|Illustration by Dao Quoc Huy
by Nguyen Trong Luan
Looking up at the two tamarind trees, I clasped my hands in prayer to the tamarind god. The trees had witnessed two bloody days - March 18 and 19, 1975 – and now they allowed the unfortunate souls who died in their shade to reside there. I was extremely grateful to them. They had witnessed what had happened from the beginning to the end and as I clasped my hands, I prayed that they would stay forever green to protect the unfortunate souls of the soldiers on both sides.
My wife and I returned to Cheo Reo after 30 years, one month and eleven days. This span of time was long enough for a man to be born and grow up. Like me, the other soldiers from unit E64 were now old, but we still remembered clearly what had happened on those two days. We had returned to the old battlefield to look for the past, to think over the past. We all knew that we owed a debt to the past; we owed our comrades-in-arms who had laid down their lives here, even the most unfortunate souls.
On March 17, 1975, Battalion 7 fought against Buon Ho. The fighting lasted a few days. We pursued the enemy into Chu Pao and Dat Li. Bombs and shells could be heard in Ban Me Thuot. On March 14, we launched an onslaught on Chu Pao. The enemy troops fled, leaving behind their artillery. The day before, our unit had forced the whole company of the enemy sappers to retreat along Road 14 in the north of Buon Ho. Now Battalion 7 and Battalion 8 were positioning themselves in the coffee forest, two kilometres north of Buon Ho. The March sun blazed down on the Highlands. The coffee blossoms were snow-white and fragrant. Right where we were lying in hiding there was a convoy of trucks from Unit 559. After a long time I saw a female soldier from the North. A cotton towel covered her pale face because of malaria. Our teammates were relaxing. I was fiddling with a guitar, booty from the enemy's Buon Ho Outpost. Some were being bandaged; others were cleaning their guns, looking sad. The female soldier was wiping away tears.
All of a sudden, I stopped playing the guitar, wondering where this girl came from. As strong as we were, we were also enervated after the fight. What about her? She looked worn out from malaria. I thought about my mother and my sister, at home in the North, where there was still peace. Then I opened the wallet of a dead Sai Gon soldier and found some photos of a girl in a swimsuit. On the back of the photo, someone had written "Eternal Love". Nha Trang - Summer 1971.
When would I have such a photo? I thought. It was four o'clock in the afternoon. We were on the march again. Noisily and in a hurried manner, we set off down Road 14. The sun was at our backs. Sweat could be seen on the barrels of 82 and DKZ howitzers. Soldiers were hobbling with their gun pedestals. All the soldiers of Battalion 7 hopped on the trucks and moved northwards, while the soldiers of Battalion 8 continued marching on Road 14. At five in the afternoon on March 17, the trucks came to pick up the soldiers of Battalion 8. It turned out that we had to take turns to march due to the lack of trucks. Dead tired, we elbowed each other for a place in the trucks and fell asleep right away. When the enemy suddenly fired shells on the mountainside, we kept on sleeping in the trucks. Our feet were swollen, our eyes hollow, our throats dry and choked. The March sun was spitting fire on us. When the night came, we were billeted right at the foot of Cheo Reo Mountain. The enemy artillery was pounding on the other side of the mountain, trying to block our unit's advance. The whole regiment had to climb the mountain to take a short cut to block in the south of the provincial capital.
Battalion 9 had advanced beforehand. Battalion 7 was now on the top of the mountain, while we were just starting to climb the mountain. It was eight o'clock on March 17.
Now, 37 years had gone by and we had returned to the Highlands two times. We stood looking at the mountain that blocked the road from Cheo Reo to Ban Me Thuot. I had butterflies in my stomach, thinking about the night when we climbed that mountain. It was almost unbelievable that we had succeeded. At times I wanted to cry, but I could not. A new recruit like many others in my unit, I tried to overcome my pain. When we climbed onto the summit, it was midnight. Looking down at the Cheo Reo valley, we saw the whole provincial capital aflame. We were launching attacks on the north of the capital. It was pitch dark. Now we had to climb up, now we had to run downhill. We were chasing the enemy; we were in hot pursuit. Besides the knapsacks and guns in our hands, we each had to carry one mortar shell for the firepower unit. Looking at Thanh Ba carrying his mortar shell clumsily, I felt bad for him. "Hand that AK to me. I can carry it for you," I said. He burst out crying. But after that, he asked for the gun back and carried it with ease. We came to the bottom of the mountain as day broke. There were still seven kilometres to go before Road 7. The forest was strewn with rocks and dry streams. The knee-deep grass turned yellow. We heard gunfire, ever more tumultuous. When Battalion 8 was only one kilometre from Road 7, it clashed with the enemy troops. We started to open fire on the enemy. B40 and B41 hand missiles were aimed at the enemy tanks coming from the forest. Trees were gunned down. We raced through the forest in pursuit of the enemy. I saw 10 enemy bodies on the way. A lot of the enemy vehicles and armored cars had been shot and were on fire, sending the enemy troops running for their lives. Battalion 8 soldiers were ordered to protect the Regiment's headquarters. Explosions roared in the forest. Everywhere was shrouded in smoke and dust. Cries were heard all over the forest. The enemy planes roaring overhead dropped bombs on the bank of the Bo River.
Until the afternoon, waves of attacks raged through the forest around the Regiment Headquarters. Infantrymen from Battalion 8 had not yet been ordered to rush onto the road. During our pursuit, we had found the enemy's knapsacks and I myself had found some packets of Basto cigarettes. Then I went to the dry stone-strewn stream, dense with white butterflies. There I discovered thousands of evacuees hiding behind trees and in the dry golden sand of the stream to avoid bombs and shells. They were horror-stricken, crying in great fear. Company C24 had quickly boiled water and given the wounded evacuees emergency injections and then bandaged them. I heard children crying in a tent in a bamboo grove. The people, young and old, looked at each other in horror. The liberation fighters had quickly given the children some dry provisions. I ran quickly back to my unit, leaving behind the heart-rending cries of the children.
On March 18, amidst the roaring of bombs and shells, I was trying to forage for food. I found some knapsacks of Sai Gon soldiers full of cigarettes and medicine and wads of letters. I wrapped them in a bunch and went back to my unit. I found a letter that a woman had sent to her husband, a Sai Gon soldier:
Qui Nhon, March 10, 1975
My darling husband! I have been so worried about the news from the battlefield in the Highlands in the past few days that I could not sleep a wink and have gone without food. Are you O.K.? Have you had any operations? Mother is ill these days so she asked me to write to you, telling you to take care of yourself…
… I pray to God and to our ancestors, please bring you home to me and your children as quickly as possible. I pray to God to give peace to our homeland, my dear!"
During that day, as the fighting raged on, I read and re-read the letter of the soldier on the other side. My eyes were wet with tears. Then I wished I could avoid being hit by bullets and stay alive. If I died with those letters in my pocket, the consequences would be bad.
It was about five o'clock in the afternoon. Battalion 8 advanced to replace Battalion 7 to fight on. It took 15 minutes for us to be found on the road. We saw the wreckages of the enemy's burnt vehicles along the road for four kilometres. We kept on fighting against the remnants of the enemy troops, who were risking their lives to cross the Cay Sung Bridge. Company 7 was stationed at the head of the bridge, which was broken and sagged into the dry river in the shape of a V. At the end of the bridge, there were three wrecked GMC armored cars. I met my friend Ta Cu, a resident of Phu Tho Province, at the head of the bridge.
"Come quickly and replace us now. We are so tired and scared. The enemy troops and local people were found dead in big heaps there," he said. Then he quickly ran away as if trying to avoid that terrible fate.
The company commander was arranging the formation, while the platoon commanders were crawling around to observe the road. Our squad was positioned 100 metres from the head of the bridge, behind two big tamarind trees only 10 metres from the road. At the foot of the trees there were three dead soldiers from the Sai Gon army and one dead civilian. I quickly went to fetch a mattress from a burnt vehicle nearby and covered the dead bodies and then we started to dig shelters behind the tamarind trees. In the darkness, I crawled out onto the road to find a hoe. In a Jeep I found a Sai Gon officer lying dead on the wheel, while a woman, possibly his wife, lay dead on the seat. I dropped the hoe and ran quickly behind the tamarind trees to carry three big rocks to block the vehicle. I could not sleep that night. In my mind, I kept seeing those two dead bodies. During the night, there was sporadic gunfire as Sai Gon soldiers tried to cross the bridge. We could not sleep. Dewdrops fell on us from those two tamarind trees in the clear and quiet moonlight. I looked up and saw the tamarind fruits swinging in the wind. That image has followed me until today.
The gunfire on the battlefield gradually slowed. There were some fires burning weakly on the riverbank. We still could not sleep. The tamarind trees were also lying awake. They had seen those dead bodies and those burnt M41 and M48 armored cars belonging to the enemy troops. They themselves had also been tattered by bombs and shells. Yet they were still alive.
On the morning of March 19, we prepared quickly to pursue the enemy down Road 7. At noon we carried two dead bodies from the Jeep and put them at the foot of the tamarind tree so that we could use the Jeep. It was getting steadily hotter. I went together with the unit, but at times, I tried to look back at the dead bodies at the foot of the tamarind trees.
We went back to visit the Cay Sung Bridge site, which is now infamous due to what happened that year on Road 7 in Cheo Reo. I went down that dry river and saw the golden sand beach. There were now fields of maize. Suddenly I remembered that on March 19, 1975, we had carried two wounded children from the foot of the tamarind trees to the medivac unit nearby to save them. I wondered where they were now. I was still walking at the head of the bridge when I came to the tamarind trees. They were still alive and still green. There was a deserted house behind the trees. A white-washed pigeon house was set up on a tree.
I prayed: "Tamarind god! Once again, I would like to thank you for being so gentle all these years and covering those unfortunate souls in your shade. You have witnessed the ups and downs of human life - the whole life cycle – for all these years on this road."
The Ba River goes dry and then floods, year in and year out. The war has been over for years, but incense for those dead souls will always be burnt. We believe that you know this, tamarind god. We organised a TV programme entitled "It is as if there was never a separation!" People came to visit this road to look for the children who went missing during the war, you know! We old ex-soldiers have come here. Standing before the tamarind god, we find that we are still innocent and naive.
Translated by Manh Chuong