Warning: Many of the written and visual examples shared within this article are graphic, disturbing and sometime revolting – if descriptions and photos of brutalized human beings bother you, then I’d suggest you bypass this post and select another to read while you’re here.
This article is about the VC/NVA atrocities that occurred in Vietnam. They are not unique and incidents like these have occurred all over the world throughout history; in fact, these “crimes” continue even today. During the Vietnam War, United States troops were charged with ‘war crimes’ against humanity – most notable of all, the My Lai Massacre. There are 320 incidents listed in the Army report, and another 500 alleged atrocities that were either unproven or were otherwise discounted – at least 194 civilians were killed. These exclude My Lai so the total civilian death toll is presumably about 694. From January 1965 through August 1973, 36 cases involving war crimes allegations against Army personnel were tried by court-martial – 201 U.S. soldiers and 77 Marines were convicted of serious crimes against the Vietnamese. Allied malfeasance and atrocities were rare exceptions, most due to simple human idiocy rather than policy.
The VC/NVA soldiers, on the other hand, terrorized the populace and murdered many civilians as a matter of routine and did so on a daily basis. This was not reported on the nightly news or posted in daily newspaper stories. This terrorism was an integral part of Communist strategy in Vietnam which was in line with the idiom: “Cut off the head of the snake and the rest will be easier to deal with”. In military jargon, this means to remove the most dangerous opponent or leaders first then those left standing will be more docile. This extensive use of terror on a daily basis received comparatively little attention from Western journalists occupied with covering the big unit war. Terror was meant to demonstrate that both the rural and urban dweller were powerless against the Viet Cong and that the government could not protect them.
This is not an all-inclusive list of atrocities from the Vietnam War, and is meant only to give readers a glimpse of what civilians faced on a daily basis.
The terror had its real beginning when Red dictator Ho Chi Minh consolidated his power in the North. More than a year before his 1954 victory over the French, he launched a savage campaign against his own people. In virtually every North Vietnamese village, strong-arm squads assembled the populace to witness the “confessions” of landowners. As time went on, businessmen, intellectuals, school teachers, civic leaders — all who represented a potential source of future opposition — were also rounded up and forced to “confess” to “errors of thought.” Their public “trials,” were followed by conviction and, in many cases, execution. People were shot, beheaded, beaten to death; some were tied up, thrown into open graves and covered with stones until they were crushed to death, Ho had renewed his terror in North Vietnam periodically. Between 50,000 and 100,000 are believed to have died in these blood-baths — in a coldly calculated effort to discipline the party and the masses.
To be sure, few who escaped Ho’s terror now seem likely to tempt his wrath. During the 1950s, however, he had to quell some sizeable uprisings in North Vietnam — most notably one that occurred in early November 1956, in the An province, which included Ho’s birthplace village of Nam Dan. So heavily had he taxed the region that the inhabitants finally banded together and refused to meet his price. Ho sent troops to collect, and then sent in an army division, shooting. About 6,000 unarmed villagers were killed. The survivors scattered, some escaping to the South. The slaughter went largely unnoticed by a world then preoccupied with the Soviet Union’s rape of Hungary.
With North Vietnam tightly in hand, the central committee of the North Vietnamese communist party met in Hanoi on March 13, 1959, and decided it was time to move against South Vietnam. Soon, large numbers of Ho’s guerrillas were infiltrating to join cadres that had remained there after the French defeat in 1954. Their mission: to eliminate South Vietnam’s leadership, including elected officials, “natural” leaders, anyone and everyone to whom people might turn for advice. Also to be liquidated were any South Vietnamese who had relatives in their country’s armed forces, civil, services or police; any who failed to pay communist taxes promptly; any with five or more years of education.
VC soldiers routinely left bombs in markets, hotels and restaurants within the larger cities to target civilians and soldiers who might be visiting.
A captured VC guerrilla explained how his eight-man team moved against a particular target village: “The first time we entered the village, we arrested and executed on the spot four men who had been pointed out to us by the party’s district headquarters as our most dangerous opponents. One, who had fought in the war against the French was now a known supporter of the South Vietnamese government. Another had been seen fraternizing with government troops. These two were shot. The others, the village’s principal landowners, were beheaded.”
On 25 December 1965, the Viet Cong massacred 25 unarmed workers who were helping build a government canal. They were sleeping in a Buddhist pagoda when the Viet Cong attacked. The same thing occurred in My Tho, but in that case those that survived the initial onslaught were marched 4 kilometers to a public highway and killed in a political act to frighten other Vietnamese workers and citizens.
In battles at Ia Drang (23 October to 20 November 1965), NVA troops slaughtered U.S. wounded. Most bodies recovered were shot in the head or back. At other locations, wounded American soldiers were tied to trees, tortured, and then murdered.
Marines spoke of Vietcong who came home to two other villages. In one case, a 15-year-old girl who had given the US Marines information on VC activities was taken into the jungle and tortured for hours, then beheaded. As a warning to other villagers, her head was placed on a pole in front of her home. Her murderers were her brother and two of his VC comrades. In the other case, when a VC learned that his wife and two young children had cooperated with Marines who had befriended them, he himself cut out their tongues.
During another Marine patrol, a village chief and his wife were distraught as one of their children, a seven-year-old boy, had been missing for four days. They were terrified, because they believed he had been captured by the Vietcong.
Suddenly, the boy came out of the jungle and ran across the rice paddies toward the village. He was crying. His mother ran to him and swept him up in her arms. Both of his hands had been cut off, and there was a sign around his neck, a message to his father: “If he or anyone else in the village dared go to the polls during the upcoming elections, something worse would happen to the rest of his children.
The VC delivered a similar warning to the residents of a hamlet not far from Danang. All were herded before the home of their chief. While they and the chief’s pregnant wife and four children were forced to look on, the chief’s tongue was cut out. Then his genital organs were sliced off and sewn inside his bloody mouth. As he died, the VC went to work on his wife, slashing open her womb. Then, the nine-year-old son: a bamboo lance was rammed through one ear and out the other. Two more of the chief’s children were murdered the same way. The VC did not harm the five-year-old daughter — not physically: they simply left her crying, holding her dead mother’s hand.
December 5, 1967, communists perpetrated what must rank among history’s most monstrous blasphemies at Dak Son, a central highlands village of some 2,000. Montagnards — a tribe of gentle but fiercely independent mountain people. They had moved away from their old village in VC-controlled territory, ignored several VC orders to return and refused to furnish male recruits to the VC.
Two VC battalions struck in the earliest hours, when the village was asleep. Quickly killing the sentries, the communists swarmed among the rows of tidy, thatch-roofed homes, putting the torch to them. The first knowledge that many of the villagers had of the attack was when VC troops turned flamethrowers on them in their beds. Some families awoke in time to escape into nearby jungle. Some men stood and fought, giving their wives and children time to crawl into trenches dug beneath their homes as protection against mortar and rifle fire. But when every building was ablaze, the communists took their flamethrowers to the mouth of each trench and poured in a long, searing hell of fire — and, for good measure, tossed grenades into many. Methodical and thorough, they stayed at it until daybreak, then left in the direction of the Cambodian border.
Morning revealed a scene of unbelievable horror. The village now was only a smoldering, corpse-littered patch on the lush green countryside. The bodies of 252 people, mostly mothers and children, lay blistered, charred, burned to the bone. Survivors, many of them horribly burned, wandered aimlessly about or stayed close to the incinerated bodies of loved ones, crying. Some 500 were missing; scores were later found in the jungle, dead of burns and other wounds; many have not been found.
The massacre at Dak Son was a warning to other Montagnard Settlements to cooperate. But many of the tribesmen, instead, joined the allies to fight the communists.
General Walt, US Marines, tells of his arrival at a district headquarters the day after it had been overrun by VC and North Vietnamese army troops. Those South Vietnamese soldiers not killed in the battle had been tied up and shot through their mouths or the backs of their heads. Then their wives and children, including a number of two and three-year-olds, had been brought into the street, disrobed, tortured and finally executed: their throats were cut; they were shot, beheaded, disemboweled. The mutilated bodies were draped on fences and hung with signs telling the rest of the community that if they continued to support the Saigon government and allied forces, they could look forward to the same fate.
These Communist atrocities are not isolated cases; they are typical. For this is the enemy’s way of warfare, clearly expressed in his combat policy in Vietnam. By the end of 1967, they had committed at least 100,000 acts of terror against the South Vietnamese people. The record is an endless litany of tortures, mutilations and murders that would have been instructive even to such as Adolf Hitler.
TET 1968 – Battle for Hue
Months of meticulous planning and training had made the TET Offensive possible. The Communists had carefully selected the time for the attack. Because of Tet, they knew the city’s defenders would be at reduced strength, and the typically bad weather of the northeast monsoon season would hamper any allied aerial re-supply operations and impede close air support.
In the days leading up to Tet, hundreds of Viet Cong (VC) had already infiltrated the city by mingling with the throngs of pilgrims pouring into Hue for the holiday. They easily moved their weapons and ammunition into the bustling city, concealed in the vehicles, wagons and trucks carrying the influx of goods, food and wares intended for the days-long festivities.
Like clockwork, in the dark, quiet morning hours of January 31, the stealth soldiers unpacked their weapons, donned their uniforms and headed to their designated positions across Hue in preparation for linking up with crack People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN) and VC assault troops closing in on the city. Infiltrators assembled at the Citadel gates ready to lead their comrades to strike key targets.
At 3:40 a.m., a rocket and mortar barrage from the mountains to the west signaled the assault troops to launch their attack. By daybreak, the lightning strike was over and the invaders began to unleash a harsh new reality over the stunned city. The Viet Cong set up provisional authorities shortly after capturing Huế in the early hours of January 31, 1968. They were 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 Viet Cong 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.
As PAVN and VC troops roamed freely to consolidate their gains, political officers set about rounding up South Vietnamese and foreigners unfortunate enough to be on their “special lists.” Marching up and down the Citadel’s narrow streets, the cadre called out the names on their lists over loudspeakers, ordering them to report to a local school. Those not reporting voluntarily would be hunted down.
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 Maoistdogmatic lines. Those who the communists believed to be counter-revolutionaries 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.
The communists’ actions were based on a series of orders issued by the High Command and the PRG. In a 3500-page document issued on January 26, 1968, by the Trị-Thiên-Huế Political Directorate, the political cadres were given specific instructions of operating in close support of the regular military and guerrilla elements, the political cadre were to: destroy and disorganize the Republic of Viet Nam’s (RVN’s) administrative machinery “from province and district levels to the city wards, streets, and wharves;” motivate the people of Hue to take up arms, pursue the enemy, seize power, and establish a revolutionary government; motivate (recruit) local citizens for military and “security” forces .. transportation and supply activities, and to serve wounded soldiers, pursue to the end (and) punish spies, reactionaries, and “tyrants” and “maintain order and security in the city”
It was reported that on the 5th day of the Viet Cong occupation in the Catholic district of Huế, all able-bodied males over age 15, approximately 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 Ho Ty, a VC commander who took part in the advanced planning of a general uprising, recounted that the Communist party “was particularly anxious to get those people at Phủ Cam. The Catholics were considered particular enemies of ours.” It was apparently this group whose remains were later found in the Da Mai Creek bed. The murders of 500 people at Da Mai were authorized by PRG command “on grounds that the victims had been traitors to the revolution.
Three professors, Professor Horst-Günther Krainick, Dr. Alois Alteköster, and Dr. Raimund Discher, who taught at the Huế University’s Faculty of Medicine and were members of the West German Cultural Mission, along with Mrs. Elisabeth Krainick, were arrested and executed by North Vietnamese troops during their invasion of Huế in February 1968.
Two French priests, Fathers Urbain and Guy, were seen being led away and suffered a similar fate. Urbain’s body was found buried alive, bound hand and foot. Guy, who was 48, was stripped of his cassock and forced to kneel down on the ground where he was shot in the back of the head. He was in the same grave with Father Urbain and 18 others.
Alje Vennema, a Dutch-Canadian doctor who lived in Hue and witnessed the battle and the massacre, wrote The Viet Cong Massacre at Hue in 1976. He recounts numerous stories of murders. A 48-year-old street vendor, Mrs. Nguyen Thi Lao, was “arrested on the main street. Her body was found at the school. Her arms had been bound and a rag stuffed into her mouth; there were no wounds to the body. She was probably buried alive.” A 44-year-old bricklayer, Mr. Nguyen Ty, was “seized on February 2, 1968…His body was found on March 1st; his hands were tied, and he had a bullet wound through his neck which had come out through the mouth.”
At Ap Dong Gi Tay “110 bodies were uncovered; again most had their hands tied and rags stuffed in their mouth. All of them were men, among them fifteen students, several military men, and civil servants, young and old.” “Sometimes a whole family was eliminated, as was the case with the merchant, Mr. Nam Long, who together with his wife and five children was shot at home.” “Mr. Phan Van Tuong, a laborer at the province headquarters, suffered a similar fate by being shot outside his house with four of his children.”
Vennema 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 VC troops and described 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 VC troops killed during the battle.
An eyewitness, Nguyen Tan Chau, recounted how he was captured by Communist troops and marched south with 29 other prisoners bound together, in three groups of ten. Chau managed to escape and hide in the darkness just before the others were executed. From there he witnessed what happened next. “The larger prisoners were separated into pairs, tied together back to back and shot. The others were shot singly. All were dumped into two shallow graves, including those who had been wounded but were not dead.”
The Battle of Huế began on January 31, 1968, and lasted a total of 26 days. During the months and years that followed, 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 and 6,000 civilians and prisoners of war, or 5%-10% of the total population of Hue. The Republic of Vietnam released a list of 4,062 victims identified as having been either murdered or abducted. Victims were found bound, tortured, and sometimes buried alive. Many victims were also clubbed to death.
On April 5, 1968, the bodies of the executed professors along with many Vietnamese civilians also executed, were discovered in mass graves near Huế. Khmer Rouge (Cambodian Communists) were particularly brutal; as guerrillas they slaughtered whole villages — after gaining power estimates of dead from their actions run into millions.
Some graves were found purely by accident. A farmer working in his field tripped on a wire sticking out of the ground. He pulled on it to remove it and a skeletal hand popped out of the ground. Other graves were found when people noticed suspiciously green grass in sandy areas. The Da Mai Creek massacre was discovered after three VC defected and told authorities about the murders. An ARVN soldier on patrol south of Hue noticed a wire sticking out of the ground. Thinking it was a booby trap, he very carefully worked to uncover it. He discovered the body of an old man, his hands tied together with the wire. Two days later 130 bodies had been uncovered.
During the first seven months of 1969, a second major group of graves was found. Then, in September, three Communist defectors told 101st Airborne Division intelligence officers that they had witnessed the killing of several hundred people at Da Mai Creek, about 10 miles south of Hue, in February 1968. A search revealed the remains of about 300 people in the creek bed. Finally, in November, a fourth major discovery of bodies was made in the Phu Thu Salt Flats, near the fishing village of Luong Vien, 10 miles east of Hue. All total, nearly 2,800 bodies were recovered from these mass graves.
We may never know what really happened at Hue, but it is clear that mass executions did occur and that reports of the massacre there had a significant impact on South Vietnamese and American attitudes for many years after the Tet Offensive.
In total, from 1957 to 1973, the Viet Cong assassinated 36,725 South Vietnamese and abducted another 58,499, only several thousand returning, indicating tens of thousands others were assassinated. The VC death squads focused on leaders at the village level and on anyone who improved the lives of the peasants such as medical personnel, social workers, civil engineers, and schoolteachers. The 36,000 figure alone, given Viet Nam’s 17 million population, represents a national mortality proportion that would equal about 420,000 Americans assassinated, exclusive of combat fatalities, of which South Viet Nam’s military sustained 275,000 killed.
The perception that a bloodbath like the one that occurred at Hue would follow any takeover by the North Vietnamese cast a long shadow and significantly contributed to the abject panic that seized South Vietnam when the North Vietnamese launched their final offensive in 1975—and this panic resulted in the disintegration and defeat of the South Vietnamese armed forces, the fall of Saigon and, ultimately, the demise of the Republic of Vietnam as a sovereign nation.
After North Vietnam violated the Paris Peace Agreements and took over South Vietnam by bloody military force, they murdered thousands more civilians. Those that were not executed were taken from their homes and jailed for years in forced labor concentration camps. Some are still being held today.
Reader’s Digest (Nov. ’68), Uncensored History, HistoryNet, Wikepedia, U.S. Veteran Dispatch-1997,
Thank you for taking the time to read this. Should you have a question or comment about this article, then scroll down to the comment section below to leave your response.
If you want to learn more about the Vietnam War and its Warriors, then subscribe to this blog and get notified by email or your feed reader every time a new story, picture, video or changes occur on this website – the button is located at the top right of this page.
I’ve also created a poll to help identify my website audience – before leaving, can you please click HERE and choose the one item best describing you. Thank you in advance!