Taken Prisoners by the Viet Cong
At 28, Marjorie Nelson was a doctor on the staff of AFSC's Quang Ngai Rehabilitation Center in Vietnam. After months of working for long hours with little free time and constant reminders of the human tragedy of the war, Marge was pleased to take a vacation to the city of Hué during the Tet holidays. On January 29, 1968, she set off for a week's visit with Sandra Johnson, a friend at a volunteer agency in Hué. However, both women disappeared shortly after Marge arrived. On February 9, a secretary from the U.S. Agency for International Development (AID) reported seeing a cadre of Viet Cong escorting the two young women out of the city of Hué. The women were wearing pajamas, walking hand in hand. For the next two months, AFSC staff, the women's families, and U.S. officials tried to learn their whereabouts, with no success. The women's names became part of the U.S. State Department's list of 18 U.S. civilians "known to have been taken prisoner by North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces during the Tet Offensive."
In an interview shortly after her release, Marge recollected her arrest and detention by the National Liberation Front (NLF). The bombing of Hué began in late January, right after Marge's arrival, and continued into early February. Marge and Sandra took refuge in Sandra's bomb shelter, surviving for several days on Tet candies before they were discovered by NLF soldiers, who took them to another location. They remained there for several more days, while all around them the city exploded under military force.
On approximately February 9, Marge and Sandra were tied at the wrists and walked out of the city of Hué. Crossing through the mountains with nothing but wooden "house" shoes, Marge's feet quickly became sore with blisters. They traveled for hours through the dark, sometimes in bare feet, other times in borrowed shoes, finally arriving at a mountain village in the wee hours of the morning. They came to a gate with an arch over it, a typical entryway to a Vietnamese village, but this one stirred dismal feelings. "It looked very forlorn," Marge recalls. "I thought, 'Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.'" They were put outside in a fenced area. "It was very cold with a fine rain falling. We slept on the ground with no cover… That was a bad night, but we survived it." This was the only time during their captivity that she felt the NLF soldiers could have done more for their comfort.
The next day the women were forced to begin a week-long trek through the jungle and across mountains with little food or water. They were reminded by their captors that they were being moved away from Hué to safety, for their protection, which Marge believed was at least partly the truth. She recalls that the NLF soldiers took great care to make sure she and Sandra were not harmed. When they arrived at a camp, they were well fed and cared for under the direction of the soldiers' commander, Nam. Marge welcomed the chance to rest and to learn about the Vietnamese culture and people. She and Sandra were given NLF fatigues to wear, with apologies from Nam that there were no women's clothes available. They remained in this location for several weeks, developing new friendships with soldiers and other prisoners.
Near mid-March, they began another journey to another camp, again on foot but with boots the soldiers had found for them. Three days into their journey, two of the other prisoners escaped. "The lists were gotten out, and roll was called. . . . It wasn't just that two guys had gone; there was other tension. We had been told that there might be bombing that morning." The two women, up until this point, had always eaten with the men prisoners and slept in a separate area. This night, however, the men were called for their meal, and Sandra and Marge were not. Nam appeared with another soldier and fed the women dinner. After dinner he sadly announced he would not be continuing on with them. Sandra and Marge were worried. They felt safe with Nam and the rest of the group and were anxious that the move might put them into the hands of people less interested in their welfare. Nonetheless, the next morning they were separated from the rest of the prisoners and moved by foot to another camp.
The first words from the camp commander were, "Do not escape!" Despite this warning, it soon became apparent to Marge that the move was a preparation for their release. "It sort of occurred to them, I guess, that maybe we . . . shouldn't really be prisoners. We were really more like guests, and they sort of began to be a little embarrassed at this prisoner business. . . . Within several days we were instructed to not refer to ourselves as prisoners." Near March 20, the two women were instructed to write release statements. Marge wrote, in part, "Almost everyone I met has been both kind and friendly to me. I have been impressed with the courage, dedication, enthusiasm, and cheerfulness of the NLF Forces. There is no doubt in my mind that they represent a significant segment of the Vietnamese people and must be accepted as such." Likewise, the statement by the NLF distinguished between U.S. military aggression and U.S. citizens, many of whom the NLF soldiers understood were not part of the war machine. The statement said, in part, "Both above-mentioned American women showed more or less sympathy with the Vietnamese people's struggle for national independence and peace."
On March 31, 1968-nearly two months after the Tet Offensive-Marjorie Nelson and Sandra Johnson were released north of Hué. They were directed to a path leading to railroad tracks and then to a road. Still dressed in NLF fatigues, they caught a bus filled with soldiers from the Army of the Republic of Viet Nam (often referred to as ARVN), and so they found their way back into the city. During the weeks of Marge's detention, the AFSC staff members with whom she had worked had pulled out of Quang Ngai, due to unrest after the offensive. The AFSC team did not resume its work at the rehab center until May. Marge flew home to the United States, but, just six-and-a-half months after her release, she returned to Vietnam on September 10 to finish out her term on the AFSC staff.