Tragedy and triumph

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A monument for people who died in the bombing campaign on Kham Thien Street in Hanoi. The so-called "˜Christmas bombings' by the Americans on the night of December 26, 1972, killed nearly 300 residents here and injured hundreds of others.

Kham Thien Street a densely-populated area in Hanoi's Dong Da District was extraordinarily busy on Boxing Day, the day after Christmas.

People flocked to this 1.2km-long street, not for clothes shopping or cinema that it is popular for, but to share the agony of many families who lost their most loved ones 40 years ago.

The peak of the so-called "Christmas bombings" by the Americans claimed the lives of nearly 300 residents here and injured hundreds of others on the night of December 26, 1972. More than 500 houses were destroyed and 1,200 others were badly damaged.

Fifty-six children were killed and 178 became orphans after that night.

For 80-year-old Nguyen Van Cau, the memory is as vivid as yesterday although four decades have passed.

He lost 5 family members his wife, his son, his brother and two nieces in the most dastardly attacks launched by the US army during the Vietnam War.

"The big bomb shelter where my wife, my son and about 40 others were hiding was hit by five bombs. People were all killed and not in one piece," Cau said as tears caroused down his wrinkled cheeks.

"I only found the upper body of my wife in her favorite red cardigan and one leg of my son which had a scar from a burn earlier."

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The 12-day Operation Linebacker II was launched by US President Richard Nixon on 18th December 1972 to show his commitment to the southern regime and put pressure on the Government of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam when peace negotiations were disrupted.

According to Earl Tilford's book "Crosswinds: The Air Force's Setup in Vietnam," more than 200 B-52 bombers were deployed over Hanoi and Hai Phong with the company of hundreds of escort fighters and radar-jamming aircraft in an unprecedented use of large numbers of B-52s.

Contrary to US National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger's "peace is at hand" statement made on  October 26, believed to have helped Nixon win his second presidential term, the Americans dropped about 40,000 tons of bombs in northern Vietnam over the 12 days.

About 700 B-52 sorties and 4,000 tactic aircraft ones were dispatched to carpet-bomb the north, and the capital and the northern port city were severely devastated as a result. Radio stations, railway infrastructure, bridges, airports, industrial and civilian targets including Bach Mai Hospital and Kham Thien Street were bombed.

Nguyen Van Cau escaped the death as he was on mission as a paramilitary member outside Kham Thien Street but hundreds of others were not that lucky.

Cau's wife and their four children had evacuated to the outskirts of Hanoi but she returned with their elder son on Christmas Day.

"She wanted to get back to work to get some money for the upcoming Tet [Vietnamese New Year]. Also we did not expect that the Americans were going to bomb Kham Thien," said Cau. "There were no military targets in this street and the only possible target nearby Hanoi Railway Station had already been bombed on  December 21."

Do Thi Vien, now 60, also came back to the street for Christmas while the rest of her family stayed at the evacuation site.

"Luckily I jumped right into an individual bomb shelter on the pavement when the siren went off. If I had run to the big bomb shelter in the street, I would have died with many dozens of people there," she said.

A few hours later, the busy street was reduced to rubble.

According to both Cau and Vien, the real death tolls should be much higher than the reported 287 dead civilians.

"The official casualties were based on the bodies which were identified and reports by surviving family members. Many others were deformed and there were a lot of people passing by, given Kham Thien was one of the main streets," said Vien.

The woman remembered that all the houses left after the bombings had their doors removed as people used them to carry retrieved bodies.

"Separate parts of unidentified dead bodies were put in a pile in the market and the pile was even higher than a rooftop," she said.

American pop singer Joan Baez happened to spend 13 days in Hanoi, eleven of them the days of the Christmas bombings, and she witnessed the devastated Kham Thien Street later.

In her book "And a Voice to Sing With: a Memoir," she wrote: "Everywhere were head bands of white cloth, the symbol of mourning for a relative."

The famous singer was shocked and moved seeing a woman crying for her son.

"Oh, heaven and earth. Such depths of sadness cannot exist"¦ That woman's boy lay somewhere under her feet packed into an instantaneous grave of mud, and she, like a wounded old cat, could only tread back and forth over the place she'd last seen him, moaning her futile song," wrote Baez, who was then inspired to make her world-renowned recording "Where are you now, my son?".

Baez called the December 2012 air raids "the heaviest bombing in the history of the world."

She had earlier spent Christmas Eve in the bomb shelter of the Metropole Hotel where she stayed during her time in Hanoi.

She wrote: "I don't know what Christmas was to the United States President and Secretary of State in 1972, but some of the true spirit escaped them.

Surely there is a time zone chart somewhere in Washington D.C. They must have known that it was Christmas Eve in Hanoi even if it wasn't yet Christmas Eve in the "real world.""

Operation Linebacker II left 1,624 Vietnamese civilians dead across the capital city and its aftermath lingered for a long time.

Cau said the clean-up in Kham Thien Street took a whole year to complete.

The final US military campaign in Vietnam, however, was not a success for Washington.

The battle has been widely known as "Dien Bien Phu in the air" among the Vietnamese people, who used Soviet-made surface-to-air missiles to shoot down 34 B-52s and 47 other aircraft.

Lieutenant General Nguyen Van Phiet, head of a missile battalion in Hanoi, said with pride that it was an "imbalanced fight" but the Vietnamese "won because of our bravery and creativeness." To the Americans' amazement, the Vietnamese found a way to spot B-52s despite radar-jamming.

According to world historians, the Paris Peace Accords, signed shortly after the operation, benefited North Vietnam and the Provisional Revolutionary Government of South Vietnam.

While the capital city was celebrating the victory and remembering the tragedy, survivors in Kham Thien Street were busy preparing for the common death anniversary of hundreds of people who lost their lives 40 years ago.

In Vietnamese tradition, close neighbors are often invited to the death anniversary of a family member but on December 26, many neighbors in Kham Thien Street couldn't make it. They were busy burning incense and making special meals for their own deceased relatives.

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