Drama in Vietnam


We were still in our nightclothes that morning. I remember, because they had come so early, waking us with their shouts and smashing our windows. Papa made us lie down on the floor where we would be safer from the flying glass, while he and Grandfather and Uncle Emmanuel hurriedly piled furniture against the doors. There were hundreds of rebels all over the neighborhood, screaming violence and beating on people’s doors. The panels in our main door began to split.

It was 24 September 1945. The Japanese had agreed to accept the Allied terms of surrender, and with their withdrawal from French Indochina the nationalist forces and the reestablished French administration came into open conflict. The French troops sent to our area to quell the uprising had had to pull back to Saigon because of trouble there, and as soon as the military were out of sight, the villagers erupted. Our little French community lay directly in their path.

“I want you all to kneel,” said Papa, as the door began to give way.

“Tell them to leave the women and children alone, and we will go with them,” suggested Grandfather.

Papa shouted that we would open the door if they promised to take only the men and leave the women and children unharmed.

“Agreed,” shouted one of the leaders of the mob. “Open up!”

Papa opened the door, and in they came, dozens of them, crowding us back. They grabbed Papa as he went to Maman to kiss her good-bye, and they tied his hands tightly behind him. They also tied Grandfather and Uncle Emmanuel. Then, in spite of their promise, they tied all of us and pushed us roughly out of the door and into the yard.

Nicole, my eldest sister, was a pretty girl of fifteen, and I saw her wince with pain because of a badly infected ankle. René was a happy boy of twelve; my sister Pierrette, ten; Camille, another brother, nine; Daniele, seven; and little Gerard just two that very day. I was eleven. Besides Grandfather and Uncle Emmanuel, Maman’s sister Paulette and her baby boy were also with us. Aunt Paulette’s husband, who was with the army, had left for work early that morning before the mob arrived. Papa was a minor official of the French government. He had grown up in Indochina and had attended school with many of the villagers. That morning, however, hatred dictated their every action and they simply shouted Papa down as he tried to reason with them.

Quickly they separated us into two groups, pushing Nicole and me along behind Papa and the other men. Maman, heavy with an unborn child, the other children, and Aunt Paulette and her baby were led off in the other group. Before we reached the jungle we saw Paulette’s husband trying to defend himself against a crowd of villagers who were beating him.

Still in our nightclothes, we were pushed through the jungle to the edge of a river, where they blindfolded us and made us lie down in small canoes which they rowed to the opposite shore. Again we were thrust into the jungle before our blindfolds were taken off, and we found ourselves near a small clearing. They took Nicole behind some trees. I never saw her again. Terrified, I moved closer to Papa. He told me to pray, but I was so frightened I could not concentrate on prayer.

Uncle Emmanuel was then taken behind the trees, and then it was Grandfather’s turn. I never saw either of them again. They pulled me away from Papa and began to push me along a jungle path lined with villagers who hit me as I passed by. I turned for what was to be my last look at Papa.

We traveled on the path for a long time until we came to a small village. The sun was going down, but I could see Maman, Aunt Paulette, my brothers and sisters, the two babies, and a few of our neighbors. I ran to Maman, with tears flooding my eyes.

“Where are Papa and the others?” she asked. I blurted out that they had all been killed. Maman calmly gathered the other children around her, told them simply that Papa and the others had died, but assured us that one day we would all be together again in heaven.

The men herded us into a hut where we lay down on the damp ground, tired, frightened, and hungry. After awhile the door opened and a man carrying a torch took my mother, my aunt, and the other ladies. We all thought they would come back, but they never did.

Finally the villagers came for us. They left little Gerard and Aunt Paulette’s baby with Pierrette and me, but they took our brothers René and Camille off into the jungle. Then, as they started to march us off, gunfire broke out nearby and they hurriedly shoved us into a pagoda. Bullets were flying everywhere, and we got down on the floor to keep from getting hit.

When the firing stopped, we heard footsteps coming toward us. Suddenly the door flew open and a tall, frightening giant of a soldier stood there, as big as the doorway, peering in at us.

“Les enfants Jugant?” he asked, pronouncing our family name with an accent that wasn’t at all French or Indochinese.

“Ici,” we replied, meaning, “here.”

The soldier and his men were Australians or English who had come to save us. Aunt Paulette’s husband had been able to escape and inform the French and their British allies that our community had been attacked and that we had been led off into the jungle. The allies had done their best, but they had arrived too late for most of our family. We told them about the boys who had been led off into the jungle when the firing started, and some of the soldiers immediately ran to look for them, but they never found them. When the soldiers returned, we were loaded into trucks and driven to Saigon. Another of Maman’s sisters and her husband took us in, and from then on they raised us with their own children.

On that terrifying day the war had cut us off violently from our home—which we never saw again—from our parents, two brothers, a sister, our grandfather, Aunt Paulette, Uncle Emmanuel, and a number of neighbors and friends. Gradually the shock of physical separation impressed itself heavily on our young minds, and nearly every night over a period of years, alone in our beds, we cried ourselves to sleep and then relived vividly each moment of that awful nightmare.

But the physical separation was only a part of our suffering. On that fateful day, in our home, Papa had asked us to kneel; and then later, in the jungle, he told me to pray. Maman had said we would be reunited in heaven. Papa and Maman were God-fearing people, and I thought that through prayer and our church I could surely find the faith that they had had.

I needed so desperately to understand where Papa was, and Maman, and Nicole, and the others. Without my earthly father I needed to know that I had a Father in heaven who cared about me, about us—someone who could put things right in my heart and in my mind and take away the nightmares that regularly tormented me. Every night I prayed, but the pain and the hatred were strong, and the only Christianity I knew taught that all God ever cared to say to anyone had been said two thousand years ago, and we had to content ourselves with that.

It was explained to me as gently as possible that Maman, Papa, and my brothers and sister had died without the last rites and were therefore in purgatory. Maman had said we would be reunited in heaven. A beautiful thought to help us to be strong during a moment of trial I was told, but nothing more.

All that I could comprehend was that a frenzied mob had killed our parents, and now our church, with the weight of centuries behind it, was telling us that our loved ones were spiritually out of reach forever. My parents’ lifelong faith in the church and their Christian conduct counted for nothing. Apparently, the church and God himself were powerless to undo one ungodly act by nonbelievers.

Somewhere deep within us we found it impossible to accept that judgment as final. Somehow we rejected the image of a God who could not undo what mere men had done. Somehow we believed that what Maman had said in the jungle was more than a beautiful thought. Our hope and grief constituted a prayer more eloquent than any of those we uttered endlessly with our lips.

Today I know that to answer that prayer, God worked upon the minds of my uncle and aunt who had taken us in. They alone, of all our relatives in Indochina, decided to move to France. There the missionaries were directed to our door.

We were not interested in religious discussions, but these young men taught free English lessons that brought us out to MIA, and friendly visits to our home gradually evolved into religious discussions.

Joseph Smith!” I once said to one of these young men, scoffing at the idea of God revealing himself in the nineteenth century to a young American farm boy.

But the elder, totally unaware of what had happened to us in Indochina, issued a challenge. He suggested I visit my priest and ask him questions about God and about life. If the answers were satisfying, I should remain where I was. If not …

Why wouldn’t I get answers that satisfied me? Why would I not be satisfied with the church my parents had faithfully attended all their lives? I accepted the challenge and went to see the priest.

“Father, I have a question about purgatory,” I said. “Half of my family, all faithful to the church, were killed in Indochina, unfortunate victims of World War II. They died without the last rites and it was explained to me that they are in purgatory. Will God let them stay there forever, or will they be allowed to leave sometime? And what is happening to them there?”

“My child,” he replied, “you must not question these things. Accept it as a mystery.”

I left him, feeling sick at heart, bitter, and drained of any desire, any reason to believe in anyone or anything.

But God was not about to let me go. A day or two later, as I came home and opened the door of our apartment, I could hear the young elders giving a lesson. “What is it now!” I wondered impatiently, but I went in and joined the group.

The lesson was on the plan of salvation—on life after death. By the end of the discussion the Spirit had testified to my soul that I had heard the truth, and immediately I sensed an easing of my burden and an inner happiness I had not known before. I asked for baptism, and that night, in my own words, I thanked my Father in heaven for my parents, for saving my life, and for bringing us safely across oceans to hear about the restored gospel. All of us were baptized as a result of the discussion that day.

Not long afterwards, while visiting some very dear cousins in southern France, we found ourselves involved in a religious discussion, triggered by our announcement that we had joined The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Our cousins at first teased us good-naturedly, but when I tried to explain about the plan of salvation, they pointed out that our baptism constituted a betrayal of our parents’ faith so that we would never have any chance of seeing them again.

The moment was ripe for a quarrel, but as voices rose in anger, I fell silent, knowing that my cousins had spoken the truth about my parents’ strict adherence to the church in which they had been raised. The missionaries had given us to understand that our habits and attitudes are likely to carry over with us into the next life, and if I was positive about anything concerning my father, it was that he was so true to his religious upbringing that he would never have given a missionary from another church an opportunity to convert him.

Nevertheless, since I was the oldest of the remaining children, I felt I should defend what we had done. Just as I was about to speak, however, a voice spoke clearly to me, saying, “Do not argue. They have accepted it.” And I knew the voice meant that our loved ones in the spirit world had accepted the gospel there!

Within a few months I was on my way to America. The gospel was completely changing my life, giving me a positive outlook, helping me to overcome the hatred and vengeance I still felt at times in my heart. In due time I was married in the temple, and nine children have blessed our home. Pierrette and I have seen to it that the temple work has been done for our parents, our two brothers and our sister who were taken from us. Our family has been sealed for time and all eternity, and we know that because of the great loving sacrifice of our Savior there is no need to fear or hate death, no reason to fear or hate those who kill the body but cannot pierce the spirit.

I have a testimony that God can mend the broken heart. I know that through the gospel of Christ our family will be reunited in heaven.

[illustration] Illustration by James Christensen

John A. Green is a professor of French language and literature at Brigham Young University. He teaches the Gospel Doctrine class in the Orem Thirty-eighth Ward, and he is the executive secretary for the Orem Utah Sharon Stake Sunday School board. Michele Jugant is his wife.