Horst Faas/Associated Press. A farmer helplessly held the body of his dead child as South Vietnamese troops looked on. March 19, 1964. The child had been killed as government forces pursued guerrillas into a village near the Cambodian border. Lens Blog, New York Times
Vietnam War November 1, 1955 – April 30, 1975 (19 years, 5 months, 4 weeks, 1 day)
There’s so much history involved with this was that it’s too much to write about in one blog post. My family is from South Vietnam and my father was drafted into the South Vietnam Army. He was also held captive for 3 years by the Viet Cong after the Fall of Saigon. He escaped and was deemed a POW. He doesn’t speak much of his experience either, I think most POWs don’t. It was a rough time in history, for everyone. There were protests in the United States, families were torn apart, and refugees fled seeking asylum in the US. There was so much chaos and pain- it’s unimaginable.
It wasn’t until the age of 14 when my mom started revealing to me the details of our family members, including her escape from the Viet Cong. She told me “You would run until your feet would bleed. You can see bodies dropping around you as the Viet Cong shot the refugees trying to escape. They didn’t care. You ran because your life depended on it and you hoped the next bullet wouldn’t hit you. Each time you ran from them, you would lose track of your loved ones because running in a group just means you’re a larger target. You had to disperse, to create the illusion of smaller moving targets. Dispersing meant you would be alone, but you could save your life as well as the others.” She attempted to escape 4 times because during the first 3 times, someone had informed the Viet Cong and the location to meet up was compromised.
I have an aunt, who always stood out in my mind. She was so sweet and doted on the kids when we would visit. She made you feel like you were the #1 kid in the whole wide world. During this conversation, I asked my mom why she never had kids, she was loving and kind and seemed to have so much love to give. My mom revealed to me that she once had two young boys and a husband when she was on the boat that was headed to the US. On the boat, the men were on the top deck and the women and children stayed on the bottom deck. The boat had approached a Korean oil tanker and the captain asked if they could board the tanker. It didn’t make any sense that he wanted the passengers to board the tanker because the refuges were not allowed into Korea, they were not granted sanction in Korea. For whatever reason, the captain made his decision. Unfortunately, as the boat got closer to the oil tanker, the wave that it had created while cutting through the ocean water, rocked the boat and shook it. The wave was strong enough that people were thrown overboard and injuries were sustained on the top and bottom decks. At the exact same time, my aunt was climbing the access ladder, with one of her boys in her arms, the other was ahead of her on the ladder. They were trying to get to the top level to be with her husband so they could be ready to board the oil tanker.
When the wave had hit the boat, she was knocked off of the ladder and so were her boys. When she woke up, she was on the lower level of the boat again, lying next to other victims who were recovering from injuries attained during the shake up. Another refugee informed her that they were rolling the deceased bodies into the ocean. They couldn’t carry the dead across the Pacific Ocean because they would rot horribly and the damage they sustained from the wave was already an issue. She informed my aunt, that my aunt had been placed with the dead bodies, because they thought she had died, but after another check, they realized she was breathing- so they brought her downstairs to recover. When my aunt got to the top level, she saw that her husband and her two sons were among those who were deceased. When the time came for her husband and sons to be rolled into the ocean, she helped roll them off of the boat. And that was it, they were gone.
When she arrived in the US, she was alone, and didn’t know any English. Inevitably, she was placed in a psychiatric facility for some time. So many had passed during that event, I’m not sure she ever recovered from the incident. I don’t know if she had time to mourn the loss of her family, or time to heal from the emotional scars, but I do know that she felt lost and alone in a strange land. She eventually met my uncle whom is now her current husband and they’ve been married ever since- but behind her smiles, she was never the same again.
The reason why I tell this story, is that there are so, so many stories such as that one, which have never been told. As first generation American, I have no idea what it took for my relatives to come here. Guerrilla warfare is hand to hand combat and if you couldn’t stand your ground- you would easily be killed by the hands of the other. I look at my relatives now, and I wonder what stories they have not told. I wonder what life was like, the fear they felt as they watched their country collapsing, their homes being destroyed and the future filling up with unknown endings.
I have a deep respect for life and people. Everyone has a story. Everyone has a past. Please ask, learn and spread that knowledge. Every single one of us has a story, perhaps not about war, maybe trauma, maybe a moment that changed our lives- but every single person has a story. I always knew war was bad, and it took 14 years to finally hear the details of how bad it was through my mom’s eyes. Some stories are so painful they they can’t be repeated, but for the stories that can, I hope each person takes something away from it.
South Vietnamese forces follow after terrified children, including 9-year-old Kim Phuc, center, as they run down Route 1 near Trang Bang after an aerial napalm attack on suspected Viet Cong hiding places on June 8, 1972. A South Vietnamese plane accidentally dropped its flaming napalm on South Vietnamese troops and civilians. The terrified girl had ripped off her burning clothes while fleeing. The children from left to right are: Phan Thanh Tam, younger brother of Kim Phuc, who lost an eye, Phan Thanh Phouc, youngest brother of Kim Phuc, Kim Phuc, and Kim’s cousins Ho Van Bon, and Ho Thi Ting. Behind them are soldiers of the Vietnam Army 25th Division. (AP Photo/Nick Ut) CNN, 25 of The Most Iconic Photographs