Bruce – 04

vietnam 15 days before
Vietnam 15 days before fall of Saigon

Okay, in trying to recapture old memories and placate three kids who have an insatiable appetite to stretch out my birthday from last week, life gets in the way and can be challenging.  We also had Taekwondo testing for the whole family, which I am proud to say, we did very well.  We all tried our very best, and that’s what really counts.  No one can be perfect, but we can certainly work to be the best we can be.  We did, however, sneak out early and rushed to see Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, on tour in Rochester, NY.  The kids and Sarah had been begging to see it ever since they found out it was coming to town.  It was an amazing production and I was glad to see so many kids in the audience.

My one and only experience organizing such a big production was when I served as President of the Vietnamese Student Association at USC.  My staff and I raised money and organized a tribute to the anniversary of the fall of Saigon at the USC Bovard Auditorium, which drew over 1,000 attendees.  It was a star-studded event attended by Mitch Markowitz and Forest Whitaker from the movie Good Morning Vietnam.  I was later introduced to Robin Williams.  What an experience!

The picture above is another of us enjoying a nice day out in the park 15 days before the fall of Saigon.  I was the same age my oldest daughter is currently.  I can’t help but wonder if my dad had known something was going wrong and was covering up his concerns with a smile.  He was in the government, wasn’t he?  I can’t imagine the stress my parents must have been under with the responsibility for six sons and a daughter.  My youngest brother was just one year old.

In the previous blog, I recounted up to the third day on the fishing boat where our family was completely exhausted and lethargic from lack of food and water, in addition to the motion sickness of the bobbing boat.  We were all cuddled in lumps around my mom.

On the fourth day, nothing much had changed until we heard some commotion up at the front of the boat.  We were on the trailing boat and upon going up to the front, I could see people from the lead boat getting excited.  Someone had spotted a Japanese boat.  Everyone started screaming and yelling.  People took out shirts and anything white to wave at the passing boat.  Somehow we all mustered enough energy to scream.  Our screams were out of desperation.  The Japanese boat must have seen us, but they never veered toward us and continued until they disappeared beyond the horizon.  Not having seen any boats in several days, I was now encouraged by this sighting that there were other people out here.  I walked out to the bow of the boat and dangled over to watch a school of flying fish racing.  I wondered what it must be like for the fish to have the ability to jump so far out of the water, but not quite able to fly; to taste freedom only to be dragged down.  I admired their spirits for trying.

Later in the day, the engine on our boat stopped.  I can only surmise we had run out of fuel. The silence was eerie.  I was getting used to the droning of the boat and clung onto the noise as a measure of consistency and comfort.  From the actions of the men, I could see the situation was urgent.  Without fuel, there was no pump, and without a pump, water could not be evacuated efficiently.  The boat was too heavy and sitting below where it should be on the water line.  Waves were crashing on board and water had to be removed.  My mom feared we would sink.  The men took whatever they could and formed a brigade to remove the water with whatever means necessary, pots, pans, buckets.  I tried to help, but was told I was just getting in the way.

The men decided they needed to lighten the boat and threw as many unnecessary things overboard.  The captain deemed it was still not enough and the men decided to cut down the main mast.  I was fearful it would land on us and we would lose our recently settled home.  The project was successful as the boat seemed to have been lifted by the hands of heaven and given new life.  The two boats were hitched together in order for the small boat to tow the larger one. Even with the lighter load, bailing of the water continued non-stop day and night.

open_Sea_by_najustockWe made it through to the ninth day with the same monotony except for the waves that tossed us around like toys.  We took on a lot of water a few times at night when the waves were especially turbulent.  Despite the increased motion, I was feeling better and started to eat more rice, what little was left.  To pass the days, I would venture to the bow and watch for any signs of oceanic activities secretly hoping for land.  Occasionally, I would see dolphins surface to check us out only to leave us behind.  We were slowly chugging toward the Gulf of Thailand, but there was still no land in sight.  The monotony was maddening.   We kept asking our mother how much farther, but she had no good explanation and we all knew it.  I could see the hope draining from her gaunt face with each passing day.

My mom shared with me a touching moment for her on the ninth day when the situation was becoming dire.  We had expended most of our food as well as the rations.  My dad sat down with all of us to decide what to do. Towing a second boat, in addition to the load of the extra crew, had taken a toll on Mr. Chinh’s boat.  My dad, the pillar of our family, was finally losing hope.  He sat closely to my mom and touched each one of us.  He told her, “I can’t live with the communists.  They will kill me.  I had decided that we would all stick together, but now, I regret that decision because this trip has become too dangerous.  We are not likely to survive.”  He paused for a long time reflecting out onto the distant horizon and avoided our probing eyes.  He continued in a faltering voice, “I don’t want our children to die.  We are in territorial waters.  Some Vietnamese fishermen are still here.  I want to pay them to bring you and the children back to Saigon to live with your parents, but I must continue on.”  My mom said this was the only long conversation they had had together since we left the country.  She looked at my dad, bit her lip and nodded.  Her heart was once again torn with the thought of separating the family.  She looked down at us with tears, this time not bothering to mask her sorrow, and did not say a word.

My dad shared his new decision with his friend, Mr. Chinh.  He did not agree with my dad who was losing hope.  Mr. Chinh still believed we would make it through.  He told my dad that sending the family back was a terrible idea.  If the boats sank, everyone would die, including his own children.  He must have been fairly convincing, since my dad came back and told us he had changed his mind again.  They were committed to the original plan.

On the tenth day, the sky was getting dark.  A huge wall of ominous clouds was bearing down on us.  This storm system was much bigger than any we had seen.  Miraculously, a Thai fishing boat emerged from the menacing clouds and stopped to check on us.  My dad’s friend, the former Thai Ambassador, knew Thai and spoke to the fishermen.  They said they would be back later for us, but they couldn’t take the risk of helping us at that moment since their fishing boat was their livelihood and they still had more fishing to do.  We were very disappointed, but even more frightened about the prospect of not making it through the looming storm.  Many people had a look of skepticism on their faces.

All we could do that evening was get ready and ride out the storm.  The two boats were tied next to each together like a catamaran.  The men were ready with their buckets and pots and pans.  Before the first rain fell, the waves were getting bigger.  The wind was howling at the decks and the pilot’s cabin.  We all huddled together.  In the middle of the ocean, it was pitch black.  I don’t know how the men managed to bail any water out.  Maybe they didn’t.  When the rain came, it came quickly.  I wasn’t sure if the sound of the water lashing on deck was from the waves or from the sky.  No matter, they both whipped us mercilessly.  If we hadn’t been packed wall-to-wall, I’m sure we would have been falling and stumbling quite a bit.  No one slept that night as our stomachs dropped at every churn.

Somehow, we made it to morning still at the edge of the storm.  Again, the men were frantically dumping out as much water as they could trying to reverse the water intake from the night.  When the Thai fishing boat came back, people were not expecting it.  Seeing the Thai boat was the second happiest moment in the trip.  We were transferred onto the fishing boat and the Thai crew took over the tugging of the larger boat.  We were heading to land!  That evening, the typhoon came in full strength, and from what we saw, we would have been lost at sea.  A few hours after we landed, the wife of a Lieutenant Colonel on our boat gave birth to a baby girl.  A new beginning.

Landing in Thailand
Landing in Thailand

When we reached the shore, it seemed like forever before we could get off the boat.  I couldn’t wait.  Now that our worst fears were alleviated, my stomach started growling at the thought of food.  We were filthy and our clothes were falling apart from the salt water.   When I finally got to touch land, it was a sensation of ultimate salvation.  I hid my emotions.  Instead I concentrated on my physical senses.  The air was pungent with the scent of fish.  Why was the ground still rocking under my feet?  It was an unforgettable feeling.  It was one of the happiest moments of my life.

So much had changed within such a short amount of time.  Landing in Thailand marked the beginning of a new journey.  This experience shaped my life forever.


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