I arrived in North Vietnam almost 20 years after The Vietnam War ended. I was there to document North Vietnamese Military men and women and I discovered that US presence in the region was quite strong. The American Military was actively exhuming and piecing together some of the remains of the 2,000 American MIA’s unaccounted for in 1993, when I was there. Since then _________ additional remains have been unearthed. Hope was waning but still existed among the American civilian population that American POW’s might be alive and still being held as prisoners, however the feeling there was that that was highly unlikely. Documented casualties remain that the US suffered 58,000 casualties and 2,000 missing in action. Military Official’s for North Vietnam estimated 1,100,000 casualties & 600,000 wounded.
I peered into cavernous open pits where US military successfully discovered bone fragments of US MIA’s. I walked the vast rice fields that feed much of the Vietnamese population, still riddled with land mine’s that maim farmers who work them. I witnessed the long aftermath and chaos that 15 years of War from 1959 to 1975 had produced and has still remained a debatable conclusion as to who was victorious, although it is well know that American forces left the area due to as Wikipedia puts it, ‘victory by the North Vietnamese military.’
During this period, US debate over whether or not women should fight on the front lines next to men was brewing and then the Tailhook scandal broke making waves against the move to accommodate for women’s needs for separate housing, rules and regulations to reduce sexual harassment made headlines. Then Tailhook broke, images of drunken military men and women cohabiting in the _____________ hotel that resulted in _____________ pressing rape charges. While the completion of a monument by ________________ depicting US service women serving a fallen American solder was unveiled to the public and toured the US to honor US service women who served in the military particularly from the Vietnam War.
I was determined to get an interview with a North Vietnamese women who fought in the Vietnam War. At the Bach Dang Hotel in Danang I met the hotel owner Tran Thily. When our interpreter first asked Tran Thily if she would do an interview with me about her heroism during the Vietnam War, her answer was, “No”. Attempting to retrieve the moment, I asked the interpreter to please tell her that up until now all of our interviews were with men. Women played a large roll in fighting in the Vietnam War and American’s want to hear the story. This time Tran Thily, replied, “Yes”.
“The fighting in this area was very dangerous. Before the war ninety percent of the houses had expensive tile roofs, we were a rich town. A lot of them were destroyed by America. I felt very strongly about fighting against the US because I hate war. because i was courageous I was promoted to fight with the guerilla’s, in that group I was the only women. We learned how to use machine guns, but i usually carried a Russian made SK44.”
” Ten O clock on November 1st 1965 four American planes came into our province from the sea. They flew along the Nap la River, their target was to destroy our bridges along the river so we would not have transportation. As the A4 and AD sky raiders dropped their bombs, the first round made a huge column of smoke. The captain in our company came to our platoon and said, “Some AD6 are coming to destroy you and your province, so look straight at the enemy and shoot.” Following his command we shot at one plane and it exploded, but the other was headed for us, we are their target. We ran into bunkers and hid. They dropped another round of bombs and dirt flew everywhere, the soil from the earth covered us.” “Did many of your friends die, I asked?” Yes, I was covered with earth they thought I was dead, but I wasn’t, they sent me to a First Aid station where I regained consciousness and went back into battle. On that day our forces together with artillery units shot down four planes. One crashed right in front of the House Committee Building, this was proof of our power. The pilot of that plane was severed in half from impact. In my fury I went up to that plane and grabbed a piece of his flesh and held it up in victory.” I said, what? Tran Thily rested her hand on my knee, looked me in the eye and said, Forty- two people in my village were killed. Some o my friends were pregnant, their children came out of their stomachs from the explosions. Those of us that lived had to piece together their scattered bodies, so we could recognize the dead.
“The problem was, that each day we worked in the rice fields, but on this day America came to destroy us, so we felt very hateful. We turned our heads from the pain, to fight together.”
As our interview was coming to a close I found it difficult not to parallel Tran Thily’s bravery and abilities to other women, past and present. I said to Tran Thily, ‘right now in America women are just beginning to fight on the front lines of the battle field. Women are fighting to be recognized and respected as equals to men. Without question Tran Thily is a great example of the capabilities of women to engage in battle on the front lines.
We concluded with Tran Thily saying describing her homeland North of the 17th parallel. “After many years, myself and three other women were decorated with the title of hero.” I asked, how old were you when you fought?” “Nineteen, Tran Thily said.”
“I said, Let’s hope, that both men and women wont have to fight one and other and struggle living with memories like yours.”
Tran Till’s parting words, a message she wanted me to carry back to reach all American’s was, “Peace”. That wonderful word so few understand… “I said, Peace, peace and gave her a big hug.”