Pham Van Son was one of the rare few historians in South Vietnam before 1975. His masterpiece was Việt Sử Toàn Thư–Complete History of Vietnam.
I had the privilege to work under him from 1958 to 1960. He was at the time a major and commandant of the School of Army Intelligence and Psychological Warfare at Cay Mai; I was a first lieutenant instructor and security officer of the school. It was during that period that he edited, re-issued, and re-named his work Việt Sử Tân Biên -History of Vietnam, New Version.
I decided to help him out in my spare time. He introduced me to librarian Le Ngoc Tru at the National Library -located at Gia Long Street- to be instructed in the search for documents. Le Ngoc Tru, who was also a scholar and professor at the Saigon College of Liberal Arts, showed me many documents and French books about the Trinh Nguyen War. These and other important documents helped Pham Van Son to edit his work.
In 1960, the Cay Mai School became the Army Intelligence School while Psychological Warfare was taught at the newly built School of Psychological Warfare. Major Pham Van Son was transferred to the Joint General Staff of the Republic of Vietnam Armed Forces (JGS RVNAF) as its Head of the Military History Branch. He was gradually promoted to Colonel and kept this rank until the fall of South Vietnam.
I think that under his expertise and direction, the Military History Branch of the RVNAF wrote several priceless volumes about the modern Vietnamese conflict from 1954 onward. Pham Van Son was very cautious, unlikely to be rash in his duty and unlikely to let his subordinates be rash. He often told me, “Try to be as accurate and precise as possible so that what you write about history would be of value. The more precise your gathering of facts, relics, and documents, the easier their comparison, study, and analysis would be.” That was his strict and careful way of working. It was no wonder that in 1972, when the An Loc battle was still raging with fights going on street by street, section by section between the South Vietnamese and the communists, when the terrible shelling of the enemy had not subsided yet, when no helicopter was able to land in An Loc without the risk of being blown apart, I witnessed his being present there to try to understand the truth about this violent battle.
At that time, as the Chief of Intelligence Staff of the Operational Field Command of General Le Van Hung, I supplied Col. Son with documents and red hot, precise and accurate, “live” facts. But in order to write more accurately, he spent one night with me in underground shelters, stayed awake to witness the shelling of the enemy right above and around us while asking details about the data in the daily field report including documents and interrogation reports from prisoners caught in the earlier battles.
After he left An Loc, not long after the town was freed, I went to the JGS/RVNAF to see him only to be told that he had gone to Quang Tri to do the same thing he did in An Loc. Therefore, in order to write about the conflict, he and his subordinates in the Military History Branch were present at major battles to understand the facts.
The above details would allow the reader to realize the important nature of this true historian -Col. Son- well known among the South Vietnamese intelligentsia before I tell the story of his miserable death in the concentration camp under the ruthless regime of the Vietnamese communists.
On April 30, 1975, President Duong Van Minh surrendered to the northern communists. The RVNAF was dissolved and a number of generals and officers committed suicide. All the remaining RVNAF officers were sent to reeducation camps along with officials of the Police department, government officials and politicians from various South Vietnamese parties.
A year later, the communists transferred all those they considered as owing them ‘the greatest debt of blood” to concentration camps located deep in the forests of the highlands of North Vietnam to do hard labor. Many officers and public officials were kept in southern concentration camps.
In June 1976, I was among the first group of prisoners that was moved north, stashed in the hold of small ships. After four days and nights, the latter docked at Ben Thuy in the port of Vinh. By midnight, we were transferred on land and stuffed in train wagons designed to transport cattle in direction of the northern highlands.
On June 15, 1976 -the only date I remembered throughout my 13-year-incarceration and exactly one year from the time I surrendered at Don Bosco School in Go Vap- in the wagon mentioned above, through a peephole, I saw the Bach Mai Hospital and Hang Co train station, landmarks I had read about in Tu Luc Van Doan’ novels when I was a student. Two senior officers suffocated in the locomotive between Viet Tri and Yen Bai. From that time onward, hundreds of prisoners from the same fateful train had died in the northern reeducation camps without ever seeing their native south again… Among those was Colonel Pham Van Son.
About a thousand prisoners stepped out at the Yen Bai train station. From there, Molotova trucks were used to move them to the Son La reeducation camp, which was under the control of North Vietnamese Army units. I was interned there for one year before being transferred to a Cong An (Security Police) jail, also in Son La for two years.
When the Sino-Vietnamese War broke out in 1979, all of us–political prisoners–from the northern and northwestern camps were moved to regions west and southwest of Hanoi, like Tan Lap (Vinh Phu), Nam Ha (Nam Dinh), Thanh Phong (Thanh Hoa, Nghe An)… The move changed our lives from bad to worse, from hungry to hungrier. Prisoners did not even have two feet of space to lay down, forcing them to rest on their sides after a full day of work. Jails were cramped, poorly lit, smelly, and suffocating, causing many of us to get sick.
Most of us were transferred to Tan Lap under the control of Cong An Lt. Col. Nguyen Thuy, a cadre with minimal education who loved to read To Huu’s and Huy Can’s poetry but whose mind was wicked beyond belief.
Tan Lap was a group of camps consisting of a main camp and many sub-camps, named from K1 to K7, scattered on both sides of a branch of the Lo River. We arrived at Tan Lap when the weather started to get cold. After a day of hard labor, we were taken to the river to take a bath before returning to the camp. It was there that we saw the misery that fell over us because we took our bath naked. While newly transferred inmates still had some bulk, those who had been in K2 camps for a few years only had skin over bones. When we took our bath, we all shivered because of the weather and cold water.
The reason I mention this is to show that the Tan Lap concentration camp dealt with inmates worse than any other camp that we had gone through, although we realized that jails were for the communists the most secretive and less bloody way to kill prisoners. They killed them mostly through unrelenting hard labor, chronic starvation, and illnesses. No one had escaped his fate, which came in many ways at any time. Political prisoners died at a higher rate there than at any other camp. At least one or two prisoners died at K2 camp each day in the fall of 1979 and winter of 1980. More than 200 inmates visited the infirmary daily not to seek treatment, but to be examined and certified as sick so that they did not have to do labor that day. No medication or treatment was available, although they were really sick and needed treatment and possible hospitalization.
It was under these terrible conditions that I once again met Col. Son. I witnessed with my own eyes his last miserable days. An afternoon about one month after my arrival at Tan Lap, an inmate and I were waiting to receive the daily share of rice and food for all inmates in our section. While wandering along the corridor, I noticed a man in a small room adjacent to the kitchen. Although I recognized him, I still could not believe my eyes.
He was Col. Pham Van Son, my former commander. He was only a silent shadow, a soon decaying body, immobile behind an iron-grilled window of an isolation-room, although his eyes were as bright as ever. He appeared like a bright mind, looking at changing and turbulent events and deriving incisive observations with deep thinking. His bright eyes -the windows of his soul-told me so.
He looked at me and I looked at him. All of the sudden, the past seemed to resurrect itself; whether by joy or surprise, I immediately let go,
One single word followed by silence. I did not know what else to say or do when we were powerless in the face of our miserable condition. His eyes seemed to look brighter for he had recognized me. On the already changed and lumpy face, I saw a smile. Although he saw my mood, he did not say a word.
Without a sign, he left the window and opened wide the partly opened door. He stood there, straight like in his kingdom, although it was relatively small, cold, and solitary. With him standing tall and straight in this small place, he conveyed to me that he had solved a difficult problem or nurtured a big idea in him. I could not be wrong because on many occasions in the past I had looked into his eyes and body position to guess what he would want me to do. This time again, I could sense his thinking like in the past.
As I tried to approach him, he shook his head. It was then that I realized that a deadly disease was ravaging his body.
He stood straight, his hands joined in front of him with fingers crossed, and looked at me without saying a word. It was cold that day. But it was not because of the cold weather that he covered his head with a white cloth, which had turned yellow, dirty and speckled with blood and pus. The piece of cloth covered his neck leaving only the eyes, nose, mouth, and parts of his cheeks exposed. He was only trying to cover the ulcerations on his face caused by his disease. His body was thin but he appeared bulky because of the many layers of clothing he wore. He had on the outside an old military raincoat that was torn at a few places. His feet were bandaged with a few torn rags, full of dust and stained with blood and pus.
All his body was covered except for parts of his face and hands. He did not have the simple and usual ulcerations that we all were familiar with. His nose was red and shiny. So were his cheeks, which were covered with ulcerations. His eyelashes were gone. Ulcerations were also noted on his hands with contractures of the fingers and his nails were missing. He had end-stage leprosy. Because of lack of medications and poor hygienic conditions, his disease had progressed rapidly. This explained how he had become disabled only after four years of incarceration and then placed on “isolation.”
Maybe they wanted to isolate him for health reason. But, being on isolation also meant he could only get out when inmates were off to do their labor, therefore no one knew about his true condition, except him. I looked at him for a long time, full of compassion but not knowing what to do or say. The once serious high-level officer who was always neatly dressed had become a disabled person like any crippled person one could see at certain places. My eyes expressed compassion for him. Once again, he grinned revealing in the process a bucked tooth, as if he wanted to say, “I have accepted my fate and my spirit had escaped my small crippled body. You do not have to commiserate for me.”
He then looked at me deeply while expressing his sympathy. He probably remembered his young officer of yesteryears, single, green, but intelligent and fast, whose work had pleased him, but who also had to be straightened out. Today, he faced an exhausted, emaciated person in ragged clothing with sunken eyeballs due to starvation and lack of sleep–someone who did not know what to do in this camp and in the future.
I did not know what else to do during this miserable encounter when my co-worker who was looking for me found me “talking” to Col. Son. He told me that the bucket of rice was ready and waiting in the courtyard to be delivered to the inmates. I stood there for one minute more then followed him. I bid good-bye to Colonel Son, but he did not react. I turned around, tremendously sad, and followed my co-worker. The latter mentioned:
-“That was Colonel Son. He has untreatable disease, asthma, heart disease and tuberculosis. He does not talk to anyone.”
-“He was my old boss,” I answered curtly.
I was absent-minded the rest of the day because of the many thoughts that crossed my mind. I could not sleep that night. I thought about him and my own incarceration. Surely during our eye conversation that afternoon, he had filled me in a lot about his plight and mine. I knew he had escaped from his small and diseased body and led his spirit to a peaceful realm as a Catholic who believed in the fate assigned to him by his Creator. Besides, he no longer was a simple historian or a simple officer, but had become a philosopher who knew everything about his people and country. His mind had escaped out of his body to a larger realm or at least hovered over the whole Vietnam.
It was obvious he had really found for himself a safe way out of this extremely miserable existence: a broken, painful, and ulcerated body due to an intractable disease; starvation and isolation in an area to the point of becoming mute. Many months of terrible physical pain suffered at every minute and second had made him–a quiet man with deep knowledge–a philosopher. At least, he had escaped from his suffering and to his own salvation. If he had escaped from communist slavery and if his crippled body had allowed it, maybe his encyclopedic mind would have kept him forever in everyone’s because it would have helped us [to] understand the history of Vietnam in a precise, accurate manner, as to why we had to suffer interminably through a lengthy and devastating conflict. Further, he could have advised us about a philosophy derived from his personal experience, allowing us to find peace in this difficult and painful existence.
I was somewhat less worried about him, because I knew that despite having lost in life, he was victorious in his own self. Through our eyes’ conversation, he told me he empathized with me because he knew I was clueless and still lurking in exile and hell. I had no other thought about that day and the day after besides being afraid of hard labor by day and of cold and hunger by night. My mind and thoughts were similar to water balloons.
I had to meet him again to learn from his example, to understand and accept the tearing pain that shot through my spine, to ponder on life in order to find the best way to move on. From that time onward, I decided whenever feasible to look for him, because the jail’s cadres forbade anyone to go close to the isolation area. For many days in a row, I followed the meal team so I could hang around the isolation room but had to come back empty handed each time.
Then one evening, I saw him behind the window gazing at an area above the camp’s wall. In order to take a closer look at him, I took a few steps then stopped. His eyes remained focused on that direction for a long time. At that spot, the sun had set, the sky had faded away, light and pinkish clouds gently moved around before the wind suddenly broke them apart. I saw him tremble.
I asked myself whether I had erred in my impressions about him the last time around. Without further delay, I approached him; standing in the courtyard I saluted him and asked:
– “Good evening, Sir. How are you?”
He looked at me, shook his head but did not answer. His eyes looked at the area where clouds just broke away, dimmed a while like they were resting, then brightened again before turning straight at me.
O, Teacher! I understand now. I know now what you think and want from me. I felt some pain in my heart. Friends, do I have to tell you about these things? Do you believe that I will speak the truth from my heart? Well, let me tell you.
He had accepted his fate for more than anyone else he knew about his health condition. He was only afraid that like these frail clouds, he too would disappear rapidly. Time was no longer an important matter for him. The light in his heart was dimming, but the bright fire in his mind had no way to escape yet. The four walls of the jail were harsh; the dream he had nurtured for a long time would disappear too. He was not afraid that his body would dissolve, but that his dream would disappear, I thought so.
When he turned his eyes to me, I realized he would like to assign something to me -once I got out of this jail- like writing whatever he wanted to leave to posterity. If this were true, I am afraid I would not be able to do it. Although I knew him, I did not understand the details and the depth of his thoughts.
How would I know what he thought -what he thought must be big, complex, and profound. How would I know what he knew, or wanted to write? In addition, they were the things he had fought so hard to get while he was fighting against illness and himself and suffered for many years, physically and mentally. They were his property. How could I empathize with all these feelings when my tolerance had its own limits? How could I translate them into words?
His field was history. In this field, if I knew anything about it, with my knowledge I could barely substitute for him and write the complex, elegant, and deep topics related to history in these troublesome times. If I had the time to gather his experiences, how long would it have taken? Even if I had dedicated all my life, I would not be able to get them. The other day, I had called him “Teacher” to avoid addressing him by his former rank, which was no longer appropriate. Today, I still called him “Teacher.” To be truthful about it, I did not deserve to be his student. I had to confess my impotence.
His hope of saving his life was slim, his hope of saving his knowledge was not possible. And dust would return to dust. Suddenly I felt tears running down my cheeks.
He looked at me, took a deep breath, and silently turned away.
I returned to my jail room sad and tired. I wanted to make him happy, to fulfill my duty to my beloved leader, especially at a time when he was in deep despair. But I knew I was not qualified to complete the assignment he gave to me. From then on, I lost sleep many nights in a row. Whether he liked it or not, I had expressed my sympathy to him. He knew his health was winding down and he could not summarize whatever useful in his brain during this period of pain. His last wish to assign that job to someone else was also extinguished. His solitude was thus complete. The world had turned its back to him. Only the Creator was his last hope and savior. Men were no longer part of the equation.
Not long afterwards, the jail’s cadres decided to show a movie outdoors one evening for all inmates to watch. That night, the sky was bright with stars although there was some winter mist. More than 1,000 inmates sat in the large field in areas assigned according to their companies. They, however, could take toilet-breaks in designated places; one of them was close to Col. Son’s ‘isolation cell”, in the camp kitchen’s boundaries.
The occasion proved to be propitious to me. The movie -I do not remember its title- was going on for about an hour when I decided to head toward the “setting toilet” to take my break. Seeing no one, I took a few more steps before stopping. I was about ten steps away from Col. Son’s cell. I did not want to meet him, just to see him. And I saw him. He was standing besides the window looking at the starlit sky. Although it was late, almost midnight, he was still up and looking at the sky and moon.
I knew more about him that night. I watched him for a long time and lest cadres would catch me, I returned to sit with the other inmates. I had, however, no interest in watching the rest of the movie. I just looked at the stars, the lightly colored and remote moon while cold dew was falling. I felt very sad.
The moon was the domain of Han Mac Tu; its light and curved shape formed the basis of Han Mac Tu’s poetry, not for him. He was not a poet, but a historian. While the moon had incited Han Mac Tu to write poetry, it had awakened Col. Son to let him feel his solitude more profoundly. Poet Han Mac Tu, also infected with leprosy, was still able to express and write what he wanted to say or write, under the loving eyes of his lover during the last days of his life. He was luckier than historian Pham Van Son, who did not have anyone by his side during his last hours and [he] was physically isolated and denied affection and spiritual needs.
In the old times, even biblical King Hezekiah from Israel who had leprosy for more than a decade was not as lonely as him, for the king still living in his castle was served by hundreds of beautiful maids.
Only one man was as lonely as Col. Son. He was a real physician described in the realistic novel “Man Who Walks Alone”, who sacrificed his life to care for lepers in a remote location with his knowledge and dedication until one day when he too acquired the disease. When he returned to his country, he was shunned, forgotten, and became solitary like a traveler in a desert. At least, this physician had completed his godly work and had time to reflect about life.
As for him, our historian, he was a lonely man all his life time. People forgot about him, moon and stars were remote from him. He was the most solitary man on earth during the last minutes of his life. What would this moonlit sky or other moonlit skies allow him to see except the solitude of the remaining part of his life? In addition, he would see his despair for not being able to complete his work grow and ultimately harass him. Would staying awake under this moonlit sky be helpful to him?
Man’s feelings are therefore complex even toward the most usual and simplest thing.
The first time I met him, I thought he was at peace with himself because he had chosen a way, a philosophy. I thus felt good for him. Now, I felt he was still worried in the face of simple matters. My anxiety rose for him. I was unrealistic and simple-minded the other day because I had raised his solitude level to the highest point by shedding inopportune and inappropriate tears.
One extra drop of water that spilled the vase.
I should have held my tears back and looked for ways to console him. Maybe if hope, even small, were present, it could warm up his heart and let him feel that he was not lonely, but meant a lot to everyone. Maybe he would have felt peaceful that way. Even if death came to him, his heart would have warmed up.
That worry had become a constant regret for me the last fifteen years because I could not confide to anyone.
At that time, I silently prayed God to let the communists realize the severity of his disease so that they would release him to his family. That was the only way to save him and the dream he had nurtured for so many years.
I lost hope for the will of Heaven was not that of men. The communists only destroyed adversarial men of talent; they were not light-handed toward anyone.
Whatever would happen did happen.
One early morning in 1980 while winter was still around, a cold rain came down as inmates were preparing to get out of camp to do their labor. At that time, I was working in the sawing department. Our workplace consisted of two rows of thatched huts located about twenty feet from the entrance gate. Each team had two inmates, whose job was to manually saw big tree trunks into smaller planks to be used to make chairs, walls, floors, and caskets.
Around 9.30 or 10 a.m., I went to get our extra share of cassava–the sawing team, deemed as doing heavy work, occasionally received extra food during breaks–when a co-worker told me,
Sad news meant that someone had passed away and that we must saw extra planks to make a casket to bury our friend -something we did not like but were willing to do to express our affection for the deceased. Who knows, it would be our own turn one of these days. I wanted to ask the name of the fellow, but he told me,
I returned to my place and he followed me, sat down and murmured:
-“Colonel Son, your chief has passed away.”
Surprised as if someone had thrown a bucket of cold water on my face, I asked,
-“When did he die?”
He sadly recounted the story he had just heard in the kitchen.
-“This morning, after inmates had gone to work, “they” ordered him to go to the courtyard to bring charcoal to the kitchen like the day before. No one knew how many baskets of coal he had carried before he became exhausted, spat blood, and collapsed. When they heard about it, they ordered him brought to the infirmary where he died a few minutes later. All the pus and blood from his ulcerated body appeared to have seeped out…”
-“By this time, his body should be at the morgue.”
He left without saying anything else.
I was like a mindless person. I then understood.
For a long time, a truck had been occasionally seen bringing in broken pieces of charcoal, the largest about the size of a fist, to be used as fire fuel in the kitchen. Each time, the truck dumped the charcoal on the courtyard in front of the kitchen entrance. The cadres then ordered Son to carry it into the kitchen every day, except in case of rain when he would get help. Thus, even though he suffered from end stage leprosy, he still had to do manual work until he faded away. That day, he dropped dead like tens of thousands other victims under this sophisticatedly savage policy of communist concentration camps.
After the break, everyone in the sawing camp knew of the miserable death of Colonel Son. He passed away taking with him his sacrifice and knowledge that no one knew existed in him.
We were ordered to make his casket.
I took the order with tears in my eyes. This was just something to repay you, my old respected and beloved “Teacher.”
Van Nguyen Duong