Vietnam has many special days of remembrance and celebration. Without question, though, the most celebrated of all is Tet, the lunar new year. In 1968, the North Vietnamese enemy forces decided to pull coordinated surprise attacks on many of the cities of South Vietnam. The Liberation Army hit hard with simultaneous attacks all the way from the demilitarized zone in the North to the delta in the South, which came to be known as the Tet Offensive. Every year, the Communists threatened to hit at Tet, but it never happened until 1968. The South Vietnamese and the American military were taken by surprise, and so were we.
On January 22 through March 31, 1968, a Wycliffe-sponsored literacy workshop was scheduled to be held in Kontum City, Kontum province in the highlands of Vietnam that shares borders with Laos and Cambodia. This workshop was going to be an excellent opportunity, as we needed further training from experts on improving our reading primers for Hrey children. A new-to-us method was going to be presented and explained with lectures and many valuable workshops, during which time we would be able to actually work on our primers and receive expert guidance.
We flew to the inland highland city of Kontum with our daughters, Ngiah, and his family. By then, Ngiah was our key man for the Highlander Education Program. We settled in at the Literacy Center in half of a double bungalow and began attending the extremely interesting sessions of the literacy workshop.
At midnight on January 29, we were fast asleep when suddenly the silence exploded. The Vietnamese soldiers and people were welcoming in their lunar new year with gunfire and firecrackers. We rolled over with a groan and went back to sleep. I think I developed my aversion to banging firecrackers about that time. I love the colorful sky displays on the Fourth of July but cannot appreciate the sound of firecrackers being set off just to make a loud banging noise, as it sounds to me too much like war.
At 2:15 a.m. on January 30, we were awakened again by the loud rat-a-tat-tat of machine gun fire. This definitely was not the sound of celebration. We yanked at the edge of our mosquito net that was tucked under the mattress and climbed out of bed. Still not quite awake, we hesitated, not knowing quite what was going on or what to do. Then the wail of the under-attack siren reached our ears, and we dashed into the other bedroom, snatched our two daughters from their beds, and proceeded into the kitchen. From there, we entered the other half of the double bungalow occupied by another missionary family, as the bunker was under their bedroom floor. Dick and Lillian Phillips had already gathered their three small children and opened the trap door. We all scrambled down the steps into the bunker.
We were surrounded by the loud, unmistakable noises of war. For a second, we sat stunned and just stared at each other. Suddenly, our almost five-year old-daughter Janice sat up straight and, lifting her arms with the palms of her little hands facing us, instructed in a loud voice, “Now, we’re not going to think about the emeny but only about Jesus!”
War such as we had never heard raged above us. The enemy had attacked the military facility near the Workshop Center. The Tet Offensive 1968 had begun.
By 6:00 a.m., all was quiet, so we climbed out of the bunker and stumbled back to bed. At 7:00 a.m., a Huey helicopter landed in our front yard, waking us up. We were at the door in an instant to the knock of an American colonel who came by to see if we had any casualties. We were glad to report that no one had been hurt. He told us it had been a fierce attack, but they had held off the enemy all night. He warned us to stay at the center and not go into town because there might be snipers around.
Since it was a holiday, we had no servants, so I washed some clothes. At noon, Oliver, another missionary couple, and I were almost finished hanging our wash on the line when bullets started literally zinging past our heads. We ran into the house, wondering what would happen next. Oliver and Dick Phillips were standing at a picture window when a bullet whizzed past them, went through an inside wall, and lodged in a door on the opposite side of the wall. We quickly got our children, grabbed some lunch from the kitchen, and scrambled back down into the bunker. At 3:00 p.m., we went upstairs to pack our language materials and some clothing in case we were evacuated.
We had previously invited another missionary couple over for the evening meal. I began to make preparations for their visit, and by 6:00 p.m., everything was ready. I even had time to make a lime meringue pie. (There were no lemons in Vietnam.) Suddenly, a helicopter landed in the front yard again, and several soldiers rushed out of the chopper with their M16s facing in all directions. Then, out jumped the chaplain, who told us we had to leave at once, as the area was under attack from the North Vietnamese army. This man had kindly convinced his commander to send a chopper for us. At first, the men on the chopper said they would take none of our tribal people. They were understandably wary of anyone but Westerners. When we insisted that we would not leave without them, they relented. We explained that we had brought these tribal people here to assist us and to leave them behind was unthinkable, as it would have meant their certain death. All the women and children were taken first, leaving all the men behind.
This was my first chopper ride. I recall the strange sensation of being literally lifted up. A Scripture verse came to my mind, which described just that: “The eternal God is your refuge, and underneath are the everlasting arms” (Deuteronomy 33:27). I was so concentrating on this truth that I forgot to worry about our situation. In minutes, though, we gently put down and quickly exited the chopper. The Special Forces MACV compound was almost right next door to the Literacy Center.
Suddenly, American soldiers came toward us, handing us any food provisions they happened to get their hands on. Those American guys looked at us somewhat astonished, obviously surprised to have women and children suddenly appear in their midst at such a time. As for us, we were grateful and touched by their concern and thoughtful generosity. Some of the things they gave us were cans of tuna fish, chips, ripe olives, canned fruit, and peanut butter. We were then assigned and escorted to officer’s quarters after being shown our assigned bunkers. Meanwhile, the chopper had gone back to the Literacy Center to get the men. No sooner had they returned, the wail of the siren sounded, and we all had to scurry to our bunkers.
Our bunker was not the usual underground kind but was above ground, made of sandbags with a doorway on one side. It was narrow, and we had to keep our knees bent as we sat with our backs against one side. We each held a daughter. There were several other missionaries in the bunker with us while other missionaries and tribal language helpers were in different bunkers. Altogether there were, as I remember, twenty-five adults and twenty-one children which included tribal helpers and their families.
For a solid twelve hours, the enemy was kept at bay. In addition to the sound of automatic weapons, mortars, and rockets exploding, we experienced a new nerve-racking sound. When an illumination flare was sent up to detect enemy positions, it made a terrifically loud, bone-chilling screech. We sat huddled together through the long night with these loud, unnerving sounds of war all around us.
We ate some of the rather interesting assortment of food that we had received upon our arrival. Eventually, the children went to sleep. We adults occasionally dozed off, and in between dozing and waking, we prayed a lot. The situation was tense and scary. We could only wait to see what would happen. God’s Word came to my rescue and thankfully bolstered my faith.
He who dwells in the secret place of the Most High shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty. I will say to the Lord, “He is my refuge and my fortress; My God, in Him I will trust. —Psalm 91: 1–2
Oliver remembered a different verse that revitalized his trust during this dangerous situation.
A thousand may fall at your side, and ten thousand at your right hand, but it shall not come near you. —Psalm 91:7
An hour before dawn, things were still going strong. Even the chaplain and the cook were called out to the firing line. At one point, the chaplain checked on us and warned us to keep clear of the doorways. If the enemy overran the camp, the chaplain was hoping they would think the bunkers were empty. He was concerned that otherwise they would throw in grenades. The tenseness of the situation was palpable. Finally, full air support arrived and defeated the enemy just in time. We were told that in only a half hour more of fighting, the camp would have been overrun. As it was, the perimeter had been broken through a couple of times during the night.
The all-clear siren brought us out of our bunkers to stretch and enjoy the bright, warm sunshine. The enemy always withdrew during the daylight hours. We were treated to some delicious food in the dining hall, especially scrumptious steaks! It was surreal.
Oliver and some of the other missionary fellows wanted to return to the center to rescue some things. They were driven there in a military truck. A couple of the houses were in shambles. Our house was still intact. Fearing the possibility of booby traps, Oliver found a long pole and reached in and grabbed a suitcase near the door. He noticed that our dinner was still on the table, untouched. There was a pile of clothing thrown in the middle of the floor. The North Vietnamese had taken some clothing, our mosquito nets, and some cans of juice. Oliver grabbed some things and ran to the truck that brought them all back to the MACV compound at about 6:00 p.m. Just as they drove into the gate, the siren sounded once again, and we ran to our assigned bunkers for another night, January 31, of intense fighting. The enemy was attacking in human waves and was only stopped by the Americans aiming their big guns at them point blank. Still, more came.
We were awed by the sound of a C47 gunship that arrived, equipped with Gatling guns that could put a 50mm caliber bullet in every square foot the size of a football field in one minute. This gunship sounded like the roar of a huge animal. No wonder they were dubbed “Dragon Ships” and sometimes “Puff the Magic Dragon.” We huddled together in the bunker in amazed astonishment!
When day dawned, we crawled out of our bunkers and once again enjoyed American military hospitality. Children are amazing. I noticed that some of them were playing a game of fighting, not between cowboys and Indians, but between GIs and VCs in the sand around the bunkers.
That afternoon, February 1, transportation was provided for us. We all climbed into the back of American military trucks, and we were driven through the streets of Kontum in an armed military convoy. Kontum had truly suffered the ravages of war. The marketplace and half of the city was destroyed. We arrived at the Kontum airport, which was in shambles. There was broken glass everywhere. All of us missionaries with our tribal assistants waited for an Air America plane to pick us up. Soon the C47 arrived, flown by an Air America pilot who had volunteered to rescue us. We seated ourselves in the sling seats along the sides of the plane and were flown to the coastal city of Nha Trang, where we were once again taken in an armed convoy, this time to the American army base, Camp McDermott.
There we learned that some missionaries in Banmethuot had been murdered, and others had been captured. It is hard to express the sorrow we felt for these dear friends who had come to Vietnam to serve, minister, and help people. We grieved with their loved ones. Eventually, we heard some of the cruel details of what had happened to each of the martyrs, which distressed us immensely!
One could ask the question, “Why?” Yet the question I pondered was whether or not Christ had fulfilled his promise to be with them, as they had been killed. Was He with them? Of course He was! But He was not with them as we think He should have been to keep them alive as He had done for us and for many others. And He could have done just that, of course. It is impossible for us to know what these innocent people experienced in their last painful moments of life on Earth, but this I believe with unshakeable certainty: Christ was with them in their last moments of unbelievable shock and pain, and then they were with Him as He welcomed them home.
We read in Scripture of so many others who died as martyrs. Think of John the Baptist who was imprisoned for daring to speak out against King Herod for his unlawful marriage. Herod’s wife got her revenge when drunken Herod, being pleased with the dance performance of the daughter of his wife, promised her anything her heart desired. The girl’s mother advised her to request the head of John the Baptist. Imagine John, there in a prison dungeon. Suddenly, guards arrive, and he is taken out and beheaded. There is no record of the last moments of this illustrious, faithful servant of God. We read in Scripture of many others of God’s faithful servants who were also summarily executed.
There is one very interesting account in the Bible, though, that gives one pause. Stephen, a deacon of the early church, had the luxury of preaching a clear, impassioned sermon of devastating truth before he died the painful death of stoning by an angry mob. This time, we get a glimpse of someone’s last moments on Earth before being so unjustly killed:
When they heard these things, they were cut to the heart, and they gnashed at him with their teeth. But he, being full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God, and said, “Look! I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” Then they cried out with a loud voice, stopped their ears, and ran at him with one accord; and they cast him out of the city and stoned him. And the witnesses laid down their clothes at the feet of a young man named Saul. And they stoned Stephen as he was calling on God and saying, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Then he knelt down and cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not charge them with this sin.” And when he had said this, he fell asleep. —Acts 7:54–60
Such I believe was the caliber of the six selfless missionaries who were mercilessly and senselessly murdered during the 1968 Tet offensive. There were two other missionaries captured at that time who died after suffering months of sickness, mistreatment, malnutrition, and hardship on lonely, wet jungle trails. There were three missionaries from as far back as 1962 who had been captured and never seen or heard from again. In 1963, two missionaries and a child were murdered on the road. Then in 1966, one of our WEC missionaries, John Haywood, was gunned down while on an errand of mercy. These martyrs were the Stephens of that war who saw the heavens open and Christ standing to welcome them home.
Camp McDermott in Nha Trang was a whole new experience for us. We lived there for a month in Quonset huts lined with double bunks. We put two double bunks together with our girls on the bottom and us on the top, as this would give them more protection, and we could just jump down and grab them if necessary. And it was necessary a couple of times. The siren would wail, and we had to quickly walk a short distance to large underground bunkers. However, there was a problem. Since we were obviously not American soldiers, we could be mistaken for the enemy and get shot. We were warned therefore to not leave our huts when the siren sounded until an armed guard came to escort us to the bunkers. For the most part, we felt confident that we were pretty safe at Camp McDermott. Still, my legs felt weak and shaky whenever we had to hurry to a bunker, which was not the case in the much more dangerous situation we had been in at Kontum.
Later, we learned of how we had again been saved from certain death at Kontum. There were six 122mm rockets discovered that were set to hit the MACV compound where we were huddled together in bunkers. However, for some unknown reason, the timing device failed to function.
We enjoyed the food at Camp McDermott. Perhaps soldiers sometimes complain, but I was pleased with the food we were served, with much of it flown in from the United States. Our children especially loved the seemingly endless supply of chocolate milk.
Some stateside mission leaders of various groups were understandably concerned about everyone’s safety. We were concerned about our safety, too. However, not one missionary that we knew of was willing to leave Vietnam in 1968, as we sensed it was not time for that yet. So we stayed.
Oliver often prayed, “Dear Lord, thwart the enemy’s plans.” We had to smile when Jeanette took up the refrain and prayed fervently, “Dear Lord, swat the enemy!” That is exactly what had happened in 1968. The enemy had been repelled, the South Vietnamese Republic held, and life continued pretty much as before. But by now, though, we were reluctantly beginning to suspect the day would eventually come when we would have to leave. How we dreaded the thought of South Vietnam falling to atheistic communism. Meanwhile, we were able to carry on with our work.
A two-story house was rented in the city of Nha Trang. We all went there, where we were assigned bedrooms, and the Wycliffe Literacy Workshop continued to function beautifully. Our coworker, Pam Brady, even joined us from Danang and she kindly helped keep the children busy while we adults attended workshops and worked on our primers. We received tremendous, valuable training and returned to Danang in July of 1968, where life was back to normal, Vietnam style. We were all safe and busy at home once again in Danang.
Excerpted from "Not An Empty Promise" by Joyce Anne Trebilco. Copyright © 0 by Joyce Anne Trebilco. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.