Terror in the Night
From Pacific Stars and Stripes
Monday, Nov. 16, 1970
S&S Staff Correspondent
The Viet Cong conducted a deliberate campaign of assassination throughout the war, targeting anyone paid by, or identified with, the South Vietnamese government. Assassins killed village officials, landowners, soldiers on leave, government-trained midwives, teachers — even people who merely criticized the VC in public. Some were tortured and their bodies mutilated. Sometimes other family members were killed as well.
During my time in Thanh Quit, I remember at least two of these assassinations. The elected village chief was shot dead by a two-man assassination team as he walked through the village one day. Another time, the victim was a Regional Forces soldier sleeping at the home of an acquaintance. Both men were unarmed. I remember little about those incidents so I offer a similar story from Stars and Stripes in their place. — Roch Thornton
TAN PHU, Vietnam — Tran Van Em, 15, was worried when he read the note. Mother was sick, the note said, and needed some medicine. She wanted Em to come home right away.
Em, a member of the Popular Self Defense Force (PSDF) in this delta village, had been patrolling the village market when a friend brought the message from mother. He went immediately to the village security chief and was given the rest of the night off.
It was late, but Em did not need light to find the way to his hamlet.
He sloshed down the familiar path — knee deep in mud this time of year — past the houses of his friends, past the school, over a bridge and into his hamlet, past banana trees and bamboo thickets, over some logs, up onto a dike to his home, a large mud-and-grass farmhouse a mile from the village market.
Em gave medicine to his mother, who was coughing and in fever. When she was resting comfortably, Em tumbled into bed and quickly fell asleep.
He did not hear the strangers come.
“It was after midnight and I heard noises outside,” recalled the mother, Mrs. Tran Van An. “Three strangers came into the house. They were dressed in black.
“They asked where my son was. I told them he was sleeping.” The men dragged her son from bed and tied his hands behind his back, she said. “Em was shaking. He was too afraid to speak.
“I begged them not to take my son. They told me, ‘You have nothing to say about this.’
“Then they took him away.”
Mrs. An laid awake all night. She heard nothing, she said. The waiting ended shortly after first light when a neighbor, who had been on the way to market, came instead to the house of Mrs. An. Together they went down the path, about 75 yards from the farmhouse, to a place near some banana trees where Mrs. An found her son.
His throat had been cut, and he was dead in the mud.
Near the body was a Viet Cong flag, and a leaflet identifying Em as a member of the PSDF.
Neighbors and village officials came that morning, and with Mrs. An, took the dead boy back home, where they washed and dressed the body, placed it into a wood coffin and sealed the coffin in a mud crypt. The tomb was a small one.
Em was buried 10 steps from the door of his house, right next to the graves of his father and older brother, both killed by the VC last year.
Mrs. An’s eyes were heavy with sorrow when she recounted her latest loss. She spoke softly and said she felt she was losing her mind.
She expressed concern for the rest of her family — four boys and a girl — especially for her oldest son, Tran Van Anh, 17. He is a member of the PSDF.
Anh was also on duty in the village market the night his brother was killed, but the boys decided he would stay behind while Em went home to help their mother.
The boys had joined the PSDF three months ago, Anh said. They were not afraid of the VC, he said, even though another brother had been killed when his ARVN outpost was overrun, and a month later their father, who openly denounced the VC, was taken away and shot.
Anh said he and Em attended school for four years, and then dropped out in 1963.
“It was too dangerous to go to school then,” he said. “We stayed home and worked in the fields, and sold rice and vegetables in the market. Sometimes there was enough money, and sometimes there was not.”
Mrs. An said she wants her eldest son to quit the PSDF and move to nearby My Tho where he could get a job and be safe. Anh, now draft exempt as the sole provider for his family, said he wants to join the ARVN.
Em’s funeral cost 10,000 piasters ($85), Mrs. An said. The village chief went around and collected 7,000 piasters, and the Vietnamese government will pay the rest, she said. The government will also give her a death gratuity of 15,000 piasters, she said.
The village police chief, Pham Van Nhan, said the murder of Tran Van Em was the first assassination in the area in three months. He said it would only strengthen the resolve of the other PSDF members against the Viet Cong.
The chief displayed the VC flag taken from Em’s body. Over the gold star, other PSDF members had written a vow of vengeance against the VC.
Nhan said he knew the murderers were VC, but that he had no idea who they were.
He said he thought there were 10 hard-core VC and four sympathizers in his village of 2,600. American advisers at a nearby outpost, however, have a list of 62 people believed to be members of the Viet Cong infrastructure (VCI) in Tan Phu village.
The problem is finding the people on that list, the advisers said. Some of the VCI work in one village by day and terrorize another at night.
Increased terrorism incidents, U.S. advisers believe, are part of an enemy plan to conserve manpower and resources by causing maximum casualties with minimum loss.
At Dinh Tuong Province Headquarters, the incident at Tan Phu village was entered in a book filled with enemy terrorist acts. Tran Van Em, the 115th civilian murdered in the province this year, was a one-line entry:
“0130 hours. Tan Phu Village. VC assassinate one PSDF. Age 15.”