Joan Baez in Hanoi: 12 Days Under the Bombs

The folk star's trip to Vietnam landed her in the middle of a bombing raid

Mistress Nguyen Thi Nga, 32, and her two daughters, Nguyen Thi Tuyen ,8, and Nguyen Thi Hueng, 4, killed during a United States raid on Phe Yen school, April 27th, 1972. Credit: XUAN GIAI/AFP/Getty

SAN FRANCISCO – Joan Baez has a tape recording that she made while she was in Hanoi as a guest of the Committee for Solidarity with the American People. Other voices on the tape, recorded in the lobby of the Hoa Binh (Peace) Hotel, include the three other members of her party: the Reverend Michael Allen, anti-war vet Barry Romo, and Columbia law professor Telford Taylor, an ex-brigadier general and American prosecutor at the Nuremburg war crimes tribunal.

It was recorded at 7:30 on a cloudless Christmas eve. Reverend Allen begins the American's personal Christmas services with an invocation. Joan Baez starts to sing the Lord's Prayer in her familiar, soaring voice. Suddenly there is an immense concussion, the unmistakable sound of a bomb. The guitar falters, then Joan's voice comes back strong and brave.

"Quiet," someone shouts.

Another, louder voice yells, "No, sing on." An air-raid siren screams nearby, cutting directly into the verse about for-giving trespasses.

("They were Phantom Jets," Joan said later in a San Francisco coffee shop. They had swept out of the cloudless skies just under radar range and dropped tons of Christmas surprises on the people of Hanoi.)

"Get your helmets," a Vietnamese calls in English. The tape ends with the sounds of confusion: running, scuffling feet and the howl of the air-raid siren.

* * *

Forty-eight hours after the United States broke off the Paris peace talks, American warplanes – Phantom Jets and giant B-52 strategic bombers – carried out 12 days of bombing raids against Hanoi and the port city of Haiphong. This marked the first time in the history of the war that B-52s have been used against North Vietnam's two major cities. While the Phantoms are designed to hit a specific target and carry only a few tons of bombs, the huge B-52s carry up to 30 tons of bombs and devastate whole square miles of territory. In the 12 days between December 18th and December 30th, the North Vietnamese News Agency estimates, some 100,000 tons of bombs were dropped on the two cities and nearby populated areas. No figures were available from American military spokesmen though The New York Times quoted a military officer at Guam, where the B-52s are stationed, as saying that the Christmas raids were "the biggest aerial operation in the history of warfare."

One hundred thousand tons of bombs is more than the total tonnage dropped on England during the six years of World War II. It is the equivalent of six Hiroshima-sized atomic bombs. As a guest of the North Vietnamese, Joan Baez spent 12 days under the bombs, and saw first-hand the devastation they caused.

"It was interesting how they eased us into it. The first place we saw was across the river and we didn't see bodies as we did later. We could see the ruins and the Red Cross workers. We saw the people with white mourning bands around their heads, which means that they lost a loved one. We saw the devastation. But it wasn't so terrible. A girl came by on a bicycle and said something in Vietnamese. I asked the interpreter what it was she said and he told me that she said, 'Did the Americans come by to look at Nixon's peace?' I said, 'Tell her yes.'

"The second thing we saw was the roughest for us all. That was the day Michael Allen stopped eating. We were about to have breakfast and they rushed in and told us it was time to go see a bomb site. We went with the press in a caravan of cars to Kham Tiem Street. It's a district in downtown Hanoi where the houses are very small – mud and brick, jammed close together. As we toured the district, a North Vietnamese war crimes commissioner stands behind you and tells all the figures: the dead, the wounded, the number of raids.

"The first thing I saw there was everyone carrying their bicycles, because there was no way to walk through the rubble. There was an old man who was trying to walk through the mud and brick, but he was hobbling and having a great deal of trouble moving through the wreckage. I reached over and took his hand. He looked up at me with his exquisite old man's face, those lines, the little white wispy chin beard, and I could feel he was trembling. We held on to each other for some seconds, and both our eyes filled with tears. He mumbled some things in Vietnamese that I couldn't understand then he looked up at me and said, 'Danke schoen.'

"The next thing that made a deep impression on me was a woman sitting on the rubble and sobbing hysterically. They don't cry very much, Vietnamese women. They cover their faces with their hands or a veil if they do; but this woman was to the point where she would stand and clench and unclench her fists for several minutes, then sit on the rubble and just wail. Her face was bloated from crying and her husband was trying to get her to calm down and stop weeping. I sat next to her and she took my hand. There was a girl sitting next to her holding her other hand and she was crying too, only she wasn't making any sound. The woman squeezed my hand. Behind us the war crimes commissioner was just droning on and on: '215 killed, 257 wounded . . .'

"Nearby there was a bomb shelter that had taken a direct hit. Everyone was dead.

"We picked our way across the craters and the debris. It was like a moonscape with all the craters . . . just like being on the moon except for the wreckage. I saw a woman in the distance, but I couldn't see her face. She was chanting and I thought she and her family had survived. Sometimes when there is all this devastation all around and people survive they get very giddy and actually have a celebration in the midst of near oblivion. When we got closer, I saw her face wasn't happy. It was twisted in some kind of awful shock and agony. She was chanting the same thing over and over, dazed as she picked through the rubble. She would pick up a brick and put it down, pick up another brick from someplace else and put it down.

"We asked the interpreter what it was she was chanting and he said it was an old song that went, 'Where are you now, my sons, where are you now?'

"It was relentless. Both her young sons were buried under the bricks and there was no chance she would ever see them again.

"I couldn't go on after that. Someone took me back to the car. The others told me that a couple of craters beyond that there was a family of four who had been killed. They were lying with their arms around one another. That was when Mike Allen stopped eating. He couldn't stomach any food for 48 hours."

* * *

On December 23rd the North Vietnamese Ministry of Public Health announced that Hanoi's Bach Mai hospital, the country's finest hospital and medical school and research center had been completely destroyed by two separate US B-52 raids on the nights of December 19th and December 22nd. The Pentagon denied the report and continued to do so up until the time the Telford-Allen-Baez-Romo party arrived in New York on New Year's Day. Ex-Brigadier General Taylor, a man who had once written a song entitled "Fifty Stars on a Field of Blue," announced to the press that he had film of the Bach Mai hospital. Spokesmen for the Pentagon modified the earlier denial. They said there may have been "some limited accidental damage."

"The hospital was devastated," Joan Baez said. "It was completely obliterated. I saw corpses in a row, which was my first exposure to a line of dead bodies. The others didn't see them because the Vietnamese covered them quickly when we came around; but I was first in line and I saw four of them, including an old woman. There were people racing all around carrying bleeding patients piggyback out of the debris. The most pathetic thing was the director of the hospital who was racing from building to building and trying to show us everything that was.

" 'This was dermatology,' he would say, 'and this was maternity.' All the time he had an hysterical half-smile on his face.

"The hospital had been huge. It took an hour to walk through. Along the way we saw a crane trying to lift a concrete slab off the top of a bomb shelter. There were 20 or 25 people inside. We all had the comforting feeling that they could get them out but we found out later they never did. All those people died in that bomb shelter.

"I usually gave up on those walks in about a half an hour. I'd get light headed and go back to the car. I knew I'd be useless to them if I passed out. And they were very sweet. If they smelt burnt flesh, they'd say, 'Why don't you wait here.' They wouldn't usher me through that part."

* * *

The moon was full over Hanoi during the Christmas holidays, and during the night-raids the people could see the flashes of the bombs as they landed. Occasionally they could see a B-52 explode in mid-air, brought down by a Russian-built Sam 111. The days were cloudswept and cold, much like the San Francisco morning I spent talking to Joan Baez.

She had a tape recorder with her in the San Francisco coffee shop, and a grotesquely shaped piece of melted steel and a sheaf of photos. One of the pictures showed a lovely Vietnamese girl of about 17. She was sitting on a high stool and her legs hung free and bare under a knee-length skirt. Where her feet should have been there was nothing. Her legs ended in blackened stumps at mid-calf. "This girl told me that she lost her legs a week before her wedding. She didn't think that her husband would want her, but he carried her to the wedding on his back."

Another photo was of a girl who looked about 12. She wore a sleeveless blouse. Both arms ended in fire-blackened stumps, at the shoulder. A third photo showed a nurse helping a smiling three-year-old girl learn to use crutches. The girl's left leg was missing.

"There was a woman I met in the lobby of the big hotel," Joan said. "She sold chess sets and jewelry but they didn't have what I wanted. She told me to come back the next day and she would have it. When I arrived the next day I learned that she had lost several relatives in the night's raids. She was working as if nothing had happened, but for one moment I saw her just staring off into space. I went over-and put my arms around her. She held me very tightly and cried on my shoulder for about 15 seconds. Then she tried to smile a little and went back to work. That was life."

North Vietnamese figures put the bombing death toll at about 2000.

"I have these dreams," Joan Baez was saying. "I don't know why, but I have to sleep so much. Sometimes I go to bed at 6:00 and don't wake up until late the next morning, and I dream the whole time."

In one of her dreams, Joan sees many people in a line speaking. Someone or something doesn't want the speaking to go on. One of the figures begins to burn, but his mouth still moves. Another ignites and soon they are all burning. Their bodies melt and their bones ash until the bodies collapse in flame. In the end there is a line of charred skulls, and the skulls are trying to speak.

* * *

There are bomb shelters every ten or 15 feet all along the streets of Hanoi. The shelters hold one or two people. In the public places, near the lake and in the park, there are bigger shelters every 20 feet or so. In the parks also there are rows and rows of trees. The bombs uproot the trees and everywhere in Hanoi the wind carries dead leaves down the rubble-strewn streets.

Throughout the city there are loud-speakers: Hanoi is wired for sound. Most of the time music is played – martial music generally, interspersed with short inspirational and lyrical Vietnamese folk songs. When the radar picks up the B-52s, a woman's voice announces that the planes are so many kilometers from the city. This is the pre-alert. Five or ten minutes later there will be another pre-alert. The children listen for the alerts and run to the nearest shelter where they will laugh and play at the entrance, rather than go immediately into the shelters which are dark and depressing and claustrophobic. When the siren screams, they all run into the shelters calling out the one word of English they know best of all.

"Neexon, Neexon," they shout at the B-52s.

* * *

The American party arrived in Hanoi on December 16th. They were scheduled to leave on the 23rd, but the bombing started on their second day and no planes could land or take off from Hanoi. They stayed until the morning of the 30th, the last day of the bombing.

"The first day of the bombing," said Joan Baez, "I was in our shelter and I was mentally saying goodbye to my son, to my sisters, to everything. Barry Romo, the Viet vet who was so kind to me. He'd smile and tell me that the bombs were nowhere near. I could feel the concussion pop my inner ear, but he told me not to worry. That night the bombs landed four blocks away.

"On the second day of the bombing . . . the first raid of the second day . . . I remember I was getting something to eat and someone slammed a door. I dropped my plate. By the fourth or fifth day I would walk nonchalantly to the shelter.

"I would play in the shelter sometimes. The best song was 'Don't Let Nobody Turn You Around.' It's short and easy to translate. The people would clap along and I'd sing, 'Ain't going to let no Pentagon turn me around.' It was something you needed after an hour in those shelters.

"There were about four or five raids a night, lasting an hour or an hour and a half apiece. We'd get up and go to the shelters. Some nights there were nine or ten raids and we'd just sleep there. We got so we went to sleep and got up whenever we heard the siren. We never heard about a Christmas Day halt in the bombing so we all went to sleep and didn't get up for 14 hours on Christmas Day.

"During one of the raids I talked to a reporter for the French Communist news service. He was talking about packing away his typewriter and getting out a rifle to fight the Americans. He asked me if I didn't like the sound of anti-aircraft fire and I had to tell him I did. The next question was, 'Don't you like to see the planes explode in the sky?'

"I said, 'Yes, if I know the pilot has bailed out.' I can not enjoy the idea of anyone being blown up. That is on the moral side. On the human side I was glad there was ground-to-air fire. It meant that the planes were going to go away and that someone else below wasn't going to be killed. If my pacifism was ever going to be put to a test, this must have been the time. I don't like to see war and I don't like killing, on any side. I'm not a fake pacifist.

"Aside from that, I can visualize every man in every one of those planes as a future Viet Vet Against the War."

By the last night of the bombing, Joan Baez was behaving like a veteran under the bombs. During the last raid she chose not to huddle in the shelter. Instead she stood on the balcony of her hotel and sang songs to the men she could see as future Vets Against the War.

* * *

Part of the purpose of the trip to Hanoi was to deliver letters to the POWs. "We saw about 13 of them. The camp had been near a bomb site. Four of them were slightly injured. All the windows were blasted in and there were pieces of shrapnel on the floor. We were going to hold a Christmas service but the big room we wanted to do it in had caved in. The walls were up and the ceiling was up but everything else had shaken loose and it was just rubble. No place to stand. Mike Allen gave a sermon and I was all set to sing the Lord's Prayer, but they said they'd rather hear 'The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.'

"Most of them, I think, were terrified. They had never been under the bombs before and they didn't know what was going on. The last thing they had heard, peace was at hand."

* * *

Joan Baez turned the twisted bit of steel in her hands. "After a while we found ourselves making funny macabre jokes. You'd just shake your head, not believing you said anything that ghastly and just go on laughing.

"The Indians in our hotel were the ones I found myself joking with. They called me Miss Bulbul, which is the name of an Indian nightingale. [In a rapid Indian accent]: 'Ah, Miss Bulbul, you must stand up and sing.'

"I would say that I was tired and that I should get some sleep. They'd say, 'We're sorry but it is not proper to go to bed soon so; you must stand up and sing.'

"When we found we were going to be in Hanoi until the bombing was over, they'd take sides teasing. 'I'm sorry, your plane will not come, it is impossible.' Then another one would say, 'This is mean, you must not say this. Your plane will come tomorrow, certainly.'

"I'd laugh and tease them about their accents. I have tapes of us laughing hysterically and somewhere, way in the background, you can hear a bomb explode."

Joan leaned over the booth and handed me the heavy bit of metal. It was twisted by heat and concussion, unmistakably, into the shape of a vulture. "I'm not one of those who makes rings from fallen B-52 parts, but I found this on a pile of rubble. It seems symbolic."

I handed the metal back and she stared at it in silence. Finally she looked up and her eyes seemed infinitely tired and sad. "Last night," she said, "I dreamt there was a snake in my veins. Someone told me I should shoot it, kill it with a hypodermic needle. I don't know what it means. It's just a dream about death and dread."