The Rev. Dale S. Herendeen was one of thirty-four North American missionaries who survived a major Communist attack on the Vietnamese resort city of Dalat. Herendeen attended several colleges in the Los Angeles area, graduated from Fuller Theological Seminary, and has served with the Christian and Missionary Alliance in Viet Nam for more than ten years. This is his account of the siege:
We were missionaries gradually being caught in a closing trap. Whether or not the trap was meant for us is irrelevant. We got out just two hours before it shut.
Tuesday, January 30, was New Year’s Day in Viet Nam, the day on which the Viet Cong began their attack. You have to understand the Oriental to know how clever and vicious this was. For Tet is a day when the Vietnamese ordinarily go home to their families, a great and wonderful time when they think of anything but war.
On that day I wrote “Truce?” in my diary. We heard on the radio that the VC had begun to attack the cities in force. Outside our city of Dalat, normally a quiet place, they were infiltrating and ambushing. Nevertheless, my wife Pat and I drove about twenty-five miles down the highway that day to keep a preaching engagement. We got back without incident.
On Wednesday Dalat went on yellow (stand-by) alert. About four in the afternoon the VC sent a message downtown that they would hit the marketplace. That night a curfew was called at eight. Our mission property was spread over a pine-dotted hill covering the equivalent of about two city blocks. I went from house to house telling our missionary staff to stay in their houses.
At 3 A.M. Thursday we were awakened by a great deal of firing. A C47 flare plane, of the type dubbed “Puff the Magic Dragon,” circled overhead. There was steady firing the rest of the night.
About 9 A.M. we had a conference call on the military telephone. We were told that the VC were now in the city, that they had taken over the main theater downtown, and that they were holding hostages. Rumors streamed in all day long, but we were still cool, calm, collected.
The same day we heard from the province chief via telephone. He offered us sanctuary but suggested that since we were non-combatants we might be better off to stay where we were. Our American military also thought we ought to stay put but advised us to keep together. So I collected our staff members from the seven houses in which they lived, and we occupied adjoining dormitories. It was a relatively quiet night.
On Friday morning our cook and our cleaning woman came to work as usual. But during the day the VC again began to attack and to infiltrate on a larger scale, especially on the other side of the city, where the airport is located. That was about four or five miles away from us. The VC apparently were holed up in a cemetery there, and jets began to come in two at a time, strafing the cemetery.
Viet Nam Toll
Big Communist attacks on the cities of South Viet Nam have taken a toll not only in American lives, including at least six missionaries, but in extensive church property damage. Wycliffe Bible Translators reported that their language center in Kontum was taken over by Viet Cong and “completely demolished” by U. S. artillery and bombing. The French Protestant Church at Dalat was destroyed by air strikes when Communist troops holed up in it. The base chapel at Tan Son Nhut airport in Saigon was leveled by a direct hit from a Communist mortar. Communists also wrecked several missionary residences at Ban Me Thuot. In places where missionaries have had to flee there has been considerable looting by the Communist North Vietnamese and Viet Cong as well as by “friendly” South Vietnamese troops.
Just above our dormitories on top of a hill stood a three-story house with a commanding view of the whole area. Late that afternoon my wife and I and others went up and stood on the balcony watching the strikes across the city. We went back down for dinner, and about 5:30 the phone rang and we heard that Robert Ziemer, missionary veteran at Ban Me Thuot, had been killed (see March 1 issue for an account of the Ban Me Thuot massacre). I had to break the news to Mrs. Rick Drummond, a daughter of Mr. Ziemer.
About 6:30 P.M. we heard that the VC were beginning to move up the valley below us toward our side of the city. We set up watchmen outside our property. Our people, all of them defenseless and unarmed, were getting a little scared.
We had our time of prayer. Then we checked out our “bunker,” actually a choir room off the stage of an auditorium. The room had three good sides and a door opening out into the auditorium. The only trouble was that the auditorium opened out toward the valley where the VC were. Despite this exposure, we decided that our ten-by-fifteen room was the best place to go if things got bad.
To add to the drama, about 10 P.M. a Vietnamese woman who was with us gave birth to a baby girl. Fortunately we had a nurse to look after her. A men’s bathroom was turned into a delivery room, and mother and child apparently came through the experience reasonably well.
At 1 A.M. I was awakened by the noise of heavy automatic-weapons fire. It was coming from a street down the hill and from across a little ridge. That was just about the length of a couple of football fields from us. It was frightening. The firing subsided but in about three or four minutes started up again.
I woke up my wife and said, “Honey we’d better get out of here.” We crawled across the floor in the darkness and got Cheri, our baby daughter. Then we moved into the ironing room of the dormitory, feeling that might be safer. Pat was still in her nightclothes, as was Cheri, but I got dressed. Then there was a tremendous explosion right below us that shook the building and rattled the glass.
I stepped out into the hall and met another missionary, the Rev. Robert Henry of Hamilton, Ontario. I said, “Bob, we’d better get our people out of here and down to our auditorium room.” So we said, “Let’s go, everybody. Keep away from the windows.”
It was a tight squeeze to get everyone into the room. There were nine children and fourteen women, four of whom were pregnant. Just as we got in we heard more blasts. We finally got settled about 2 A.M.
Gunfire continued through the night. Flare ships flew overhead. Some thought they heard a bugle blow and voices. The auditorium acted like an echo chamber. We tried to keep everyone quiet, knowing the VC were moving up and down the road near us and probably across our property. It was not easy. My own daughter would wake up from time to time and start calling, “Daddy, Daddy,” and we all would sort of hold our breath.
That’s the way we sat out the night. Once the American military called to see how we were. Later I called them and learned that the VC had occupied a house just around the corner from us.
At one point a pregnant woman who had had several miscarriages began to get cramps. We quietly bowed our heads, and while some of the men laid hands upon her we all prayed. The cramps stopped immediately, and the expectant mother was comfortable the rest of the night.
Scripture In The Stronghold
Evangelicals are jubilant over the distribution of 10,500 Gideon New Testaments to students at the University of San Carlos at Cebu City, oldest Roman Catholic college in the Philippines. The ultimate goal is 100,000 Testaments, and another shipment has arrived. The new load weighs seven and one-half tons, said to be the biggest ever.
Cebu City is the site of the nation’s first Christian baptism and of its first church, founded during Magellan’s 1521 visit. The diocese, a conservative stronghold, has until recently been closed to ecumenical overtures by Protestant groups, which have had more cordial relations with Catholicism elsewhere. Even in recent years, evangelicals have witnessed frequent stonings of buildings and other harassment by rabid Catholics.
“But all this is beginning to change rapidly,” says Charles Barrows, father of Billy Graham songleader Cliff Barrows and head of the distribution. Now that San Carlos has opened up, “the other schools in the area are lining up for their copies as well,” he said.
Missionaries in the area say an important factor in the success is Barrows’ status as a layman who retired to the Philippines as official agricultural adviser to Philippine President Marcos. Civic leaders held a welcome banquet when Barrows visited two years ago.
He gave his Christian testimony, and afterwards university President Rudolf Rahmann said, “That’s exactly what we need.” Their friendship has resulted in showing at the university of Graham films, attended by 7,000 students.
A leading university professor revealed, “For over thirty years I have prayed that we could get the Scriptures into the hands of our students.”
EUSTAQUIO RAMIENTOS, JR.
We welcomed the dawn. At 7:30 A.M. I decided to get everyone to move into the dining room, and at nine I felt we should evacuate the building. We asked the local American military commander to get us out. He promised to get back to us, so we just waited. About ten I got a call that the VC had taken one of the billets just about a block away and were using it as a stronghold. After several hours we were told to prepare for evacuation to a local military compound. We were to use our own vehicles but would have a military escort. As we were loading, two Huey gunships (American helicopters) made strafing and rocket runs on a ridge next to our compound. Twice I had to flatten out on the ground because I was looking right down the plane’s gun barrels.
At 1:15 P.M. our escort pulled up in jeeps and trucks. We got out quickly and made our way to the military compound. There we were given rooms, and cots were brought in. Then the gunfire started up again. The VC were said to be all over the mission property and setting up roadblocks. Our base, however, proved to be secure enough.
Again it was wonderful to see the dawn. I spoke to the commander again about evacuation, and he said a chopper was coming. About 9:30 A.M. one of those large Chinook helicopters landed on a pad right outside the compound. The aircraft commander agreed to fly all thirty-four of us to Cam Ranh Bay, and that’s how we got out.
It’s hard to describe how it felt. By then we had heard of the slaying of all six of the missionaries at Ban Me Thuot. Some days later we were flown to Saigon, and for a while things didn’t seem to be much better there than at Dalat. One morning the mortars fell only about three blocks away from us.
Missionary women and children were being flown out of Viet Nam, temporarily at least. But our mission officials have been optimistic, and we feel deeply our obligation to the national church and to the Lord’s work. In some ways the work will be hindered, but we hope to continue on, and as the situation improves probably many of the women and children will return.
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