|Illustration by Dao Quoc Huy
by Le Hoai Nam
That morning, a group of marines from the Army of the Republic of Viet Nam (ARVN), from the far side of the Vinh Dinh River, decided to cross the wooden bridge with a view to staging a counter-attack against the 2nd Company of the Liberation Front Armed Forces (LFAF), isolating it before separating it from the 1st Battalion. However, it was stopped short by other LFAF companies on this side, so it was forced to retreat back to the rear base. After that it asked for ARVN's firepower to fight back. Consequently, some combatants of the 2nd company were killed or wounded. Nghinh's 2-way walkie-talkie on his back was completely destroyed by an AR15 bullet. Nghinh, Lau and Chuong fighters were ordered to take three wounded and sick men back to the banana orchard in the rear and let them stay inside a shelter in Nghinh's care. Late in the afternoon, Nghinh saw three GMCs unloading their troops on the other side of the river. Going after these armoured cars was a military truck whose sides were covered with big red canvases bearing the Red Cross symbol. Many young girls began getting off the truck. Thanks to his well-seasoned experience, he realized that those long-haired young women in white tunics were none other than cannon-fodder.
From the temporary earthen works in the banana orchard, Nghinh saw some thirty ARVN soldiers deployed along the river bank and at the bridge, about a hundred metres away from Nghinh's place of ambush, to assault the LFAF force in the gardens.
He felt a bit worried for his comrades-in-arms, who were at the battlefield over there while he had to stay alone in the earthen works, pressing his chest against its wall, vigilantly watch the enemies with his AK rifle and care for the bodies of his six fellow soldiers and two seriously wounded combatants in the open-air shelter about seven metres away from him. Among the six dead fighters he only knew the names of two: Thuong of the 1st Platoon; Lenh, belonging to the Tay ethnic group, of the 3rd Platoon. As for the four others, he did not know any of them because they were new, added during the previous night. Another seriously wounded young man's name was Lau. He only met him early in the morning. During the morning fight, a DKZ 90 cannonball from an M41 tank of the ARVN fell near the formation of the 1st Squad and injured them all a bit, but Lau, who suffered greatly with one leg broken, face and neck stuck with shell splinters, was bandaged all over except for one eye. When the bodies and wounded were gathered to be taken to the banana orchard, Lau stared fixedly at Nghinh.
"Brother Nghinh, don't give me up please. My entire Pham lineage has only one male. That's me," he insisted.
"Don't worry. My head is also dressed like you; yet my limbs are still intact. So try to ignore the pain as much as possible. This evening you'll have an operation at the battalion field hospital," Nghinh assuaged him.
At that moment, one 28-mm shell of enemy's mortar exploded near Nghinh's hiding-place. He felt a burning sensation on his face and tasted something salty in his mouth. He spat out three teeth and a fingertip-sized splinter. Worse still, half of his right ear had been cut off completely.
The second soldier compelled to stay at the shelter was Cuong. Although he was not wounded, he suffered from acute malaria. Usually, he was as strong as a horse, but now he was very weak due to that serious disease. During the previous night, he requested to eat a lot. The next morning, he began trembling terribly. His teeth were chattering with cold continually. His eyes turned white and pale, his lips swollen. After the cold came a high fever. He started to rave. He started stammering. His whole body was bathed in sweat.
Nghinh suddenly remembered that three months before, on the march from North to South while crossing an old forest in a heavy rain, there was also a fighter named Hoa, who was so mercilessly attacked by a violent bout of malaria that he was unable to walk further; as a result he was compelled to stay behind. The next day, Nghinh together with another man came back to look for him, and they found him lying dead in a hammock hung between two trunks very near a footpath. When Nghinh lifted Hoa's uniform, he was trembling with fright: his friend's body was covered with insects.
Thinking about Hoa's death, he felt greatly worried for Cuong. Therefore, whenever the sounds of bombs and shells came to an end, he crawled to him, lifted his head high a bit and consoled him, "After this, you'll be taken to the field hospital behind the front line for treatment."
It was mid-August. It was intensely hot and a heavy downpour started suddenly. Nghinh gathered his hands close to collect some small amount of rainwater in order to stay his thirst. The open-air shelter where Lau, Cuong and six dead bodies lay was nearly soaked with water, so he cut down some banana trees and put them across the shelter then covered the place with a large plastic sheet. In the meantime Lau remained asleep, breathing heavily. On his head and neck, the blood had turned dark. He wrapped them with a piece of parachute material to keep them dry.
"Brother Nghinh, please don't abandon me here. I'm the only son in our lineage," he implored again.
"How could I have the heart to do so, Lau? So long as I'm still alive, I'll always stay beside you," Nghinh assuaged him in a moved voice.
When the rain stopped, he returned to his works and looked around. On the far side of the river, a small group of enemy troops huddled together near a vacant school. Several girls in white tunics hurriedly walked in and out of the empty building. Some walls and parts of the roof had been destroyed.
He aimed his AK rifle at the enemies on the other river bank. Suddenly, he saw a young woman raising an M79 submachine-gun with a soldier's help to shoot. "Bang" went her gun. Its shell exploded right on the top of the shelter where Lau and Cuong were lying. Poor Lau, one side of his face was broken apart! His body convulsed for a few minutes and then stayed motionless. Cuong's neck was cut deep by a big splinter. His blood spurted profusely out of the wound and the six bodies were torn into pieces.
Nghinh flew into a rage. He aimed at the young woman and kept his finger on the trigger then pulled it slightly. He saw the woman convulsing for some minutes, and then she collapsed. An enemy soldier rushed toward the dead body and took it to a garden of jackfruit trees behind the school. In the meantime, Nghinh quickly crawled out of his works. After that he retreated to the rear of the battlefield as fast as possible in order to evade the enemy's counter-attack.
In the evening, Nghinh and a squad of fighters carried the eight bodies to an open field close to the river bank to bury them.
Much later on, when Nghinh and many other wounded soldiers returned to the North on a military lorry, he put a question to them after telling them about the aftermath of the war.
"Do you think that I was cruel to shoot that girl in the white tunic?" he asked.
"What a queer question! During such a fierce fight, anything may happen to both sides. Why do you feel repentant about that?"
In the 2013-2014 school year, under the teaching of the old headmaster Hoang Van Nghinh (briefly called Nghinh) and teacher La Thi Hop, in charge of a specialised literature class at the Senior Secondary High School of Ba Huyen Thanh Quan, scores of their pupils obtained the national prize. By the end of July, 80 per cent of their class passed the university entrance exams and the rest also had a place in various vocational colleges. Headmaster Nghinh was very happy with that success. A few days before the end of the schoolyear, he came to La Thi Hop's class to eulogise its achievement.
"Together with your class teacher, I wish to offer you a worthy prize," he said. "What do you dream of? Think about the matter carefully, then let us know your wish as soon as possible."
When he left, they said to their class teacher: "We would like an excursion to Quang Tri Province with its ancient citadel, the Thach Han River, the former battlefield of Khe Sanh and, last but not least, the places where our headmaster lived and fought in wartime, that's all."
In fact, during the literature classes he often told them about the critical days in that far-away locality in a sincere, deep voice. It was the stories about those arduous engagements that had attracted their imagination. Their proposal was accepted by the school's Board of Teachers.
"I totally agree with your request. The school will pay the fare for our trip. But all the other expenses like food, accommodation and so on will be covered by us all. OK?" he declared the decision in front of the class.
The whole class felt very pleased. They prepared everything for their much sought-after journey. Opening his PC to search on Google, the headmaster came to know that July was the month when many veterans returned to their former battlefields to pay homage to their ill-fated comrades-in-arms. Now it was August and their grateful deeds remained under way. To the best of his knowledge, he was aware that, near the bridge spanning over the Vinh Dinh River, a memorial was built by a businessman and would be unveiled on August 10. After discussing the matter with Miss La Thi Hop, he made up his mind to let the schoolchildren set off one day before its solemn inaugural ceremony.
The 49-seat coach left the school gate early in a suburb of the city. Travelling along Highway One, they reached the town of Quang Tri at 6pm. The whole party stayed in a hotel close to the Thach Han River. The next morning, the first place they visited was the banana orchard near the bridge spanning the Vinh Dinh River. That orchard was nowhere to be seen. In its place was a war memorial that stood on the former open-air shelter, where the eight bodies that Nghinh and his mates had taken away for their burial had lain. Teardrops fell down his cheeks. Near the foot of the memorial there were a great number of veterans and locals busy preparing for the religious services amid a forest of banners, together with a brass band of the local militiamen. Taking advantage of the ceremonial preparations, the headmaster told his colleague from the school, "There is still a lot of time left for the services. You stay here with the kids while I cross the bridge to deal with some personal business."
A new, up-to-date ferro-concrete bridge graciously spanning the river had replaced the old shaky one, which was destroyed by bombs and shells. Slowly stepping on it, he felt lots of memories surging up in his mind. On the far side of the river, a new decent-looking school building had been constructed. The western grapefruit orchard was no longer there. It was replaced by a kitchen garden. In a corner lay a small humble-looking grave. On top of it stood a cross. On its base there was an inscription bearing the following lines:
Maria Dao Thi Phuong
Born: February 14, 1952
Died in action: August 23, 1972.
"I'm unable to remember the exact date of her death, but the month of August is at least true," Nghinh whispered to himself.
"You don't have a uniform on, but I know you're a veteran," remarked the cemetery guard standing behind him. "I guess you made the acquaintance of the poor woman lying in this grave, didn't you?" he added.
"Not really! I only want to know something about her life, that's all," Nghinh answered.
"To the best of my knowledge, her situation was extremely tragic," the man said, disclosing a secret. "She was married and had a little eight-month-old girl. Her husband was a combatant for the FLAF. She died when she was only 20 years old. Unfortunately for her! Finding her beautiful, several officers of the ARVN paid attentions to her in vain for a long period of time. They then forced her to enlist as a first-aid nurse. At last, she was compelled to follow them into the battlefield. After that she died in action. Her daughter was taken away by guerrillas and raised at the jungle base. At first she was educated there, but then year after year she grew up with a good education in the North. Twenty years later, she returned to her native town and worked for the district Fatherland Front. Now she's married and has children. Her 20-year-old daughter is now a student of the provincial College of Advanced Education. Today she is also present at the memorial service. In her blue blouse, dotted with purple flower designs, she'll sing a few songs to mark the major event. Her name is May."
"Obviously, May is the daughter of the young woman I shot dead that day because her age is equal to that of her mother who died in action," Nghinh said to himself. He burnt a number of joss-sticks and planted them on her grave before praying. "Mrs Dao Thi Phuong, it's I who killed you more than forty years ago. Please sympathise with me as a soldier. I couldn't have done otherwise." He spoke in a repentant voice.
After saying goodbye to the guard, he went straight to the bridge.
The magnificent memorial was made of marble, showing three LFAF fighters in an attacking posture. Under their feet lay a big incense burner and a joss-stick bowl from which fragrant smoke curled up beside several flaming candles. In front of the stone works stood a large stage. When Nghinh passed the bridge, the artistic programme had started. He took a seat close to Hop and her students. He watched the performance very carefully, but he did not find May on the stage for a long while. He finally heard the MC make an announcement:
"Our next item is a song entitled On the Way Home, whose words and music were created by Huy Thuc, sung by Miss Nguyen Thi Huong May, a student at the Hue College of Advanced Education. Nghinh easily recognised May. She was tall with a shapely body, in a blue blouse among her fellow-singers in black. "That's her," he whispered to himself. In a clear and alluring voice and with gracious movements, she completely won over the audience, including Nghinh. When the song came to an end, he went up to the stage to congratulate her on her velvety voice.
Meanwhile, she was fairly surprised at the appearance of an elderly man with hoary hair. But she turned quite calm when she heard his praise.
"You possess a beautiful singing voice. I congratulate you on your success. By the way, which faculty of the College do you belong to?" he said to her.
"The Department of Musicology, Sir."
"Surely you'll become a talented music teacher with the same occupation as mine," he told her. "This is my name, address and email. You can contact me in office hours when necessary." Saying so, he gave her his card.
"Thank you very much, Sir. And this is my card. I'm very happy for your goodwill."
Of course, what happened on the stage attracted his students.
Before leaving the sacred place to get on the coach, they asked him a lot of questions.
"Sir, you knew her, didn't you?" Or "Is she the daughter of one of your former comrades-in-arms?" Or "Has she anything to do with your oft-told stories, Sir?" they asked him repeatedly.
"Of course, she has to do with a lot of things related to the narratives I told you in class. They belong to the critical days more than 40 years ago that only some of us are fully aware of, and we have kept them secret," he replied. "On our way back across Ha Noi I'll tell them all to you. Okay?" he added in a gentle voice.
Translated by Van Minh