Excerpted with permission of the publisher, Four Walls Eight Windows. From THEN THE AMERICANS CAME by Martha Hess. All rights reserved. © 1996 Martha Hess.

Mrs. Nguyen Thi Thiet
Mr. Dich
Mrs. Phung Thi Tiem
Mrs. Truong My Hoa
Mrs. Ha Thi Qui
Mrs. Le Thi Dieu

Mrs. Nguyen Thi Thiet

THE BOMBING started in Vinh Linh on February 8, 1965. In the beginning the Americans bombed the hospitals, the schools, and the military camp. At first, not many people were killed. The worst was after 1965. So many were killed, especially in 1972.

People from Quang Tri Province had been evacuated north to Vinh Linh because they thought it was safer than the South. They were wrong. Some days, twelve, thirteen, fourteen people were killed. In an area of a kilometer or two, in a single morning the Americans would drop sixty, seventy bombs.

Mostly, people lived underground. The people of Vinh Linh are farmers, and still went to the fields to work every day. But when the planes came they escaped to the tunnels right by the fields. The women and young people always carried guns with them, to shoot at planes.

I was ten years old at the time of the second bombing, in 1972. School was always held in the shelter. The children couldn’t come up. I lived seven days a week underground.

Toxic chemicals and defoliants were dropped, and a lot of napalm. Many people today still have scars from napalm bombs. There were different kinds of fragmentation bombs, some the size of a fist. Even now people get killed from small, unexploded bombs. Wounded people were looked after by their families, or by the community if they had no children. The dead were buried everywhere, without coffins. Three people died in my family.

The Americans cannot repay this debt, because it’s too big.

Mr. Dich

I WANT TO KNOW if the American veterans were affected by defoliants and toxic chemicals, because during all the years we marched south, the American army used them to clear the forests. The soldiers who fought at the front, south of Quang Tri, suffered sperm damage. If you go to Dac Lac and Pleiku, the people there can show you exactly where the Americans dropped the stuff. You can still find containers full of toxic chemicals. These “bitter mines,” as we called them, since they leave a bitter taste, were very dangerous. After the war, my second child was born and died right away. My wife was strong, but the child was deformed. With the third child, the same thing, but the Swedish Hospital in Ha Noi saved him. He is only four years old but he has intestinal problems. Doctors think his intestines are shrinking. They say when he grows up they can fix it. Now they give him medication.

The worst time was the bombing in 1972. It destroyed Kham Tien Street in Hanoi, and Bach Mai Hospital. But a lot of people were killed in the South, too, in battle. We would draw a map to remember where we buried our comrades.

The Americans came to Vietnam to conduct a war, and to kill Vietnamese people. That means they were the aggressors. The puppet soldiers were also Vietnamese but they were Americanized, meaning they listened to the Americans and took up arms against their own people. For those soldiers we have more sympathy than hatred. To this day we think of the Americans as the enemy. Our children have no fathers. The Americans killed a generation. They owe us, for the next generation.

Mrs. Phung Thi Tiem

I AM THE HEAD of the Kham Thien Women’s Union. I will tell you what happened. It was 10:20 on the evening of December 26, 1972. People had returned from work, eaten dinner, and many had already gone to bed. And then the Americans came. Many older people, women, men, and many children were killed in that bombing. They were supposed to have been evacuated, but the 24th was a Sunday and the 25th was Christmas Day. So people thought the Americans wouldn’t bomb. They returned to their homes.

That evening buildings were destroyed, everything. Many people were injured and entire families were wiped out-from the youngest to the oldest. In one family, five generations were killed together, the baby inside its pregnant mother, the son, the mother, the grandmother and the great grandmother. Mrs. Xuan, who lives next door here, lost an arm. Five people were killed there. The woman on this monument over here, with the child, was the lady of the house. She took her children with her under the staircase, to protect them, and they were all killed. In one family there were nine children, and their parents died. Now they have grown up and left the neighborhood. Families helped the wounded, and cooperatives and the Women’s Union helped them, and continue to help them.

We spent that week digging out the shelters, looking for missing people. The smell of the dead was terrible. We collected the bodies in one place, and the wounded were taken to the hospital. People whose homes were bombed mostly went to live with relatives in the countryside.

American pilots dropped all those bombs, yet we were merciful. When an American pilot was shot down and brought through this very street, nobody touched him.

At the time, I was a factory worker. As head of the Women’s Union of Kham Thien district, I had to set an example to the community, so I stayed, and my children had been evacuated. Only the workers could stay here, to work in the factories. Nobody in my family was killed.

Many people are handicapped today. Many people lost everything in the war, and can’t support themselves. So you can tell the American government to make reparations. To be fair, the Vietnamese didn’t send troops to invade America. Never, never forget. We remember the war. We remember our losses. All the little children-nine years old, thirteen, they had committed no crimes for the Americans to come and kill them. When they died in the bombings, their eyes popped out from the compression. Their bodies were mangled. Small children and old people. They lived here, and worked their whole lives here. They never sent troops to America. They never took one plant, one leaf from America. Why did the Americans come to destroy everything, to kill the people, to kill small children, to kill even pregnant women-why? Don’t the American people even know why?

Mrs. Truong My Hoa

THE WAR ENDED fifteen years ago in victory for our people, but the country remains devastated. We say that victory cannot match our suffering. After all, the United States sent their troops over here with the intent to destroy all, burn all, and kill all. They destroyed the land.

In the South, the Americans burned villages and herded the women and children into camps surrounded by barbed wire. South Vietnam became an enormous prison. Many children couldn’t go to school, people weren’t free to work their land. They killed brutally, indiscriminately. You remember the massacre at My Lai, in Quang Ngai province. There were many other villages where the people were massacred. My Lai was only the worst.

Women everywhere were raped, killed, arrested, beaten. Pregnant women’s bellies were cut open and their unborn babies thrown into burning houses. Thousands of women were imprisoned. Some were suspected V.C., some were real fighters, many were just ordinary people who were arrested and jailed for no reason. There were prisons all over she South. There were central prisons and provincial prisons and district prisons. Mothers with babies and pregnant women were arrested. They arrested old people and children and even handicapped people. I remember in Con Son prison there was an old blind woman, Mrs. Sau. She was kept in a tiger cage, with five or six people, all in a cage, covered by iron poles.

I was imprisoned in Con Son from 1964 to 1975. I had been a student in Ho Chi Minh City-Saigon at that time. I attended meetings and went to demonstrations to demand freedom and democracy. The South Vietnamese arrested me when I was nineteen, and I was thirty by the time I was released. All my family was active in the resistance for fifty years, and we each spent a long time in prison. My husband, too, spent fourteen years in jail, longer than me.

We were beaten and tortured. They had all kinds of sexual torture for the women. And we were so hungry. When I was kept in the tiger cage at Con Son, I was given only a small tin of water and a little bowl of rice each day. There was a lot of sand, and when the winds blew, the sand covered our rice bowls. And flies, flies everywhere. Con Son was filthy and cold, a stone prison on a cold, windy island. We had one set of clothing a year. We never went outside, never bathed. We tore rags off our clothing for our menstrual periods, so that we were left with practically nothing to cover our bodies. There were all kinds of disease-dysentery, typhoid, cholera, malaria, small pox. Every morning we woke up wondering who had died in the night. There was no medicine. they said we could only have medicine if we would salute the South Vietnamese flag. We always refused. Many of my comrades died of disease, of hunger, of torture.

I spent a year in the tiger cage. On top they kept limestone and a water pot. If prisoners talked to each other they poured water and limestone over us, and if we cried they beat us with sticks, and then let the limestone burn our wounds. You can see right here, my forehead is scarred. They stuck sharp pins in my head. That was excruciating torture. I still have the scars. Many women never recovered.

The interrogators were always puppet troops. The Americans were the advisers. Sometimes they came there. We liked to say that the Americans had to change the color of their bodies. Too many of their soldiers were dying, so they had to use Vietnamese to kill Vietnamese.

Children in the South suffered terribly, and still suffer. They were left orphaned, with no homes, no food, no schools. They became beggars, dope dealers, thieves. We have orphans, and widows and grieving mothers. We sing songs that tell the suffering of women who sent their sons to battle. And there are many women who never married because so many men in our country were killed. That’s always the case in war. Whole families of women are left without men.

You must know about our “long-haired army” in Vietnam. The women operated on three fronts: political, military, and mobilization among the enemy troops. They were very effective in enemy territory. Women made great sacrifices. We know of mothers who suffocated their babies so they would not cry, in order to protect the troops. They sacrificed one life to save many.

Mrs. Ha Thi Qui

IN THE EARLY MORNING, just after we got up, the helicopters came and started shelling, and soldiers poured out onto the fields. I was eating breakfast. We thought it might be like the other times the Americans came into the village. They gave the children candy. Or like the second time, when Americans came to take water from the well to fill their canteens, and then left, and they didn’t do any harm to the people. But the third time, March 16, 1968, when they came to the hamlet they rounded up all the people. Some they took to the roadside and shot right away. The people on the guard tower were all killed. And some they brought over to this ditch, here. First they shot Mr. Cau. He was a monk. He lived in the pagoda. Then they forced everyone into the ditch and shot them. I was wounded in the backside. At first I felt very, very hot, and later on very cold. And they killed-you see, they fired a first time into the ditch, and many men, children and women were killed. They cried, “Mother.” They were screaming. The soldiers fired three more times and finished the cries of the people. The first time there were still people screaming. They fired a second time, and the third time it was finished, all the people were killed.

Afterwards, I got up to go back to my house, and I saw nothing. All the houses had been burned. They had cut down our village tree by the pond. They had cut all the trees down in the orchards. They had killed everyone. There were dead bodies all over the village. I took a little dead baby back to the house from the roadside. It was my daughter’s child.

I went to the next hamlet and found my younger sister-in-law killed, lying on the floor. And I found her daughter’s body, a fifteen-year-old girl, all her clothing torn off and her legs were spread open-raped by Americans.

They had no mercy, the Americans. You see, they had come here many times and we got along with them. Then they came and killed all the people. They showed no mercy for the people. We had done nothing to them. If they had killed people at the beginning, one or two, we would have known to run, but we didn’t know.

I went back to my house and there was nothing, not even a pair of trousers to wear, because everything had been burned. The houses kept on burning, and I couldn’t find anyone. I went to another hamlet, untouched by the Americans, to get food and clothing, and told them what had happened at Son My, and they came and carried the dead people away. There was a terrible smell.

My oldest daughter was killed. You bear a child and bring her up, and then she gets killed. My husband had gone to work in the fields very early, so he escaped. Twice before, the Americans had come here and done nothing. We don’t understand why the third time they killed the people.

After 1968 we were rounded up and moved to a camp about three, four kilometers from here. The Americans surrounded the camp and we lived inside.

The Americans had lived alongside the Vietnamese people, and we did nothing to them. We worked, spent all our lives in the fields. How could they come and kill us that way? So we are very sad about the massacre, full of sorrow, the village people and the farmers, very sad about it.

Mrs. Le Thi Dieu

IN 1965 I WAS ARRESTED by the Americans and brought to Hoi An. They put electricity in my vagina, on my nipples, in my ears, in my nose, on my fingers. Blood came out of my vagina. At night they put electricity inside my body and they beat me. They jumped on me with their shoes. Now when I breathe my whole chest hurts, and when I lie on the bed my body aches. They kept me for eighteen months.

In 1967 I was arrested again. They brought me to the center of the village and tied me up, both hands in back, like this. They poured soapy water down my throat all night. My face and chest and belly swelled up and I lost consciousness. They took me to the base, and there they beat me and again put electricity on my body. They poured water mixed with hot peppers down my throat. I thought I had already died. Then they took me to the hospital. I stayed there a week. When they brought me back to the base, they beat me again, gave me more electricity. They tortured me for information but they got nothing. They poured water down my throat again, and I stopped breathing.

They took me to a little house, like this, and one American tried to rape me. I started screaming, and he took my hair, which was very long, and he dragged me and beat me. A Vietnamese interpreter came and said, “Why do you struggle against the Americans? It won’t do any good.” And I said, “They arrested me, they tortured me and beat me, and now they want to rape me. How can I not cry and struggle?” The next night the American came back, when I was alone. I cried again, but he forced me to the floor and put a cloth in my mouth. He took off my pants. I couldn’t scream. I went faint, and he raped me, and I couldn’t do anything more. Later, the interpreter returned, and removed the cloth from my mouth. I was raped again, and I didn’t feel anything more. After that, another American came-his body was smaller than the first one’s. He tortured me with electricity until I lost consciousness. He gave me water and I regained consciousness. The second American kicked me on my breasts and stomach. Now, I cannot feel, cannot breathe. And he kept putting electricity in my vagina and on my fingers. I said, “I am from a poor family, how can I tell you anything?”

Then I was taken to Phuoc Tuong where there was an American base, and only Americans. There, an American lady asked me some questions. I saw other Vietnamese girls. Then they took me back and tortured me again. Night and day the American soldiers tortured me. Sometimes it would be Vietnamese soldiers, but mostly it was Americans. I was locked in a prison cell with no window-I saw no sky, no land, nothing. Sometimes I had a little bit of rice. After three weeks they returned me back to the district. The first day back an American soldier came and kicked me in the mouth and my teeth came out. I asked a Vietnamese man why they beat me, I had committed no crime, and I asked for medicine. The Americans came again and beat me with a stick. I was brought back to Hoi An and kept there for a few more weeks. Every time I was questioned, they took me to another place, I still don’t know where, not Hoi An. Every time they questioned me I was beaten. More electricity inside my body and again and again they raped me. Even now I bleed.

I spent about four years in prison altogether. There were other girls, and we used to talk about the torture. We tried to help each other. If it were not for them, I wouldn’t have stayed alive. I was released at the end of 1969 and returned to my village.

Now the villagers take care of me and the government helps. I am sick, in the lungs, in the heart, and in the head. Sometimes my nose bleeds. When the weather changes, I look down, and I don’t go outside. Sometimes I just lie here, and I can’t breathe. Then they take me to the hospital. My fingers are very swollen and sometimes the nails fall out, from the electricity.

In 1965 I was a beautiful woman, not like now. I am forty-five and I live alone, no parents, no brothers, no sisters, no husband. how can someone marry me? My father was killed by the Americans. My mother was killed by American bullets, shelled. My younger brother was killed. The boys had been playing on the road when the American came through, and shot them.