The only survivor of Sand Hill tells his story
|Going back: Hoang Ngoc Bich (first from right) and his comrades visit the memorial stele for Platoon 6. — VNS Photo Thien Viet
by Nguyen Thien Viet
Born in 1948 in the central province of Nghe An, Hoang Ngoc Bich is a former teacher of Ha Noi Agriculture University.
Just a few months after entering the army, he was sent to Platoon 6, Company 2, Battalion 4 in Quang Tri.
On September 2, 1968, his unit took over the Gio My and Cua Viet area. On the evening of October 15, Platoon 6 was ordered to move to Height 21.
"It was a white night for me as our troops were deployed in the battlefield at 8pm and we had to finish the fortification of our position by four in the morning. The next day, dozens of enemy tanks crawled into the field and attacked us with their powerful fire power," narrates Bich.
"Facing continuous attacks of the enemy, Platoon 6 bravely nullified all their offensives. Yet, without the help of reinforcing troops which only arrived on October 16, we dug our heels in, though almost all soldiers were seriously wounded. The enemy kept thrusting into our defence barriers.
"The whole day, our platoon was busy, jumping out from the sand shelters and firing, destroying five of enemy's tanks and killing dozens of soldiers. When we ran out of ammunition, the enemy was still going strong. We decided to engage them in a hand-to-hand fight. However, since they were outnumbered, just the 33 of us proved to be unequal. My comrades were shot down one by one and the enemy overran the fortification."
|Paying tribute: Veterans regularly visit places of commemoration.
In the middle of that night, a medical team was sent to the battlefield. There were many blood trails but a few of the dead bodies could be found. "While they were searching, they found me lying unconscious, my body still warm. I was saved and received first aid right there," he adds.
Half a month later, Bich was awarded the national war hero. Later, he continued to fight in the southern region of Laos and the central province of Quang Nam. By the end of 1973, he was de-mobilised from the army and returned home.
The post-war life has been tough for Bich. Till 1985, he did not have a chance to visit the former battlefield. When he went, he stood in front of the spacious sandy hill, and felt a sense of deep sorrow arising inside him. He then took up some sand and put into a bottle, imagining it to be his comrades' collective remains, and carried it home.
"I talked to my wife to set up an altar for my comrades in my house in Dai Mo Ward, Ha Noi. Every October 16, I cooked some rice to pray for their souls in Heaven. While working as a teacher, I also did some other jobs so that I could save enough to go searching for my comrades' remains in Gio My," he says.
|Never forgotten: Alist of the fallen. — VNA/VNS Photos
As year elapsed, the number of veterans who Bich could connect kept becoming bigger and bigger. Until 1989, he had found the remains of ten of his comrades. The veterans decided to mark October 16 as the anniversary of the death of Platoon 6 members, and they take turn to hold the function every year.
"Many of my teammates faced difficulties in their lives, I suggested they come to my house to hold such an anniversary every year," says the 66 year old.
"I remembered joining my unit just three months before the battle, so I had not memorized all their names. I asked that the place where my comrades were buried be left without their names and ages, so that I can put their names on later," he says.
Thanks to the help of local authorities and residents, the memorial stele of Platoon 6 was erected on July 27, 2009, and its rear side remains blank without the names of the 32 war martyrs.
After many years of search, Bich fortunately met Colonel Vo Xuan Canh, former commander-in-chief of Vinh Linh District military. Luckily for him, Canh had still kept the name of Platoon 6 personnel. Bich burst into tears as he saw his 32 comrades' full names,ages and hometowns.
With the list, Bich wrote to inform his comrades' families. No sooner had he done that, he received feedback. It was his letters that brought endless happiness to 32 families and the next of the kin of those martyrs.
Since then, Doi Catis no longer a silent place. The hill has become a popular destination for local people and visitors. Bich now sleeps better every night as he recalls his loving comrades, and knows he has played a little part in bringing to them that recognition and closure that they deserved. Clearly, Bich won a battle long after the fighting got over. — VNS