Massacre at Huế
The Huế Massacre (Vietnamese: Thảm sát tại Huế Tết Mậu Thân, or Thảm sát Tết Mậu Thân ở Huế, lit. translation: "Tet Offensive Massacre in Huế") is the name given to the summary executions and mass killings perpetrated by the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army during their capture, occupation and later withdrawal from the city of Huế during the Tet Offensive, considered one of the longest and bloodiest battles of the Vietnam War.
During the months and years that followed the Battle of Huế, which began on January 31, 1968, and lasted a total of 28 days, dozens of mass graves were discovered in and around Huế. Victims included women, men, children, and infants. The estimated death toll was between 2,800 to 6,000 civilians and prisoners of war. Victims were found bound, tortured, and sometimes buried alive. Many victims were also clubbed to death.
A number of U.S. and South Vietnamese authorities as well a number of journalists who investigated the events took the discoveries, along with other evidence, as proof that a large-scale atrocity had been carried out in and around Huế during its four-week occupation. The killings were perceived as part of a large-scale purge of a whole social stratum, including anyone friendly to American forces in the region. The Massacre at Huế came under increasing press scrutiny later, when press reports exposed that South Vietnamese "revenge squads" had also been at work in the aftermath of the battle, searching out and executing citizens that had supported the communist occupation.
Executions and Course of the Communist Occupation
The Viet Cong set up provisional authorities shortly after capturing Huế in the early hours of January 31, 1968, and was charged with removing the existing government administration from power within the city and replacing it with a "revolutionary administration." Working from lists of "cruel tyrants and reactionary elements" previously developed by VC intelligence officers, many people were to be rounded up following the initial hours of the attack. These included Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) soldiers, civil servants, political party members, local religious leaders, schoolteachers, American civilians and other international people. Cadres called out the names on their lists over loudspeakers, ordering them to report to a local school. Those not reporting voluntarily were hunted down.
These individuals, according to Viet Cong documents captured during and after the siege, were to be taken out of the city and held and punished for their “crimes against the Vietnamese people”. The disposition of those who were previously in control of the city was carefully laid out, and the lists were detailed and extensive. Those in the Saigon-based-state police apparatus at all levels were to be rounded up and held outside the city. High civilian and military officials were also removed from the city, both to await study of their individual cases.
Ordinary civil servants who worked for "the Saigon enemy" out of necessity, but did not oppose the communists, were destined for reeducation and later employment. Low-level civil servants who had at some point been involved in paramilitary activities were to be held for reeducation, but not employed. There are documented cases of individuals who were executed by the VC when they tried to hide or otherwise resisted during the early stages of Huế's occupation.
Within days of the capture, US Marine Corps (USMC) and US Army as well as ARVN infantry units were dispatched to counterattack and recaptured the city after weeks of fierce fighting, during which the city and its outlying areas were exposed to repeated shelling from US Navy ships off the coast and numerous bombing runs by U.S. aircraft. It was implied that during the USMC and ARVN attack, North Vietnam's forces had rounded up those individuals whose names it had previously collected and had them executed or sent North for "reeducation".
It was determined by piecing together bits of information from several sources that a large number of people had taken sanctuary from the battle in a local church. Several hundred of these people were ordered out to undergo indoctrination in the "liberated area" and told afterwards they would be allowed to return home. After marching the group south 9 kilometers, 20 of the people were separated, tried in a kangaroo court, found guilty, executed and buried. The others were taken across the river and turned over to a local Communist unit in an exchange that even included written receipts. Douglas Pike notes that, while “It is probable that the Commissar intended that their prisoners should be reeducated and returned, but with the turnover, matters passed from his control.” Sometime within the following several weeks, the communists decided to kill the individuals under their control.
Nguyễn Công Minh, daughter of the Deputy Mayor of Huế at the time, reported that her father, who was of old age, was arrested at his home in the beginning of the Communist occupation, 3 days after he ordered his children (incl. Nguyễn Công Minh) and wife to flee via the back of their house when Communist troops first came knocking at their home. Upon telling the troops that he was Deputy Mayor of Huế who was set to retire in one year (1969), he was ordered to report to a camp for reeducation, and pack clothing and food sufficient for 10 days. He was never seen again, nor was his remains recovered.
In 1971, journalist Don Oberdorfer's book, Tet!, documented some eyewitness accounts of what happened in Huế during the VC occupation. Pham Van Tuong, a part-time janitor for the Huế government information office who made it on the Viet Cong list of "reactionaries" for working there, hid with his family when the VC hunted for him. When he was found with his 3-year-old daughter, 5-year-old son and 2 nephews, the Viet Cong immediately gunned them down, leaving their bodies on the street for the rest of the family to see.
Don Oberdorfer spent five days in late 1969 with Paul Vogle, an American English professor at Huế University, going through Huế interviewing witnesses of the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong occupation. Oberdorfer classified all the killings into two categories: the planned execution of government officials and their families, political and civil servants, and collaborators with Americans; and those civilians not connected to the government who ran from questioning, who spoke harshly about the occupation, or who the occupiers believed “displayed a bad attitude” towards the occupiers.
Oberdorfer reported that on the 5th day of the Viet Cong occupation in the Catholic district of Huế, Phủ Cam, all able-bodied males over age 15, approx. 400 boys and men, who took refuge in Phủ Cam Cathedral were taken away and killed . Some had been on the VC's blacklist, some were of military age and some just looked prosperous. In an interview with Ho Ty, a VC commander who took part in the advanced planning of a general uprising, Oberdorfer reported Ty's statement that the Communist party "was particularly anxious to get those people at Phucam... The Catholics were considered particular enemies of ours." It was apparently this group whose remains were later found in the Da Mai Creek bed.
Three professors, Professor Horst-Günther Krainick, Dr. Alois Alteköster, and Dr. Raimund Discher, who taught at the Huế University's Faculty of Medicine and members of the West German Cultural Mission, and Mrs. Horst-Günther Krainick, were arrested and executed by North Vietnamese troops during their invasion of Huế in February 1968. On April 5, 1968, the bodies of the executed professors along with many Vietnamese civilians also executed, were discovered in mass graves near Huế.
Philip W. Manhard, a U.S. senior advisor in Huế province, was taken to a POW camp by the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) and held until 1973. Manhard recounted that during the NVA withdrawal from Huế, the NVA summarily executed anyone in their custody who resisted being taken out of the city or who was too old, too young, or too frail to make the journey to the camp.
Two French priests, Fathers Urbain and Guy, were seen led away and suffered a similar fate. Urbain's body was found buried alive, bound hand and foot. Guy, who was 48, was forced to kneel down on the ground and shot in the back of the head, and was in the same grave with Urbain and 18 others.
Captured in the home of Vietnamese friends, American Stephen Miller of the U.S. Information Service was bound and shot in a field behind a Catholic seminary. Courtney Niles, an American civilian working for NBC International, was killed during an attack by communist forces while in the presence of U.S soldiers.
A first summary was published for the U.S. Mission in Vietnam by Douglas Pike, then working as a Foreign Service Officer for the U.S. Information Agency in 1970. Pike identified three distinct phases for the executions in Huế. In a report published in 1970, The Viet Cong Strategy of Terror, the U.S. Information Agency analyst Douglas Pike wrote that at least half of the bodies unearthed in Huế revealed clear evidence of "atrocity killings: to include hands wired behind backs, rags stuffed in mouths, bodies contorted but without wounds (indicating burial alive)." Pike concluded that the killings were done by local VC cadres and were the result of "a decision rational and justifiable in the Communist mind.". The three phases are as follows:
- Phase one was a series of kangaroo court trials of local ARVN officials. The highly publicized trials lasted anywhere from 5 – 10 minutes and the accused were always found guilty of “crimes against the people”.
- Phase two was implemented when the communists thought that they could hold the city long-term, and consisted of a campaign of “social reconstruction” along Maoist dogmatic lines. Those who the communists believed to be counterrevolutionaries were singled out in this phase. Catholics, intellectuals, prominent businessmen, and other “imperialist lackeys” were targeted in order to “build a new social order”.
- The last phase began when it became evident that the communists could not hold the city and was designed to “leave no witnesses”. Anyone who could identify individual VC members who participated in the occupation was to be killed and their bodies hidden.
- Few months after the Battle, about 1,200 civilian bodies were found in 18 hastily concealed mass graves.
- A second major group of graves were discovered In the first 7 months of 1969. In February 1968, a list of 428 names of people identified from the recovered bones was released by local authorities.
- In September 1969, three Communist defectors confessed to the 101st Airborne Division intelligence officers that they witnessed several hundred people being killed in a 100-yard area at Da Mai Creek bed (~ 10 miles south of Huế).
- In November 1969, another major mass grave were fount at Phu Thu Salt Flats, near the fishing village of Lương Viện, Vinh Hưng commune, Phú Lộc provincial district, 10 miles east of Huế and half-way between the cities of Huế and Đà Nẵng.
Many later authors relied on Pike's account, e.g., Stanley Karnow in Vietnam, A History and Michael Maclear in The Ten Thousand Day War. Other early sources include front line reporters serving under a strict code of reporting conduct imposed by U.S. forces and agencies.
Captured Viet Cong documents boasted that they "eliminated" thousands of people and "annihilated members of various reactionary political parties, henchmen, and wicked tyrants" in Huế. One regiment alone reported that it killed 1,000 people. Another report mentioned 2,867 killed. Yet another document boasted of over 3,000 killed. A further document listed 2,748 executions. A captured Viet Cong enemy document, of which numerous writers cited, including Guenter Lewy in his 1980 book America in Vietnam, and Peter Macdonald's 1993 book Giap, recorded that the Communists "eliminated 1,892 administrative personnel, 38 policemen, 790 tyrants" - 2720 politically-persecuted persons in all, during the Communist occupation of the city.
Nguyễn Công Minh, daughter of the Deputy Mayor of Huế at the time, recalled that in the search of her father's remains, she witnessed that many of the bodies she came across in the mass graves were found to be in a fetal position, with their hands tied behind their backs, and the back of the heads/skulls were smashed, indicating that they knelt on the ground prior to their deaths and they died due to blunt-force trauma to their heads.
In Bùi Tín's 2002 memoir, From Enemy to Friend: a North Vietnamese perspective on the war, the former NVA Colonel acknowledged that executions of civilians did occur in Huế. However, he added that under the intensity of the American bombardment, discipline of the troops disintergrated. The "units from the north" had been "told that Hue was the stronghold of feudalism, a bed of reactionaries, the breeding ground of Cần Lao Party loyalists who remained true to the memory of former South Vietnamese president Ngô Đình Diệm and of Nguyễn Văn Thiệu's Democracy Party." Tin explained that over 10,000 prisoners were taken at Huế, with the most important of them sent to North Vietnam for imprisonment. When U.S. Marines launched their counterattack to retake the city, Communist troops were instructed to move the prisoners with the retreating troops. According to Tín, in the "panic of retreat," the company and battalion commanders shot their prisoners "to ensure the safety of the retreat."
Translated official Vietnamese campaign study of the Tet Offensive in Thừa Thiên–Huế province released by the Communists recognized that Viet Cong cadres "hunted down and captured tyrants and Republic of Vietnam military and government personnel" and that "many nests of reactionaries […] were killed." Hundreds of others "who owed blood debts were executed." Another official history from the Communist side, "The Tri-Thien-Hue Battlefield During the Victorious Resistance War Against the Americans to Save the Nation", recognized the widespread killings but claimed they were done by civilians who armed themselves and "rose up in a flood-tide, killing enemy thugs, eliminating traitors, and hunting down the enemy… The people captured and punished many reactionaries, enemy thugs, and enemy secret agents."
North Vietnam officially denounced "the hooligan lackeys who had owed blood debts to the Trị Thiên Huế compatriots and who were annihilated" in the Tet Offensive. When Trương Như Tạng was appointed Vietcong justice minister soon after Huế, he understood this to be a critical position because the massacre had, "left us with a special need to address fears among the Southern people that a revolutionary victory would bring with it a bloodbath or reign of terror." This was because, "large numbers of people had been executed" including "captured American soldiers and several other international people who were not combatants." According to Tạng, "discipline in Hue was seriously inadequate" and "fanatic young soldiers had indiscriminately shot people, and angry local citizens who supported the revolution had on various occasions taken justice into their own hands…." The massacre was, "one of those terrible spontaneous tragedies that inevitably accompany war."
Dispute & Denial
Marilyn B. Young disputes the "official" figures of executions at Huế. While acknowledging that there were executions, she cites freelance journalist Len Ackland, who was at Hue, who estimated the number to be somewhere between 300 and 400. Attempting "to understand" what happened at Hue, Young explained that the task of the NLF was to destroy the government administration of the city, establishing in its place a "revolutionary administration." How that justifies the execution of any civilians, regardless of the number, is unknown.
The accuracy of some documentary evidence has been disputed by Gareth Porter and Edward S Herman. In 1974, Porter wrote a detailed criticism of U.S. Information Agency official Douglas Pike's account of the "Massacre at Huế during the Tet Offensive." Porter claimed that Pike manipulated official figures to make it appear that over 2,800 civilians were murdered by the Viet Cong, and the numbers and causes of death were actually much different. He asserted that Douglas Pike was a "media manipulator par excellence," working in collusion with the ARVN 10th Political Warfare Battalion to manufacture the story of the massacre at the direction of Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker. Additionally, he claimed that Pike overestimated the number of those killed by the VC cadres and that "thousands" of civilians killed in Hue "were in fact victims of American air power and of the ground fighting that raged in the hamlets, rather than NLF execution." His conclusion: "The official story of an indiscriminate slaughter of those who were considered to be unsympathetic to the NLF is a complete fabrication.".
Porter wrote that ARVN repeatedly refused to journalist's demanded to see the graves, for example, a French photographer Marc Riboud, when he travel to the alleged site, the helicopter's pilot refused to land, claiming that the area was "insecure." Riboud never saw the site, and he claimed the map coordinates of the grave sites was not resembling the one described by South Vietnamese officer Moreover, ARVN's reports have many contradictory on number of bodies were uncovered. At the Gia Hoi High School sites, Stewart Harris, of the London Times, reported the total bodies between 66 and 150, instead 200 bodies as American officer's report. ARVN's Tenth Political Warfare Battalion said there were 14 graves at the high school instead of 22, which would have reduced the total still further
The Dutch-Canadian doctor Alje Vennema, who lived in Huế during the battle, listed 27 graves with a total of 2397 bodies, most of which had been executed. He cited numerous eyewitness accounts of executions by PAVN and PALF troops as well as the condition of bodies found in the graves. Many had their hands tied behind their backs. Some were shot in the head. Some had rags stuffed in their mouths and had no evidence of wounds, apparently having been buried alive. Some had evidence of having been beaten. A few were identified as PAVN or PLAF troops killed during the battle.
Porter claimed that Vennema cited 14 graves at the Gia Hoa Secondary School that contained 20 bodies. Vennema lists 14 "trenches" and 101 bodies at that location. He went on to write that additional bodies were found over the next three days, and the total found at that location was 203. Porter claims that Vennema identified a total of 68 bodies that were executed. Vennema lists 27 graves containing 2397 bodies. Porter also claimed 250 skulls at Da Mai creek and claimed that it was not possible to determine what took place there. However, three Viet Cong defectors identified the site (according to Pike) and assisted US troops in locating the site, and two South Vietnamese teenagers who escaped at the last possible moment stated that they heard machine gun fire and grenades as they escaped through the jungle.. Porter also claims that Pike stated there were 428 bodies at Da Mai creek, but Pike reported 428 bodies "identified". A total of 500 skulls were found at the creek. None of the people killed at Da Mai creek were PAVN or PLAF troops.
The Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci, citing a French priest she spoke to in Huế, claimed that the death toll of between 5,000 and 8,000 included some deaths due to American bombardment and at least 200 people, and perhaps as many as 1,100, who were killed following the "liberation" of Huế by the US and ARVN.
Historian James Willbanks concluded that "We may never know what really happened at Hue, but it is clear that mass executions did occur"..
Reports of the Massacre had a profound impact on the South Vietnamese for many years after the Offensive, with an anticipation of a bloodbath following any North Vietnamese takeover, like the one in Huế. Anticipation of a bloodbath was a major factor in the widespread panic and chaos across South Vietnam when North Vietnam executed their 1975 Spring Offensive, and the panic culminated in the disintegration and defeat of South Vietnamese military forces, and the fall of the Republic of Vietnam on April 30, 1975. Today, the Massacre remains unrecognized and entirely ignored from the Vietnamese communist government's War Remnants Museum in Saigon. Many in the American populace have very little to no knowledge about the Hue Massacre.
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