40 years after the fall, Vietnamese reunite

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Former South Vietnamese refugees Quy Truong, left, and Duc Huang get reacquainted at their 40th reunion at Fort Indiantown Gap. (Bradley C Bower/For The Inquirer)

FORT INDIANTOWN GAP, Pa. - The band rocked "Bad Moon Rising." Party guests signed a banner, adding memories of 1975 with colored markers. A projector flashed slides of how everyone looked back then.

But this was no ordinary 40th reunion.

On Saturday, 40 years after the mass exodus of South Vietnamese when Saigon fell to communist forces on April 30, 1975, about 200 former refugees - U.S. citizens now - reunited for the first time at this Lebanon County Army post that was their first home in America on a journey of assimilation.

"If I stayed [in Vietnam], I would have been sent to prison camp for sure, because I was a physician with a [South Vietnamese] combat unit," said Duc Hoang of Lancaster, who was 31 when he escaped by boat with his wife, Phuong; daughter Thuy, then 3; and son Huy, 2.

Hoang and his wife attended the reunion, and for a while sat with retired Col. Jerry Rodkey, 66, of Ellicott City, Md., who was an Army first lieutenant assigned to the battalion that welcomed the Vietnamese to Fort Indiantown Gap.

Rodkey's unit organized health checkups, distributed baby formula and diapers, and did crowd control.

While he didn't recognize anyone at the reunion, he said, it was uplifting to see these former refugees thriving.

For a few months in 1975, the Hoang family lived in a barracks. Then Penningtonville Presbyterian Church in Atglen sponsored them, providing housing and support so Duc Hoang could go to school, including a residency at Temple University Hospital, to get medical credentials in the United States. Now 71, he recently retired as chief of rehabilitative services at the VA hospital in Lebanon.

As Saigon's seemingly inevitable fall approached, the United States planned to evacuate only 3,839 U.S. citizens and their dependents, and 17,600 South Vietnamese - those who worked directly for the U.S. government and their families - according to C.N. Le, director of Asian-American Studies at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst.

But the rapidly deteriorating political situation, and sympathetic media portrayals of the Vietnamese who would be at risk after a communist takeover, Le wrote recently on the blog Asian Nation, led President Gerald R. Ford to order preparations for approximately 200,000 Vietnamese evacuees.

In the end, about 130,000 people were rescued in the chaotic evacuation by air and sea. Around 22,000 were received at Fort Indiantown Gap. The remainder went to Camp Pendleton, Calif.; Fort Chaffee, Ark.; and Eglin Air Force Base, Fla.

Saturday's reunion included women in the Vietnamese dresses called ao dai. The national anthems of the United States and South Vietnam were sung. A moment of silence was observed "to honor those who sacrificed for the freedoms we have today."

Seated at one table were sisters Kim-Hoa Vu of Staten Island, N.Y., and Kim-Chi Tran of Wilmington. They squealed with delight when the slide show landed on a picture of their brother's wedding, which took place on the Army post. The 40-year-old photo showed Tuan Tran and his bride, Huong Nguyen, beaming.

Attendees at the reunion included a woman from Ontario who gave her name as Nancy Today. She wore a huge floppy hat and said she was 19, and living in Georgia in 1975, when she volunteered with the Red Cross to come to Fort Indiantown Gap to help teach English. She recalled how many of the refugees walked around in blankets because Pennsylvania, even in summer, seemed cold to these Southeast Asian natives.

"For a long time, all of us shared the same nightmare, that we were back in Vietnam," said Phuong Tran, speaking for herself and nine siblings born there. She said her father, Hung Tran, was a driver for the U.S. Embassy in Saigon. She was 13 when the family was evacuated.

"We got on a bus" headed for the U.S. helicopters that would take them to an aircraft carrier, "but there was bombing at Tan Son Nhut" airport, she recalled. The family aborted its escape and had to stay another night.

The family was able to get out on the second try, just one day before Saigon fell. She remembers running to the open-backed helicopter amid explosions.

"And the amazing thing," she said, "is, the Americans were there till the last minute to protect us."

For the children, who could play all day, said Tran, Fort Indiantown Gap "was a little like heaven. We got fresh toothbrushes, linens, fresh food, everything we needed. In Vietnam, just to get a full meal everyday was a blessing."

By the end of November 1975, all the families at Fort Indiantown Gap had left the post in the care of sponsors.

Because of the large size of Tran's family, it was one of the last to leave. Then the Sisters of Notre Dame in Hydes, Md., stepped up. The order had a farm for retired nuns, said Tran, and the family lived in one of its houses.

An 11th sibling was born in the U.S. All won scholarships to colleges and are successful, said Tran, who works for a manufacturer near Baltimore.

Nhiem Tran and his wife, Huong Tran, were in their early 20s and lived on Phu Quoc, a Vietnamese island, when Saigon fell. He was in the South Vietnamese navy.

"Everybody was terrified," recalled Huong Tran. So the couple jumped into a small boat with 10 other people and headed to sea, trying to catch up with a large Vietnamese vessel that was evacuating military personnel to the Philippines.

But they couldn't catch it. So they returned to shore, slept fitfully aboard the small boat, and the next day caught another vessel, which eventually transferred them to an American ship. They spent a month in a tent camp on Guam and arrived at Fort Indiantown Gap via Harrisburg International Airport.

Grantham Church in Mechanicsburg sponsored the family and helped Nhiem Tran get a job in the kitchen at nearby Messiah College. He has a similar job now at Dickinson College in Carlisle.

The Trans' daughter, Alisa, was born a year after they arrived. She attended Saturday's reunion, along with her husband, Michael Wacker; son Jonathan, 15; and daughter Vanessa, 12.

"I wanted them to know our family history," said Alisa Wacker, "and to see where it all began."

The lesson wasn't lost on her husband.

"Leaving your country, your home, everything you knew," he said. "How lonely would you feel?"

Once burdened by loneliness, perhaps, but now leaving a legacy through the lives they have built.

George Padar, a retired colonel in the Army Reserve, received these Vietnamese in 1975 and helped organize the reunion.

Addressing the group, he said his family came to America as refugees from Hungary after World War II and managed to succeed.

"I can see the same determination among this community," he said. "Thanks for being such wonderful assets to the country."


BY THE NUMBERS

130,000

Vietnamese were evacuated to U.S. bases

in the Philippines, Wake Island, and Guam after communist forces entered Saigon on April 30, 1975.

4

Vietnamese refugee processing centers were in the United States in 1975. (Fort Indiantown Gap, Pa.; Camp Pendleton, Calif.; Fort Chafee, Ark.; Eglin Air Force Base, Fla.)

22,000

Vietnamese refugees were processed for resettlement at Fort Indiantown Gap.

200

Former refugees attended the 40th reunion at Fort Indiantown Gap.

1.3M

Vietnamese-Americans are in the United States.

Source: www.ilw.com, a private newsletter of immigration data


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@MichaelMatza1