All wars are fought twice, the first time on the battlefield, the second time in memory. This is what I teach my students in my course on the American war in Vietnam. I also teach them about the importance of stories. Stories are how we make sense of our memories and our histories. Stories are how we pass on our memories and our histories. Stories are how we make sense of, and struggle over, the meanings of wars and nations.
When it comes to the American war in Vietnam, Americans have produced enormous numbers of stories in the form of movies, novels, speeches and journalistic and historical accounts. Unfortunately, these stories have often excluded or marginalized the Vietnamese, Cambodians and Laotians in whose lands this war was fought. And when it comes to Americans, American stories tend to foreground the experiences of White men and soldiers.
I tell my students that wars are not just about soldiers, generals and men. The wars of the 20th century have killed more civilians than soldiers. War also kills women and children and creates vast refugee populations. The American understanding of war, by focusing on men, soldiers and Americans, is actually only a partial understanding of the nature of war.
To gain a better understanding of this war, I task my students with interviewing survivors, veterans, witnesses, and their descendants. Men and women, soldiers and civilians, American and Southeast Asian, White and Black. Some of the interviewees have never told these stories before. Some of the interviewees are telling their stories for the first time to students who are their children or grandchildren.
Regardless of whether the students have a personal connection to the war, the stories that they collect bring them closer to history and the war’s nuances. They learn, for example, that contrary to stereotype, many American soldiers never fought, but did their service peacefully. They learn that every single Southeast Asian person they interview, whether they were soldiers or civilians, underwent a terrifying journey to get to the United States as refugees.
Ultimately, I hope what my students learn—and what you, the reader, learn as well— is that the telling of stories is necessary, as is the act of listening to them. When we listen to the stories of those who have lived through war, what we discover is that wars do not end simply because we declare them to be over. Wars continue on, radioactive in memory, for years, decades and lives.
Profiled by Faustine Nathaniel, Mike Shao, Ethan Wang and Jason Zilberfarb
My mother and father had concerns, obviously. My brother was in Vietnam during the same time I was—he was in the Air Force, I was in the Marines—and both of us survived and came home.
Before the war, I was in college, but I was too interested in young ladies and not enough in studying, so that was my demise. I got drafted fairly shortly after that. I worked with a Lieutenant Colonel who was head of Combined Action Companies—or CAC units—part of the pacification program that the Marines carried out in Vietnam to befriend villagers. We dug wells so that the people could drink clean water—the Viet Cong had a habit of coming in and killing anyone in power, like the mayor of a village, then dumping their bodies into the wells. We would bring medical teams in, supply villagers with soap. The program let them know we were there in peace.
I remember arriving by boat in Da Nang harbor. They would throw this huge net over the side, and we climbed down with all our gear and weapons and ammo into a small personnel craft. Six months later, I was transferred to Chu Lai, which is further south; we traveled fully locked and loaded down the Mekong Delta.
One time, I was with a convoy accompanying the Lieutenant Colonel when one of the six-wheel-drive trucks drove over a land mine and blew up. From that point on to our destination, it was nothing but sniper fire. Those sorts of things really wake you up. The other was having the Colonel ask me to take dental records down to the morgue.
Another time, we were due to go to Chu Lai to help with some sort of anniversary event the village was having the Colonel organize by bringing in a Marine Corps band to come and play some music. We learned the day after the event, after we’d gone back to base, that the village was carpet bombed by B-52s from the US by mistake.
Coming back to the United States, I felt euphoria, although I have to say: at that age, you don’t really appreciate it as much that you came back in one piece. Today, if I hear a helicopter, the first thing I think of is Vietnam. The chop chop chop. And something that happens to me fairly frequently, if I’m working and someone walks up behind me and comes out of the clear blue sky, I literally jump—that’s from 13 months in ‘Nam and dealing with all those issues. Sleeping is an issue, too. I prefer a dark room, I prefer total quiet, and then I sleep better. When I got back, I found that a friend of mine, Phil, who was drafted the same day as me, had written to the local newspaper in Caldwell, New Jersey, asking if anyone had heard from me or knew where I was. He had gotten back three or four days earlier than me—of our group of seven friends from high school, he and I were the only ones who went to Vietnam, but we’re all luckily still alive. Vietnam made me stronger in my commitments to myself and my life. It solidified my thinking of how the world works and made me, I think, a better person in regard to how I think and how I respect people. I was drafted—an obligation which I think every single graduating senior in high school should have for two years. And then the government should pay for four years of your higher education.
Profiled by Amartya Ranganathan, Kennedy Lollis, Michaela McMahon and Peter Holmes
When I ejected at 14,000 feet, I was kind of floating through the sky, turning over and over and over. If the seat didn’t release me, then I would have to release the parachute myself.
I had been working for General Electric as a cost accountant in St. Petersburg, Florida—you know, dumb, fat and happy, living a good life, getting ready to stay for the next 70 years. I came home one day and my wife had my draft notice. I didn’t want to get drafted; I didn’t want to carry a gun or kill anybody. A Navy recruiter told me my best option would be to go into the Navy. I passed the test to enter as a naval flight officer. I thought the Navy would give me the opportunity to experience all the things that I wanted to do when I was growing up—to go out and see what life is really about in the world. There were very few Blacks in the Navy.
It was New Year’s Eve when my plane was shot down. All of a sudden, my parachute opened. I tried to drift toward the Tonkin Gulf—the water—but nothing happened. When I came through the cloud layer, I saw these flashes and realized they were shooting at me. 20 feet off the ground, I could see I was coming down in a rice paddy in the middle of a village and I saw 30 or 40 people running after me with hoes and rakes and guns. When I hit the ground I popped the ’chute, turned around and said “peace, baby.” They searched me for weapons and I noticed there were some militia there saying “nay nay nay!” —“no, no”—telling people “don’t interfere because he is our pride.” If you get captured and you’re a POW, they have negotiating tools to use with the United States—if you stop bombing us, we’ll send your POW home! They took me to a house, and my pilot was there, too, and he had a broken arm and leg. All I could see were people’s heads, it was so crowded. Someone asked if there was anything I needed, and I looked at him and laughed, “I’m your enemy!” But he was serious so I said, “Man, it’s cold out there. I need some blankets, I need some food.” And when I got back, I had all my blankets, I had everything I needed.
I remember being paraded after being captured. We passed this lady, and she just wanted to scratch my eyes out, and then I tried to understand why: I think my plane probably fell on her house; it might’ve killed whoever was in there. But the militia protected me. They didn’t let nobody touch me. They put me in a cave for a while, and kids would come and feel my hair because they’d probably never seen a Black person before, but they would actually give me cigarettes and stuff. I was never afraid, even when they were shooting at me. For some reason, I knew I was gonna survive. Eventually, they put me in a Jeep to Hanoi. I was blindfolded all the way, sitting on the floor with people on top of me.
We were taken to the Hanoi Hilton. We had a guard; his name was Nguyen. And we kind of had an understanding. I used to get a lot of headaches, and one time, Nguyen didn’t go through his military system, he just went out and got me some aspirin. He always was very conscientious about my wellbeing for some reason, and it just showed the humanity among those people even though they were enemies—you know, they were still human beings.
When I came back to America, everybody treated me well; that wasn’t true during World War I and II when Black soldiers came home to Jim Crow segregation.
We weren’t justified [in going to war in Vietnam]. It’s always the person who has the biggest stick and who wants to maintain having the biggest stick. We really destroyed [those people], and now they want help from this country: we buy their clothes, we buy their food, their fish. That didn’t have to happen, you know. We didn’t have to kill so many people. We can’t go imposing our rules on countries that have been around for 5,000 years. The bottom line is that you shouldn’t try to go and try to impose your ideologies on another country.
Profiled by Zach Estes, Lauren Lawson, Christine Nguyen and Haruko Warren
I was 10 years old when Saigon fell to the North. I came from a big family with five sisters and three brothers; mom worked importing and selling weaving machines; dad was a Navy mechanic.
Two months before the fall of Saigon, our neighborhood burned down for two blocks and we had nothing left. I didn’t know much about Communism at the time, but I was told by my parents that, in 1954 they’d had to escape the North. April 30, 1975, was chaotic. I remember my mom kept telling the eight of us, “stay inside and wear all black clothes” because people from the North all wore black; that we had to be like one of them otherwise they would shoot us. That night we had no electricity, just candlelight. There were a lot of tanks on the street and people screaming and yelling and we were so scared.
I think a week after that, we all went back to school, but every day, there was a new rule, and the public speakers started to give commands to the people; suddenly, we had to go to the village leader to ask permission for things like visiting your cousin or staying overnight somewhere. We had to ask the leader for everything—if we had visitors coming to our house—and after 11 p.m. everything was locked down; you couldn’t go anywhere.
They tried to teach the youth how great the Communists were, and they made the meetings fun so they would listen and obey.
Even before the fall of Saigon, my uncle was already planning for our family to escape.
My uncle, aunt and my family went to [the port city of] Vung Tao, so we had a way to go to the ocean and escape by boat. We all packed and wore black, and we all went to Vung Tao to have a chance to escape. In the middle of the night, when the water was very low, we had to follow the rail to go down to hide under a house in a basement. That is where [you accessed the] water—the ocean—and we had to wait for a small boat. We waited until the water rose up to my nose and I couldn’t breathe. My mom told us to go back to the house and wait for another chance. Finally, we decided the plan had no chance of success, and we had to leave immediately back to Saigon.
I’m very emotional because it felt like it happened yesterday. A lot of people were planning to escape by boat, and they wanted my dad [who had worked as a Navy mechanic] to take care of the boat when they escaped. My dad accepted the plan on the condition that all of us leave together, but the owner of the boat demanded a certain amount of gold per person. But we had nothing left—no money, no gold—so my dad negotiated to take along my older brother and one of my sisters. My older brother was a priority because any man 18 or older was drafted into the army. That’s why my mom was very scared for him: when you get a draft order, you never came back. You always got killed.
We wanted freedom. My parents wanted us to have the freedom to study, freedom to do things like we used to do before. My parents had already escaped from the North in 1954, so they had experience living under Communism.
My dad left in 1977 and got saved by an oil company in Indonesia. About two weeks later, we got a telegraph saying that he landed on Galang Island. Without my dad, we were very poor; mom had to wake at 3:00 in the morning to go to the country to buy rice and resell it in the city for a small profit for us to survive.
Dad spoke a little English, so they asked him to be a leader of the group. They gave him a lot of leftover medicine, and every month, he’d send us a little box of it, which I resold in Vietnam. It was 13 years before I saw him again. [He eventually moved to the US] and we joined him in October, 1990.
Even though he’d sent us pictures, when I saw him he was a totally different person. My sister, my brother—they were American. We were Vietnamese and they were American. But we were very happy to see them, and we talked all day and all night, sharing our experiences and memories of when we wanted to escape together
I went back to visit Vietnam in 1999 because my big brother decided to go back to get married. There were a lot of changes: big buildings, a lot of cars, nice hotels. It was totally different from when I left nine years before.
I have lived in the States for 30 years now. I think of myself as Vietnamese American, and I have adapted to the American culture. Back in Vietnam, it’s like a different culture for me. I think I will stay here because my family and my children are here and they are American, Vietnamese American.
Profiled by Larissa Bitners, Brenna Chen, Abida Diep and Paul Matt
I was born into a wealthy family, and I had a really good life before the fall of Saigon in 1975. I went to a small French private school, and all my friends were from wealthy families. [When the Communists came] it was really hard, especially for my mom. The Communists put a lot of people in concentration camps, which they called labor camps. Every night, we would have to sleep in the bunker because [of] the rockets. Once in a while, we would go to school and find out our friend had passed away because of a rocket. We had to fill out paperwork, which they called lý lịch, which means “your background.” We knew that if your parents worked for the South Vietnam government or in the military, or if you were not in the Communist party, it was impossible for you to go to college.
Mom had to become the con buón, which means she sold stuff in the market to make money. We became super poor. Sometimes, I had to stay home and cook for the family. I had never cooked before. There was no running water, and I had to go to the well to bring it back to the house.
We all knew there was no future for us. My father came home one day and told me, “Son, we cannot live in our country anymore. We plan to escape Vietnam by boat.” Back then, to escape Vietnam, it had to be top secret. If someone knew and told the police, we would be in big trouble. My father knew a couple of fishermen who were planning to escape. He paid them gold.
My father took me to a family I didn’t know, and I stayed with them through the night. In the afternoon, they put me in a really small boat and covered me in fishing nets. I was taken to another boat that I would escape in. It was nighttime, and I could hear gunshots. Boom, boom, boom, boom! We knew we couldn’t go back anymore, but we also couldn’t wait for another ship to bring in food and gasoline. They pretended they were fishing and put out a fishing net. Then, the captain on the boat cut the rope, and we took off.
Finally, we arrived in international waters and saw lots of big ships. A Hong Kong fishing boat saw us. “We’re so scared,” I told them. They said it was illegal for them to take us, but instead, they gave us gasoline and a compass, and they told us where to go. They called another boat, which swung by and gave us a rope, which we hooked onto our boat, and they pulled us to Hong Kong.
When I saw the coast, I thought, “This is my heaven.” It was like a mountain with diamonds. We lived [in a refugee camp] with other boat people—good people, bad people—and there was no freedom. We stayed for at least three months before they gave me a couple of choices: I could go to the US or Australia. I wanted to go to the US because I knew you could have a good education there and there were good opportunities. In the transition camp, they taught us English, and we learned about American culture.
From Hong Kong, I landed in Seattle. It was March 31 and super cold. Everything was white; my first time seeing real snow. I came to the US with no money, two pairs of jeans, two t-shirts and no jacket. The Catholic Church sponsored me; I moved from Seattle to Chicago to Louisville, Kentucky. I’ll never forget the moment I walked off the airplane. They put us in an apartment complex in a poor neighborhood. There were some Vietnamese people there. I made a decision to go to California; I worked and saved until I could buy a one-way ticket on the Greyhound bus.
My friend picked me up. He and I shared a room with another Vietnamese family. We had Vietnamese food and a small supermarket. I went to college, and most of my friends were Vietnamese. It felt like home.
I went to college, I went to work, and I’m always thankful for the US. The moment, I think, that defines how much I really love the US was when 9/11 occurred. I felt like some force hit our country, hit me. In that moment, I realized that I had lived in America much longer than I had lived in Vietnam.
When I was in Vietnam, we felt that the Americans had betrayed the South Vietnamese people. On top of that, the Communists were brutal, too. Then I came here. I talked to many American friends and I realized that a lot of young soldiers got drafted when they got out of high school. They are victims, too: victims of the US government’s bad policy.
THO SI HO
Profiled by Tam Hoang, Ethan Soo and Timothy Duong
I was born August 12, 1962, in Ham Tan, Vietnam. I grew up wanting to be a priest because I could see people needed help, like poor and unfortunate people. My main goal was school. Growing up, I knew that one side was communist, one side [was fighting for] democracy. My parents left North Vietnam in 1954 because of the communists. When I was a child, I dreamed that if I wasn’t a success at school, I would join the military and fight for freedom because I didn’t agree with the communists at all.
In 1975, the communists took over, and we [knew we had] to leave the country. Our family didn’t have money, so we had to connect with a boat owner. I would hide and carry the oil or the rice or the food for the trip, but we didn’t know how long the trip would be. Our boat was around 60 feet and carried 59 people. I could reach my hand out and touch the sea because we were at water level. It was very dangerous. The first day, there was a storm, after which we checked our supplies: our boat had run out of food, water and oil, so another boat picked us up. It took us three days before we hit Malaysia, but they didn’t let us land. The Malaysian Navy came to check us out, but they had weapons due to piracy.
We were taken to a refugee camp. It was easy to make friends because we were all in the same situation. Everybody had escaped for economic reasons, because of religion, or because of their politics. Some had been in jail. We each had the same story.
I had one distant uncle [at the refugee camp], but when I arrived, he had just left to go to the United States. When I left Vietnam, I had three dreams. The first was to continue school. The second was to bring my parents and all my brothers and sisters with me. The third was to work. But 18 months in a refugee camp looked like a prison sentence, even though it was still better than living under communist control.
When I arrived in Washington State on February 21, 1981, it was winter; the first time I’d seen snow. At school, we had studied snowstorms, volcanoes and earthquakes, but I had just imagined them. My first goal was to bring my family back together. Of course I was lonely; language was an obstacle, so I could not go out and make friends at all. I had no car; I took the bus to school and back, and at night, I worked at a Chinese restaurant. At 1:00 in the morning, if I missed the bus, I would walk home.
I mailed letters to my dad, but if I wanted to send money to them, I’d have to tell them secretly where to go. When dad wrote a letter to me, if there was anything special he wanted to let me know, he’d have to write it on the edge of the letter, because every time you sent a letter, the communists would open it up and read it.
When I first came here in 1981, I started to file the petition for my family to join me. You’re supposed to be a US citizen before you can petition your family, but I put in an application for them straight away, and the process lasted until 1986. My family finally came [to the US] in 1992.
First, you have to dream happy. Then, you set your goal. Then, it comes through. Thinking back, I accomplished my dream. I set my goal and I got it.
I don’t want to go back to Vietnam because when I left, I saw the communists in front of me with their weapons trying to shoot. When I was ready to escape that evening, I watched them from the shore, walking back and forth with the guns in their hands. I’m not scared of communists, but I don’t agree with them. That’s why I don’t want to go back. But finally, I have to. I will spend two months over there, and I will go from north to south. I want to see my parents’ birthplace, because I’ve never seen that. My classmates from high school now hold high positions in the government, and they want to recruit me to go back to work with them. I told them, “no—when I left the country, you guys almost killed me.”
58,000 American soldiers died in Vietnam. Millions of North and South Vietnamese people died. For one reason: power. I forgave them, yes. But they have to open up for democracy and then let the people, the good people, have a much better life.
Viet Thanh Nguyen is a University Professor at the University of Southern California and the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Sympathizer.