I vividly remember the waves of humid heat that rose off the cement and the pungent tropical smell that assailed my nostrils when I first stepped off the C-141 at Tan Son Nhut Airbase in 1964. The smell was a mixture of moist earth, smoke from cooking fires, exhaust fumes and the fecund stench of rotting garbage. My body got used to the heat and humidity in time but the tropical smell of Vietnam was everywhere. The smell never left you. Sometimes I can still conjure up the odors from just looking at pictures.
War makes a deep impression on those who experience it, whether as a soldier or as a civilian caught up in it. My war was Vietnam. Other American vets had a tough tour and their war experience was ugly and dangerous. I was fortunate to have had a mild war experience in comparison, but it still left me with strong memories. Now, more than forty years after my time in Vietnam, I have been able to come to terms with the mixed emotions that it left me and have gained a new perspective of this scarred and war-weary land.
Sai Gon 1964
Sai Gon in 1964 was an exciting Vietnamese city with strong influences of the French colonial capital it used to be. Vietnam was in the middle of a long, protracted war - in 1964 it was now an American war. I had an apartment downtown and enjoyed the French restaurants, sidewalk cafes and nightclubs of this exotic Asian capital, but the war was never far away. While I was there Viet Cong blew up a number of hotels and restaurants, but I was lucky and was always elsewhere when the bombings took place. Every time I sat in a sidewalk café I was conscious that a grenade could be tossed from a passing motorbike, but again I was lucky. There was an artillery sound and light show every night out in the country, and many nights I spent time at the roof top bar of the Rex Hotel watching it with fascination.
The city was jammed with refugees who had fled the fighting in the countryside, or who had fled the north after the 1954 Geneva partitioning of the country at the 17th parallel. The streets were clogged with bicycles, cyclos, motorbikes, military trucks, and ubiquitous yellow-and-blue Renault taxis. Beggars and prostitutes were everywhere, and the black market flourished on every sidewalk and in every alleyway. At night nearly every doorway had ragged homeless sleeping in them.
I was a U.S. Air Force officer assigned to the 13 Reconnaissance Technical Squadron to process and interpret aerial photos flown by RF-101 Voodoo tactical recon jets over Vietnam and Laos. The planes flew their recon missions and my team and I developed the photos and searched them for enemy targets to bomb. Much of the time I was looking at imagery of the Ho Chi Minh trail and Laos.
In 1964 there were only about 20,000 Americans in country. That year 206 Americans died in combat. The big buildup of troops didn’t begin until March 1965. Compared to the flight crews and the soldiers and Marines who were stationed in the jungles and rice paddies with people shooting at them I had a gentle war, if there is such a thing. My duties took me all over the country and I was struck with the beauty of Vietnam and the friendly Vietnamese people whom I met. I made a number of Vietnamese friends. If I’d had a different, more dangerous assignment, I would probably have felt quite differently, but this was my war experience. I always wanted to return to Vietnam, it was so beautiful.
When I was stationed there with the U.S. Air Force I believed America was doing the right thing, helping to defend South Vietnam. America had halted the spread of communism in Greece and in Korea and could do it again in a partitioned Vietnam. I made a number of Vietnamese friends in Sai Gon who had fled the north when the country was divided in 1954, and their tales of Viet Minh terror and brutality brought home why America was there fighting a war.
I can still remember as if it were yesterday where I was and what I was doing when Sai Gon fell to the North Vietnamese army on April 30, 1975. I was depressed and felt a sense of great loss that I couldn’t verbalize. I was angry that none of my friends or family seemed to feel the same way. The whole thing was just a bit of irrelevant news for them, and I think that I annoyed them by even mentioning it.
I grieved for the loss of all the brave Americans who had died in the Vietnam War. I worried about the Vietnamese family that my wife and I had supported through the Foster Parents Plan. As the “Dark Years” descended on Vietnam with the communist victory in 1975 what had happened to them and were they suffering because of their association with an American?
“Adopting” a Vietnamese Family
In the fall of 1964 I had walked into the Foster Parents Plan offices in the city and asked if they had a needy family that my wife and I could help support.
“The war has created terrible conditions here,” said Miss Brown, the local Plan Director. “There are 12,000 needy children here in South Vietnam that are supported by our foster parents and we would welcome your sponsorship. Let me show you some of our families who need your help.”
She brought out several folders for me to look at. Each folder had a short description of a Vietnamese family and had pictures of the family. One of the children from each family was designated as the Plan’s foster child, but in fact monthly sponsor donations went to support the entire family. Each family was worthy and I wanted to help all of them, but in the end I picked Bien, a small boy about 9 years old with a sad face. He had an older brother and five sisters, and his family lived in Sai Gon.
Miss Brown cabled our application to New York and received approval. We were now foster parents F39783 to foster child V4814. She and I completed the paperwork for our sponsorship and she explained the procedures. “We would like you to send us a check for $15.00 every month along with a letter to your foster child,” she said. “In return, he will write a letter back to you every month and tell you about himself. We will translate the letter for you.”
Even on my Air Force 1st Lieutenant’s pay $15 a month wasn’t a lot of money to me, but Miss Brown assured me that it would make all the difference in the world to Bien and his family. I remembered all the war refugees who slept in doorways at night and the crowds of beggars everywhere in Sai Gon, and envisioned Bien’s family living on the streets without food or shelter. Our $15 a month seemed very important in that context.
It turned out that we were going to be Bien’s third Plan sponsor (two previous sponsors had been unable to continue their support) so we began our monthly sponsorship with a double payment to catch up.
“Would it be possible for me to visit Bien and his family?” I asked. “Since I’m here in town and all.”
“Our sponsors usually never get to meet their children, but I think we can work something out,” she said. “I will talk to the family’s case worker and see what we can arrange. Each of our case workers has about 300 families to handle, so it may be a little while. We will get in touch with you.”
Only a few days later I met with Bien’s case worker and we traveled to his home to meet him and his family. My letter tapes from the visit describe a small narrow house in a dirt alley where the family lived. The house was spotlessly clean but cramped and bare with only the most basic of furniture. There were 3 or 4 50-kilo bags of rice in the corner and the caseworker explained that the mother supported the family by buying and selling rice on the street. The father had tuberculosis and could no longer work at his job as a laborer at construction sites. The family was clearly just surviving.
I visited Bien and his family several times when I was in Sai Gon. We went to his school, and I took them to the zoo. We continued to exchange letters every month. At the end of every letter he listed the items that the Plan support had provided for his family, from soap to school supplies, food to money. When I left to return home at the end of my tour the family gave me a beautiful lacquer painting as a memento, which I knew they couldn’t afford. I was deeply touched by their kindness.
In a letter he sent in 1965, after I had returned to the States, he wrote: “More than a month has gone by since you left. I have been missing you very much, especially those Sundays when we went to the zoo together. I still remember the day when you took me to my school. I do wish that I could go out with you every Sunday,” He continued “My family join me in sending our very best wishes for happiness and continued good health to you and your family…”
Uncle Sam was good enough to send me back to Southeast Asia in 1969 on another “all-expenses paid vacation”. I was assigned to Udon Thanee Royal Thai Air Base in northern Thailand about 50 km from Laos. I was able to arrange for a couple of weeks “in-country” (Vietnam) and came back to visit Bien and his family again. They were still struggling to survive but were doing better, and the Plan continued to help them with their basic needs.
In January 1970 we received a letter from the Plan that told us that Bien’s family was doing well enough that they were no longer in need of Plan support. The family circumstances had improved to the point where outside assistance was no longer necessary.
The letter went on to say:
“Bien is attending the 3rd class of a private secondary school with schoolfee of 500$ ($4.27) a month. Bien is an intelligent and active boy but doesn’t want to go on with his studies. Bien plays the guitar very well, and plays in an orchestra. Bien and his family are aware that Captain Crabtree encouraged him to learn to play. They are appreciative of FP’s help. Bien’s present height is 4ft10 and weight 78 lbs.” “Brother Ban (20) entered the military service.” “The family have made great progress. They bought a television for 20000$ ($170.94) and an electric fan for 5000$ ($42.74). Their monthly income covers the family’s expenses. Bien is giving up his studies. Plan is canceling this case after the Tet festival, February 1970.”
They terminated our support for him and his family in 1970, and we had high hopes that the family would prosper. Without the Plan’s point of contact and translation help, however, we lost touch with Bien and his family over the years.
My life continued on, focusing on a new job, a growing family, and a new address. I followed the events in Vietnam but it became a dimmer and dimmer memory. In 1974 my family and I moved to Michigan, and thought little about Vietnam. After the last Americans left in 1975, Vietnam wasn’t front-page news anymore. We heard about the travails of the refugees, the horror stories about the boat people, and the reeducation camps and forced resettlement to new economic zones for those who had supported the South Vietnamese regime. With others in our church we sponsored two refugee families from Vietnam. In about 1980 I was invited with other Vietnam vets to parade down the main street in Lansing, Michigan as part of the city’s Memorial Day observance – it was the first time that the vets from this war had been recognized there, and the applause of the crowds as we passed by was long overdue but much appreciated.
Every now and then memories of Vietnam would intrude into my head, like on a night flight I took in September 1999:
Flying over St. Louis tonight
Lightning lit the tops of the clouds below,
Staring out the plane window
The smells of long-ago tropical nights,
Once again I was sitting in the dark
The traffic noise
Somewhere, someone was at war.
From time to time I would wonder what happened to Bien and his family. With no way to contact them, all I could do was hope and pray that they were spared and were doing OK. I had no way of knowing.
The American War
Americans call it the “Vietnam War”. The Vietnamese call it the “American War”. It defined the character of an American era. It shaped how my generation viewed the world and our trust in our government. For many of us who served in Vietnam it was a life-changing experience that we will never forget. Even now, more than a quarter-century after the end of the war in 1975, the ghosts of Vietnam linger with us. Vietnam service, or lack thereof, is a yardstick that we use to measure presidential candidates. Vietnam was a “tar baby” that mired America in an unpopular and costly war, and every foreign war since, including the Iraq war, is compared with the caution that we won’t get mired in “another Vietnam.”
For America this was the longest foreign war in our history and with the fall of South Vietnam, the first time that our side had lost a foreign war. From the period from 1950 when America began assisting the French in their Indochina war until 1975, 2.8 million Americans served in the Vietnam Theater and nearly ¼ million were killed, wounded, or missing in action.
For Vietnam the American War was only a brief period in their 1,000-year struggle for independence from the Chinese, the French, the Japanese, and then the French again after World War II. The American War began when we intervened to help the South Vietnamese after the 1954 partition of the country. The total number of Vietnamese casualties during the American War, both north and south, is estimated at nearly 3 million soldiers and 4 million civilians. According to David Lamb in his book “Vietnam, Now” an estimated one million fled the north in 1954 and became refugees in the south.
The Dark Years
Most Vietnamese I spoke with referenced time “before 1975” and “after 1975”. Vietnam has a population of 80 million and is the world’s 13th most populous country. Sixty percent of Vietnamese were born after the last Americans went home in 1975, and the American War to them might never have happened at all.
The North Vietnamese forces swept south from the DMZ into South Vietnam in the spring of 1975 and the war was over in a matter of weeks. North Vietnamese forces entered Sai Gon on April 30, 1975 and the South Vietnamese government collapsed. Sai Gon was renamed “Ho Chi Minh City.” For the first time in a very long time Vietnam was one country under Vietnamese rule.
General Vo Nguyen Giap and the Provisional Revolutionary Government pledged that everyone in the south would be welcomed as brothers with no recriminations. “Fellow countrymen in the South and in the North” would work together to rebuild their country in the spirit of Ho Chi Minh’s wishes. However, the 20-year period that followed has been called the “Dark Years” as the new communist government attempted to reform, reeducate and remake the now unified country into its socialist image.
Starting in May 1975 anyone who had been in the South Vietnamese military or government, religious and labor leaders, scholars and intellectuals, lawyers and critics, or anyone with an association with the Americans, were ordered to register with the new regime. Hundreds of thousands were ordered to pack enough clothes and personal effects to last ten days or two weeks, and were sent to “re-education camps.” Many did not return for several years, many more died of malnutrition, disease and starvation. Some remained in these camps for nearly 20 years. According to Amnesty International more than one million Vietnamese were sent to re-education camps, but that number cannot be verified.
Families of these individuals were also affected by discrimination in access to health care, employment and higher education, according to the US State Department’s Report to Congress in 1981. Hanoi spokesman Hoang Son concluded that “there were 6.5 million Vietnamese who were ‘compromised’ by ties with the non-communist regime in South Vietnam.” Communist Party sponsored “study sessions” were obligatory for all adults.
In an attempt to reduce the vast number of refugees in the cities after the war, thousands more were relocated to “new economic zones” to create new communities and farms out of the jungle.
Centralized control and planning was disastrous to Vietnam’s economy, and an international trade embargo led by America made life very difficult for the average Vietnamese. There were charges of corruption and favored treatment among Party officials. In response to incursions across the border, Vietnam invaded neighboring Cambodia and overthrew the Pol Pot regime. Vietnamese troops stayed in Cambodia for ten years. China invaded northern Vietnam, then withdrew after being beaten by the Vietnamese army. Vietnam struggled to repay foreign debt and much of what little rice it produced went to pay it off. During the Dark Years it was difficult to get enough to eat.
There was a flurry of South Vietnamese who left the country in Operation Frequent Wind as the North Vietnamese approached Sai Gon. After the fall, according to the CBC 130,000 refugees escaped Vietnam in the spring of 1975. Later, perhaps more than one million Vietnamese fled the country during the Dark Years as “boat people” risking their lives in small, leaky fishing boats on the treacherous seas trying to reach asylum in Thailand, Hong Kong, Malaysia. From there they hoped to be able to emigrate to America, Canada, Australia, France, or anywhere in the west. Others were evacuated through the US sponsored Orderly Departure Program. Those that left their homeland are called “Viet Kieu”, the “overseas Vietnamese.” Asian Week estimated that there are 2.5 to 3 million of them.
Other Vietnamese elected to stay, for any number of reasons, and survive the wars, near famine, economic hardships, and rigid communist policies in their homeland as best they could. They were just as brave in many ways as the Viet Kieu.
Doi Moi Reforms
The Vietnamese Communist Party grappled with the problem of failed economic performance and the elusive goal of establishing a new society. In 1986 a new group of more liberal socialist party leaders adopted the “Doi Moi” reforms that liberalized state economic controls and allowed the private sector to grow. It was no longer illegal to make a profit, and farmers could decide what to grow and when depending on what the market dictated.
In 1994 President Clinton ordered an end to the 19-year old US trade embargo with Vietnam and in 1997 the first US Ambassador to Hanoi since the war took up his post in Hanoi.
Finding Bien’s Family Again
I often wondered what had happened to “my family” in the turmoil following 1975. How they had fared with the new regime and what were their lives like? Had they been singled out for special treatment because of their association with the Foster Parents Plan organization? Did my visits and letters to them brand them as American sympathizers? Had the mother’s buying and selling of rice classified her a capitalist, an illegal activity? There was no way to know, and no way to find out.
Once I had made plans to return to Vietnam after all these years, I began in earnest to try to locate Bien’s family. Encouraged by a good friend who had found a young girl that he had befriended while in Vietnam with the US Navy’s “brown water fleet”, I knew it could be done.
The Foster Parents Plan now operates offices in the north of Vietnam and in the central highlands. Their records from the south were all gone, and they were not able to locate Nguyen Thi Dieu, Bien’s caseworker. They were able to locate an 82-year old former caseworker that handled cases in Saigon during the 1960’s. Bien’s information was passed along to her to see if she remembered anything about the family – an address, a name, anything. She unfortunately did not.
I tapped into several communities of Vietnamese immigrants in Texas and California, hoping that someone could give me a lead to one of the family members. I had no luck. A Vietnamese contact in France that I was referred to was also unable to help. The Vietnamese Embassy in Washington, D.C. had no information, but suggested that I contact some of the local newspapers in Ho Chi Minh City for assistance.
I e-mailed to three daily newspapers there and one of them, the Thanh Nien Daily suggested running an ad in their Sunday edition with a readership of 430,000. I sent them ad copy and two photos from 1964 and they translated them into Vietnamese for me. The ads first ran on Sunday, March 18 and in only 2 days members of the Tran family contacted the paper. We had found each other after nearly 40 years!
“Congratulations, you found Bien's family,” read the e-mail from Phan Minh Anh Thu from the Thanh Nien Newspaper in Ho Chi Minh City. “After the first issued newspaper day, there are many his relations called me such as: his wife, his children, his sister and his friend. His wife went to my newspaper office and showed me some old picture of Bien's family and she told me many things about Mr. Bien and his family.”
The news was bittersweet however, because Ms. Thu from the newspaper also reported: “But there is bad news : Mr. Bien died of lung-disease ago 8 year (1999). Now, He has a wife, two children and a sister in Vietnam. When you come to HCM city, I will help you to contact with them”.
The next day I received a phone call from Toronto, Canada from one of Bien’s sisters. Three of his sisters had immigrated to Canada in the 1980’s. The other sisters remain in Vietnam with their children. The widows of Bien and his brother Ban both live in Vietnam as well. Over the next several days I received more phone calls and e-mails from different members of the family from Vietnam and Canada.
One of his sisters wrote in an e-mail from Toronto: “We like to say THANK YOU VERY MUCH!!!!! For every things you had done to help my family, and specially you are still remember us.” She continued “We don’t know how to tell you about our feelings right now, it’s very very happy!!!”
I was overwhelmed by all their good wishes, and was very much relieved to hear from them after all these years and that they remember me. The three sisters and their families who immigrated to Canada are working hard to rebuild their lives. Today, 32 years after the war, things are also much better for the family members who stayed in Vietnam. The future looks brighter for all of them.
The Tran Family story
In many ways, Bien’s story is not too much different from thousands of other Vietnamese families who went through a tragic and difficult period that divided families and subjected them to hardships that the typical American can only imagine.
Their story began in Lang Son, a provincial capital north of Hanoi near the Chinese border. Bien’s family lived there, father, mother and seven children, trading goods across the border. I don’t know what their life had been like living through the French Indochina War, but with the fall of the French fortress at Dien Bien Phu and the subsequent partitioning of the country in 1954 with the Geneva accords, the family fled the north and resettled in Sai Gon. They left on very short notice with only the clothes on their back and a tablecloth. An older sister elected to stay behind in the north, and two babies who had died in their infancy were buried there.
The family began their new life in the teeming capital of South Vietnam. The father found work as a laborer hauling building supplies for the construction boom going on to house the flood of refugees coming from the north and from the countryside. He developed tuberculosis from poor diet, crowded conditions, and hard work It was a common ailment in the city. He could no longer work, and the mother supported their family by buying and selling rice in the streets for a small profit.
When the family reached the south, Bien was born in 1955, his sister My in 1959 and his sister Yeng in 1961. The family now had two boys and five girls to support. I entered their lives in 1964 when the family was struggling to survive. In 1973 the father died without seeing the fall of Sai Gon. In 1989, during the Dark Years, the mother died of thyroid cancer for lack of proper medical care.
“The doctors kept telling her it was just a sore throat,” said one of her daughters. “By the time they did tests and identified it as thyroid cancer it was too late”. Mother and father are buried at a Buddhist cemetery west of Sai Gon.
The two boys married as did four of the girls, and they started to raise their own families.
Bien was drafted into the South Vietnamese army as a soldier. Ban had entered the service earlier was an air force radar technician. When South Vietnam fell in 1975 they were ordered to register with the new communist government. Since they were lower ranking enlisted men, they only had to undergo a three-day “reform study” in June. They attended “reform study” during the day and were allowed to go home at night. After that they and their families had to attend nightly neighborhood “study sessions” but were allowed to survive as best they could under the new rules and planned economy of the communist government. During the Dark Years it was often difficult to find enough rice to eat, and any commercial activity had to be done clandestinely.
Ban died of liver cancer in 1989, and his younger brother Bien died of lung cancer in November 1999. Their sisters insist that with proper medical care both would still be alive today, but there is no way of telling. During the Dark Years medical care and medicines were in short supply, with preference for care given to Party members and to citizens of the north.
One of the daughters married a South Vietnamese Navy frogman in 1970. He had to flee the country to avoid being sent to a re-education camp and left his wife and three children behind, promising to contact them and arrange for their safe departure. He never did, and after nearly seven years he remarried.
Two of the daughters were able to escape as boat people in 1982 and settled in the Toronto, Canada area. Their sister, whose Navy frogman husband had left earlier, also tried to leave but was frustrated at every turn. She and her children made 21 attempts to leave before succeeding in making it to a refuge camp in Malaysia – twice the small fishing boat they were on sank, twice they were chased by pirates and had to turn back, and several times she was cheated and lost the money paid to pay for her passage. Out of fear of what the pirates would do if they were caught she left her 11 year-old daughter with relatives and made the journey only with her 12-year old son and youngest daughter. Finally in 1985 she and her family were able to escape, and in 1986 joined her two sisters in Toronto.
In addition to the oldest sister who still lives in northern Vietnam, two sisters and the widows of the two boys continue to live in Sai Gon. They chose not to leave, or were not able to raise the money to do so, and lived through the Dark Years as best they could.
With Doi Moi and continuing changes in Vietnam the future for the scattered family is much brighter. The three sisters and their families in Canada are hard working and their children have adapted well to their adopted country. One son is in college and the family places a very high priority on education. The family who lives in Vietnam has also prospered and emphasizes education and hard work.
My Visit to Sai Gon
I was honored to be invited into the homes and lives of Bien’s family when I visited Vietnam recently. They welcomed me as a long lost “grandfather” who had helped them when they were most in need, and whom they had never forgotten. Their homes reflect the pride that they have in their culture as well as the long road that they have had to take from 1975 until today. Their children are well behaved and respectful of their elders, and all are intent on their studies or their jobs.
I stayed with one of Bien’s sisters who was only five when I last saw her. She and her husband have three children. Their oldest daughter is a flight attendant for an international airline and travels around the world. A younger daughter works at a travel agency and deals with foreign travelers every day, and their son is in High School and wants to go to university abroad.
Barriers to the return of the overseas Vietnamese are now gone. While I was there I was able to meet the youngest sister who was visiting from Toronto.
I was privileged to take part in family matters as an old friend. I was taken to visit the Buddhist shrine and pay my respects to the ashes of Bien and his older brother. We visited the old family home, now the home of Bien’s widow and her two children. We visited the hospital where the fiancé of one of the daughters works as a doctor and he took me on a tour of his ward. The sister where I stayed plied me with one Vietnamese delicacy after another, and we ate at some wonderful local places with delightful food. They laughed at my poor attempts to get my tongue around the tonal language of Vietnamese, but they were laughing with me and appreciated my efforts.
When I left they heaped gifts upon me so that I worried about how I was going to get them all in my suitcase to take on the plane back to America. I have never felt so welcomed by a family anywhere and don’t know how to thank them.
Penny and I visited Bien’s sisters and their families in Toronto this summer. Our welcome there was just as warm as in Sai Gon, and they also remember my visits to the family so many years ago and half a world away.
Old Memories of the War Have Been Replaced
My old memories of the war have now been softened and largely replaced by new ones, of the story of one Vietnamese family and how they have overcome trials and tribulations that most Americans can only imagine. I am amazed that such a simple, small act of walking into the Plan office 43 years ago would have borne such rich and satisfying fruit. It has put an entirely new human face to the Vietnam War for me, and I feel as if I have been blessed beyond measure.
The highest blessing, however, came from the youngest daughter of the sister I stayed with. The daughter is engaged to marry a young doctor.
“We would like you to come back to Vietnam for our wedding,” she said. “Would you and your wife be part of our wedding party in January? All of my family, even the ones in Canada, will be here.”
I wouldn’t miss the wedding for the world. My plane flight has been reserved and I’ve received the Vietnam visa for my passport. Between now and then all I need to do is to continue to work on my Vietnamese. Oh, and help one of their sons get into an American university where he wants to study international business once he graduates from high school.
Last updated November 11, 2008
Copyright © 2008, Allen Crabtree
Published in the Bridgton News
Copyright © 2008, Allen Crabtree
Published in the Bridgton News