Commemorating deceased ancestors and family members who were dead has been a tradition in Vietnam since time immemorial. On the date of their death on the lunar calendar, their living descendants or members of their families hold service in commemoration of them at home or sometimes at pagoda. Offerings -- usually food, fruit, wine along with flowers and incense sticks - are presented to them on the altar. The relatives pray for them and show their love, respect and gratitude prostrating in front of the altar.
The tradition also goes beyond the limit of family members and ascendants. On the 15th day of the 7th month every lunar year, Vietnamese Buddhists conduct rites that are more elaborated at pagodas. The congregation prays for the dead in general, particularly for the dead without offspring, soldiers killed in action, war victims... The rites may last a week or even 15 days in pre-war time.
Such tradition is the same in Hue City, the ancient royal capital of Vietnam. People in this city, however, have more to do with the war dead. In the 5th moon each lunar year (around late June to early July), every Buddhist family in the city holds commemorating services at the family altar as well as in all pagodas with offerings, to pray for innocent civilians killed by the French invaders in the late 19th century. On the 23rd day of the fifth month, the year At Dau (or the Year of the Rooster 1885), the French forces conducted a fierce counter attack against the Vietnam royal army who defended the capital city. Unscrupulous French fire power killed about 2,000 to 3,000 soldiers and residents.
Although the date is the 23rd day of the 5th month, people are free to hold service for the dead on any date to their family's convenience, providing that it is within the 5th month. If you visit someone in Hue during the 5th month, you will certainly be invited to such feasts, probably every day if you have a lot of friends and relatives living in this beautiful city.
Besides the Fifth Month Commemoration, for the last 28 years, Buddhists in Hue have also held services in the first month of the lunar year for war victims in the 1968 Tet Offensive. (Tet is the Lunar New Year celebration in Vietnam).
In the darkness of the 1968 Tet's Eve, North Vietnamese Communist Army units conducted a surprise attack at Hue City, while the two sides were in a truce that had been agreed upon previously. South Vietnamese Army units defending the city were not in good positions to fight as they expected that the enemy would abide by their 4-day cease-fire promise, as they did in the preceding years. On the first day of the new year - the Year of the Monkey - Hue City streets were filled with NVA soldiers in baggy olive uniforms and pithy hats.
The communist cadres set up the provisionary authorities. The first thing they did was call all SVN soldiers, civil servants of all services, political party members, and college students, to report to the "revolutionary people's committee." Those who reported to the communist committee were registered in control books then released with promise of safety.
After a few days, they were called to report again, then all were sent home safe and sound. During three weeks under NVA units' occupation, they were ordered to report to the communist committee three or four times. In the late half of January 1968, the US Marines and the South Vietnamese infantry conducted bloody counterattacks and recaptured the whole city after many days of fierce fighting that forced their enemy to withdraw in several directions.
Meanwhile, those who were called to report the last time to the communist authorities disappeared after the Marines and South Vietnamese Army units liberated Hue. Most of the missing were soldiers in non-combat units and young civilians. No one knew their whereabouts.
In late Feb.1968, from reports of Vietnamese Communist ralliers and POWs, the South Vietnamese local authorities found several mass graves. In each site, hundreds of bodies of the missing were buried. Most were tied to each other by ropes, electric wires or telephone wires. They had been shot or beaten or even stabbed to death.
The mass graves shocked the city and the whole country. Almost every family in Hue has at least one relative, close or remote, who was killed or still missing. The latest mass grave found in the front yard of a Phu Thu district elementary school in May 1972, contained some two hundred bodies under the sand. They had been slaughtered during one-month occupation of an NVA unit. Sand left no sign of a mass grave below until a 3rd-grader dug the ground rather deep for a cricket.
Besides more than two thousand persons whose deaths were confirmed after the revelation of the mass graves, the fate of the others, amounted to several thousands, are still unknown.
The 1968 massacre in Hue brought a sharp turn in the common attitude toward the war. A great number of the pre-'68 fence sitters, anti-war activists, and even pro-Communist people, took side with the South Vietnamese government after the horrible events. After April 30, 1975 when South Vietnam fell into the hand of the Communist Party, it seems that the number of boat people of Hue origin takes up a greater proportion among the refugees than that from the other areas.
Since April 1975, the Vietnamese Communist regime deliberately moved many families of the 68-massacre victims out of Hue City. People in the city however, still commemorate them every year. Because the people are mingling the rites with Tet celebrations, Communist local authorities have no reason to forbid them.
Most Americans knew well about the My Lai massacre of US Army Lieutenant Calley where from 200 to 350 persons were killed. The '68-massacre in Hue however, has not been covered at the same proportion by the English language media. When a Tet Offensive documentary film by South Vietnamese reporters was shown to the American audience of more than 200 US Army officers in Fort Benning, Ga. in November 1974, almost 90 percent of them hadn't been informed of the facts. Many even said that had they known the savage slaughter at the time, they would have acted differently while serving in Vietnam.
The US Navy has a warship named "Hue City." It is not known how many of her sailors realize that the city she carries as a name suffered so much. Would it be a good idea to have a rite once a year in the Tet season on the "Hue City" for the dead whom the US Marines were fighting for in February 1968?
Animosity should not be handed down to younger generations, but our descendants must be taught the truth. War crimes must not be forgotten, and history is not written by one-sided writers.