The Accomplished Mission
The Vietnam War had ended about 44 years ago but it was still in my mind with all the memorable experiences throughout my life growing up in the terrible war and resettled in America. When I was young I had never dreamed of one day I left my country and lived somewhere in the world for good. It happened one day in the spring of 1975 that turned my world upside down.
I was born in Hanoi in 1949 in a big family with four brothers and six sisters. We lived peacefully in a French villa near one of the beautiful lakes in the city. My father worked as a Post Office inspector who was the only breadwinner. Two of my older siblings were sent to study abroad in France.
The Geneva Accords was signed in 1954 dividing the nation between a communist north and a Western-aligned south. Apparently, my father decided to move to the south where he still kept his job at the Central Post Office in Saigon and importantly he detested Communism.
I was young as a five years old when I left so I had not remembered much about Hanoi but enjoyed the life of a young boy in Saigon. However, the war started to shimmer and became violently beginning in the late 1960’s and affected all the Vietnamese families. My brother who was an army doctor died during his service in a tragic accident. Later my father also passed away in his stroke to make a great loss to my family.
I was lucky not to be drafted since I was the only male surviving at home. I finished my high school and admitted to University of Saigon, majoring in Teaching English as a Second Language. My dream of becoming an English teacher nearly came true when our class was ready to take the final exams in our senior year in the spring of 1975. Suddenly, my dream shattered like the rockets from the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) to the city as the Fall of Saigon was coming near.
Fast backward, during the war one of my sisters, Tú, was lucky to study abroad in the United States in 1965. After her graduation she became one of the two Vietnamese stewardeses of Pan Am and had a deep acquaintanceship with Robert Ruseckas, an Air Force serviceman, who stationed in Okinawa. After his duty they got married and settled in Hawaii and he became a student of Asian Studies at the University of Hawaii. He can speak Vietnamese with northern accent, Mandarin Chinese and Japanese fluently.
At the end of March 1975, the invading NVA marched southward and liberated the cities on the way and headed to Saigon any day. The tide of convoys of South Vietnamese troops and fleeing civilians who came under attack from the NVA artillery in the central was so horrific and haunting.
Meanwhile in Hawaii, Bob, or anh Kha (his Vietnamese name) sensed that the war was coming to an end soon so he decided to fly to Saigon and rescue my family out of Vietnam since the Pan Am Director, Al Topping, in Saigon agreed to reserve the seats for the five of us: my mother, three of my single sisters and me. He withdrew all cash savings to buy five Pan Am tickets for us and flew to Saigon. The only commercial airplane that permitted to fly to that fateful city was Pan Am. His wife decided to stay in Honolulu to coordinate the mission by telephone.
The flight turned out to be the last Pan Am duty into Saigon. Bob had planned that he just came to Saigon, picked us up, delivered us to safety and his mission would be accomplished. However, it did not happened as he predicted. He found only my mother and another sister at the airport.
The day before Bob flew to Saigon I was at the Pan Am ticketing office in downtown Saigon on April 23 to ask for permission to get on the flight since I was related to my sister who worked for Pan Am but the office manager denied flatly because I did not have a passport. So while Bob was at Tan Son Nhat Airport the next day on the 24th, I was again at the ticketing office with the slight hope to board the plane but it was too late. The passengers were in line to get on the bus to the airport.
I dashed home and found out my mom and one of my sisters had left to the airport. Within ten minutes I packed some clothes, money (it was changed later to mere four dollars at the airport!), some important documents like birth certificates and school credentials, family pictures, canned food and my precious camera into two small flight bags. One of my sister’s relatives who was a Vietnamese soldier gave me a ride to the airport by motorbike. There was checkpoint monitored by the security guards at the airport entrance. I was scared stiff that I could get caught because it was high crime for the young man like me who wanted to flee the country during that critical time. Luckily, we got through that gate of hell among the chaotic scene with people and vehicles wanted to get in.
I met Bob and Trinh at the airport counter. Trinh was my other sister, who worked at the Post Exchange (PX) located right next to the airport. Bob tried to bring my sister and me to the shuttle bus that would deliver us to the waiting Pan Am on the airfield. But a group of security guards standing at the gate prevented us from escaping. Bob overheard these guards discussing to themselves to let me go with a price tag of US$2000. They didn’t know that Bob knew Vietnamese.
Bob instructed the stewardess to bring down the Pan Am uniforms from the plane. Trinh was told to change her clothes to wear that elegant light blue Pan Am outfit. With big sunglasses and her unfitted uniform she sandwiched herself between the two stewardesses and walked to the shuttle bus. Later she was safely reunited with my mom and her sister on the plane. Their flight destination to freedom: Guam, an US territory.
Later the details of this Pan Am evacuation was made for TV movie named Last Flight Out starring James Earl Jones and Richard Crenna.
As the huge Pan Am 807 readied to taxi on the airfield, Bob took me out of the terminal and let me stay at the Defense Attaché Office (DAO), the American-run airport, attached to Tan Son Nhat. This place now became a processing center for those who wanted to evacuate the country. Bob typed the list of my family and later he asked me to volunteer as interpreter to help the US consular personnel. The Vietnamese civilians and military personnel showed us documents (letters, wills, family pictures…). Bob and I became important interpreters and the consular personnel would decide which ones would permit to leave the country by a short interview and an instant examination of the documents with the American names or pictures with American faces.
Bob later courageously decided to come back to our house by Trinh’s motorbike to rescue the rest of my extended family members and let me stayed at DAO. They were dumbfounded and precarious to see him. After his telling of evacuation story, my family members who left behind all agreed to follow Bob to the airport after long discussion and planning.
The next day on April 25 Bob led this group to enter the airport by American army bus. Not some but 29 of them from the tiny babies to grandmothers: my oldest sister’s family and her husband’s family, my brother’s family and his wife’s family, my cousin and another sister. With clever and fast reaction by Bob, the bus entered the DAO airport safely through heavy security barriers with Vietnamese guards.
But how could he ‘sponsored’ thirty of us while he was only a full-time student without a job? The US consular personnel told him to choose ten people that would be on the evacuation list. Bob brought his case to him: “I can’t choose. You choose. There’s the mother breastfeeding a baby. There are grandmothers. These are my brother-in-laws and sister-in-laws and their families. You choose and I’ll tell them”.
Anyhow, the consular personnel accepted reluctantly Bob’s plea as he knew Bob with his Vietnamese speaking skills would help the processing of Vietnamese refugees.
Now our group just had to wait patiently for the flight at DAO compound among hundreds of other refugees. There was rumor spreading around us that the NVA had decided to withdraw and return to the north so just go home! Who could believe that nonsense?
We were startled to see the bulldozer started to crush the steel quonset huts around the DAO compound. I learned later that this action would save space for the future landing of helicopters.
It was a longest night under dark sky in late April. The only sound that we heard was the rumbling military airplane noise taking off and landing. Now and then we also heard the public announcement called the group number to ready to board the bus to the airfield. Actually we felt safe and secured in this environment. The NVA artillery was still sleeping somewhere in the outskirt of Saigon! No one knew four days later this artillery force sent 150 rockets in early morning on the 29th smashing into the Tan Son Nhat air base where we were staying.
At the crack of dawn on the 26th, our group was called to board the bus leading to a waiting US Air Force C-130 Hercules Transport. However, we had to wait for few hours since the plane had a fuel leaking problem. We had to stay in the plane while the plane getting fixed. Bob instructed the refugees not to smoke and not to get out since the local military had been authorized to detain and shoot the refugees. Some had to pee in the Coke cans.
After few hours seemed like a lifetime the C-130 eventually lifted us up to the sky of freedom leaving behind the chaotic city. The new chapter my life had just turned. Twenty one years ago my family fled the Communist to the south and now we had to run away from them again to an uncertain destination.
We had a safe flight to Clark Airbase in the Philippines where we stayed in the so-called “Tent City” and fed nicely twenty four hours a day at the base cafeteria. The refugees started to come to the airbase like swarming bees day and night. It was time for Bob to call his wife in Honolulu to report about this extraordinary mission.
My sister said: “Did you bring all of my family, Bob?” She thought just only the five of us.
Bob reported: “No, this rescue became complicated. I brought thirty three people of your relatives!”
Tú was shocked: “Thirty three relatives! I don’t know I have that much! Who are they?”
Few days later we were at the airport ready to transfer to another place. While waiting for the flight we witnessed the terrible scene on TV as the helicopters of South Vietnamese Army landed on the US Navy carrier of the Seventh Fleet and later they were pushed down to the deep ocean. Was that real happening or in my nightmare?
On April 30th we landed on Wake Island, a tiny coral island in Micronesia in the Pacific Ocean. Sadly, we read the sad news from the electronic sign in the cafeteria that the capital of South Vietnam was captured by the North Vietnamese Army at last. That was the worst news and a big loss I had ever experienced!
Wake Island was perfect for a vacation spot with the blue ocean and swaying palm trees. But we were not happy vacationers, we were refugees in transit who just fled the beloved country with a heavy heart that Vietnam now became a whole Communist country. We were like people in limbo who did not know what the future hold and what happened to our dear ones who left behind. However, at the same time we all were excited to be free like birds flying in the sky and started to build hopes and dreams.
It was bittersweet to say good bye to Bob as he thought his mission had completed successfully. He boarded the military airplane back to Honolulu.
At the Wake Island we were processed primarily. The immigrant officer even asked us our choices of refugee camps that scattered in the US. After family discussion we chose Florida because of warm climate and less crowded of refugees than California.
Few days later we were transported on a C-140 to the mainland after a stopover at Hickam Air Force Base in Honolulu where we joyfully met Bob again and my sister briefly. It was a long flight to the mainland. As I were looking down from the plane window to see the passing city at night sparkling with lights like Christmas, I thought to myself: “Is this paradise for real?”
During the flight I asked one of the officers about the destination. Shockingly, I found out we were flying to Arkansas! We arrived at Ft. Smith Regional Airport at night then later transported to the assigned barrack at Ft. Chaffee.
After a few hours of rest, we were called to the office for paperwork. Over here we were processed again, vaccinated, got the Social Security card and form I-94, a work permit. A few days later we also got interviewed by the volunteer agency to help us find sponsors who would help us starting a new life in different parts of the free world.
It was time for my extended family to separate and go by their own choices. My brother’s family decided to go to Kansas City, my sisters chose Pontiac, Michigan and some wanted to settle in Montreal, Canada. For me I ended up in Utah to attend Brigham Young University in Provo to finish my study.
We are ever grateful to anh Kha, who alone flew to Saigon in a nick of time to get us out to freedom. He was just like Moses who led and protected us to the promised land. His courage and sacrifice will be ever forgotten. He and my sister had divorced but we always still remember him as our family hero.
America and Canada now has citizens who has been contributing to the society and they were from this refugee group. They and their children became doctors, dentists, engineers, teachers, scientists, architects, police officer, pharmacists, lawyers, secretaries, restaurant owners… to make both nations great and prosper.
Anh Kha, your mission had accomplished. Cám ơn anh rất nhiều!
Thank you, anh Kha!
Thank you, America!
Thank you, Canada!
Đặng Thống Nhất is the author’s Vietnamese name. He resettled in Minnesota in 1978 after spending sometime in Utah and California. He worked for Limited English Proficiency Department (LEP) at Minneapolis Public Schools as a Bilingual/ESL teacher and resource teacher. He attended the University of Minnesota and graduated with a BS in Social Studies and an M.Ed. in Second Languages and Cultures. He taught part-time Vietnamese language at the University of Minnesota. He also volunteered to teach English in China and Vietnam in the summer and Vietnamese language at Phat An Buddhist Temple in Roseville, MN. After spending 36 years of teaching he is now retired. He’s residing in Brooklyn Park with his wife since 1994.