[[This was first published in the National Catholic Register under it’s previous ownership, and is presented under the title THE HAND OF MARY by one of the writers of the NCRegister, Tom Hoopes. It is USMC Michael Lambert, who has been visiting my parish in WNC these past weeks, who sent in this story. I’d like to give it a bit more visibility. The picture above is of the church he describes below.]]
Michael Lambert already had a devotion to the Blessed Mother before that day in Vietnam. “I had studied as a seminarian for the Marist Fathers,” the native of Georgia says. “I had been dedicated to Our Blessed Lady as an infant by my mother.” But he would have an even greater devotion later, when he came to understand what had happened to him there.
It was February 1968, at the height of the Vietnam War. The Tet holiday, New Year’s festivities celebrated by families throughout Vietnam, had begun on Jan. 31. To honor it, combatants had called a truce — until North Vietnamese defense minister Gen. Nuygen Giap, defense minister for North Vietnam, launched a countrywide “general uprising.”
Communist forces attacked major cities and military bases throughout South Vietnam at the very moment many South Vietnamese troops were on leave with their wives and children. 2d Lieutenant Michael Lambert was serving as a platoon leader with Company H, Second Battalion, Fifth Marines. When the Tet attacks began, the Battalion was ordered into Hue’ (pronounced “whey”) on February 2. The mission was to attack the North Vietnamese Army Forces that had taken the city during the early morning hours of January 31. Hue was a city that was both strategically and psychologically key to the communist’s plans to take control of South Vietnam. It was home to over 110,000 souls and Vietnam’s most honored city. Hue’ had been the capital of Vietnam. It was the location of the former emperor of Vietnam’s ancient fortress, known as the Citadel.
The Catholic faith had been brought to Vietnam over a century prior to the French by Jesuit Missionaries. Vietnamese Catholics had suffered persecution by Vietnamese emperors for generations prior to the arrival of the French.
The journey by truck convoy to Hue from the combat base at Phubai was strange and silent, Lambert remembers. “Usually, on a trip into a South Vietnamese city, children begging for food would swarm the trucks,” he said. “The marines would toss ‘c ration’ meals and candy bars to the kids.” The young marines would laugh at the resulting melee.
“This time,” he said, “the only ones on the side of the road were the bodies of dead South Vietnamese and American soldiers.” As the convoy headed into the French section of Hue called the new city, “the scene began to resemble a Wild West movie,” he said. “We began receiving heavy machine gun fire from the steeple of a Catholic church west of the highway.” “Big green tracers flew high over the truck beds … no one was hit.”
Once they got to the MACV (military assistance command Vietnam) compound in Hue, they learned what had happened. The North Vietnamese had slipped into the city by night, occupying it and massacring thousands. The Marines would have to take it back.
And they would have to do it block by bock, house by house, on the Communists’ terms. “Urban warfare was a totally new experience for us,” said Lambert. “The vicious house-to-house and room-to-room tactics demanded a unique aggressive spirit.”
The fighting was intense. It took the Marines six days to clear six blocks. “After six days, we had developed a routine that consisted of violent assault supported by heavy automatic weapons fire,” he recalled. “Once the enemy return fire was suppressed, a fire team of five marines would rush into a building and run from room to room tossing in fragmentation grenades and spraying each room with automatic fire from their M-16 rifles. After many days without sleep and little food, these assaults became mechanical. Many of us were like walking dead.”
The horror of the war, the stench of unburied bodies, the total confusion of combat, the physical exhaustion of the soldiers and the deadening of the soldiers’ sensitivity to killing are hard for most people to understand, Lambert said. But these elements also make Mary’s intervention in the carnage, violence, and filth of that particular battle all the more extraordinary, he added.
Lambert’s reinforced platoon, which had started out with 65 marines, had dwindled to 20 effectives in six days of continuous fighting. That’s when H Company Commander Captain Ron Christmas gave Lambert the order to clear a Catholic church near the Phu Cam canal. The church was suspected of being the location of the machine gun nest that had fired at the convoy a week earlier. “I issued a brief order to my three squad-leaders to clear the churchyard and check the church itself,” said Lambert. “I gave special attention to the bell tower.” Lambert ran into the church with his assaulting fire team. He noticed a basement staircase descending from a low door in the back of the church. He decided to check that out himself.
“I removed an M-26 grenade from the left front pocket of my flack jacket and tucked my M-16 rifle under my right armpit,” he said. “As I descended the staircase, I readied the grenade. I placed my left index finger into the safety ring and began to ease the pin out of the arming mechanism of the hand grenade.”
Lambert easily could have thrown the grenade into the room at the bottom of the stairway, but he didn’t. Instead, “I felt a gentle hand touch me and lay over the grenade,” he said. “In one of those inexplicable moments in time, I instantly knew I was to re-safe the deadly grenade.” He did, returning it to his flack jacket.
Stepping off the stairway landing, he entered the crypt of the Church. “There in the darkness, I saw a sea of lit vigil lights with Vietnamese huddled over them praying the rosary,” he said. “The parishioners of the church had taken refuge in the basement.” He led them out into the light of day and sent them to the refugee center.
After four more days of fighting, Lambert was wounded, treated and sent back into combat. The battle for Huế lasted 26 days for the Marines. In the rush of events, he forgot all about the incident in the Church basement. Until 25 years later. He began having nightmares about the fighting in Huế during Tet 1968. Then a father of six, he heard about a priest in Slidell, Louisiana, who had the reputation, like Padre Pio, of reading souls in confession.
“On impulse,” he said, “I made an appointment with that priest.” They traveled from Atlanta and each family member made a general confession. Lambert was the last. The priest knew nothing of his past or identity, and at the end of the general confession he asked Lambert if there was anything bothering him; if he had anything else to discuss.
“I mentioned that I was experiencing troubling dreams about my experiences in Vietnam,” said Lambert. “You mean about the church in Huế?” asked the priest. “Yes, Father,” said Lambert. Answered the priest: “That was the Blessed Mother’s hand that stopped you from throwing the hand grenade.” The church was named Our Lady of Perpetual Help. The priest, Fr. Joe Benson, was pastor of Margaret Mary Alacoque parish.
Post Script: The area of the city that Lambert fought in was the “New City” on the south bank of the Perfume River. The Phu Cam district had been settled by Vietnamese Catholics that had fled North Vietnam following the 1954 Partition after the Viet Minh – French war. The Catholic refugees that resettled in Huế built their church in Phu Cam. The church was dedicated to Our Lady of Perpetual Help.
Following the Tet 1968 battle lasting 26 days, mass graves were found. Most of the 5,000 victims had been buried alive by the communist soldiers. They had been convicted by the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong and summarily executed. Their crime was being “reactionary”. Many were catholic former refugees from the north who had seen the tragedy of the communist state. This under-reported event is referred to as the Huế Massacre by Vietnamese ex-pats. The current government either denies that it ever happened, or blames it on the evil U.S. Marine Corps. So much for revisionist history!
[[My comment: Notice the power of the Rosary, and the power of Confession.]]