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Hanoi Remembers Christmas Bombings

December 15, 1997

HANOI, Vietnam (AP) _ Fixed in time, her eyes stare out from a grainy black and white portrait hanging in a memorial in central Hanoi. Her name is unknown, but her memory is linked with the bombing raid on the North Vietnamese capital 25 years ago.

She’s one of 1,600 civilian dead remembered this week in Hanoi and throughout this country to mark the anniversary of the 1972 Christmas bombings _ President Nixon’s last kick at communist North Vietnam.

On Dec. 18, 1972, an armada of American B-52s flew in formation seven miles overhead and unleashed their payloads on Hanoi. The bombings continued for 11 more days.

Stooped low inside a one-person bomb shelter, Nguyen Van Tung listened nightly as explosion after explosion broke his world into a clutter of rubble. Today, he is a volunteer who maintains a small memorial for the victims.

``The United States and Vietnam and our children should look to the future, but let’s not forget the past,″ Tung said.

It was ``Operation Linebacker II″ _ an attack aimed at winning concessions from the communists at peace talks in Paris. The campaign, coming shortly after Nixon had won a landslide election to a second term, was the biggest aerial blitz of the war.

With the fighting long over, Washington and Hanoi have now moved into a new era of friendship. But their troubled past continues to haunt.

``For those who want to forget or who do not want to recall, the candles and incense still lit on thousands of graves and altars will remind us of those 12 days and nights,″ said Doan Khue, a Communist Party Politburo member and former defense minister.

In Hanoi and the northern port city of Haiphong, the bombing was staggering. More than 1,600 civilians died, 70 U.S. airmen were killed or captured and many Americans were left to wonder what price Nixon was willing to pay for ``peace with honor.″

For the Vietnamese, it was a hailstorm of death.

``If I could have talked to President Nixon, I would have said `What were you thinking? How could you do this? You dropped bombs on our heads,‴ said 76-year-old Phuong Thi Tiem, who recalls spending days trying to dig trapped survivors out of the rubble.

``All through it we could hear people screaming under collapsed walls and bricks,″ she said. ``We tried everything to get to them, but by the time we pulled them out they were dead.″

Although the B-52s had been programmed to pinpoint strategic targets, mistakes happened.

Aiming for an air base on the outskirts of Hanoi, a load of bombs went astray and crashed down on Bac Mai hospital on Dec. 22, killing 18 hospital workers and patients.

On Christmas Day, silence fell on the ravaged city.

Thousands of people who had evacuated Hanoi began to return, believing the bombing runs were over. For Tung and his neighbor Tiem, the worst came less than 24 hours later.

``On Christmas Day so many people came back to the city because the bombing stopped,″ Tiem says. ``We never believed the United States would drop bombs on us again at Christmas.″

But the next day, the air strikes resumed with devastating results. The target was Hanoi’s central railway station. Dozens of bombs landed short, instead hitting a busy residential street, Kham Thiem.

On the day after Christmas, 283 civilians lay dead under the rubble and debris of Hanoi.

``I remember ducking in my shelter, my hands were over my head,″ Tung said, arms motioning wildly in the air.

Closing his eyes, he relived his burial in a bomb shelter that almost became his tomb.

``I shouted `I’m here, I’m here!‴ Tung recalled. Rescue workers pulled him from the shelter, his cloths shredded and one foot mangled. ``I survived. I still can’t imagine how I survived.″

A month later, on Jan. 27, 1973, North Vietnam signed the peace agreement with the United States. Within three months, all American military troops and aircraft were gone.

Nixon hailed the agreement as ``peace with honor in Vietnam.″

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