After the fall: Vietnamese remember ‘Black April’ 35 years later

04/28/2010

The first inkling Kim Lien Pham had that the war was finally ending came when she found the gold bars her mother had sewed into her underwear.

Growing up in Saigon, the capital of South Vietnam, the 7-year-old had turned a blissfully blind eye to the blood being shed on battlefields across her war-weary country. Until the spring of 1975, when children began finding bullion in their briefs, many remained largely untouched by the fighting.

“But I knew something was going on when my mom began exchanging money for gold bars,” she recalled recently. “My father said, ‘Any day now, if I come home and say, “Run,” you run.’ ”

Thirty-five years ago tomorrow, they ran.

Eventually Pham — who changed her name to Melissa — settled in San Jose, which has the largest Vietnamese population of any American city. Now 43 and herself the mother of two children, Pham is yet another golden product of the American immigrant dream, a member of what is among the largest diasporas in modern history — the Vietnamese “boat people.”

Like many Vietnamese-Americans around the South Bay, on Friday, Pham will once again mark the fall of Saigon. But unlike those for whom the suddenness of the South’s surrender and the subsequent brutality of the North’s authoritarian regime have made “Black April” a somber annual remembrance, time and distance have not made Pham long to return to her homeland. During her only visit since the family fled Vietnam, she found the country depressing. “The whole time I was thinking, ‘I’m so glad I’m not living here,’ ” she said.

Hoang Mong Thu grew up at Tan Son Nhut, the American air base on the outskirts of Saigon, where her mother ran a restaurant that served 1,500 soldiers a day. The bodies of Viet Cong infiltrators killed near the base were brought back to the restaurant and stacked like wood. Otherwise, said Thu, who settled in San Jose and now goes by the name Megan Williams, her childhood also was unmarked by the war.

“The American soldiers loved kids,” she said. “They were tall, nice-looking guys who would give us chocolate and gum. We knew the war was going on outside Saigon but “… the government never talked about how we were losing, just winning, winning, winning. They didn’t want us to know the true story.”

As North Vietnamese troops encircled the city, Marine Col. Al Gray was orchestrating the evacuation of American and South Vietnamese civilians — more than 8,000 terrified people during the largest helicopter airlift in history. Gray dispatched the Air America helicopters that evacuated the American Embassy in Saigon and took people off another rooftop, later identified — incorrectly — as the embassy in one of the most famous images from the fall of Saigon.

Gray retired as commandant of the Marine Corps and a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, but in those frantic final hours of South Vietnam’s life as a country, he was the last man out of Tan Son Nhut.

“We burned and blew up the buildings, blew out the communications equipment, and I burned $8 million that had been put in barrels,” said Gray, now 81. “It broke my heart, having been there for about five years. Here we were, letting down everybody and not doing what we originally planned to do.”

Following the withdrawal of U.S. military forces in March 1973, the U.S.-backed government of South Vietnam was clinging to a fantasy that the country would be partitioned again, as it was in 1954 at the end of the French Indochina War.

“I think it would be normal to be in denial in their situation,” said Larry Engelmann, a retired San Jose State history professor and author of “Tears Before the Rain,” an oral history of those displaced by the war. “And there was a lot of that going on.”

Thu’s family — she’s one of 15 children — declined an offer of a flight to the United States from an officer who frequented the restaurant. “My parents said, ‘What are we going to do in America?’ They had that restaurant all their lives. So we stayed in Saigon.”

All she knew about the Viet Cong was based on myths the government had spread. “We thought the Communists were just like animals, or vampires with long teeth,” said Thu, now 52. “But when they drove past on their tanks the day the city fell, they just looked so young, like boys.”

When the old currency collapsed, a system of barter sprang up in Saigon at “the biggest flea markets in the world.” To escape on a trawler required payment in the kind of gold bars Pham’s mother had sewed into her clothes. After fleeing to what was now called Ho Chi Minh City, she lived among the prostitutes of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam until she saved enough gold to escape in 1979. She said half the people who tried to escape after the war didn’t survive.

With 40 other people, she was jammed into the hold of a fishing boat, sitting on blocks of ice there to keep the fish cold. Alternately shivering and retching from the smell, the refugees had each day’s catch dumped on them. “Even now,” Thu said, “I can’t eat fish.”

Melissa Pham’s passage to freedom began the day Saigon fell aboard a South Vietnamese navy vessel, the most surprising aspect of which was that South Vietnam had a navy. “We had no clothes except what was on our backs,” said Pham, who had two gold bars sewed into her underwear in case of emergency. “My father had filled a gas can with water and people were trying to steal it, but they couldn’t because my father had a gun. That’s how you defended your water on the boat. It was scary.”

After drifting for days while “packed like sardines” on the boat, Pham hung from her father’s neck as he climbed aboard a barge on the high seas. After stops in Guam and Arkansas, her family was sponsored by two churches in Milwaukee, where she and her siblings learned to speak English from Catholics. She learned it so well that she later had to relearn Vietnamese by watching dubbed Chinese kung-fu movies.

“My father said we would go with whatever religion would help us out; it didn’t matter what they believed,” said Pham, a Buddhist.

By Christmas of 1975, an estimated 130,000 Vietnamese refugees had been sponsored by churches and families who provided them with new homes in the United States. According to an article in Vietnam magazine, an American publication, the only state that initially resisted the influx of boat people was California, where Jerry Brown was then in his first term as governor. Brown’s administration reportedly attempted to prevent planes loaded with refugees from landing at Travis Air Force Base.

Brown received a stinging rebuke from White House photographer David Hume Kennerly, who had photographed the evacuation. According to the article, Kennerly said Brown had “no compassion for your fellow human beings.”

Four years later, while positioning himself for a presidential bid, Brown created a task force to help boat people find homes in the state. A spokesman for his current campaign for governor, Sterling Clifford, declined to comment on Brown’s previous positions.

Melissa Pham and Megan Williams both returned to Saigon during the 1990s and came home disillusioned. Pham went back with her parents, visiting Saigon — which she refuses to call Ho Chi Minh City — and Dalat, a once-beloved retreat in the Central Highlands. “Dalat was like a dream when we were children, foggy and mysterious,” Pham said. “Now it’s stark and bright, with no trees. And there goes your dream.”

Source:   mercurynews

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