Travel & Life - December 25, 2017 | 03:07 pm GMT+7

The US Christmas bombings that failed to crush Hanoi’s spirit

In late December, 1972, the U.S. tried to bomb North Vietnam into submission, but that word had no place in the Vietnamese's hearts and minds.

The plate above the statue to commemorate the victims of Operation Linebacker II in Kham Thien reads: "Kham Thien residents nurture deep hatred of the U.S. enemy." Photo by VnExpress/Bao Yen

“Many people didn’t think the Americans would bomb us on Christmas Day, but most of those who did not leave died the next morning,” said Nguyen Vinh Ha, a motorbike taxi (xe om) driver stationed outside a statue on Kham Thien Street that commemorates the victims of the U.S. bombardment of Hanoi on December 26, 1972. 

The bronze statue depicts Mrs De, a young mother, with her newborn child in her arms. Both died from suffocation under the rubble of a house at 47 Kham Thien, where the statue now stands.

The densely populated street was the most heavily bombed area in Hanoi during Operation Linebacker II launched by the U.S. Air Force during the Vietnam War. For 12 consecutive days and nights, starting December 18, B-52 planes dropped 20,000 tons of bombs and munitions on Hanoi, Hai Phong and other strategic locations in northern Vietnam - the heaviest bombardment by the U.S. since the end of World War II.

It resulted in 2,380 civilian deaths. In Kham Thien alone, nearly 2,000 buildings were crushed, killing 287 people, mostly women, children and the elderly who didn’t manage to escape in time, according to Vietnamese records.

Kham Thien Street devastated by the Christmas Bombings in December 1972.

Back then, Ha was a 17-year-old student living with his father at 68 Kham Thien. With no home in the countryside to seek shelter, and being poor, they had no means to evacuate the city.

Both survived the bombings by hiding in the basement. Their house, luckily, only suffered minor damage, but if they hadn’t taken shelter they would have certainly been killed by the shrapnel.

After Boxing Day, they emerged and stumbled upon three slowly ticking bombs, before making it to a public bunker near Hoan Kiem Lake where they waited out the final days of the bombings living on fish caught nearby and glutinous rice provided by the Vietnam Women’s Union.

Ha’s neighbor, Nguyen Thi Huu who is now vice chairwoman of Kham Thien Women’s Union, was washing a bamboo mat with her husband when a bomb hit the nearby Hanoi Railway Station on December 18. The Christian couple and their one- year-old daughter left the city immediately, only to return to Hanoi a couple of days later to find some rice and attend a Christmas mass. That night, they stayed at relatives’ house in Nam Dong, less than 2 km (1 mile) southeast of Kham Thien.

“It felt like sleeping in a hammock,” Huu recalled. 

Tireless resistance

President Richard Nixon was hoping the campaign would cause enough damage to Vietnam for the U.S. to gain leverage on the bargaining table over peace talks to end the Vietnam War after negotiations had hit a wall in early December.

Both sides resumed talks in January, but the devastation left by 192 strategic B-52 bombers and nearly 1,000 tactical aircraft didn’t budge the North Vietnamese negotiators led by Le Duc Tho. On January 27, 1973, both sides signed the Paris Peace Accords on terms reached earlier in October.

Still, the Christmas Bombings, as Americans refer to the event, at the time gave them an impression that North Vietnam had been blasted into submission.

But to the Vietnamese, it was Dien Bien Phu in the Air, a major victory leading to the end of the war, just as the original Battle of Dien Bien Phu forced the French colonialists out in 1954.

“Downing B-52s that night [December] 18 was extremely important,” Colonel Nguyen Van Chuyen told Vietnam’s defense TV channel QPVN. “Otherwise, our [fighting] spirit would have been different.”

In fact, the Vietnam War is known to the Vietnamese as the Resistance War Against America; a war to protect Vietnamese land from American invasion that was rooted in a desire for freedom and a firm belief that sooner or later, the U.S. would back down, just as the French had done.

“Our resistance will be long and painful, but whatever the sacrifices, however long the struggle, we shall fight to the end, until Vietnam is fully independent and reunified,” Ho Chi Minh wrote in December 20, 1946, when Vietnam’s independence from the French was at stake.

45 years after Linebacker II, U.S. plane wrecks along with Soviet cannons and artillery outside the Air Force Museum in Hanoi have transformed the area into a playground for kids. One of them was the grandchild of Bach, a former signaller in the Vietnam People’s Army.

To 66 year old Bach, the bombing of Hanoi was in itself a sign of peace closing in.

“Uncle Ho foretold that sooner or later, the Americans would attack Hanoi and they’d only retract from the war if they lost that battle,” Bach told VnExpress International.

He was referring to a conversation in the spring of 1968 between President Ho Chi Minh and Phung The Tai, Deputy Chief of the General Staff of the Vietnam People's Army, who was tasked with devising a strategy to counter B-52s. At the time, Ho reasoned that the U.S. would one day bomb Hanoi, just like it did to Pyongyang right before signing the The Korean Armistice Agreement in 1953. And Vietnam had to win.

Unafraid

A female fighter smiles by a downed aircraft in an undated photo during Operation Linebacker II in North Vietnam. 

“During the B-52 raids, it was harrowing,” said Bach, who was stationed in Thai Nguyen Province, 80km (50 miles) north of Hanoi, where industrial complexes and key roads used for transporting weaponry were targeted. From the bunker, he could hear planes roaring and artillery firing day and night.

“But the people were very brave,” Bach said, speaking of villagers who rushed to capture downed American pilots despite the danger.

“Back then, people who caught a pilot were rewarded with a cow. It was a lot of fun, actually.”

Among the dozen witnesses VnExpress International spoke to, all of them said that the young people weren’t afraid. It was common practice for underweight men to hide rocks in their pockets to pass the health checks required to join the army.

Even those who weren’t on the frontline were level headed and just did what had to be done.

Bui Khoi Hung was in the jungles of Hoa Binh Province, surveying the area that would later lay the grounds for its namesake hydropower plant, still to this date the largest in Southeast Asia. Coincidentally, Hoa Binh also means peace in Vietnamese.

He and his Russian colleagues were about to watch a movie when Hung first heard the roar of planes from afar.

“There were big planes, and I didn’t know what they were,” Hung said.

They called it a night and spent the week following the events on Russian radio.

“I believe I was among the first to return to Hanoi after the bombings,” said Hung. “Kham Thien was empty, unlike it had ever been. People were crying.”

Hoa Binh, an 18-year-old student living on Le Duan Street not far from Kham Thien, was in Hanoi the entire time to witness the attacks.

“[Young] people weren’t scared at all.”

Binh remembers standing in his house looking out as bombs rained down just a few hundred meters away. For him, it was simple: you get hit, you die, otherwise you live. So when the raids stopped, it was natural for him to check on all the bombs, just like the crowds that gathered on Long Bien Bridge in Hanoi last month after a war time bomb was uncovered.

"I was just a kid,” Binh explained. “Hanoians back then were very naive. The adults were naturally worried, but what concerned them more was finding enough food to eat.”

Pham Thi Hoa worried about her friends and colleagues. Like Binh, the 19-year-old student didn’t fear for her life when she first felt the ground shake amid the deafening sounds of air raids and sirens calling for people to take cover. Or when the capital’s iconic Long Bien Bridge was engulfed in flames.

Even as Hanoians were diving in and out of their home-made concrete bunkers day and night, Hoa still found time to sleep, freaking out her aunt in the process.

But on the second day, the first thing she did was walk all the way to what is now Vietnam National University-Hanoi where she was working as a chemistry intern analyzing water samples. She HAD TO check to see how everyone was doing.

During the long days and nights, it was news of downed B-52s that kept her spirits up. Life had to go on, and for Hoa that included attending the wedding of a college friend.

The scale of the devastation only sunk in when Hoa saw the dead bodies lined up outside a pagoda.

Bach, the signaller, has a different theory to explain this fearlessness - it wasn’t just youthful naiveté.

“To say I wasn’t afraid wouldn’t be right. We all got so used to the war that we didn’t put much thought into the bombings,” Bach said. “And secondly, once you join the army, what’s left to be afraid of? Everybody enlisted back then.”

So it felt strange to Bach when the roaring stopped. He could still hear planes roaring from far away until the day the peace treaty was signed. “The sky suddenly went quiet for the first time since 1965,” he said.

“It was, how to say it… astonishing.”

Children play at the Air Force Museum in Hanoi where artifacts from Operation Linebacker II are on display. Photo by VnExpress/Lam Le

Lam Le