000 people. The ruins of the citadel was recognised as a national historical relic in 1992.
Hanoian Tran Ngoc Ro joined the battle in the citadel on September 1, 1972, shorty after finishing high school.
He rememembered guarding a bunker under the arch of the citadel gate.
He was wounded after 12 days of fighting.
"I had shot down three when a bullet hit my shoulder and a shell fragment cut my bottom. I was forced to get away from the battle," Ro said.
"I swam across the Thach Han River to receive treatment at a military medical station."
Ro said that he returned to fight at the Aùi Tu airfield one month later.
|Battle won: Troops relax after the victory of Quang Tri Town.
Fragments from a bomb cut his leg under the knee and killed two soldiers.
"It was a serious wound and I spent months in a hospital in Quang Binh Province and I was sent home in early 1973."
Ro retired from the army to begin a four-year course in Russian at the Ha Noi Foreign Language College.
He found a job at a bookstore in the capital city and married in 1981.
The invalid soldier, father of two children, visited the old battlefield three years ago, in 2009.
"I visited the former airfield in Ai Tu where I lost my leg," he said, unable to say anything further and old memories took hold.
The citadel gate has since been rebuilt, but only a section of old brick wall still remains. And for some, the place is still alive with the martyrs.
"I'm still alive, but my comrades never return home. Some parts of their bodies are buried deep under the ground of the citadel. I do not want to leave them alone in the former battlefield. I want to save the souls of my teammates everyday," Binh said.
His house, 400m away from the citadel, is regular Martyrs Day rendezvous for former soldiers-in-arms.
Binh grows a bonsai garden in the citadel, so he walks to the citadel three times a day. He also plants trees there.
"I want to provide cool shade for my friends' souls. For me, they are still alive." — VNS