Updated: May 2
Everyone can trace their beginnings to their individual birthdays. That is where their story begins.
Not everyone can trace their family tree back to a single day.
But April 30th, 1975 was when the biggest fork in our family tree began.
On that day, the city of Saigon fell. It was the ending of a bloody brutal civil war in Vietnam that rocked the world for a decade. It was the end of the division of Vietnam at the 17th parallel. It was the end of a South Vietnam nation that existed for more than 20 years. a blink of an eye in history, but a lifetime for many of its citizens who still mourn the loss today.
It was also the beginning of our story, our family story in America.
When my niece Dan-Thu Thi Phan was honored at the Nationalities Service Award ceremony earlier this week for her legal work with the immigrant community of Philadelphia, her husband introduced her with the story of her arrival in America. Of how her parents fled Vietnam on this day April 30th, 1975, with a 1-year-old child who grew up to be this amazing human being.
When people ask me where I'm from, they always love to hear this story. The story of how my parents dropped everything they've ever known in their tumultuous lives and led 16 people in the family out of Vietnam on that fateful day. Without that one decision on this one day, none of us would have grown up in America, met our spouses, had our children, who then went on to have their children, and on and on...
This is how the American branch of our family tree began. I was only 10 years old then, but this is what I remembered of that Black April day 48 years ago.
The months, weeks, and days leading up to April 30th were chaotic and terrifying for everyone living in Vietnam. We watched on TV and listened on the radio to the news of the fall of Central Vietnam throughout the month of March and April. As one town after another fell to the North Vietnamese army, the refugees poured out of Central Vietnam in an exodus along the National Route 1 towards the South, and in thousands of boats fleeing the central provinces. Everywhere you look, there were thousands of people fleeing to safety.
On April 21st, 1975, the president of South Vietnam Nguyen Van Thieu resigned, handing power to his vice president Tran Van Huong in the hope that he can initiate negotiations with North Vietnam. Unable to do so, on April 27th, Tran Van Huong resigned and turned the government to General Duong Van Minh. I remember my Dad exploding and saying "Duong Van Minh is just going to surrender, we've lost the war". This was probably how most of the ARVN South Vietnamese army leadership and forces felt because many soldiers just took off their uniforms, dropped their arms, and left, and some officers committed suicide to prevent capture.
My parents bought luggage for all of us for the first time ever and told all of us to pack up our essentials. I remember one of my sisters asking another if we should pack the French dictionary or the English dictionary, and the answer was "Don't know, both". I also remember my dad going to my uncle's house who was a jeweler to melt down all our jewelry into small bars for travel since we didn't know which currency was going to be accepted wherever we ended up. My uncle did not have close connections to the South Vietnamese government so he didn't think he needed to leave but he sent 2 of his college-aged children with us, just in case.
I imagine in those last few days, as we watch the North Vietnamese army coming into the outskirts of Saigon and the evacuations of US-associated personnel and orphans out of the Embassy and Tan Son Nhat, my parents were frantically running around saying goodbyes, and searching for ways to leave the country.
My dad was 51 years old at the time and my mom was 48 years old. They had 10 children, 1 daughter-in-law, and one grandchild to worry about. They both had living parents, and a multitude of sisters, brothers, cousins, nieces, and nephews, none of whom were planning to leave. While my dad had the blessing of his father to leave, he was also waiting for his son to come back from the frontline. This was before cell phones and even normal phones so we had no way to communicate quickly.
We had concluded that our best bet was to move to my sister-in-law's house located next to the main Navy Shipyard in Saigon, which we did on April 29th. Little did we know that up and down the coast, in every river and port, all the ships and boats of the Vietnamese Navy has been running ragged for weeks transporting people and refugees first from the central to the south, then from the south to international waters where they are picked up by the US Navy 7th fleet.
Around 10:30 on the morning of April 30th, we heard President Duong Van Minh on the radio ordering the South Vietnamese forces to cease fighting and announcing the unconditional surrender. The soldiers guarding the Navy Shipyard left, and we came into a chaotic but empty harbor. People were all over the place, looting the warehouses and buildings along the dock, carrying out boxes of food and navy provisions. Every ship and boat had already left the port except for a large open-hull navy cargo ship that was under repair. We heard that someone at the Navy Shipyard was working on fixing the engines and reinstalling the guidance compass so my 2 brothers stayed on the ship just in case and we went back to the house to discuss other plans of escape. We made last-minute preparations like burning and burying the now useless South Vietnamese currency and anything that ties us to the old regime.
By noon, I remember seeing a tank with a North Vietnamese flag roll down the street, looped around the entrance to the port, and came out. Then in the afternoon, my sister, who went to the Shipyard to drop off some provisions for the brothers, came roaring back on her moped to tell us that one of the engines on the ship was fixed and they are getting ready to leave. Our family drove straight down into the port and boarded the ship. We piled our meager belongings in the middle of the straw mat that my brother put down in the hull of the ship and all 16 of us sat all around the perimeter of that 6 by 6 mat.
The ship named HQ 402 took off limping out of the port, swinging 30 degrees after a certain distance, requiring constant manual adjustments, and made its way down the river. Apparently, it stalled for almost an hour, going round and round and running into shores on both sides of the river because it was being crewed by inexperienced civilians using a malfunctioning intercom system. But just as we reached the estuary and can see the ocean, we heard the call to stop from a bullhorn. It came from a small, armed boat flying the North Vietnamese flag that was chasing after us. The ship started to slow down and there was a chorus of "No, no, don't stop" coming from the passengers so the ship sped up and kept going. After tailing us a distance towards the open sea, the boat turned around and went back up the river.
The last-minute, post-surrender repairs and miraculous escape of this ship HQ402, crewed by mostly untrained volunteers, became a legend in the lore of the South Vietnamese Navy alumni. There was an account written about it in the Vietnamese paper Viet Bao a couple of years ago here :
For my translated English version, go here https://www.theworldaccordingtodrdaps.com/post/the-legend-of-navy-ship-lam-giang-hq-402
The ship kept going on the one chug-chugging engine until we reached international waters whereupon it stopped. It was dark by then and my family was all lying/leaning back on our luggage trying to sleep. We did not pack any water or food and were, looking on longingly at some other families who brought along food or perhaps looted boxes of noodles from the warehouses on the pier.
To pass the time, my father started to point out the constellations of the stars to us. Then he paused and said, "Why are we pointing west? Why are we headed back into port?". He started yelling and went running up to the bridge of the ship. It turned out that the crew does not know where to go upon reaching international waters so they just left the ship idle. Since only one engine is working, every so often, the ship would rotate 30 degrees, and eventually we were facing 180 degrees in the direction of land again.
I got sick and lost track of time sitting around on a rocking ship, thirsty and hungry. In the morning, or maybe a day later, we were rescued by other functional South Vietnamese navy ships, the HQ 2 and, when it came to our turn, the HQ 6 which took us to the Philippines. As we came up out of the hull and transferred to HQ6, I saw open waters for the first time in my life. The clear blue sky and the deep blue ocean met in an endless horizon all around us. It was a refreshing and liberating view after being stuck inside the pit of a ship for so long, and an apt metaphor for the new beginning of our lives. But the ships were rocking all through the transfer and I gulped down too much of the water they gave us after a day of thirst, so I was too busy vomiting to appreciate the view or the metaphor. Once the ship started moving, though, I had no more sea sickness.
In the Philippines, we were transferred to a larger cargo ship named Green Forest that took us to the refugee camp in Guam. Life onboard this container ship was open and free. The toilets were built out of wooden stalls on planks jutting out of both sides of the ship that was traveling at 20+ knots so used toilet paper was flying everywhere, all the time.
I found an old article that was digitized recently on Operation New Life at Camp Orote Point in Guam detailing the herculean effort that the camp made to accommodate this sudden influx of refugees.
I certainly remember the tents and the long lines to get food on the first day (It may have been my brother and me in the foreground of the picture below :)). By the second day, we had discovered that there was more than one field kitchens in the camp and were able to avoid standing in line for 3 hours to get breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
After a few weeks, we settled into the nomadic life there so much that my dad even made a rock garden at the entrance to our tent out of white pebbles he found on the beach. I think there was a star and a flower within a circle inside a square on either side of our entrance. The Camp newspaper came to take pictures for their story. We went to the beach to pick up creatures that looked like extinct trilobites and sea cucumbers. We went to the movies in an open park. I remember a giant insect horror movie "Food of the Gods" and the comedy western "My Name is Nobody". We ate canned pears and chicken noodle soup after the movies; and thought we were in heaven.
We stayed on Guam island for a few months before being transferred to the army barracks at Indiantown Gap in Pennsylvania. The flight from Guam to Pennsylvania stopped over in Anchorage, Alaska. A glimpse of the mountains and the stuffed polar bear in the airport triggered a little fascination for Alaska that I was able to fulfill almost 40 years later. Almost like a loop, the first state in the US that we landed on, Alaska, was also the last state that we visited in our quest to visit all 50 states in this great country that I landed on so many years ago. ( https://www.theworldaccordingtodrdaps.com/post/alaska-the-magnificent-one-perfect-trip )
In Fort Indiantown Gap, we had the summer to play, find lost friends, family, and get to know other families. I remember my brother bringing back to our barrack a close friend of my sister who he later married. There was a lot of screaming and tears of joy.
Our family stayed there for a few more months before being sponsored to Minnesota as 2 separate families, one in Minneapolis and one in Marine-on-St-Croix. The Lutheran church that sponsored our large family in Minneapolis gave us a very warm welcome and a good start to the new life in the States.
And it all started on this day 48 years ago at the end of so many tragedies. Indeed, for every beginning, there is an ending, and for every end, there is a beginning.