In memory of Maj. TU TON KHAN.
A victim of the Masscre of Mau Than, Hue 1968.
In Memory of Maj. TU TON KHAN (1931 - 1968)In My Father's Eyes If God were now to grant me a wish, what would I pray for?I would not hesitate for a single moment. I would wish for just one more day with my father, so that my mother could see her husband again and my children could meet their grandfather.But my father is gone and this is a wish I know will never be fulfilled, but still I dream…
My beloved father's life was taken away by the Viet Cong (Vietnamese Communists) in the Tet (Vietnamese New Year) Offensive of 1968 (Year of the Monkey) when he was barely thirty-seven years old.
In an instant my mother became a widow at the age of thirty-two. At what should have been the most beautiful time of her life, my mother suddenly found herself helpless and alone with six children to care for and another baby on the way.
For half a century my heart has never been able to move on from those painful days and still I suffer.
At that time of my father’s death my family was living on Bach Dang (White River) Street, located in the heart of Thua Thien (City of Hue, Central Viet-Nam. This long road ran in parallel with Huynh-Thuc-Khang Street (named after a Revolutionist who fought against French colonialism), famous for its bakery jam, crispy candy and all kinds of other sweet treats. These two streets were separated by the Gia Hoi River, where little boats took visitors back and forth year round.
On the piece of land we inherited from our great parents there were three main houses. Firstly, there was an ancient ornamented house (called Nha Can) located in the middle of the garden, where ancestral worship was conducted. The highly ornamented house with shrines for worship, gilded pillars and ornate furniture was kept immaculately polished. The second house (or west house), built in the style of French architecture, sat to the left of Nha Can. Between these two houses were large tea bushes, planted decades earlier, led the way to a garden filled with Tuong-Vi flowers (multiflora roses) in the backyard. The last house followed a more contemporary architectural style of Viet-Nam in the 1950-60’s.
Our extended family lived in peace in these houses for as long as I can remember.My paternal grandparents no longer lived in Hue at the time, but we often visited my maternal grandparents. My father was away on military duties regularly, but he brought joy to the household each time he returned. He would sing to my mother and take us all to visit our maternal grandparents.
One time after returning from a military operation father brought back a German shepherd that he’d found lying injured on the side of the road. My father nursed the dog back to health and gained a faithful companion. In that way our happy family grew by one more member (albeit a four-legged one).
These are the memories of the sweet life our family had, but this all changed in early 1968.
On New Year's Eve (Tet Festival), we gathered at my grandparents’ house to celebrate Tet with our extended family from near and far. Around ten o'clock that night we heard the sound of loud explosions outside. At first, we thought fireworks were being set off, but my father quickly recognized the sound as gunfire. My father brought us back home and, although we begged him to stay, he insisted that as a leader he had to report for duty.
His beloved dog was very anxious during this time, barking and tugging at my father’s pants while he was trying to communicate by telephone with his commander as to his orders. When my father strongly brushed the dog aside, he ran away into the night. He was nowhere to be found.
On New Year’s Eve, the Viet Cong (VC) launched a surprise attack on South Vietnam. A few days later, they took over the city of Hue (once the Royal Capitol of Vietnam). Father instructed my mother and all the children to hide in the basement of a neighboring family, five houses away from our own. My father stayed home and continued to work with his superiors by phone.
After several days of no news, mother asked our domestic helper, O Lan, to sneak out to see what was happening. While mother was distracted breastfeeding my youngest sister, I sneaked out after O Lan. She quickly realized she was being followed and although she was worried about being disciplined when we returned, her own fear made her glad for my company.
It was about 5 am and the winter sky was still dark. In the cold we struggled through the fence behind the garden of our house. When we saw strangers on the property, O Lan and I hid in the tea bushes between the houses. As I looked into the darkness at the scene unfolding, I saw my father and his guards tied up in front of the porch of the west house. The guards were being interrogated with the repeated phrase, “If you want us to be lenient, you must tell us what the Major has not or else!”
We called the guards ‘uncle’ (chú) and I prayed that chú Mãng, Chú Phấn, and chú Truật would not say anything, although I didn’t fully understand what the VC wanted them to admit. I watched in horror as the VC beat the guards, each blow felt like a whipping strike in my own head. All the while father asked what the VC wanted from him, protested his innocence against the crimes they’d charged him with and pled for mercy for his guards. The only reply he got was the cold reassurance that he would be next.
For the next few minutes I could not hear the conversation as the VC whispered to each other. O Lan and I both grew cold and we trembled in the tea bushes where we hid. Afraid of being discovered but wanting to better see the porch, we shifted our position.
A few of the VC were dressed in military uniforms, the others in regular shirts and trousers, but on all of their sleeves there were red bands. Long-barreled guns rested on their backs with rolls of ammunition. One VC even held a grenade. A woman walked among the group, dressed all in black with a pistol in her hand.The VC surrounded father again and began interrogating, screaming at him for details of his military activities. When father would not reveal the location of his fellow soldiers, the beating worsened. They snarled and swore as they slammed their guns down on father’s head and face. All the while father was told that our family’s fate was in his hands and that we would be hunted down if he did not confess. The woman in black shouted, “Hit him again! Hurry up! Hit him again!” I watched helpless as the VC tightened the ankle shackles of my father and his guards. Then came more strikes, smacks and blows to the chest, head and torso. My tears started to flow, my heart breaking with each painful groan from father when he was struck.
**FATHER! It has been fifty years, but I still remember that horrible moment that words fail to express.
Guns were raised and brought down on father’s head and body. They surrounded him, beating him non-stop. They yelled that they would kill him, but yet he still would not give up his comrades. From our hiding spot in the tea bushes. I let go of O Lan's hands and ran forward. I threw myself on father’s lap, pleading with the VC to forgive him and his guards.
I tried to look up at father’s face and he asked me to be brave and not beg in vain. Suddenly a rough hand twisted my hair and shoved my head onto the ground in front of you. They screamed that they would shoot me if you didn’t talk. My whole body shook in terror, but I heard father’s voice saying, “You can shoot my child if you want, but I still cannot tell you what you want to hear.”
I cried and screamed, asking for mercy from the VC but also from father. Then I caught sight of father looking at me, his eyes full of unspoken words of love and sorrow. Father's eyes gave me courage and in that instant I was able to listen to his prayers. He told me to take his place when he was gone to care for mother and my younger siblings. It was only a moment, but the look in father’s eyes and the powerful story they told me have followed me until this day.
Suddenly another VC came running up with a worried look on his face and the others gathered together hastily, momentarily forgetting us. Father looked straight into my eyes again and whispered, “Run.” Then without warning father shouted, “My brothers in arms, rise up and attack!” His words sent the VC rushing to the main entrance and I ran away as fast as I could, past the tea bushes and out the back garden.
**After 26 days of battle the Republic of Viet-Nam's National Army recaptured Hue City. I followed my grandfather, mother and Mr. Bon to search for father. It was February 27 of the Mau Than year (Year of the Monkey) and although it was 4 am and dark people were already out searching for loved ones. Mourning cries echoed through the streets. Standing atop the Dong Ba and Gia Hoi Bridges, one could see the bodies of dead civilians lying everywhere.
When I arrived at Gia Hoi School the search teams were in the process of digging up the mass graves where the VC dumped hundreds of bodies. Some of the victims were not even dead yet, but even as the search time unearthed them from the pit they had been so badly injured by the VC that they did not survive.
The stench of corpses made our eyes water. After hours of searching through the mass grave at the school yard, mother was exhausted. We didn’t know it at the time, but she was pregnant and the search drained her physically. My grandfather suggested we return home and continue the search the next day. He tried to console me by telling me that father may have survived and been taken prisoner by the VC.
As we walked past the Gia Hoi Bridge father's dog appeared, barking incessantly. We all knew then that something was wrong. At the door of the citadel by the foot of a mossy wall we could see a mound of disturbed earth, barely covering the body beneath. Father’s dog continued barking the whole time.
The locals pulled us aside and told my grandfather that they had buried my father. They had seen the VC, led by Nguyen Thi Doan Trinh and Hoang Phu Ngoc Phan, dragging father to that place. Despite being brutally beaten, father hadn’t said a word. At dawn on the morning of February 11, 1968, the locals heard gunshots and saw my father’s body collapsed at the foot of the wall. Even though they knew my father, no one dared to step out into the open to bury his body for fear of retribution by the VC.
When Mr. Bon dug up the grave my mother collapsed. Father rested motionless there in the shallow hole, barely one meter-deep. His eyes were closed, but it was still my father. When I leaned in close to touch him, I saw all the blood and wounds on his face.
Father, dearest! I watched them clean the blood off your body with white towels dipped in alcohol. The black sweater mother knitted had multiple holes. My father had been shot more than once in the heart. Through tears, I saw my father's ID card in the pocket of his white shirt. A makeshift coffin was hastily built out of wooden planks as there was only one coffin left in the entire city of Hue and it was too small for father’s body.
Soldiers joined Mr. Bon in bringing father back home. His body rested in the middle of the living room of the west house. Just one month before in that same spot, our family sat with father laughing and telling stories. Dressed in white ritual mourning gowns, we gathered around father’s photograph on the altar. In the picture his eyes seemed to follow me, alive and telling. In the light of the candles, the eyes seem to speak to everyone.
Grandfather warned us not to move too far in the dark as the VC might still be in the area, disguised as regular folks. We buried father in the garden of the west house. The Buddhist monks only dared to come to perform the funeral rites for a short while before we buried father. Curfew was still in effect and sporadic attacks were still occurring so the monks returned quickly to the temple.
I felt as if ten thousand knives stabbed my body as I blamed myself for having left my father to the evil VC. I was so angry for leaving him and his guards and not returning with a plan to rescue them all. As we tossed a handful of earth into the grave, each piece hit the coffin with a loud awful clunking sound.
Pain, oh such pain - no words in any language could express these feelings Oh Dear Father - I am in such pain!
**What happened fifty years ago is still fresh in my mind. The look in father’s eyes in those last few moments will forever be imprinted in my mind.
Fate led me home to see father one last time before he died, beaten and tied up, but still able to give me advice and strength to last a lifetime. Fate showed me the eyes of my father.
Even though I saw him tormented by those bloodthirsty thugs, his eyes lifted me up in that moment and many more times after that in the long years of after he was taken from us.
Fate also gave me the opportunity to face those who killed father, even though I hadn’t had the courage for many decades to learn more than the names the locals gave me as we stood by father’s makeshift grave by the citadel. Early in 2018 I was sent an interview of the murderer, Hoang Phu Ngoc Phan, speaking about the Tet Offensive. When I saw his face in the article my whole body shook. Fifty years earlier on February 10, 1968, that same man threatened to kill my whole family. It was that man and his comrades who had beaten my father and his guards.
Father, I admire you for that very moment. I know that the VC would never had spared you and our family even if you had disclosed information. My father would have rather died alongside us and protect the families of his guards and fellow soldiers.
Since then I have always missed hearing my father’s voice, guiding me through life.Such was the great loss of all his children. Our youngest sibling never heard his voice once. I could never again see his face again. I could only imagine the sufferings of mother. I cried nonstop over the years, especially when my husband wrapped his arms around me and comforted me, reminding me of how father would hold mother.
Father! Now that I am a grown person, I have succeeded and kept my word. After all these years I have fulfilled my duties to you. All your grandchildren have grown up now. Father, you never had a boy, but this baby girl of yours has given you a grandson, who in turn gives you a great-grandson.
Who had caused this pain and prevented you from seeing us?Who had separated you from mother?These words were written in tears, still flowing after all these years and they will never stop. I am proud of being your child – you were a loving father, full of bravery, and kept true to the spirit and prestige of a Student/Officer of the Vietnamese National Military Academy of Dalat.-“Trường Võ Bị Quốc Gia Việt Nam”.
Remembering Father, always.Daddy's daughter,Tâm Chánh