AT first the men did not dare step into the stream," one of the searchers recalled. "But the sun was going down and we finally entered the water, praying to the dead to pardon us." The men who were probing the shallow creek in a gorge south of Hue prayed for pardon because the dead had lain unburied for 19 months; according to Vietnamese belief, their souls are condemned to wander the earth as a result. In the creek, the search team found what it had been looking forsome 250 skulls and piles of bones. "The eyeholes were deep and black, and the water flowed over the ribs," said an American who was at the scene.
The gruesome discovery late last month brought to some 2,300 the number of bodies of South Vietnamese men, women and children unearthed around Hue. All were executed by the Communists at the time of the savage 25-day battle for the city, during the Tet offensive of 1968. The dead in the creek in Nam Hoa district belonged to a group of 398 men from the Hue suburb of Phu Cam. On the fifth day of the battle, Communist soldiers appeared at Phu Cam cathedral, where the men had sought refuge with their families, and marched them off. The soldiers said that the men would be indoctrinated and then allowed to return, but their families never heard of them again. At the foot of the Nam Hoa mountains, ten miles from the cathedral, the captives were shot or bludgeoned to death.
Shallow Graves. When the battle for Hue ended Feb. 24, 1968, some 3,500 civilians were missing. A number had obviously died in the fighting and lay buried under the rubble. But as residents and government troops began to clean up, they came across a series of shallow mass graves just east of the Citadel, the walled city that shelters Hue's old imperial palace. About 150 corpses were exhumed from the first mass grave, many tied together with wire and bamboo strips. Some had been shot, others had apparently been buried alive. Most had been either government officials or employees of the Americans, picked up during a door-to-door hunt by Viet Cong cadres who carried detailed blacklists. Similar graves were found inside the city and to the southwest, near the tombs where Viet Nam's emperors lie buried. Among those dug out were the bodies of three German doctors who had worked at the University of Hue.
Search Operation. Throughout that first post-Tet year, there were persistent rumors that something terrible had happened on the sand flats southeast of the city. Last March, a farmer stumbled on a piece of wire; when he tugged at it, a skeletal hand rose from the dirt. The government immediately launched a search operation. "There were certain stretches of land where the grass grew abnormally long and green," TIME Correspondent William Marmon reported last week from Hue. "Beneath this ominously healthy flora were mass graves, 20 to 40 bodies to a grave. As the magnitude of the finds became apparent, business came to a halt and scores flocked out to Phu Thu to look for long-missing relatives, sifting through the remains of clothes, shoes and personal effects. They seemed to be hoping they would find someone and at the same time hoping they wouldn't,' said an American official." Eventually, about 24 sites were unearthed and the remains of 809 bodies were found.