Families in Hanoi in 1965 evacuated, often separated
By ERIK SLAVIN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: November 10, 2015
HANOI, Vietnam — Do Dinh Thuy grew up as one of five siblings in a prosperous Hanoi family. The northern capital remained relatively peaceful in the late 1950s and early 1960s, even as thousands of United States military advisers aided the Saigon government in the escalating war to the south.
In 1965, the U.S. began Operation Rolling Thunder, an air campaign aimed at encouraging the beleaguered South, while reducing the communist North’s morale with targeted bombings. By the end of the year, more than 180,000 U.S. troops were at war in Vietnam.
Thuy was in the fifth grade when his teacher told him that school in Hanoi was canceled.
In the months that followed, Hanoi’s children, elderly and other citizens considered nonessential to the war effort were evacuated to the countryside.
Thuy’s father, a doctor, was sent to one province; his mother and siblings moved to three others.
“There was no choice where you got to live,” Thuy, now 62, said. “At that time, everybody had to do it.”
As difficult as the family breakups were, Thuy and other Vietnamese today largely view the evacuation of Hanoi as a triumph of organization and resolve.
Far from the crippling morale blow that U.S. planners had hoped for when Rolling Thunder began, many of Hanoi’s citizens came out of 1965 and 1966 steeled for the war’s escalation.
Separation and deprivation
After relocating to a village 20 miles from Hanoi, Thuy enrolled in a new school. The classroom was built about three feet underground, using earth and bamboo for construction materials.
About 50 children crowded inside for lessons. There was little distinction between rich and poor, Thuy recalled while talking recently at a café just outside of Hanoi’s Old Town.
Once each month, his family reunited in Hanoi. Thuy’s parents bicycled 30 to 40 miles to get there, he said.
“We didn’t talk much about war,” Thuy said. “We just spent time together as a family, because the next day we had to go back.”
Tran Thi Thao, 62, discussed the war years while fanning herself on a hot September afternoon near Trúc Bạch Lake in central Hanoi.
She happened to be standing behind the area where John McCain was hauled out of the water and taken prisoner in 1967. Today, the lake is a backdrop for coffee shops and high-rise apartments.
“Looking back, we couldn’t have imagined how well we could overcome the hardship,” Thao said.
Thao saw her parents once each week at the evacuation camp where she lived, she said. They brought her mostly rice and vegetables and cooked it over a wood fire.
Meat was scarce for average citizens, who received 300 grams of pork once per month, said Le Hong Dang, 83. War-related workers received 750 grams, while South Vietnamese soldiers like Dang received a full share of 1.5 kilograms.
Dang retired as a colonel from the Army in 1991, after nearly 43 years of service. He and his wife saw their three children once each month.
“We saved all of the good food to bring to the evacuation camp for the children,” Dang said at his apartment next to Army Central Hospital 108, where he worked during the war. “At that time, nobody complained about anything. We accepted it because we wanted to save everything we had for the battlefield.”
Dang remained in Hanoi during the evacuation. An infantryman during the war with the French, then a Hanoi recruiter for fighters headed south in the 1950s, Dang served as a political officer at the hospital in the 1960s.
Hospital 108 was considered one of the best in Vietnam, so it received soldiers with some of the most severe injuries. Dang’s job was to “maintain their nationalism,” he said.
The general evacuations left few distractions at the time, Dang said.
“In the daytime, we were working,” Dang said. “At night, we prepared to shoot, along the river. We were ready to fight.”
Sparing Hanoi, at first
Despite preparations, the fight never came directly to Hanoi in 1965.
President Lyndon B. Johnson viewed Operation Rolling Thunder as a political resource for negotiating peace, according to excerpts of his memoirs published in Doris Kearns’ 1976 biography, “Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream.”
In Johnson’s view, limiting the bombing to areas 30 nautical miles outside of Hanoi kept the war under control.
“But this control — so essential for preventing World War III — would be lost the moment we unleashed a total assault on the North … and then there would be no turning back,” Johnson wrote. “The Chinese reaction would be instant and total.”
The restrictions loosened in the ensuing years. In 1966, the U.S. bombed Hanoi’s oil reserves.
U.S. aircraft struck at more of the North on heavier runs, though civilian centers in Hanoi were generally spared, for a time.
Nguyen Tien Thanh, 63, who runs a small, roadside snack shop in Hanoi, knew little about the war in 1965 and 1966. He mostly remembered his amazement at how quickly the city was evacuated, and the first time he saw the effects of a targeted bombing.
“When they bombed the oil stores and I saw all of the fire coming out – the memory is so vivid to me,” Thanh said.
By 1971, he volunteered for the Army and marched to the south. Airstrikes hit Thanh’s unit hard at the Thach Han River, in heavily contested central Vietnam.
Thanh was ordered to swim across the river, between the floating bodies.
Thanh was still fighting in 1972, when Operation Linebacker II began. For 12 days in December, U.S. B-52s and other aircraft pummeled the North’s capital in what was said to be President Richard Nixon’s attempt to hasten the end of the war.
Hanoi’s people finally saw the destruction they had anticipated in 1965.
On Jan. 27, 1973, the U.S. and the North signed the Paris Peace Accords, which ended direct U.S. military combat. The withdrawal of troops began.
Everyone who spoke of their lives during the 1960s and 1970s recalled witnessing war. Some saw it firsthand, while others felt the rumble of bombs and the fear that came with it.
Despite those memories, each person said generally positive things about the United States today. There is no sense holding a grudge about the past; the U.S. can help the economy; partnership with the U.S. could benefit Vietnam’s contentious dealings with China, they said.
Few people talked much about the ideological struggles of the day. Nearly all reflected on how Hanoi’s families persevered, even when separated.
“I fully understand now what [my parents] were thinking — the pain they had to face when living apart from their children,” Thuy said.
Pho Thi Dang, 79, and Le Hong Dang, 83, sit in their Hanoi apartment on Sept. 30, 2015. The couple married in 1958 and had three children, all of whom were evacuated from Hanoi by 1966, after the escalation of the war with the United States.
ERIK SLAVIN/STARS AND STRIPES