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40 Years Later, Vietnam Remembers the 'Christmas Bombing'

US bombing campaign on the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam) lasting from 18 to 29 December 1972 during Vietnam War.
US bombing campaign on the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam) lasting from 18 to 29 December 1972 during Vietnam War.

Forty years ago last month, the United States launched the last major offensive of the Vietnam War in an effort to push the North Vietnamese government back to stalled peace talks. Those talks resumed just days after the 1972 Christmas bombings of Hanoi and Haiphong ended. Less than a month later, January 27, 1973, a peace accord was signed, ending U.S. military action in Vietnam.

But the offensive left a battered city. Vietnam says about 1,600 people died in nearly two weeks of bombing.

Nguyen Van Cau remembers returning to his home in Hanoi on December 26th, 1972, to find it in ruins.

Cau, now 81, found only half of his wife’s body in the wreckage. She was wearing a red pull-over. The only part of his son still intact was his leg, which Cau recognized from the scar left by an accident the previous year.

Hanoi has rebuilt since then and Vietnam now does bustling trade with the United States. But three decades of war – first with France and then the United States -- left hundreds of thousands of tons of unexploded ordnance across the country. Each year scores of people are killed or maimed when they stumble across old weapons.

Bomb clean-up effort

Over the past two decades, the United States and Vietnam have combined efforts to remove those weapons.

Vietnam War veteran Chuck Searcy says more needs to be done to protect people.

Searcy is co-founder of Project Renew, an organization helping communities in central Vietnam manage mine clearance. He notes the Ministry of Defense has often said it will take 100 years and billions of dollars to clean up every bomb and mine.

But Searcy says that kind of thinking needs to change and efforts must include more education to help people avoid the hazards.

“It won’t take 100 years, it won’t take a thousand years because it will never be done and it does not need to be done,” Searcy said. “The items that are really dangerous can be better managed, and the response required to deal with those, (and) that combined with teaching the children and the adults how to be safe and how to report this ordnance when it’s found.”

Aid agencies in Vietnam estimate that since the war ended, 100,000 people have been injured or killed by old bombs. In December, four children died in Vinh Long province, in southern Vietnam, when an old mortar shell exploded.

Over $80 million spent so far

Since 1989, the U.S. government has spent more than $80 million to remove unexploded ordnance in Vietnam and help its victims. Most of the money pays for work by groups like Project Renew and the Mines Advisory Group.

Project Renew operates in Quang Tri province, the most heavily bombed area during the war. Searcy says more than 80 percent of the province is still littered with unexploded ordnance, compared with 20 percent of rest of the country.

'"Before we started our project there did seem to be sort of sad acceptance of the probability that people would continue to be killed and injured by bombs and mines. It was just a fact of life,” he said.

“But over the years as we’ve promoted the public education, mine awareness program, and taught the children and the adults that there are ways they can be safe and they can avoid accidents and injuries and death."

Since the start of Project Renew almost 12 years ago, the number of accidents in the area has dropped to about 10 a year, from around 50.

Searcy says the projects work with existing Vietnamese institutions like the Women’s Union, Youth Union and health services. It also cooperates with the military so it can easily go into other provinces to help out. At the moment, only a few provinces have the capacity to deal with unexploded ordnance.

As Vietnam marks the anniversary of the end of war with the United States, Searcy says it is a good opportunity to raise awareness of the threat posed by unexploded ordnance. The problem has gone on too long, he says, but it is never too late to end it. ((Signed))

(This story adds background and context information to an original version issued Dec. 18, 2012)