TET 1968: FIGHT­ING TO FIND EACH OTHER

A turn­ing point in the Viet­nam War drove a cou­ple apart. Their love re­united them.

Daily Press - - Front Page - By Hugh Les­sig Staff writer

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.

ROB OSTERMAIER/STAFF

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.

ROB OSTERMAIER/STAFF

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.

dai­ly­press.com.

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

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