(The following was adapted by the Register from Michael Lambert's account.)
Michael Lambert already had a devotion to the Blessed Mother before that day in Vietnam.
“I had studied as a seminarian for the Marist Fathers,” the native of Georgia says. “I had been dedicated to Our Blessed Lady as an infant by my mother.”
But he would have an even greater devotion later, when he came to understand what had happened to him there.
It was February 1968, at the height of the Vietnam War. The Tet holiday, New Year's festivities celebrated by families throughout Vietnam, had begun on Jan. 31. To honor it, combatants had called a truce — until North Vietnamese defense minister Gen. Nuygen Giap, defense minister for North Vietnam, launched a countrywide “general uprising.”
Communist forces attacked major cities and military bases throughout South Vietnam at the very moment many South Vietnamese troops were on leave with their wives and children.
Lambert's Company H, Second Battalion Fifth Marines, were ordered to head into Hue’ (pronounced “whey"), a city that was both strategically and psychologically key. It was Vietnam's Alamo, only more dear. Hue was the former capital of Vietnam. It was the location of the former emperor of Vietnam's ancient fortress, known as the Citadel. More recently, it had been colonized by the French, who brought Western architecture and the Catholic faith.
The journey to Hue was strange and silent, Lambert remembers. “Usually, on a trip into a South Vietnamese city, children begging for food would swarm the trucks,” he said. “The marines would toss ‘c ration’ meals and candy bars to the kids.” The young soldiers would laugh at the resulting melee.
“This time,” he said, “the only ones on the side of the road were the bodies of dead American soldiers.”
As the convoy headed into the old French section of Hue, “the scene began to resemble a Wild West movie,” he said. “We began receiving heavy machine gun fire from the steeple of a Catholic church.”
Once they got to the military compound in Hue, they learned what had happened. The North Vietnamese had slipped into the city by night, occupying it and massacring thousands. The Marines would have to take it back.
And they would have to do it block by bock, house by house, on the Communists’ terms.
“Urban warfare was a totally new experience for us,” said Lambert. “The vicious house-to-house and room-to-room tactics demanded a unique aggressive spirit.”
The fighting was intense.
“After six days, we had developed a routine that consisted of violent assault supported by heavy automatic weapons fire,” he recalled. “Once the enemy return fire was suppressed, a fire team of three marines would rush into a building and run from room to room tossing in fragmentation grenades and spraying each room with automatic fire from their M-16 rifles. After many days without sleep and little food, these assaults became mechanical. Many of us were like walking dead.”
The horror of the war, the total confusion of combat, the physical exhaustion of the soldiers and the deadening of the soldiers’ sensitivity to killing are hard for most people to understand, Lambert said.
But these elements also make Mary's intervention in the carnage and filth of that particular battle all the more extraordinary, he added.
Lambert's reinforced platoon, which had started out with 65 marines, had dwindled to 20 men in six days of continuous fighting. That's when Company Commander Captain Ron Christmas gave the order to clear a Catholic church near the Phu Cam canal. The church was suspected of being the location of the machine gun nest that had fired at the convoy a week earlier.
“I issued a brief order to my three squad-leaders to clear the churchyard and check the church itself,” said Lambert. “I gave special attention to the bell tower.” Noticing a basement staircase descending from a low door in the back of the church, he decided to check that out himself.
“I removed an M-26 grenade from the front pocket of my flack jacket and tucked my M-16 rifle under my right armpit,” he said. “As I descended the staircase, I readied the grenade. I placed my left index finger into the safety ring and began to ease the pin out of the arming mechanism of the hand grenade.”
Lambert easily could have thrown the grenade into the room at the bottom of the stairway, but he didn't.
Instead, “I felt a gentle hand touch me and lay over the grenade,” he said. “In one of those inexplicable moments in time, I instantly knew I was to re-safe the deadly grenade.” He did, returning it to his flack jacket.
Stepping off the stairway landing, he entered the crypt of the Church.
“There in the darkness, I saw a sea of lit vigil lights with Vietnamese huddled over them,” he said. “The parishioners of the church had taken refuge in the basement.”
He led them out into the light of day and sent them to the refugee center.
After four more days of fighting, Lambert was wounded, treated and sent back into combat. In the rush of events, he forgot all about the incident in the Church basement.
Until 25 years later.
Then a father of six, he heard about a priest in New Orleans who had the reputation, like Padre Pio, of reading souls in confession.
“On impulse,” he said, “I made an appointment with that priest.”
They traveled from Atlanta and each family member made a general confession. Lambert was the last.
The priest knew nothing of his past or identity, and at the end of the general confession he asked Lambert if he had anything else to discuss.
“I mentioned that I was experiencing troubling dreams about my experiences in Vietnam,” said Lambert.
“You mean about the church?” asked the priest.
“Yes, Father,” said Lambert.
Answered the priest: “That was the Blessed Mother's hand that stopped you from throwing the hand grenade.”
The church was named Our Lady of Perpetual Help.