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.)
Nguyen Kim ran a dust rag over the shrimp paste jars he was uncrating in his Westminster, CA, grocery store. It was an absent minded routine. Not very different from what he did as a child in his father’s store in the Mekong city of Cat Tho, during the early 1950s. But on this day, Kim’s TV was tuned to the daily Vietnam News report, provided every afternoon by Channel 5, KTLA, for the benefit of Orange County’s very large expat community. The live broadcast showed the 2015 remembrance rally for “30/4.” The last day of April, 1975, was the so-called day of recrimination: the day Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese army, the Vietnam War finally ended, and Kim made the most life-changing decision of his lifetime.
Wandering back 40 years in his mind, as he had so many times, Kim again saw himself as a 35-year-old Special Forces Colonel in the Army of the Republic of Vietnam–the South Vietnamese ARVN. Standing erect and alert, only a few inches taller than the five-foot wall of sandbags that separated his men from an expected assault, Kim greeted the dawn of April 30, 1975, with determination and trepidation.
The heat and humidity that typically swept up the Saigon River from the jungle lowlands had not yet suffocated the day. Kim’s sparse battalion of young soldiers, many still teenagers, was nervous and chatty. But the colonel was confident they were well trained to respond valiantly to his commands in the battle that surely lay ahead. The North Vietnamese Army was on the outskirts of the city with Russian tanks. They were on the move towards Kim’s Cholon artillery emplacement at the Phu Tho Royal Sports Club Racetrack. In better times, this was where the privileged merchant class of Saigon 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 expected invasion.
There was only one battle plan. Hold out and resist until told otherwise. The odds were overwhelming. But Kim was a career officer–Academy trained since he was a high schooler– who didn’t question his orders, ever. He expected the same obedience from his men—and got it.
As the sun climbed and the morning brightened, Kim began to perspire. The radio came alive with staticky reports of the NVA’s steady advance toward the city center. Within an hour—two at most—Kim would be engaged in his most momentous battle. 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: 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. Kim, his men, and thousands of other Vietnamese military were on their own.
Kim didn’t fear for his personal safety. He had commanded up and down the country—from the highland DMZ bush along the Laotian border, to the lowland rice paddies of the Delta. Now he was defending his home turf; the densely populated urban streets of the city where he lived with his wife Mai and their three children, Khoa, Lili, and Chi.
Mai had 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 home—by reaching a US Navy transport ship anchored in the South China Sea. It took hours for her driver, dodging crowds of panicked people streaming into the city from the outlying areas where the NVA had already surged through, to reach the Saigon River wharf. There, the “Jefferson City” cargo scow listed dangerously to port from an overwhelming hoard of would be refugees. Assessing the non-stop bedlam–loud, swift and aggressive with unmerciful shouting and shoving– Mai told her driver to wait with the engine running. She battled her way to the boarding ramp, towing her three children—their arms locked in a daisy chain—behind. She managed to wave an official looking paper in front of a sentry who signaled her forward. Turning to Khoa, her eldest son, she scolded in her sternest voice: “Hold onto each other. Whatever you do, do not let go of each other. I will be back with father.”
With no time for a sentimental hug, Mai turned from the ship, jumped back in the Toyota, and ordered her driver to head for the Royal Sports Club. The driver glanced back at her in disbelief. But before he could audibly protest, Mai commanded: “Ditti mau.” Go quickly!
At 10am, Kim’s radio operator informed him that a nationwide announcement was about to be broadcast by South Vietnam’s interim president, General Duong Van Minh. Minh had assumed his office only the night before; the rest of the South Vietnam government had fled the country.
“To avoid further bloodshed,” Minh declared, “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 the general’s unconditional 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.”
The radio fell quiet. Kim looked around, absorbing the expectant gazes of his men like thousands of perfectly targeted grenade shards piercing through his stoic silence.
Only days before, Kim’s battalion in the South Vietnamese 18th Division, fought courageously at Xuan Loc, a strategic hamlet east of Saigon, destroying three North Vietnamese divisions in the process. But the NVA was relentless. Kim’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.
“Stand by your post,” Kim suddenly barked, and his men resumed their duties. Machine gun fire in the distance got louder and closer with each passing minute. All hope for victory was gone. But the fight was not yet over.
Springing from the Toyota at the Royal Sports Club, Mai shouted her husband’s name. An ARVN MP stepped forward with his rifle pointed squarely at her heart. “Halt! This is a restricted area; you must leave.”
“Not until I see your commander, colonel Kim. I am Mai Nguyen Kim, his wife. I have an urgent message for him.”
Under guard, Mai was brought to her husband who turned pale seeing his Mai. “Where are the children?” he demanded.
“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,” reprimanded the colonel.
“With your children; with our children,” countered Mai. “And you must return there with me. This war is over for you. Life in Vietnam is over for our family.”
Mai and Kim faced each other silently, reading each other’s thoughts. Words were no longer necessary. It was clear Mai would not leave without her husband, which meant their children would be orphans in a world beyond any familiarity. If they stayed and somehow managed to survive the battle, Kim 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.
Kim turned to his executive officer with his instructions. “Have the men abandon their positions. They should drop their weapons, shed their uniforms, burn their ID papers and hurry to their homes or into hiding. The war is over for us all.”
Kim stripped to his underwear and joined his wife in the Toyota. 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 Kim aboard.
It took Kim and Mai two hours to find their children, huddled and crying in the dark below deck. And it took ten years for them to rebuild a life in the USA. And four decades later, Kim had still not smiled, remembering always April 30, 1975, as the day he lost his home country.