On this day, you’re apt to thank a veteran for his or her service to the USA. They, in turn, are likely looking back to a time and a place that changed their life. That reality is universal, no matter what uniform they may have worn.
(Based on true events. Some names have been changed for privacy.)
Le Dinh ran a dust rag over the shrimp paste jars he was uncrating in his Westminister, CA, grocery store. It was an absent minded routine, no different than when he did it as a child in his father’s shop in the Mekong city of Cat Tho in the early 1950s. On this morning, some 50 years later, Dinh’s attention was elsewhere: focused on Channel 5, KTLA’s Vietnam News report, provided every day for the benefit of Orange County’s very large expat community. Dinh watched a remembrance rally for “30/4”—that last day of April, 1975, when Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese army, the Vietnam War finally ended, and Dinh made the most momentous decision of his lifetime.
Mentally wandering back to that day, as he had so many thousands of times, Dinh saw himself once again as a 38-year-old Colonel of the South Vietnamese Army of the Republic of Vietnam. He recalled greeting the dawn with determination and trepidation, standing erect and alert, only a few inches taller than the five-foot wall of sandbags that separated him and his men from an expected assault.
The heat and humidity that would sweep up the Saigon River from the jungle and lowlands to the south had not yet suffocated the day. Dinh’s sparse battalion of young Special Forces soldiers were nervous and chatty. But Dinh was confident they would respond valiantly to his commands in the battle that surely lied ahead. The North Vietnamese Army was on the outskirts of the city with Russian tanks, on the move towards Dinh’s Cholon artillery emplacement at the Phu Tho Royal Sports Club Racetrack. In better times, that was where the privileged merchants gathered for social activities. At this moment, it was a key helicopter landing zone near the city center, certain to be a prime target of the invasion.
There was only one battle plan: resist. The odds were overwhelming, but Dinh’s orders were to hold out at any cost until told otherwise. An Academy trained officer, whose military career began in high school, Dinh didn’t question his orders, ever. He expected the same obedience from his men—and got it.
Dinh began to perspire. as the morning sun climbed. Within an hour—two at tops—he’d be engaged in the battle of his lifetime. There was no fall back position. The Americans were gone. The day before, a coded evacuation message was broadcast on the US Armed Forces Radio network: a weather report saying “the temperature in Saigon is 112 degrees and rising,” followed by Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas” song. The US Marines last Sikorsky Sea Horse helicopter had lifted off from the American Embassy compound at 735am. Dinh and his men, as well as thousands of other Vietnamese military were on their own.
Dinh didn’t fear for his own safety. He had commanded up and down the country—from the lowlands of the Delta to the highlands along the Laotian border. But this day was different: he was defending his home turf; the city where he lived with his wife Mai and their three children, Khoa, Lili, and Hang.
Mai left their home at dawn that morning with their children and one small valise of personal effects. Her mission was to escape Saigon—to leave forever their Vietnam homeland—by reaching a US Navy transport ship anchored in the South China Sea. It took hours for her driver to reach the Saigon River wharf, dodging crowds of panicked people streaming into the city from the outlying areas where the NVA had already surged through.
Mai could see that the “Jefferson City” cargo scow already listed dangerously to port from an overwhelming hoard of would be refugees. But there was no alternative. Mai told her driver to wait with the engine running. She battled her way through the non-stop bedlam, towing her three children—their arms locked in a daisy chain—behind. At the boarding ramp, she managed to wave an official looking sheet of paper in front of one of the sentries who signaled her forward. Turning to her eldest son, she scolded him in her sternest voice: “get on board and hold onto each other. Whatever you do, do not let go of each other. I will be back with father.”
Without so much as a sentimental hug, Mai left the ship, shouting and shoving her way back to the Toyota. She ordered her driver to head for the Royal Sports Club. The driver glanced back at her in disbelief. Mai silenced him with her command to hurry: “Di di mau.”
It was now 10am. Dinh and his men listened stoically to a nationwide radio address broadcast by South Vietnam’s interim president, General Duong Van Minh. The rest of the South Vietnam government had fled the country the during the night.
“To avoid further bloodshed, to prevent countrymen from continuing to kill and maim fellow countrymen, the government of the Republic of Vietnam has surrendered,” the General said. “Lay down your weapons. It is done.”
Col. Bui Tin of the North Vietnamese People’s Army of Vietnam then took the microphone from General Minh, just as he had accepted his surrender moments earlier. Addressing both the people and the solders of South Vietnam he said, “You have nothing to fear. Between Vietnamese there are no victors and no vanquished. Only the Americans have been beaten. If you are patriots, consider this a moment of joy. The war for our country is over.”
Only days before, Dinh’s battalion fought a courageous battle at Xuan Loc, a strategic hamlet east of Saigon, destroying three North Vietnamese divisions in the process. But the NVA were relentless. Dinh’s forces sustained nearly 50 per cent casualties. When they ran out of tactical air support they were ordered to abandon Xuan Loc to the communists and retreat to the center of Saigon for a last stand.
Dinh could feel the expectant gazes of his now silent men who awaited his command. “Stand by your post,” he ordered, and the men resumed their duties. There was machine gun fire in the distance, louder and closer with each passing minute. All hope for victory was gone. But the fight was not yet over.
Pulling up to the racetrack stronghold with a flourish, Mai sprang from the Toyota calling her husband’s name. An MP stepped forward with his rifle pointed squarely at her heart. “Halt! This is a restricted area; Come no further.”
“I am Mai Le Dinh, your commander’s wife. I have an urgent message for him.”
Under guard, Mai was brought to Dinh who turned pale seeing his Mai. “Where are the children?” he asked.
“They are safe.They are aboard the US Navy ship, preparing to leave the harbor.”
“And that is where you should be too. With your children,” said Dinh.
“With your children; with our children,” Mai answered. And you must return to them with me. This war is over for you. Life in Vietnam is over for our family.”
Mai and Dinh silently faced one other, reading each other’s thoughts. It was clear Mai would not leave without her husband, which meant their children would become orphans in a world beyond any familiarity. If Dinh stayed and somehow managed to survive the battle, he would certainly be arrested, imprisoned, likely tortured and perhaps murdered by the North Vietnamese. Mai’s fate would not be much better.
“You must choose between your duty to a lost cause, or the future as a father to your children,” said Mai at long last.
Dinh turned to his executive officer with his instructions. “Have the men abandon their positions. They should drop their weapons, strip out of their uniforms, burn their ID papers and hurry to their homes or into hiding. The war is over for us all.”
Dinh undressed to his underwear and joined his wife in their car. He retained his sidearm, firing into the air to disperse the crowds clogging the streets. They reached the Saigon River just as the Jefferson City’s dock lines were loosened. The sentry recognized Mai and waved her and Dinh aboard.
It took Dinh and Mai two hours to find their children, huddled and crying below deck. And it took 10 years for them to rebuild a life in the USA. But since then, Dinh still has not smiled, remembering always April 30,1975, as the day he lost his home country.