Role of Saigon intellectuals in resisting the Diem regime

SR 2091
664 Take 1
Interview with Tran Thi My, lady.
Please tell us your story.
Tran Thi My:
In 1954, when the Geneva Agreement was signed, intellectual women like me thought that this was an opportunity for us to live in peace again. In 1954, when I went to Ca Mau, which was the place there the fighters regrouped in order to go north, I was told that I should be vigilant because the enemy was never really honest. Therefore, when I came home, I never allowed the enemy to trick me.
Diem did not come into power in 1954 but only in 1956. During this period, I hoped that the general elections would come about. But by and by our brothers who were still remaining in their bases in the South were killed by the enemy one by one. This was what I learned and I saw corpses of our brothers floating down the rivers.
By that time I was certain that we could not rely on the general election at all. To the contrary, we had to continue to fight. For this reason, ever since 1956, intellectual women and women and men who were professors at the different schools came together under an all city intellectual organization in order to deal with the policy of deception of the Ngo Dinh Diem regime at that time.
Ngo Dinh Diem came into power in 1956, and then he created a special police force called the PSE (Police Speciale de l'Est) which arrested a lot of cadres. We witnessed all of this and we came to realize that it was impossible for us to continue with legal activities forever.
Rather, we had to resort to clandestine activities. And those who engaged in public activities like us had to have fall back positions so that when it became necessary we could go underground. By 1955 Sister Nguyen Thi Dieu was arrested and tortured to death in the night.
665 Take 1
Please continue with your story.
Tran Thi My:
From 1954 to 1956 all my fellow professors were arrested. For this reason, we realized that we could not trust the Bao Dai regime. Then in 1956 Ngo Dinh Diem came to power.
Please begin from 1954 on.
Tran Thi My:
From 1954 to 1956 my fellow professors in Saigon, which is the present day Ho Chi Minh City, were all arrested. Among them was Sister Nguyen Thi Dieu who was beaten to death. When we saw this, we did not have any trust in the upcoming Ngo Dinh Diem regime. We also did not have any trust in the Bao Dai administration. For this reason, we gradually reorganized the various patriotic groups of teachers.
By 1957 the repressive operations carried out by the Ngo Dinh Diem regime became even more ferocious. For this reason, we mounted various struggle movements. For example, in 1956, as I can still remember very vividly, there was a fire on the present day Nguyen Trai Street which came about as a result of an order from Mrs. Ngo Dinh Nhu. She ordered that all neighborhoods with thatched houses be burnt down because she said that if these thatched houses were left unburned, they would be sanctuaries for the Viet Minh.
So they had all the houses burned from the Cho Vuon Chuoi marketplace, the Xom Moi neighborhood and all the sections where the majority of the working people were living in. As members of the student and teacher organizations, we took advantage of the movement to give aid to the fire victims and to stage political struggles against the enemy. Gradually, the struggles became enlarged. The women in other neighborhoods and sections of the city also came to help the fire victims. We demanded that the houses of the inhabitants should not be burnt down and that the inhabitants whose houses had been torched should be able to retain the lots of land on which their houses had been located.
Gradually, the Diem regime found this out. But since they had no other way out except to try to deceive the inhabitants, they put into effect a policy of deception. At the same time they were talking about democracy and so on, they had all those who came to the aid of the inhabitants during the various times the neighborhoods were set on fire arrested. Among these people, were the majority of teachers and professors. And I myself was also chased after.
In 1956, for example, the jeeps chased after us in the Nguyen Trai neighborhood. This was because at that time we were cleaning the area for the inhabitants, giving them food and clothes, and so on. Those who were most active in helping the victims were followed to their own homes and arrested. They either had these people arrested in the middle of the night or while on their way to work. In my case, I was arrested in the street in 1958.
During this period when the enemy was attacking us politically and was trying to divide us, we, as a result, always had to mount protest movements. This was done in a public manner. For example, we used the opportunity of camping trips for students to explain the situation to the students and to educate them politically, making them understand what it meant to be patriotic.
During the summer vacation, we organized the teachers and professors to be with each other at meetings so that they could tell each other about life...

Escape to Cu Chi from the Diem police

666 Take 1
Tran Thi My:
Because I was the person responsible for organizing the physical education movement and the camping trips for students and teachers, the police and secret police of the Ngo Dinh Diem regime gradually became suspicious. They knew that while on the outside I was supposed to be in charge of all these forms of legal activities, I was secretly organizing an anti-Diem movement. For this reason, by 1959 they were determined to arrest me.
One morning, while I was playing basketball with my students, one student who was the sister of a secret police who was stalking me came and told me that I had to go into hiding quickly because her brother was going to arrest me. I still did not think much about this warning. But when I found out that I was surrounded by the police, my mind began to work quite brilliantly.
I let the children go on playing basketball. And, because I was physically as small as the students, I sneaked upstairs and put on a skirt. Then I slid down a gutter pipe and walked out of there. I was quite lucky then because the secret police were still standing there looking in, thinking that I was still playing basketball.
So I stopped a taxicab and went in the other direction, heading for the Saigon marketplace. I saw that they were sealing off the whole area with jeeps and Hondas and were ready to chase after me should I run out of that place. But I had already passed by them with the protection of the students.
After I escaped, I went to a relative's house and stayed there. They could not find me out then because I never returned to my own house, which was being surrounded, and changed my name. This was the attempt to arrest me in 1959. Two months after my escape, I tried to make contact with the comrades in Cu Chi. The comrades told me that I should go to Cu Chi and direct the activities from there.
And I was to bring the students, fellow teachers and intellectuals to Cu Chi to work. This was because at that time it was quite easy to get to Cu Chi. Under the protection and guidance of the people, it was easy for us and for the other intellectuals to get to Cu Chi.
The pretext was that the local inhabitants went to the city to bring home house guests. Therefore, during holidays and summer vacations we invited students and teachers to come and visit with us in Cu Chi. Gradually, we organized groups which were directed by us from Cu Chi. In cases when certain teachers and intellectuals could not come out to visit with us, we would make special trips to Saigon to meet with them.
The reason for our getting the teachers and intellectuals to come to Cu Chi to meet with us was to show them what our liberated area was like and how relaxed life was therein. Of course, at times we had to fight against the search and destroy operations conducted by the enemy.
When I was living in Cu Chi I had to live with the peasants and dress like a peasant. But, as I mentioned a while ago, sometimes I had to keep certain things from the local inhabitants because they really loved us very much and, precisely because of this, should they run into us in Saigon and out of excitement...
SR 2092
Beep tone
Roll 92 of Vietnam Project
667 Take 1
Interview with Tran Thi My continues.
Tran Thi My:
When I was living in Cu Chi, I acted like the inhabitants of Cu Chi. That is to say, I behaved like them and dressed like them. But, as I mentioned a while ago, I did not want the inhabitants of Cu Chi to run into me accidentally in Saigon, so I had to cover my face. I used my neckerchief and the conical hat to hide my face in such a skillful way that I always looked so coy and graceful like a lady. No matter what, you have to act lady like and graceful and so I tilted my conical hat slightly.
When I returned to the city, I had to walk to the highway first. To get to the city, you had to look city like. So on the side of the highway there was a house where I stripped off all my peasant garb of Cu Chi and put on city clothes. Then I would board a bus for the city. When I got back to the city, I was just another city inhabitant.
After I finished with my work in the city and headed for Cu Chi, I would walk to a house about 500 meters from the highway in which I would stay as a niece for half a day or a day before I would put on a peasant outfit and head for the liberated area again. I then became a peasant of Cu Chi.
In Cu Chi, when it was not absolutely necessary for even my best friends to visit with me, they would not expose themselves. This was because in case these people met me in the street in Saigon and patted me in the back or something like that, they would expose me and get me arrested by the secret police of the Ngo Dinh Diem regime and even of the Nguyen Van Thieu regime after that. And so I had to be very careful.
While I was living in Cu Chi, besides a pair of black pajamas I also had a suit of green clothes. This was because, along the way, should the airplanes come by we would jump into a bush to hide. Because of these green clothes, we were able to escape the strafing by the helicopters. Sometimes, when the helicopters chased us to a grove of trees, they lost us, thanks to the green shirt which we had.
While living in Cu Chi, we led a very hard life. This was especially the case after 1965 when the Americans had poured in a lot of troops. During this period, the greater part of our time was spent in the tunnels. There were rooms in the tunnels which could shelter at least ten persons.
We were lying very comfortably in our hammocks inside the tunnels. But later on, because the one-ton bombs created craters from eight to ten meters deep and from ten to fifteen meters wide, the bigger tunnels would collapse and would kill the persons inside. For this reason, our leadership committee said that we should not continue to live in big tunnels.
But we were to build narrower tunnels so that in case the tunnels collapsed, only a couple of persons would get killed each time and that the casualty rate would not be any higher than this. Therefore, from 1965 and 1966 we lived in tunnels which were big enough for two or three persons each. And in order to get from one shelter to another, we had to travel inside the tunnels, or the underground roads which we had dug.
Because all the trees had been killed by the bombs and the artillery shells, we camouflaged our shelters by dead trees. For this reason, by this time our shirts were no longer green. They were now the color of the dead leaves. We always had to adapt ourselves to fight the enemy. And we did this with the help and protection of the inhabitants. The people protected us and took us to the highway.

Clandestine activities and disguise from the enemy

Tran Thi My:
When we got to the city of Saigon, the inhabitants of Saigon protected us. For this reason, we were able to maintain our clandestine activities continuously in the city. There was time when it was necessary for me to stay in the city, then there were couriers from the base area and therefore I did not have to go back there myself.
For this reason, I had to dress like the courier who handed over the letter to me. For example, if I went from Saigon to Ben Luc to meet with an old peasant woman in a marketplace, then I had to dress as a very poor person with a torn hat, patched clothes and a worn out bag. So that when I met with that old peasant woman and talked with her, nobody would suspect that I was a person from the city of Saigon. At worst, I was a very poor working woman from Saigon.
This produced a very funny and touching incident. A person who met with me told a sister of mine that I was now very poor and that I did not have decent clothes to wear anymore. Even my sandals were all worn out. My sisters and brothers who were then in Saigon cried, saying that I should have informed them of my financial situation and should not have allowed myself to slip into such impoverished situation. This was because my family really loved me.
After liberation I had to explain the situation to my family, saying that the tattered clothes I wore were very precious to me because without them I would not have been able to meet that old peasant woman without exposing myself. I certainly could not have met such a peasant woman wearing beautiful clothes myself. This was the story of a meeting with a courier.
There were all kinds of couriers: children, adults, old women and so on. And our messages were in all forms. Sometimes we hid our messages in a basket of fruit, sometimes in a bowl of salt. There were so many ways, making it very difficult for the secret police to arrest us. This was the same thing in the case of the old woman. Her messages to me were always camouflaged in so many different ways.
There were times when the enemy found out a safe house where I was living in the city. But I was never living in any single place for an extended period. I was also living in far out places in working class neighborhoods that gave me excellent protection. There was a neighborhood in a ghetto area where I lived for some time. It was accessible only by small alley ways.
And, while living there, I had to get up at around 5:00 a.m. to go out to work. I pretended to be a food peddler, carrying a basket of sticky rice and going out to sell it until late in the evening. I did not get back to my hiding place until about 8:00 p.m. and did not let anybody trail me. This was how I managed to keep in contact with my comrades.
The most difficult period was the 1972-1973 period. This was because during this period the secret police were conducting a ferocious mopping up operation. During this period, whenever they detected a stranger living in any house, they would have that person arrested in the middle of the night. For this reason, we had to camouflage ourselves very carefully. And we always followed the news with small transistor radios.
And, in the poor neighborhoods, the walls were not made of cement but of boards. The people living in the adjacent apartments could peep through the cracks in the walls and found out that we were listening to the radios with earphones. Therefore, whenever we wanted to listen to the radios we had to put a blanket over our heads. But it was very hot under the blankets. And, after a newscast, we were just soaking wet with perspirations. But this was how we could follow the news and events in order to understand the situation in the country.

Razing of Cu Chi during the Operation Cedar Falls

668 Take 1
Please go ahead with your description.
Tran Thi My:
The Cedar Falls Operation was the biggest battle and it preceded the Johnson City operation. I don't remember how many troops the Americans brought in for that battle. But I can say that they prepared this battle for three whole months. Before the battle, they bombed and shelled this place like they never did before.
As a result, after the battle, Cu Chi became completely wiped out. It came to be known as the Iron Triangle, meaning that it was metal ground because the airplanes could bomb it at any time they pleased. Even if they suspected that there was a trace of human life in the area, they would bomb and shell. They did not even allow a stump of a tree to remain on the ground.
After tree months of continual bombing, they poured their troops in. I don't remember the exact date now. Just as I told you a while ago, I left Cai Nang, which was the place I had been living in. While I was on the way, suddenly a...
669 Take 1
Please go ahead with your description of the Cedar Falls Operation.
Tran Thi My:
Before the Cedar Falls Operation started, the enemy bombed and shelled the area continually for three months. Artillery shells came continuously from Dong Du. I said continuously because they never stopped for more than one minute. And there were airplanes flying over the Cu Chi area all the time. There were the L-19s, the helicopters, the bombers, the F-4s, the F-5s and the B-57s. They bombed and shelled so much that, in my case, for example, a tunnel caved in on me and I had to be dug out. This was before the operation actually started.
When the operation began, the enemy sent in two puppet divisions to block Highway 13. As for the Americans, they came in in several hundred tanks and armored vehicles. They used their base camp at Bach Bap, it was just a little way from Ben Suc, as a place to park their tanks. At that time, our Command Committee said that we had to open our way out at any price and that we should not allow the men and women in our organization to die in an illogical way. We had to maintain the capitals for the future.
For this reason, we obeyed the order and got out of there that night. At first we intended to head north. But later on we decided that we really did not have to run away to any distance and that all we had to do was to go around in circle, weaving our ways in between the enemy's positions.
At that time, sometimes about thirty to forty tanks attacked us. The tanks rolled over the whole area with the intention of smashing our underground positions. They plowed one stretch of land at a time day in day out. This was in order not to leave anything behind for the Viet Cong to cling to the area. It was in one of these mornings that five of us women we had lost contact with the rest because of the way they rolled the tanks over the area like that heard the rumbling of the tanks.
When we looked up we saw about thirty tanks we actually could not make an exact count rolling toward us in a horizontal line. We told each other to lie down in the old tracks of the tanks since we knew that they would not roll over the same tracks again. For this reason, the five of us lay flat there while the thirty tanks rolled over our heads. And we were lying in between the tanks so we escaped death. And in this way we clung on to the enemy, never leaving Cu Chi.
For fifteen days in succession, we did not have anything to eat and drink. This was because when we first left each of us had only a canteen of water. But we depleted our water supply soon after that. And fifteen days later, with the tanks rolling over us like that, we had lost contacts with all our sisters. We were in the forest and hence it was very difficult to locate each other. Hence, on a certain Friday, I was left all to myself. And so I walked all around Cu Chi, managing to avoid the Americans for fifteen days.
Now, Elizabeth asked me a while ago whether I ever ran into the Americans personally. Well, at one point I was only one meter from one, but he was looking the other way, with his back turned in my direction. He was carrying a rifle, and I was hiding in a bush. I was lying still and he just passed me by without noticing me. I played hide and seek with them like this until the fifteenth day when I climbed up a tree and looked toward the direction of the tank base camp and saw that they were preparing to withdraw their troops.
I then climbed into a shelter in a burnt down house and remained there until the enemy withdrew. After that I was the only person who went back to our own headquarters. Along the way I saw that the bulldozers had razed everything and that the helicopters were flying as thickly as the automobiles are running along the roads here now. And so I had to evade the helicopters and other dangers that only a very determined and well-prepared person could manage to do. This was because the enemy was all around you.
And I thought to myself that I would either break through the enemy siege or never allow myself to be captured by the enemy at all. If the enemy happened to capture me, I would find every way possible to commit suicide. I would never allow myself to be captured by the enemy. And if captured, I would not allow them to exact information from me. But they were never able to capture me at all although they were all around me.
There was a time when they just walked right in front of me as I was lying there in a bush. Therefore, I thought at that time that only my love for my country would keep me fighting against the enemy like that. This was because the enemy was all around me at that time: enemy planes were above me, enemy boats were in the river, enemy artillery fires were in the middle and enemy tanks were everywhere.
Let me put it this way: After the Cedar Falls Operation there was not a single house left standing. All that were left of the houses were some of the columns. The roads, the paddy fields and the orchards were all leveled and resembled the landscape of a desert. Everything was now covered under a layer of dirt and sand.
There were many people killed in the tunnels and in the bomb shelters. I am not even talking about the corpses which I found along the way and which I buried very hastily. We had to dig many people up from the tunnels. It was such a heartrending thing to see whole families of ten or more members buried under the tunnels. A woman who tried to protect her family was found frozen in this position when we dug her up.
There were many children killed by the air pressure created by the bombing. Talking about air pressure, we found a corpse of a woman who got all of her clothes knocked off her body which got compacted into a tender pulp, resembling pâté, of less than one meter long although she had been a very big and tall person. For a couple of months after that, we did not dare to eat minced meat at all. This was because whenever anyone minced some meat, it would remind us of the corpses.
These were the sights that will never be forgotten. I also saw a child lying dead in a bush because his arm had been severed. If someone had found him, he would not have died. He had been wounded and ran into a bush to hide and died there. These corpses and the whole scene, as I can still see very vividly in my mind now, tell you of the indescribable nature of the bombing and shelling at the time.
When we came back, we found out that a member of our unit, Ms. Nguyen Thi Tu, had been killed. She had been the president of the Women Organization of Saigon-Gia Dinh-Cho Lon. A number of male fighters and guards were also killed. We had to bury them.
670, End slate.