Selections from Even the Women Must Fight: Memories of War from North Vietnam
by Karen Gottschang Turner with Phan Thanh Hao
This excellent book details the contributions of Vietnamese women fighting for the independencce of their nation. Below is a few selections from the book.
I was born in Thai Binh province. My family were farmers. In 1948 my father was killed in the French War. My mother was with child when he died and she raised us four children alone. In 1968 I volunteered to be a people's soldier, bo doi, and I spent five years in the field during the most terrible time of the war. Why? Four people in my family died when the Americans bombed the Hanoi suburbs. I was angry and I believed that what men could do, I could do too. Life was hard. In the jungle, we kept the telephone lines open, and at first I was homesick and afraid. But I wanted to avenge my family, to kill Americans for what they did.
I survived and when the war was over, my spirits soared. But life was still not easy. My husband is a career military man, who served in the South during the American War and then in Cambodia. He carries a bullet in his body and he is not well after sixteen years in the battlefields. We are lucky because we have two children, a boy and a girl.
Colonization is in itself an act of violence of the stronger against the weaker. This violence becomes still more odious when it is exercised upon women and children. It is bitterly ironic to find that [French] civilization - symbolized in its various forms, viz., liberty, justice, etc., by the gentle image of a woman, and run by a category of men well known to be champions of gallantry - inflicts on its living emblem the most ignoble treatment and afflicts her shamefully in her manners, her modesty, and even her life.
Colonial sadism us unbelievably widespread and cruel, but we shall confine ourselves here to recalling a few instances seen and described by witnesses unsuspected of partiality. These facts will allow our Western sisters to realize both the nature of the "civilizing mission" of capitalism, and the sufferings of their sisters in the colonies.
On the arrival of the soldiers, relates a colonel, the population fled; there only remained two old men and women: one maiden and a mother suckling her baby and holding an eight-year-old girl by the hand. The soldier asked for money, spirits, and opium.
As they could not make themselves understood, they became furious and knocked down one of the old men with their rifle butts. Later, two of them, already drunk when they arrived, amused themselves for many hours by roasting the other old man at a wood fire. Meanwhile, the others raped the two women and the girl. The mother was then able to escape with her infant from a hundred yards off, hidden in a bush, she saw her companion tortured. She did not know why the murder was perpetrated, but she saw the young girl lying on her back, bound and gagged, and one of them men, many times, slowly thrust his bayonet into her stomach and, very slowly, draw it out again. Then he cut off the dead girl's finger to take a ring, and her head to steal a necklace.
-Ho Chi Minh (1922)
I left my home to join the anti-French resistance when I was ten. Bigger than other girls my age, I was able to convince the authorities for a time that I was old enough. Why did I, a sheltered, bourgeois girl, take such a chance with my life? Because I hated the way that my French Catholic school teachers looked down on the Vietnamese students. Because when the French took over Hanoi in 1946, my family had to leave our home to hide in the countryside. Because after my mother died, home had no meaning for me anymore. You see, I was the youngest of six daughters and my father was a traditional Confucian man. In 1948, at age 60, he remarried and had a son, and after that, my sisters and I were pretty much on our own. After all, as the old saying goes, 'A hundred girls aren't worth a single testicle." Besides, I knew that my sisters would eventually marry and that if I stayed I would just be a burden to them. And the times were exciting. For all of these reasons, it was easy for me to follow Ho Chi Minh.
When President Johnson escalated the war in the North in 1965, any man who could go to the battlefield was accepted, if not in regular forces, in the volunteer youth corps. And the women who didn't go stayed behind to do all kinds of jobs to replace them. We girls in the school or at the factory set up a volunteer youth group right on the spot. It was our job to rescue people right after the bombing raids inside and out of the city. Life was hard; besides work, we had to learn military training and nurses' training, how to bandage a person hit by a baby bomb when the fragments stuck to them and burned them, what to do when their bones were broken, or they were suffocating from the bomb pressure. We learned only simple methods for dealing with these medical things and there was no equipment for us. No one thought about fear or death as we trained.
We had our first trial when U.S. aircraft missed the March 8 Textile Factory one day and hit a nearby village, in Autumn 1967. After lunch we were sitting in the workshop and suddenly a strong wind, a great force, threw us against the wall. The earth shook fiercely. When you were right near the place where the bombs dropped, you couldn't hear their loud noise. The bombs hit a village on the other side of the dyke, about one hundred meters away on the river bank and the village was on fire. We went there at once and I was in the team that carried water to put the fire out. We got water from the fishpond or anywhere else we could find. But not much could be saved, since the houses were made of bamboo and the fire spread. I will never forget seeing through the smoke a child stuck head down in the debris, his legs making a V shape above the rubble. People rushed to that house. But they couldn't help the boy.
One of my comrades found a shelter underground. We lifted up the roof and stood motionless, because we saw five burned faces, brown, their hair curled, their noses straight. They looked like ancient Romans. They were so
young and handsome. They were killed by the bomb pressure, and the bomb exploded so close that it burned them, preserved them just as they were at that moment. I will never forget those five heads emerging from the soil.
They were four brothers and a cousin, we learned. All had gone home for their father's death anniversary ritual. One took a leave from the battlefield, two came from their military base near Hanoi. The youngest was in university. When their mother and neighbors rushed there, some fainted. Nothing can describe the noise of that day, the cries of wounded people, of survivors who lost family members. And the sight of the mother who fainted, slowly, when she came upon the scene where her four sons and nephew had died. We were ordered to leave so the villagers could bring them up, but then the airplanes came back again. We all jumped into shelters, on top of each other, fearful that the bombing would be worse the second time around. But the planes just flew over us. We ran for home to see if our families were safe.
Along the dyke, some corpses were put in coffins, but mostly bodies were laid out on the bamboo trays we use to dry rice. I saw three corpses - mostly broken body parts - on one tray, and the smell of burned flesh, and people crying, and I ran, crying, fast to my home. I had a fever and vomited and couldn't stop and for weeks I couldn't sleep, but just stared into nowhere. Even now, whenever I see a V shape, I remember the legs of that little boy and feel sick.
- Phan Thanh Hao
They had to pick up the pieces, to act as peacemakers, to put their needs behind others yet again. Those who had husbands or parents to go back to were fortunate. How could married women fight with their husbands? Everyone had been hurt. Some of us who had watched men die and suffer so much just didn't want to struggle with them when it was over. Still, many people got divorced - they couldn't pull together again after so many years apart. Some men had been away for twenty years or more, if you count the French wars."
- Writer Le Minh Khue, on the rough experiences that Vietnamese
women, veterans and not, had after the war
Sewing machines move quickly.
The forest echoes with the bird's song.
Our resentment will be changed into silk.
The distant sounds of guns harmonize
With the rhythm of the sewing machines.
We are determined to kill the enemy.
-A poem from a Vietnamese cache of documents captured in 1966.
I tried to keep myself clean, to maintain some feeling of order and routine in these conditions, which were terrible, especially for women. There were no sanitary supplies, but women's menstrual periods often stopped anyway because of bad diet and stress.
I lived this way from the age of eighteen to twenty-four. The men did the harder physical work and they got sick more easily than women. We made our clothes and helped them with their sewing. Some people couldn't live in this way, and some went mad. Women seemed better able to endure. We gave the men our best rations, because we felt sorry for them. The most terrible time came when two of my male comrade-in-arms starved to death. We couldn't take time out to cook rice because the smoke would attract the planes. Their diet of freshly picked grass wasn't enough to keep them alive.
-Le Thi Linh
In 1965, just a few hours after our marriage, my husband was sent to B (the southern battlefield). As a militia woman, I was in charge of transporting ammunition for the regular forces. That very night, the American planes poured bombs into the area and twenty-two of my comrades-in-arms were killed. But we had to defend the Dragon's Jaw Bridge at all costs on that terrible night - and we had to keep the trucks going over it to the south. I don't know why I was able to carry those two big boxes of ammunition at that time. More than once, my strength came from anger and the need to avenge my dead comrades.
Later I was interviewed by many journalists. I had to pose for their photos. I was young then and proud of myself. I was even invited to Hanoi to make a speech. It was so nice to be there. But they made me wear the traditional Vietnamese long dress, the ao dai, and it was too complicated for me, and the high-heeled shoes tortured my feet. So I had to hold up my dress to keep it from flopping around and walk barefoot when I finally retreated back to my room in the guest house. And I didn't know how to talk to people in Hanoi - I did not have a high level of education, you know.
And when I went back to Thanh Hoa, I continued to work with the local forces to defend the bridge. We shot down seventy U.S. aircraft, but some fell into the sea and were claimed in the counts of other provinces. We didn't care because we knew what we had done.
Many foreign journalists from the socialist countries wanted to interview me, and one East German television team didn't believe that I had carried ammunition twice my weight. So to prove it I repeated the feat for them, right in front of the provincial guest house. After that my back felt funny.
And then I got news of my husband's death. I thought day and night of a way to get to the South to find his remains and bury him properly. But when I did finally try, after Liberation in 1975, I couldn't find his body.
Only recently I remarried a wounded veteran who had fought in Cambodia, a colonel. It was not that I had forgotten my first husband, but that everyone felt sorry for me and persuaded me to marry him. And he is not well and needs a companion. He is a very kind man and we desperately want a child - girl or boy, it doesn't matter. But the doctors tell me something is wrong with my spine because I have worked too hard.
So, the upper levels decided to send me to Hanoi and then to Germany for a cure. But I didn't like the way the German doctors treated me and one night someone tried to get into my room. I chased him out, and then went home, too shy to tell anyone why. I know I could never have a child ... and didn't want that kind of help. I don't even want to tell you that guy's name.
I am also not happy with the way that things are here, the way the Party leaders deal with reforestation projects, for example. Too much poverty for too long has made some of them corrupt now that there is a promise of some wealth for a few.
And I still have back pain. Maybe we will adopt a child, but we are poor. A blood child might have more compassion for us as we get older. But an adopted one might resent us for our poverty and need.
Please, when your family takes its summer holidays, come to see me, let me meet your son, let me make him a meal and just look at him.
-Ngo Thi Tuyen
I joined the volunteer youth because of Uncle Ho's call. I knew that he would never ask us to go if the country didn't need all of us. If the country was at war again, we would sacrifice ourselves, and yes, we would encourage our children to go too. The work we did in the past was worth it, and we are proud. Anyway, it is usual for any people whose country is at war to go out to work for the country. Yes, our lives are hard now. but we don't blame the government. We are like the children of poor parents. Well, sometimes we think they haven't treated us properly, but then we see or read about other people and we know that we have better lives than theirs. So we wish the government would help them first, before it is too late.
There is one thing that we are sorry for. That is that our dead comrade's remains have never been brought back or buried. We carried in our knapsacks the bodies and bones of the ones we could find to put them in cemeteries in the jungles. We are proud of that, because some people from other provinces didn't care. We know where the dead are now, but no one will help us bring them home. Why does your government spend so much money on your men missing in action and why doesn't it care about ours?
We left from a place near here -it was farm land then - on July 17, 1966. We were provided with a knapsack, two sets of uniforms, a pot, and a tin can. When they gave me a shovel and a hoe, I knew that we would be road builders. We took the train to Thanh Hoa, and started marching once we got there. We rested by day and walked by night to avoid the bombs. It was so dark that we had to hold onto the shirttail of the one in front of us, just like the game we played as children, "Dragons and snakes make a line to the clouds." We carried our blackened cooking pots on the back of our knapsacks. Sometimes in the dark, someone would trip or stop in a hurry and then the faces of all the people in back would hit the sooty pot in front. When daylight came, we had black faces, and couldn't help but laugh. There wasn't much else to do because it was hard to find water to clean ourselves. It took twenty-one days to reach our destination in Quang Binh Province. Our feet were town, infected, and bleeding. We couldn't put our feet directly into our rubber sandals; it was too painful. So we had to cover our feet with towels, pieces of cloth from our blouses, anything we could find. And we cried. We were so frightened by the bombs, constantly falling down on us, everywhere.
We came upon a woman about to give birth. We were all young girl, and we knew nothing about it. There was no one else to help her. When the baby came out the cord was wrapped around its neck, we cut it, and the woman stood up, bleeding. The American flares helped us see. We don't know what happened to her or her baby. As we got closer to the battlefields, sometimes we came upon dead women, still holding on to dead babies.
The larger company of young volunteers wanted to organize a farewell ceremony - for what they felt might be their last meeting with the special platoon. But the commanders didn't want to allow them to do it - because it made the situation look too mournful. Night fell. The battle began and at one spot sappers discussed how to handle the time bomb, deciding to roll it down a ravine to spare a kilo of dynamite. Where the bombs had caused landslides, men and women earnestly shoveled the debris down to the road bed. From the broken bridge came the sound of picks, hammers, and pounders - it sounded like a shipyard. Around me the site was like a beehive, each person enthusiastically and dutifully looking after his or her work in spite of the constant threat of even more bombing.
But without a doubt, the focus of the attention was on the ford where the platoon of young women volunteers had taken up position. There was more than a score of them in all. Their chief concern was not the two time bombs that they decided not to to touch, but the big bomb crater that would hinder the passage of lorries later in the night. In the light of the kerosene lamps, they seemed drenched from the water, their voices rising above the rumble of the stream. Suddenly, the platoon leader detected one girl too many, one who had been ordered to stay behind because of a fever. When the others took her by force out of the stream, she refused, instead taking up a rifle and offering to stand guard beside the ford.
Judging by the way she held the rifle and the look on her face, I imagined that she thought she could defend the whole platoon, the whole ford, and the whole area with her small rifle.
Soon her hair and clothes had been dried by the wind and she began to sing, one song after another. The other women joined her. A U.S. spy plane came and dropped a flare and another flew past, probably to take a picture, and another came and fired a few rockets. But nothing could change the determination of the women workers who repaired the ford before another day would break. At half past eight in the evening, the women guard fired her rifle, signaling to the drivers that the ford was now passable.
-A writer witnessing women volunteers
I was the youngest daughter of a rural family. My father is a Party district head and my mother is a farmer. In my childhood, I saw how the airstrikes devastated the North. I wanted to join and thought, if men can fight, so can I. Yes, I had read about the past heroines and I knew about the women of the late 1960s and that did make it easier. In 1973, I had just finished high school and I wanted to go to University. I had passed the exams. And I had a real conflict. I loved books, and as the youngest daughter, I was sheltered. But the desire to go was stronger than the desire to stay and I joined. I felt that if I had chosen the army life I had better stick with it. First, I trained in a company in the jungle, learning how to survive.
In all the companies there were women like me, between seventeen and eighteen years old. I thought I would fight. That was why I joined the army. But I was assigned to be a cook. I was angry and disappointed. But after a month, I became a sapper, working with dynamite, filling craters, and rebuilding bridges along Highways 9 and 14. I was the head of a company. There were twelve people under me, all in charge of explosives. We worked in three teams, and we did everything by hand, including moving rocks. Most of the time, I did not have trouble with the men.
[She said that eventually she didn't have to give orders. People worked together as a well-oiled team, not only out of a habit, but with respect for others - "each of us understood that our lives depended on the actions of each and every one of us."]
When we lit the sticks of dynamite, we had to run fast. Sometimes women would get killed or hurt by fragments. We were skilled, but we saw terrible things, trucks running off the mountains into deep ravines, people buried alive.
A typical day? We got up at 5 a.m. but it all depended on the bombs, whether we would work by day or by night. I assigned our tasks when we knew the situation. We ate out of tins with branches because we had no chopsticks and we cleaned our tins with leaves. We hated leeches but had to live with them, and we dreaded snakes when we had to go underground. We drank out of streams and ate on the job, right on the road. I don't now how I could stand it.
We tried to preserve a normal life. We carried books and we read. At night we would try to forget, and write home or read. Sometimes we would put flowers in our hair, to try to look nice for a while. We sang a lot, because we believed that "songs are louder than the bombs."
-Phan Ngoc Anh served after the 1973 Paris Agreement.
From "My Son's Childhood"
What do you have for a childhood
That you still smile in the bomb shelter?
There is the morning wind which comes to visit you
There is the full moon which follows you.
The long river, the immense sea, a round pond
The enemy's bomb smoke, the evening star.
At three months you turn your head, at seven you crawl.
You toy with the earth, you play in a bomb shelter.
I long for peace, every day, every month for a year.
For a year, you toddle around the shelter
The sky is blue, but way over there,
The grass is green far away on the ancient tombs
My heart is a pendulum
Pounding in my chest, keeping time for the march.
The small cricket knows how to dig a shelter
The crab doesn't sleep; it, too, fears the bombs.
In the moonlight, even the hare hides
The black clouds hinder the enemy's sight
Flowers and trees join the march
Concealing troops crossing streams, valleys, villages.
My son, trenches crisscross everywhere.
They're as long as the roads you'll someday take.
Our deep shelter is more precious than a house
The gun is close by, the bullets ready
If I must shoot
When you grow up, you'll hold life in your own hands
Whatever I think at present
I note down to remind you of your childhood days.
In the future, when our dreams come true
You will love our history all the more.
-A poem by Xuan Quynh
Back To History Is A Weapon's Front Page
The Struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.
-Milan Kundera, The Book of
Laughter and Forgetting