Atrocity at Dak Son

In its December 15, 1967 issue, Time magazine described what it called the "worst atrocity yet committed in the Viet Nam war." Dak Son was a hamlet of some 2,000 Montagnard refugees about 75 miles northeast of Saigon. The Communists were intensely interested in Dak Son because the refugees had months earlier fled from life under the Viet Cong. Lest others get the same idea, the Communists decided to make an example of the Montagnards who, Time noted, "were completely unarmed...." On December 5, 1967, "a handful of Viet Cong crawled up to the wall-and-wire perimeter of the hamlet" and called for its inhabitants "to surrender and come out. When they got no takers, they withdrew," but returned and launched their attack around midnight, "pouring machine-gun, mortar and rocket fire into Dak Son."

The 600 Viet Cong assembled outside the hamlet "were armed with 60 flame-throwers. Yelling and screaming, they attacked the town, shooting countless streams of liquid fire that lit up the night and terrified by its very sight a people who had only recently discovered the use of matches." Most of the victims were women and children.

The Viet Cong "were not intent on a military victory but on the cold-blooded, monumental massacre of the helpless Montagnards." To that end, "long ugly belches of flame lashed out from every direction, garishly illuminating the refugee hamlet and searing and scorching everything in their path. The shrieking refugees still inside their houses were incinerated. Many of those who had time to get down into dogholes beneath the houses were asphyxiated. Spraying fire about in great whooshing arcs, the Viet Cong set everything afire: trees, fences, gardens, chickens, the careful piles of grain from the annual harvest. Huts that somehow survived the holocaust were leveled with grenades. Then the hoses of fire were sprayed down inside the exposed burroughs. Later, the Communists incinerated a patch of the main town just for good measure."

Only when they ran out of flame-thrower fuel did the Viet Cong resort to guns. "Forcing 160 of the survivors out of their dogholes," Time continued, "they shot 60 of them to death on the spot. Then, finally abandoning the smoking ruins of Dak Son at dawn, they dragged away with them into the jungle another 100 of the survivors."

Some survivors were left behind. Numb with horror, they "stumbled out to look for wives, children and friends. They held handkerchiefs and cabbage leaves to their faces to ward off the smell of burnt flesh that hung over everything. One by one the dogholes were emptied, giving up the fire-red, bloated, peeling remains of human beings. Charred children were locked in ghastly embrace, infants welded to their mother's breasts. The victims were almost all women and children. The dead adults were covered with scorched mats and blankets salvaged from the ashes, the bodies of babies laid in bamboo baskets. One man lost 13 members of his family."