Tom Minor Interview
Salt Lake City, Utah
Give us your full name.
My name is Tom Minh Minor.
And how old are you?
I don't remember. Fifty-five years old, I believe.
And you're from where?
My native country is South Vietnam.
And tell us about your life in Vietnam.
I was born in 1956 in Saigon, and my family is a very poor family in Vietnam. Though I was born in the city, I lived in various different places in Vietnam. The earliest place I can remember was in Ban Me Thuot, which is Central Highland. The setting where I grew up is quite primitive. I remember living in my grandfather's house that have dirt floor with thatch roof and mud wall made of mud and straw and bamboo frames. I recall that was the first home that my grandfather lived in, and we stayed there for a time. And then, after that, we build a bigger house that has wood siding and straw thatch roof.
I think in Vietnam during that time, it was in the early stage of the war, and every village outside of the city have what they call a strategic hamlet where the people build wooden fence around the village. And during the daytime, they would go outside of the fence to farm, and then at nighttime, they moved back inside these strategic hamlets and then fence themselves in and protect themselves from communists at night. And I remember our village had two layers of fence around our village, and so that's kind of a setting that we were growing up with.
Tell us about your life as you got older.
During that time, I was growing up and live with my grandmother. My grandfather had since passed away. My mother, having to live in Saigon to be the breadwinner for the family, and she provide the resource to raise all the children. We have eight brother and sister who were taken care of by my grandmother. And so my mother have to be at the city to make money and send the money back to the village for my grandmother to raise us.
And then as time grows, she get better financially, and she was able to move us closer to the city. And so we moved to different places. At one time we moved to Da Lat, and another time we moved nearer to Saigon. And at the time when we left Vietnam, we were in the suburb of Saigon called Phu Nhuan.
So you were brought up in the middle of a war.
What were your impressions, as a little boy, of the war?
The war is part of our life, and we don't think much about the war, other than, we have to respond to the event of the war. And I recall, as we go through different phases of the war, like the early time when I was in the remote village, we lived in strategic hamlets. We were very susceptible to attack from time to time. Transportation was very difficult. When people go from the village to the city, there's always risk to their life because when they travel along the road there would be road mine. There would be attack on the road.
My grandmother, on one event, took my younger sister to the city to visit my mother, and her convoy was attacked by the communists. And the event that she told us afterward was that the bus was stopped and they herded all the people out on the street, lined 'em up along the ditch and they start shooting at them. And my grandmother carried my younger sister, and she fell down onto the ditch, and then other bodies fell on top of her and cover her.
I remember when we were at the village we received news that many buses had been attacked and they started to bring the bodies back to the village hospital. And we have to go out there trying to identify if our relative are there. And I remember that my uncle went out there and he say, "We couldn't find the body of Grandmother, so she must be okay." And later on, she recounted to us the story of she having to dive down into the ditch to escape that massacre.
And so that kind of event as I grew up. And we lived in Du Lac. I think that was 1968, during the Tet Offensive. And I recall, during that time, every house have to build their own barricade, you know. They either have to build sandbag or logs, so we cut a lot of logs, stack in front of our house to about this high. And that's the way we would protect ourselves from stray bullets.
We remember, when we go to bed, we would all be prepared. So we have our shoes on, we would dress in warm clothes so that if we had to run you wouldn't be caught with the cold. My grandmother, at night she would always cook a pot of rice, because if we have to evacuate immediately we would have food ready to carry with us. And so you would always be ready for the event of war. We don't know when that's gonna happen. When we go to bed, we would always monitor the battle condition.
Every town, there would be an Army camp, and the Army camp is a target for attack. And so if you live near the Army camp, then your house could be one of the houses that would be a collateral damage because of wrenching. That is, they come and they're somewhere out in the jungle. They would set up their rockets, and they were trying to aim for the Army camp and they would miss it. They would fire maybe two or three shots and they would miss it. In the daytime, they come in and scout it and see how far they missed, and then they'll go back the next day and shell it again. And if you are around there, you would be one of the house that they miss and they hit you. And so sometimes you wake up in the morning, you walk there and you say, “Okay, the noise that we heard last night was my friend's house and he's gone,” or “some members of his family were gone.” You don't sleep soundly at night. You would always watch for the activity of the battle.
I remember, my great uncle and I, we would lie in bed at night, seven, eight o'clock and we would listen to the shelling of the rocket. And he would tell me something like, "Oh, tonight is just a battle." And he'd say, "Well, that's only 30 shells going out. That's just checking the enemy's pulse." And when the shell kinda started getting up to 50, he said, "Okay, it looks like they're getting ready for a battle." And then when you sleep, you would listen for the sound of gunfire. There would always be gunfire. When it started to get dark, you would start to hear gunfire.
And you have to recognize what sound gun that was, whether it was an M-16 sound or whether that was an AK-47 or whether it was machine fire. And depending on the type of weapon that you hear, you can gauge the battle and whether you should get ready to start running or not. And so we would be watching, alert to that all the time and all through the night. I remember sleeping in my house, and we have house that's built out of scrap lumber and so you see crack along the wall. And as kids, I used to lay there at night and watch for the light of the flare that come through. So when there's a battle they would shoot flare up in the sky. And you'd see the light travel, the shadow of the light come through your house, and you can see the light travel through. And the flare last maybe 15 second, a minute or so hanging up in the air.
And my brother and I, we would follow that shadow and say, “Okay, that's the direction of the parachute. And the next day, we would go and hunt for this parachute because those would be our toys. We don't have toys, and so we would go there and say, “Okay, there were five going that direction and two going this direction.” And we would go out there and try to see if we could find this parachute. We'd climb up the tree and pull them down and those would be material for us to build toys out of.
And so there are scary things that happened during the war and there are exciting things that happened during the war. And we made use of those. Being Asians in that environment, we become very practical even at the young age. We have to make use of everything that we could during that war. We're not afraid. We make toys out of bullets all the time, bullet casings, chains, because those are the only materials that we have to play with. There's no modern toys that we could play with.
And your mother is in the city working, correct?
What was her profession?
Her life start way back before the war of Vietnam.
What were you taught as a student about the war and your history?
The thing that we were taught about the Communists are this: Communists has no religion. They don't believe in religions and they forbid people from following religion.
Communists are anti-family. They would break apart the family. They would use the family to destroy each other. They would break apart family. Children of the Communist regime are separated from their family to be taught by Communist teacher their Communist value system.
The Communist value system include the loyalty to the party. You should have no loyalty to your family. You should not have loyalty to your religion.
Communist is the apex of your value system. And it's okay to lie, to cheat, as long as you achieve the objective of the Communist, is to spread the belief of Communist. Communists do not believe in personal property or personal right, so you don't have the right to own things and you don't have a lot of freedom to speak and to act.
And Communist is a repressive regime, and the evidence of Communists are around us. When, every time the Communist take over a place, they will go in there and destroy people. Communists at that time do not value an intellectual. They don't value people who have knowledge experience. They believe that physical laborers are the pure value of Communism. And so people who are intellectual are usually persecuted for it, and we see evidence of that when we were growing up. And so that is the image that we have of Communists, and Ho Chi Minh, of course, is the leader of the Communists, and he has a desire to occupy the south.
Is there anything you can tell these American vets to help them settle, in their heads and in their hearts?
Yes. To those who served the war in Vietnam, as a person, I have a gratitude to them. Every time I see any symbol of the Vietnam veteran, my heart have a special feeling, a tender feeling toward them. I know that it took a lot for them to be in that war, and sometimes there are people who came there with the full knowledge of what they were doing. And they embraced that war and they go in there with a mission and they share the burden of the Vietnamese people trying to stop the flow of Communists.
And then there are those who were forced to go there reluctantly by the policy of the American government. As recipients of the service, I accept them all, whether they were forced to be there or whether they came there willingly, because they are a shelter to me. They were a shelter to me, and they provide the safety that I would otherwise not have. I would have the ability to grow up during that years of my life without influence of the Communists, without the oppression of the Communists. And it allowed me to grow up to be the person I am today. If they were not there, I would be an entirely different person, and I don't know what I would have been if I grew up in a Communist philosophy, thinking process, or oppression.
They provide a service, and even just their presence there provided me a mental safety net. I mentioned before, I see American flag, I see the American truck. Everything that were American is a symbol of hope for me. Those that didn't last through the whole history of the war, but at least for the time that they were there, they were a sign of hope. And I have that gratitude for them. I owe them that debt of gratitude.
And I still remember that scene, when we ran from the bus to the airplane, and the U.S. Marine standing, facing my own government to protect me. That's an image that I couldn't forget. And so, yes, I feel their pain. I understand the conflict in their mind. I understand, in many case, the sense of loss, that they have sacrificed so much, and it seemed like we end up with nothing. It was a waste of life and a waste of heart, but not to me. It was not to me. They were there because, for me, they provide a shelter and protection, and the means to grow up somewhat normal.
I don't know how to find an answer for that question, and I've reflected on that many times, and I say I don't think I can find that answer in this world. Maybe on a higher spiritual plane there may be an answer for that, and I'm sure every person have one; but not in this world with the political explanation. The events of history are linking together, and when we're trying to give an explanation for a war, within a period of time, I think there's vacuum in there. So your question was, “how do I feel toward the servicemen?” I have a great gratitude for them.
Especially, you know, I know in my neighborhood, there was one house where there were a POW flag up, and I know he was from the Vietnam War. Every time I see that POW flag, I just feel the pain. I just know that they suffered for me in some way.
Talk about your mother.
Yes. It's a difficult part of my life that I hesitate a little bit to share in public, but perhaps you decide how to work it out. But early during the colonial time, Vietnam was a colony of French, and of course the French government set up their governments and they have their secret police and everything. And everybody in Vietnam, as a Vietnamese, everybody have this engrained passion for the country. Vietnamese are very nationalist because we have been dominated by Chinese for thousands of years and the French when they came. So Vietnamese people always have this desire to gain independence for the country, and so everybody in Vietnam want to get rid of the French so that they can get independent.
And my mother, when she was sixteen years old, she joined the resistance group. And so she was part of the resistance group trying to do everything they could to foil the activity of the French government. And she was a carrier, and she'd carry messages from one camp to another camp. And one day she was caught carrying messages from one camp to another. And she happened to be a fair looking lady, young person, and a lot of boys in the village have eyes for her. And one of the boys that have eyes for her was the son of the police chief who was part of the -- I think they call it the Second Bureau of French, some kind of police or secret intelligence. And the story told to me was that his parents would say, "If you agree to marry my son, then we won't persecute you and your parents. If you choose not to, then there's gonna be a consequence."
So they entered into a forced marriage, and that's the start of my family. From that family there were eight children that came out from there, and obviously, it was not a happy marriage. It was a very painful marriage. And so I could say that my hardship started with the colonial of French. And I think that's a common string that hang out throughout the Vietnam War, is that an action taken by a nation to another nation affect the rest of the citizen and affect their thinking process and affect how they grow up and affect the value system that they have and everything that they work around.
Regardless what happened, it turned out to be a very bad marriage. And eventually it came to a separation of marriage, which was a very difficult thing to happen in Vietnam because it was a Catholic country. The first president of Vietnam was a strong Catholic, and then he imposed the Catholic law onto everything and they couldn't get a dissolution of the marriage. And so that strung out for many years. And in the meantime, she having to take care of all of her children and her siblings and her mother. And she became the sole person that had to care for the whole family, so she had to go to the city.
She married when she was sixteen. Obviously didn't finish high school, if there was any kind of a high school in Vietnam at that time to consider for. And so she went to the city after the marriage was dissolved, and she began to work as a secretary. And so she learned secretarial skill and she learned English, mostly through radio. I remember waking up in the morning when I happened to be with her. I would hear her prepare herself for the morning and she would turn on the radio and listen to BBC. And there would be English lesson that she would learn through the radio, and she would practice her English on the radio.
And I think, later on she progressed from being a secretary to the last position that she worked for a company, was the human resource manager for a company called P&E. And I don't remember what their name was. P&E was a company, I think, that administered economic aid to Vietnam. So every time there was an economic aid granted to Vietnam, this company would administer that. And that usually translate to a road project, construction project, something like that.
Talk about your stepfather.
Yeah. My stepfather, his name is William C. Coleman. He's an American who left the country when he was 19, and he spent the remainder of his time in Korea and in Vietnam working for a subcontractor. They usually follow American airbase and American base and work to build construction, provide road and sanitary and supplies and so forth.
And he traveled with those companies and he end up in Vietnam where he met my mother when they both worked for a company called P&E. He's a very kind person. He's a very gentle person. I don't know much about their romance, how they came to be with each other and how he chose my mother. I know that he had a lot of people who he have eyes for, and he chose my mother who has eight children that she have to care for. There must be something special about him to find in her, maybe a compassionate heart to care for this woman and her eight children. So he's a special person to me.
Talk about strategic hamlets.
Strategic hamlets, I think if you looked at that from after the war and analyzed them, you may have a different answer for that. But as a person growing up in the strategic hamlets it's a different thing. Psychologically there is a physical barrier there that provides you some protection. When a Communist come into the village, they have to do something to that fence to get in. They can destroy it, which means there's evidence of the activity, and the people will go and repair it. And then they'll do something about preventing that from happening again. So it brings the awareness to the people.
I don't think it is a secure physical barrier, but it provided a mental barrier. It provided them alertness to activity. If the Communists wanted to come into the fence, they could. There's nothing to stop them. They have guns, they have mines, they have bombs. But for them to break through that, they have to do something with it, and that would bring awareness to the people.
It also provided the people with a feeling of belonging. In the daytime, they would go out there and work, and at nighttime they moved back into the village so they are closer together, they can talk to each other, they can call for help. And so there are some psychological effects, using a physical manifestation. But it's not an impenetrable barrier. It's a pretty flimsy barrier they can break. In fact, once in a while when we need fire wood, we would go out there and tear down a few of those posts and take it home and use it, and then replace them a few weeks after that. So no, it's a psychological tool more than anything else.
When the country falls, you're in high school, right?
So what's happening at that point?
Okay. So there are two settings that I'm going back and forth. In my teenage years, when I went to school, schooling in Vietnam is difficult, for my family at least. My mother was very busy providing money to support the family, and so the focus was not on education. Nobody watching for me, nobody telling, “go to school.” And so as I'm growing up, I had the opportunity to attend first grade to about fifth grade in village school, and then I attended one year of sixth grade. And then, for whatever reason in my family, I didn't go to school and I couldn't account for why I didn't go to school. Either we didn't have the financial resources to go to school or something. But I missed seventh grade, eighth grade, ninth grade.
And by that time, the draft became an issue, because by that time, getting close to being enlisted into the Army. And so my mother said, "You have to be in school. You have to go to school and you have to be able to obtain enough qualification to not be drafted, because if you are drafted you die." The rate of death for enlisted men is really high. And so she said, "You need to go back to school." So she found a tutor and helped me try to cover all those years that I didn't have. And they sent me to an (only? 31:42) culture school because it required less academic knowledge. And so I was sent to an (only?) culture school. My parents also developed a business with this school in trying to develop that school into a university, so it's a good place to send me there.
And so that place is called Lam Dong, which is kind of Central Highland. It's about two, three hundred kilometers north of Saigon. It took about five hours to get on bus to go from Saigon to there. So I was attending school up there. And Lam Dong is kind of a small town. It's hilly. The climate is a little bit cooler than Saigon; just a lot of rolling hills with a lot of forest, a lot of waterfall and stream. And in Lam Dong, the special product in Lam Dong was tea, and so you see a lot of plantation with hills, soft round hills with a lot of tea.
All through Vietnam, I recall, because at that time we were either investigating the LDS church or already a member of the LDS church, and so I would go to school and on Sunday night I would travel from Saigon to my school by bus. And then on Saturday at about midday would be my last class. I would take the bus and travel back to Saigon.
The interesting thing about this weekly trip is that, in Vietnam, because of the condition of the war, when the sun set, all the roads are barricaded. And so at every junction of the road, they would barricade the road. And then in the morning, the Communists would likely go out there and place mines on the road. And so they would have convoys. There would be a demine truck that would start first with a few Army men, and then they would see something in the road. They would go and demine it, and then they would open the road they would clear. And so every section of the road, there would be a demining activity in the morning.
And so people who travel on the road, the two most dangerous times of the day are the first bus that opened the road, and the last bus that's on the road before it closed, because those are the times when the Communists are likely to come out and intercept the bus. So I would be on the last bus and travel home, which is very dangerous for me. But the faith that I have in the religion just doesn't seem to be a concern for me.
So I would be on the bus, and the scene that you could see on this bus would be something like this: You would see a bus packed full of people inside, even on the standing hallway. And then, as the last passenger on the bus, I would be either hanging on the side of the bus at the door, and that would take me all the way to Saigon, or I would climb up to the top of the bus and sit on the cargo rack, and that's how I get to the city because the bus would always be packed full.
How old were you?
So that was when I was 17 and 18. I spent two years in the Central Highlands before I left Vietnam. And there is no communication from city to city. There's no telephone that you can call, at least I don't have one in my home and not in the school. I think there would be post office where you can go and make a phone call, but it's not like you can just dial a number and get somebody. During the year that we have to evacuate, my city was isolated. And so, Vietnam was a long skinny land, and during that time, the Communists already start to subdivide the country, that different key strategic city.
And so my school was isolated. I have no contact with my family. And we're trying to figure out if we're gonna be captured by the Communists, or whether we can escape. The road go to Saigon had already been disconnected, and we have no means to communicate. And so I was in this province. I'm trying to find a way to get back with my family. And so I recall during that time where everybody was worried. And we said, “Well, we are disconnected from the city. How are we gonna get back there safely?”
And I remember, for that whole month we had been listening to reports and we see refugees from other cities came to our city, and they would tell us where the battle was at. And they would say, “Okay, that was 20 kilometer away. And then, the next week would say, “Well, it's five kilometer away,” and then the next week they'd say, “Well, they're gonna be here in a few days.” And so we were scrambling trying to find resource.
And I recall the last night in that city, we have a worker, a manager for my farm. His name is Jesse McGilligan, and his wife and his children. And he stayed there with me. And we went over to see one of the American advisors, Mr. Wendell, and he has a Vietnamese wife and he speaks Vietnamese. And he was kind of a special intelligence officer there. And when I talk to him, I can hear him on the radio. He's talking to his special force in the mountain who are Montagnard. I can hear on the radio, and they talk back to him. And they say, "Well, they are this far away and here is some of the activity." And he told us, he said, "Well, you have connection to American family, so I have an obligation to help you." And he said, "I have a helicopter reserved for me that, if you need to evacuate out, when I evacuate, and if you need a ride, I can give you a ride."
And we didn't feel safe about that, so he loaned us some money to buy gas, and we got enough gas and we decided to leave the city without him. And we traveled further north, away from Saigon hoping to find another safe place to get out. And we eventually traveled out to the sea by the province called Nha Trang, the city called Nha Trang where there was an American airbase there. And we contact the American airbase and they happened to be evacuating their people and they allowed us to ride back to the city.
And it was interesting, when we landed in Saigon, we met Mr. Wendell and his wife, and he told us his account. I said, "Well, what happened to you?" And he said, "Well, the day that you left, that night the Communists attacked the city and I took my wife to the airport to get in a helicopter. And the province chief has already stolen my helicopter and evacuated his family." And see, he was stranded in the city, and he and his wife ran barefoot out to a lumber truck and got a ride on that lumber truck, get to the same city that I went to, and came back to the same fly. And so that was an account of how I got back to my city. Otherwise, I would have not been here. I would have been stuck back in that warzone and not been able to get back with my family and escape out.
What happened next?
So that was – I can't remember – February or March of 1975. So I was able to escape back to the city and spend time with my family there. And that brought my brother back into the picture. I have an older brother who was drafted into the Army, and his group was stationed in some remote location, I don't recall where. And we found him home one day, and he told us, he said his unit was massacred. His whole unit was destroyed, and he was the only one who was left. He happened to be sleeping on a hammock hanging up on a tree and escaped the battle just by being up there. And after the battle was over he escaped and walked back to the city and found us and stayed with us.
And during this time we attended church. And I remember hearing my parents talk about escaping Vietnam. In general, the whole city, the people don't know about the imminent fall of Saigon, but somehow my father know about that. I guess we have a member of the church who was attached to the American embassy and he's passing us some information. My father has been told by the American embassy that he had to leave Vietnam because at that time, Americans have already evacuated all the essential personnel out of the country. Prior to that, and I can't remember the month, but I know that the missionaries were taken out of Vietnam.
So one day we came and the missionaries say, "We have to leave the country. The mission president told us that we can't be here." So they all picked up and left, and so the church was empty. We felt kind of lost, because the missionaries have been a strong anchor for us, spiritually. When we see them, we know we are safe, at least for us.
During the war, any sign of American presence is a symbol of security for us. In Vietnam you can travel, if you see American flag, it's okay. That place is safe because there was a force there that holds things in place. If you look around and you don't see English words, you don't see the words “U.S. Army,” you don't see American flag, you're in the gray zone. Even if you go to a place where there was a South Vietnamese flag, it's still not safe because the Army is present during the daytime, and they are not present during the nighttime because at the nighttime they would move back into the camp. And unless you live in a strategic hamlet, when the Army moved back to that camp and protect themselves, the people in the village are exposed. And the Communists would come in, knocking on the door at night, collect tax and threatening them and capture them. And so you are not always protected.
Now, if you are living near an American base, for some reason, they have a stronger defense parameter and you feel always a little bit safer there. So it has a multi-dimension on our psyche. When we see an American we say, “Okay, that part is safe.” On the other hand, when you're in the city and you see an American establishment, it's less safe because that's a target for bombing, 'cause disco place, this was a place where Americans gather. There would be a lot of bombing incidents occur, so you have to watch for it. But at least for me, when the American missionaries left, we feel desperate. We say, “Okay, that means there is not much safe.” If even the missionaries couldn't be there, then there is little force left.
So during that time, I remember, when we were there, my mother told us, she said, "We need to make a plan for evacuation. We don't know what's gonna happen, but we just have to be prepared." And she said the American embassy told her that we each have to prepare ourselves. Every person can carry a small bag that weighed no more than 25 pounds. And she said, in there you have to have two days' supply of water and three days' supply of food and anything you can take with you.
And so I remember walking around the house and saying, “I'm gonna be leaving my home and my country and never to come back. What are the things I wanna keep with me and take with me, in addition to the food and water that I have, and should weigh no more than 25 pounds?” So she cut our curtains and she sew up this little bag that we can carry, you know, we can hang on our shoulder. And I remember going around and I say, “Okay, I need a pair of nice clothes to go to church. So I put my nice clothes in there. And then I got my scripture, my Vietnamese Bible, because I couldn't find that anywhere else, so I brought with me my Vietnamese Bible. I found a little bamboo flute that I play, because that's the sound of my country. When I hear the bamboo flute, I remember my country. So I brought that with me. And that's pretty much it. That's all that I carried with me to here.
And I think my parents were given the map of the city with different locations marked up on there. And I think the instruction was that, “We don't know when it's gonna happen, but we'll send you a message. We'll direct you to where to go, and these are the locations that you could travel to, and somebody will contact you and tell you what to do.” And my father was told to leave the country and he said, "No. My family is here. I cannot leave without them. Unless you provide a means for them to go with me, I won't go." And so he stayed while, prior to that time, all the American expat family had started to move, and we went and said goodbye to them one by one; eventually there's no one left.
On one Sunday, we were getting ready to go to church. We received the phone call from the American embassy, I don't know, maybe not from the American embassy. But we were directed to go to an American airbase in Tan Son Nhut, the airport in Saigon that's divided into two or three sectors, and one of the sectors belonged to Americans and they said, "Go to this gate." And so we drive straight to the gate and were admitted into the gate.
And then we stayed, and so they sent us to a bowling alley. And I remember walking into the bowling alley. There were lots of people, families that are in there, Vietnamese families, and they all sit on mattress. So we have mattresses everywhere in the bowling alley, and we have two mattresses for our family. And that's where we stayed while we were waiting for things to happen. We didn't know what. We just know that they're providing us some security, safety. We know that the general population doesn't know about the evacuation, so this is a special evacuation for people who have associations with Americans.
And so I remember staying in that bowling alley for maybe four or five days. We wake up in the morning and we see a few mattresses were not there anymore, so we know that they are being moved out. Once in a while, the bus would come and then they would go. We don't know where they go. We just know that it's their turn. And when it came to our turn, we were alerted maybe about two o'clock in the morning, and we were taken out to an Army bus. And then the bus drove us in the dark to the runway, and we can see shadow of a big airplane. I think it was a C-130 airplane.
And I remember, they opened the door of the bus and there were two rows of U.S. Marine personnel. They were lined up from the bus all the way to the tailgate of the airplane. And I can see at further distance there were Vietnamese Police standing there, a whole row of them. And I can see the American Marines who were holding up the M-16 pointing outwards, so they kind of protecting us. I do know that, at that time, the South Vietnamese government doesn't want people to leave the country, and so they were trying to stop this evacuation. And so I remember we were running in the dark. I can't see anything other than the people in front of me.
We ran from the bus all the way into the cargo bay of the C-130. And it was pitch dark inside. I got shoved over to the wall and I can feel there was the net there, so there was nets hanging on the wall of the C-130, and each one of us just hang onto that net. And it was a very quick evacuation, the gate closed, and then the airplane took off. And then we found ourselves in Clark Air Base, and that's where we stayed for a while.
Clark is where?
Clark Air Base was in Philippines.
So you flew directly to the Philippines?
Yes. So we flew from Saigon to the Philippines.
What are you thinking during that time?
It's a strange feeling. For me it was an adventure. I'm not worried about that. Safety is in the back of our minds. We know that we are running for safety, but this is kind of exciting for us, you know. We've never done anything like this before. I mean, to be on an airplane and to be in the military airplane. So in the back of my mind, I thought this is kind of exciting to be a part of.
Is your mother with you at this time?
Yes. My whole family.
How was she reacting?
I think her mind was covering many things. As a Vietnamese person, she has obligation that she have to bear; obligation to her friends, obligation to her family, obligation to her employee, people who work for her. When she leave the country, they have business there. She feels responsible for them. And so I remember when we were waiting in the bowling alley, I heard she talked about, "Well, I need to go back there and get this family member. I need to go back there and get this family member. I need to go back there and make sure they have money to sustain until we know what's gonna happen."
And so I think either she or my father left the protection of the camp and went back to the city to settle. And she brought with her a few more family. Some of them are friends, and they say, "Well, I need protection. I think I will die if the Communists take over." And so she would claim them as their family. And so I think we brought with us two or three other family. One of those was the manager who worked for our family, Jesse McGilligan; he traveled with us as part of our family. And so she have to make sure that her obligation to her sphere of influence are taken care of during that time besides making sure that we are okay.
Talk about when you touched down.
When I touched down in the Philippines, I don't think I had time at that time to process the information. Two things happened. We have to respond to the crisis, and at that time, the crisis was, “We have to leave Vietnam.” We have two sources of threat; the threat of the Communist was going to happen, and the threat of the Vietnamese government who don't want us to leave the country. And now that we landed in Philippines, first, I didn't know that was Philippines, I just know it is another Army camp. And I know that we didn't know exactly where we were going, we just know that we are taking off from a danger zone. But that's all.
And I had a heart condition. And so when I ran out of the airplane, my heart would palpitate really fast and I had shortness of breath and blackness. And so there was a time there that I wasn't processing information. I was just making sure that I would stay with the group and didn't get lost in those. I remember looking back into the hangar and seeing a whole bunch of luggage of people that dropped off from the airplane, and then just ushered into the bowling alley. At that time, all I know is that I say, "We are safe now. We are free from the potential grasp of the Communists, and we are no longer subject to the Vietnamese government."
But at that time, we know that we no longer have a country. I would not have a country that claimed to be mine anymore. And so I know that the fall of Vietnam is imminent, and that my personal identity would be different, because I could not claim a country anymore. I remember, after I settled in the U.S., every time I went in to apply for something, like apply for college or apply for a job, and on that application there would be some place that say nationality. And I don't know what to put down. I couldn't write down South Vietnam 'cause that country no longer existed on the world map. I can't say Vietnam because I don't want to be part of the Communist regime. And so I would leave that spot blank, or I would just write South Vietnam, and then somebody would protest and say, "Well, there's no such country."
And so there's this big vacuum in myself as to identify myself. I don't have a home that I can claim to be mine. You know, I know that I have a land that I know where I came from, but I don't have a group that I can associate with until later on when I received my U.S. Citizen. Then now, I belong. Now I have something that I can claim as part of me.
What do you think of the Americans and the Communists during the war?
I'm sure there are many sides to that story, but the perspective that I grew up with… Communists were bad. We seen a lot of things that happened in our village by the action of the Communists. I'm sure the Communists probably say the same thing about action of either the South Vietnamese governments or the American Army.
But I was a devout Catholic when I was young. And I remember my grandmother and I, we went to early mass, six o'clock in the morning. I remember sitting in a small village church and attending mass. We heard a big explosion near our village. We don't know where, we just know there was a big explosion. And so after mass we walk home, and right at the front of our village there was an Army chief and there was a dead person sitting on the driver's seat, a dead Army person. And then I heard this later story in the village that said, well, the Jeep was mined. I guess he parked his Jeep there, he come back out, sat on that and it exploded. And so that was the first eyewitness that I have about the actions of the war that's created by the Communists. And so I say, “Okay, Communists are bad.”
And then there are many terrorist events that happened around the city, all the time, of Communist action. I know when we travel on the bus, a bus could blow up. Several times, either the bus went before me, they got blew up, or the bus that followed me, they got blew up, but my bus didn't get blew up when I traveled back and forth to school.
Like I mentioned earlier, Americans, it's a symbol of hope for us. I know that there is a lot of bad things happened because of the presence of Americans in Vietnam, but there was a lot of good things that happened because of the presence of the Americans. The only thing I could say that was at least for me, their presence in Vietnam for whatever period of time that they were there provided me some relief, at least some buffering from the Communists until we had to evacuate. It provided us kind of a respite for a time that we can survive. I don't know what would happen if the Communist had taken Vietnam in the beginning. I can't picture what that would mean. I just know that there was hope.
As long as the American was there, there was hope. And I know that when I went back and talked to the people who were left behind, there was despair, and they felt betrayed that the American has left them there with the Communists and didn't have the will to complete the protection that they had set forth in the beginning.
How do Vietnamese people see Americans?
Vietnamese people see Americans with awe. The first thing is, they are larger in stature. They appear to be supernatural. You know, they're stronger, they seem resilient. I remember walking to school on a cold day and we have sweater on. And then we would see this American out there, shirtless, playing tennis. And we'd say, "They must be supernatural 'cause they don't feel the cold." Or that we would be walking to school and we would walk by a golf course, and it was midday in Saigon and there was sweat, and everybody in Vietnam usually during that time would seek shelter in the home. And then we'd see this American walking out there with a golf club, and they would be hitting the golf ball. And we'd say, “Those are the craziest things to do.” People should be inside and seek shelter from the sun, and they went out there and exposed themselves to the sun. So they must have some ability that we don't have.
I remember when I was young we loved to see American convoy. Every time there was a convoy going down our street, the whole village, all the kids would run out there. We would call everybody and say, "There's a convoy, there's a convoy," and we would go out there on the street, and we would wave at them. We'd see the Jeep, with the antenna sticking out when they drive down, and then we'd see all the trucks. And the fun part was, the American soldier would toss out their ration food that they didn't use, and we just loved those 'cause those are new tastes to us; the peaches, the crackers.
I remember when I was growing up, I would not go anywhere without those can opener, those Army little P-38. Everybody would have one of those because it doesn't do you any good having the food can and can't open it. And so they would toss out peanut butter, and sometimes if you're lucky they'd toss out chewing gum. And that's our snack. We don't have snacks in Vietnam, and so every time there was a convoy coming down that would be our excitement for the week.
What about the sound of helicopters?
Yes. The helicopter signified several things. When there's a helicopter, of course you can tell which way they're going, they're heading out, they're starting a mission. And you will be anticipating a lot of wounded coming back in. So when you hear the helicopter coming now and you can see what type. The one would have the two big propeller, front and back. And then there's the one that just looked like a (tapo? 01:02:54). We watch for those. And we would hear them. It was very noisy. They would fly, you know, 50, 60 of them in a row. And when the helicopter went out, then you'd say, “Okay,” you would anticipate, in the next two or three days there would be a battle, a wounded battle coming back. And we would anticipate, and the school would ask you to go to the hospital to do special service to comfort the wounded soldier and bring them gifts and so forth.
These were South Vietnamese soldiers?
Yes, yes. I don't think we ever had access to the American wounded soldier. But the South Vietnamese soldier we would see. The aircraft that is more imminent to our event of the war is the civilian aircraft. I don't know what you call them, but it's a propeller that fly around at low speed and it's so…
Yes. Anyhow, we hear a lot of those. We see those aircraft would fly around and circle us, our village and come back and circle the village. And usually when that happened, there would be battle happening. There would be some fighting that would happen shortly after that. And so we watched for those all the time. Those are tell-tale signs of things to happen that we have to be alert to, and be prepared to respond to those events.
How did you get involved with LDS Church?
Right. Our family connection to the LDS Church happened this way: I think my stepfather and my mother, they got married in 1969. And he took her to the U.S. to see his home country, 'cause he left the country when he was 19, after he was discharged from World War II. And then he stay in Korea, and then eventually end up in Vietnam with P&E, the company that administered economic aid in Vietnam. He was the human resource manager for the U.S. employees. My mother was the human resource for the Vietnamese employees. That's why they have the office romance and got that marriage.
But he took her to the U.S., and they started in New York City. And they drove from New York City to California so that he could show her the whole country, which is probably new to him, 'cause he hadn't been back for that many years. And on their trip they stopped by Salt Lake City, and so they visit Temple Square and they sign the guestbook. And I think, I recall, when she went back to Vietnam, she talked to us about this church and a prophet named Joseph Smith, and she told me about that. And I was kind of skeptical about that, as a devout Catholic person.
But I think in '73 or '74, when they sent the first set of missionaries from Hong Kong to Vietnam, they followed that register book. Somebody sent them the address that my mother signed at the guestbook and they went and tracked us out. So they found us. And in fact, I was the person who answered the door when the LDS missionary came for the first time.
This is where?
In Saigon. In Phu Nhuan.
What happens when they came?
So I was at home. I think it's midday, and we heard the doorbell ring. And houses in Vietnam, at least in Saigon, most people kinda barricade themselves in the house, because of safety reasons. We have terrorists floating around the city and then we have robbers. So we have steel door in front that covers our property. And I opened the door and I saw these two American men, and he was talking to me and I couldn't understand what he say so I thought they were friends of my father. And I didn't speak English at all. I know a few words of English, but I didn't speak much.
And I have a younger sister, Helen, and she's better with English because she live at home and she talked with my father. I live away from home so I didn't have English opportunity. And so I said, “Well, she should be able to understand what they say.” And she went out and talked to them, and she said, "I couldn't understand what they were talking about." And then they started to speak English to her, and they said they are looking for my mother. But we were suspicious because they asked for her using her maiden name, which nobody knew, and so we have these two strange Americans who come to look for my mother using her maiden name.
And later on, I find out they was trying to speak Vietnamese to me. But these missionaries who served in Hong Kong who had learned to speak Cantonese, and then halfway through the mission, or toward the end of the mission they were sent to Vietnam and having to learn to speak Vietnamese. And I think this is probably their first month in the country. But that's how they located us, and of course we investigated the church and found that to fulfill the needs that we have and we joined the LDS Church then.
Did you go to an LDS Church in Saigon?
Tell us about that.
Right. We have a branch, and that branch was closer to town. The branch is really a missionary apartment with a big hallway. The missionaries lived there. Every Sunday, we would come to church. And the branch was in transition. In the beginning, there was a lot more American leadership in the branch, American ex-vet who live in Vietnam, American service who live in Vietnam, they would hold leadership position. And then, as time go by, they would transition. Now, either they were repatriate or that they would call new local Vietnamese leader. I recall when I joined the LDS Church we had a branch president who was Vietnamese. We have the first counselor who was Vietnamese, and a second counselor who was an American member, and the secretary was an American member.
The interesting thing about the branch in Vietnam was, the younger member of the branch has to be always ready to take responsibility because of the strange phenomenon. Because all the men in Vietnam, if they are very old, then they're not in the service, but if they are at the age of 20 all the way up to 40, 50, they would be in the service. And during the war, most of the servicemen would be in the camp. I don't know what the word for that. They would have to be in camp. They can't be at home. And they would go home once in a while. If they have light duty or they don't have combat duty, they may be able to come home during the weekend. Very often, you would go to the branch and there would be no men there, because all the men would respond to a crisis. They would be stuck at camp. And so the youth would have to step up and conduct meetings and prepare service. And so I would always be ready when that happened, because I know I have to carry out the activity of the branch. And that's the reason why I travel from school to the city, to attend church because I know if I'm not there the work may not get carried out.
It's a branch, so we don't have a full function, but there is Relief Society, there was Sunday School, there were Primary, there were mutual associations where young people get together. And a lot of the burden was carried out by the missionary, and that's why when the missionary left there was a big vacuum in the branch and we wasn't sure if the branch can function.
How did it feel to have everyone, including the LDS Church, leave you?
Yeah. Well, we recognized that, and yes, it is a difficult thing for us, because the American left created a big vacuum for us, and we know that something happened. We realized that the Americans are giving up. The promise that was given in public, how they would support us, how we're gonna join together to stop the expansion of the Communist was the common message that carry and propagate and amplify in the public channel throughout the war. And Americans seemed to show commitment on that, because there were a lot of American servicemen in there and we recognized the sacrifice they made, the pain that the American service bear.
I still feel the pain of the servicemen, knowing they have to fight a war that they don't have a passion for, they don't have an obligation for. And so I understand how painful that was for the American service and their family to be involved within this war. And I know that it is an unanswered question, you know, “How do we find resolution for this conflict?” But regardless, when the Americans left, we know that we are abandoned. And when the Church left, we were hurt as a person, as a member of the LDS Church. We were hurt really bad. But we received letters from the mission from time to time. And I think after the missionaries were evacuated, they sent back two missionaries after they found out that it's still okay to come back. They sent two missionaries back to be with us for a short time and then eventually they left also.
I remember, during that time, I rode my bicycle to the branch to help dispose of the Church records. Brother Madison was there and I was there with the branch president, and we would go through and get all the membership records and we would burn them. There was a big barrel on the side of the church, and I would help them burn all the literature, anything that said "Printed in the USA," we would burn them, because we didn't want the communists to find any connection with members of the Church with an American institution. We don't know what they're gonna do. We just know that they don't like Americans, and anything that associates with Americans are a risk to us.
And so I would go and get all the records, anything that they could send back to Hong Kong. I think the membership of the Church was sent back to Hong Kong, and translation work, the scripture that was translated, the original record was sent back to Hong Kong. But anything that they couldn't send back, we would have to burn them all.
And I remember finding a lot of doctrine or books that I want to have, that I wish to have. And I say, "Can I just take this with me?" And he say, "No. It's too unsafe for you." And so, painfully, I dropped those books into this big barrel to burn them all. And scripture and Church publications are rare in Vietnam. We don't have them all. And so anything that we could find, we want to keep, because that's the only thing we have that we could nurture spiritually. And now, all those that we have would have to be burned. And so it was very painful for me to watch the smoke to rise with all the spiritual knowledge that we wished that we could have.
And so the people who were left there, you know, they were without leader and they were without source of reference to hang onto, other than whatever they had. And when I was there, the source of scripture we have that was translated were the Book of Mormon, and they were type-written copy of the translated work, and so it's a very rare event. And I remember when it was in the branch, every Sunday, my sister and I would go and stand at the door of the translation committee because we were waiting for the scrap. Because they would review the work that they translated the week before, and then anything that they don't use would be scrap paper. We said, “Well, give us the scrap paper,” because that would be the earliest translation we would have in our language that we could read. And so we would just wait there to get any discarded scripture that they translated; doesn't matter if it was scribble or not. That would be our source of scripture material to read, because we don't have anything.
And so yes, when the Americans left, it was a big void for us. And when the Church left was a big void for us. And then, when all the scripture and guide book that were burned, it was devastating to many of us. And those who left there felt very, very lonely, because they don't have anything to hang onto.
Talk about becoming a U.S. citizen.
There was a period of my life where I was a person of no land. And there's a big, vast emptiness in there. There was one event that happened at Utah Technical College where we went to school. It was a difficult scenario for me. I remember when I was at that school, my sister, Lavana, and I, we joined the school club called VICA, Vocational Industrial Club of America, and we participated in some of the competition. And one of those competitions, I think we were in the parliamentary procedure competition, and one of the activities in that one was the Pledge of Allegiance.
And when it got to that part during the competition, I say, "I don't know how to handle this. The Pledge of Allegiance is for a U.S. citizen. You pledge your allegiance to this flag. I'm a person of no land. I don't have a U.S. citizen. I can't pledge my allegiance to this flag." Until I was accepted into this country as a citizen, then I would pledge my heart to it. And so during this parliament procedure, I couldn't put my hand on my heart and pledge allegiance. I have it all memorized. I just couldn't do it. And my sister wouldn't do it, either.
And so there's this big discussion in the school about, “Why wouldn't Tom and Lavana pledge allegiance to the country that has protected them and sheltered them, took them out of danger zone?” And I say, "I have a great gratitude to this country and all the kindness that's shown to us. I can't tell how much I appreciate the kind treatment that I received when I was in a refugee camp, to see the abundance of gift that was given to us that I've never seen in my life."
I recall one person asked me, when I was in the refugee camp, "If our country became refugee and came to your place, would you be able to help us as we helped you?" And I said, "I don't know. This is very new to me. I have never seen such an outpour of human kindness, and I don't know how to respond to that. I don't think I'm capable of being that kind." And I couldn't understand why somebody would help a stranger that they have never met before with such an open arm. I know there are many sponsors who sponsor a family, children that they know nothing off. It's just that Americans have a great capacity to care that when I grew up I didn't see.
Even those that live in the war know that there are acts of kindness and compassion in Vietnam. And we usually do that to our people that are immediate to us that we have responsibility for. But we have a hard time, at least for me, understanding how you could help a stranger. Yet in this land, I found people to have the capacity to care for people that they know nothing of. And they can reach to me, deep to my heart and accept me with very little reservation at all.
And so I'm reflecting on this. I went to the institute, and many of my friends at the institute tried to convince me that it's okay to pledge allegiance to a country that you are not a citizen of. And I said, "In principle, it doesn't feel right. When I become the American citizen, I would pledge my heart to it. But before that, I couldn't." It just feel either superficial or it feel wrong somehow. And I remember there were comments by the president of the school about the fact that we didn't do that. But I know I was a person with strong principles, and I just didn't know how to handle that. So I'd say, “It has to be done right, and until then I couldn't. I know this is a competition, and it would affect the honor of the school, but I cannot deviate from my principle for the honor of the school.”
And then after that, I have to learn about the U.S. Obviously, when I came to the U.S. I didn't have my high school and so I have to go to night school to get my GED and complete GED. And through that process, I learned more, all about America. I learned more about the value system of Americans, what make Americans the way they are. And I fell in love with America, with their capacity to care, with their generous, with their fairness, with their trust in the individual. America has this great belief in the individual and the power that the individual has.
I often thought, if I were growing up in Vietnam, even if there was no war, I would not matter much at all in my society because I don't have the right lineage, the right social position. I would survive, but I wouldn't matter much. I wouldn't be able to be an accomplished person first, because I don't have the academic credentials, you know. I didn't have so many years of schooling. When I went to America, I went to the first school and all the teachers were there and they would help me.
I remember I elected to study electronics and there were many teachers in Utah Technical College who have such a great capacity to care and they sat down with me. I can't speak English, and they're trying to teach me English, at the same time teaching me the technical side of things. And they spent many Saturdays trying to usher us into the schooling system. And so I would not find that in Vietnam. There is obligation, responsibility, but the ability to care for people who need help, the individual who needs help, is uniquely different by the American.
Then, after I gained sufficient knowledge of American history and political systems and value system, we had to go for a formal interview with somebody representing the judicial system, and then we had to take the test and we passed the test. And then we were given the U.S. citizen. And that was a very happy day for me.
What was that moment like?
It's wonderful, because then I say, “I am now somebody. I can now identify myself with a country, and I have embraced the American value system. I have embraced the free-thinking process of America. I have embraced the capacity to love. I have embraced the ability to think freely, which is the greatest part of being an American is to be able to think freely. I'm not longer constrained by some of the traditions that I have.” The traditions are still important to me, and I still value many of those Asian values, but coupled with the new creative process to no longer fear for your thoughts. Because when you were in Vietnam, you have to govern your thoughts. You can't think too freely. You can't express yourself too freely. More for your safety, and also for the proper social etiquette that you have to have. In America you don't have to worry so much about that.
So it's refreshing. To be an American is wonderful. You are free to act. You are free to utilize your potential, whatever potential you have. And I find myself that in American school system, I'm able to make use of all of my faculty and my capacity.
Underwriting for this program is proudly provided by:
KUED and the Utah Department of Veteran Affairs invite you and your family to honor Utah's Vietnam War Veterans.
Armed Forces Day
Saturday May 18, 2013
Utah State Capitol
2:00 to 4:00 p.m.