TET 1968: FIGHTING TO FIND EACH OTHER
A turning point in the Vietnam War drove a couple apart. Their love reunited them.
On Jan. 30, 1968, Jim Bullington was exactly where he wanted to be, having dinner with good friends and his fiancee in the city of Hue, Vietnam.
Except he was in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Bullington and his bride-to-be, Tuy-Cam, were celebrating Tet, the Chinese lunar New Year. They had met in 1965, when she worked for the U.S. Foreign Service at the Consulate in Hue.
After serving as his interpreter, their courtship had blossomed.
That night, they had a pleasant dinner with great food and several bottles of the local beer, Ba Moui Ba. Then Bullington left to spend the night with a French friend whose company ran the nearby power plant.
“The mortar barrage and rockets were nothing new . ... When it calmed down, I figured they had gone back to their rural sanctuaries. This time it was different.”
— Jim Bullington
The facility had a guest room. It was only a short distance away from Tuy-Cam.
Around 3 a.m., he awoke to the distant sound of scattered mortar and small arms fire, but he soon went back to sleep. Bullington was on his third tour of South Vietnam. He knew the landscape — or thought he did.
“The mortar barrage and rockets were nothing new,” he said. “I’d heard that before, and when it calmed down, I figured they had gone back to their rural sanctuaries. This time it was different.”
‘Didn’t you see them?’
While he slept, the city was overrun by three North Vietnamese infantry regiments, several rocket and engineer battalions, and local Viet Cong units.
Bullington woke up to what became known as the Tet Offensive.
It consisted of a series of surprise attacks by North Vietnamese forces on dozens of cities and towns across South Vietnam, and it would mark the turning point of the Vietnam War. The bloodiest fighting of all happened at the beautiful city of Hue, the country’s intellectual and cultural hub.
That morning, Bullington woke up and walked across a large courtyard toward the power plant, looking for his friend, Albert. Instead of a greeting, Albert excitedly motioned for Bullington to return to his room.
But around mid-morning, curiosity won out and he went looking for Albert again.
Albert pointed back to the courtyard.
“There were a bunch of guys in green uniforms and pith helmets,” Bullington recalled, “and they weren’t South Vietnamese soldiers.”
He retreated to his room while Albert arranged for a French priest to take in Bullington. Around sundown, as the North Vietnamese cooked their dinner over a fire at one end of the courtyard, Bullington walked out like he belonged there.
“They almost certainly assumed I was a Frenchman working in the power plant,” he said. “So they didn’t bother me.”
Moving through back yards and over fences, he ended up at the house of Father Cressonier, who belonged to a group that had been in Vietnam for more than 30 years.
“He gave me a black gown and the beads and the whole outfit,” Bullington said. “Thankfully, he was a big guy, about my size. So for the next nine days I was a French priest behind the North Vietnamese lines in Hue. For a Tennessee hillbilly raised in the Church of Christ, that in itself was a pretty great adventure.”
He hoped American and South Vietnamese forces would quickly liberate the city, but he didn’t realize the scope of the North Vietnamese victory.
The next morning, Bullington saw a large Viet Cong flag flying over the Citadel, a fortified palace. It meant that most of Hue was in enemy hands.
Meanwhile, he wondered about Tuy-Cam.
Hiding in the attic
A canal ran between Tuy-Cam’s house and the power plant. But the North Vietnamese occupied the waterway, and there was no chance he could connect with his fiancee.
“It wasn’t far physically, but it might as well have been the other side of the moon,” he said.
Tuy-Cam had remained home with her family during the attack.
That included her two brothers, a South Vietnamese intelligence officer and an Air Force cadet. When the attack came, her brothers hid in the attic along with a cousin.
North Vietnamese forces searched the house, found nothing and left. Then another group came and ordered Tuy-Cam and her family outside, where the neighbors had assembled.
The North Vietnamese were trying to interrogate an American girl and asked if anyone could speak English. Tuy-Cam’s neighbors knew she worked for the U.S. State Department.
“Nobody mentioned anything in order to save my life,” she said. “None of them looked at me, to give them a hint. None of them.”
They eventually returned to their house, but fighting later intensified as U.S. and South Vietnamese forces moved in to liberate the city. With rockets and mortar rounds landing near them, the family fled the neighborhood.
They got as far as a pagoda in western part of Hue. There they encountered Viet Cong. A friendly monk hid Tuy-Cam under an altar. She spent the night shielded by a giant Buddha.
Her brothers weren’t so fortunate. They were arrested and taken away.
Tuy-Cam never saw them again. Today, the pain of their disappearance — of never knowing what actually happened — still brings her to tears.
“I have to relive the most difficult time in my life because they were taken away from us, right in front of us,” she said. “We couldn’t do anything.”
Over the years, she had tried to learn their fate. All she knows is that they are gone.
“To me, the separation is very difficult to deal with,” she said. “If he died, you could see it right there. But the separation — you hope and hope and hope one day they will be coming back.”
Liberation, a wedding
Nine days after that fateful night, U.S. Marines liberated Bullington from Father Cressonier’s house. They carried him out like a wounded Marine so neighbors would not know the priest had been hiding an American civilian.
After recuperating in Da Nang, Bullington wanted to return to Hue and find Tuy-Cam. In no uncertain terms, he was told not to go near Hue.
But Bullington knew his way around well enough. He found a friendly Army pilot and hitched a ride back to Hue.
“Some rules are meant to be broken,” he said.
The helicopter landed near Hue University, the site of a refugee camp. There he met his bride-to-be. It was two weeks after the start of the Tet Offensive, which made it Feb. 14, Valentine’s Day.
The two were married on March 16, 1968, at the Consulate General in Da Nang. They left Vietnam two weeks later, and Bullington attended Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government.
He would go on to serve a full and distinguished diplomatic career, assignments that included U.S. ambassador to Burundi under President Reagan and director of the Peace Corps in Niger.
This year, he and Tuy-Cam celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary.
The family perspective
The Bullington’s two daughters knew about their parents’ ordeal at Hue.
“My dad has never been reluctant to talk about it,” said Eva Gustafson, a speech language pathologist and resident of Washington, D.C. “He’s proud of his service and enjoys talking about it. He won’t start, but if people ask him questions, he doesn’t hesitate to answer.”
Kim Sibson, an administrator and assistant adjunct professor at Old Dominion University, first heard stories during gatherings at her parents’ house. Later, her eyes were opened when reading “Hue 1968” by Mark Bowden, author of “Black Hawk Down.”
“They come across as, pardon my French, but as bad asses,” Sibson said. “Look at what my parents did. Would I be able to do something like that?”
The daughters have had the benefit of other written accounts.
Bullington has written about his career in “Global Adventures on Less-Traveled Roads: A Foreign Service Memoir.”
In 1998, he penned a lengthy piece for American Diplomacy about his ordeal during the Tet Offensive. Some details of that account were used in this story.
Still, there is something different about hearing the story in her parents’ own words.
“It’s really good to have written, factual information,” Gustafson said, “but it’s also really good to have their own voices telling their stories. That’s stuff I can pass on to my kids as well, and they can pass it on to their kids.”
“This is something that should be done more often,” Sibson said.
ABOVE: Retired foreign service officer Jim Bullington recounts being trapped in the Vietnam city of Hue and separated from his fiancee TuyCam during the Tet offensive on 1968. Bullington hid in a Catholic church and was eventually reunited with and married Tuy.
ABOVE: A photo at their home at Patriots Colony in Williamsburg shows Tuy-Cam and Jim Bullington on their wedding day in 1968. Just months before, the two were separated when the city of Hue was captured during the Tet Offensive, a key turning point of the Vietnam War. They celebrated their 50th anniversary this year.
BELOW: Jim Bullington, a retired foreign service officer, recounts being trapped in the Hue and separated from his fiancee. Bullington hid in a Catholic church run by a French priest. After U.S. Marines helped get him out, he returned to Hue to find Tuy-Cam. She had stayed in the city during the attack, which resulted in the arrest of her brothers. She hasn’t seen them since, and she still doesn’t know what ever happened to them. For video of the couple telling their story, visit