Watercolor painting instructor Tony Tran epitomizes the immigrant success story – and then some. Fleeing with his family at the age of 11 from Vietnam during the fall of Saigon in a harrowing escape, Tran and his family landed six weeks later in a small town in Northern Indiana where they would start a new life.

Tran would go on to adjust quickly to life in America, be chosen as the Valedictorian of his high school, and earn a bachelor’s degree in Urban Studies and Art History at Stanford University and a Master of Architecture degree at UCLA. He is now an architect, planner, artist, illustrator and teacher. He also plays the violin and performs in orchestra concerts with his son Thllan, also a violinist.

The following is an account by Tony’s parents of life in Vietnam, their escape from Vietnam and subsequent arrival in Indiana. In the account, Tony Tran is referred to by his Vietnamese name, Duy Hung (or Hung).

By Ton Tran and Binh Nhung Tran

Reflecting on the past 30 years away from the country, we cannot ignore the milestones that have punctuated our lives, from earlier events occurring in a small town in Central Vietnam, to our arrival in Indiana and subsequently California in the USA.

DAYS IN THE CENTRAL HIGHLANDS

In 1965, Dr. Ton was serving as Chief Surgeon at the Military Hospital in Ban Me Thuot (BMT), a town in the Central Highlands of Vietnam, where he was also responsible for the surgery department at the Civilian Hospital. On a beautiful Sunday in the spring of that year, the weather was quite crisp in Dalat, the famous vacationing town about 300 km from Saigon. Binh Nhung and our 15-month old son Duy Hung were cuddled up on a bench outside the hotel with the baby’s grandmother who had visited them from Saigon. The plan was for Dr. Ton to meet everyone in Dalat for the week-end and then take the little family back to BMT. On the expected day, however, Ton could not come. His trip was delayed by a few days. Imagine our shock upon learning the horrendous news! The most nightmarish carnage had occurred at the site of the only night club in this highland town. Attacking with two grenades, a youth had infiltrated into the establishment on a suicide operation. It was the longest two days of their lives for Dr Ton and Dr Thuyen, the two young surgeons in town, who had to work with limited resources in a small hospital in attempting to save as many victims as possible.

While in Banmethuot, visiting a small community in the Highlands, with Binh Nhung and Ton holding Duy Hung (1965).

Earlier on that evening, Ton had been invited to dinner with other physicians and close friends at the residence of Mr. and Mrs.V. G. Nghia. Their home was a familiar gathering spot for health professionals during their military service in BMT. Mrs. Nghia was an excellent cook who frequently served French and Vietnamese delicacies to the group of friends, many of whom were away from their families. After dinner, everyone had planned to go to the night club to listen to a special music program being performed that evening. However, while sipping tea, Ton received a call to go to the Civilian hospital for an emergency case. The patient turned out to have stomach perforation and needed to have an operation.

When he finished the case, around 9:00 PM, there was a huge detonation in the town, and immediately after, the hospital was inundated by an endless stream of ambulances, private cars and all sorts of vehicles transporting wounded people. Loads of casualties were carried in, and people arrived from all over town to inquire on the whereabouts of friends and acquaintances. This was the first time such devastation had occurred in the town. Bodies in all states of injuries were laid in every available space. Ton worked without respite for two days, taking only a few bites of food here and there. He did not have time to shave, staying at the hospital all through that period. Dr Thuyen, the other surgeon, operated in the adjoining room under the same conditions.

Dr N. H. Tin, Director of the Military Hospital, and other medical staff were also called in to help. Dr. Hien and Dr. Phac from the Medicine department worked hard to accommodate the newly admitted victims. All the rooms were utilized to capacity. Patients in stable condition were transferred to other units or discharged to save the place for more critical cases. Dr. T. T. Niem, Director at the Civilian Hospital, was much distressed by the circumstances. Even so, he managed to do the triage of the civilian patients, and graciously provided food for the physicians and staff who worked without rest. The most serious cases—especially the penetrating head wounds and eye perforations due to shrapnel—were transported to Cong Hoa General Hospital in Saigon by helicopter. Many persons suffering severe wounds expired before ever reaching the hospital. Sadly, a military physician who worked in the military unit nearby was severely wounded at the chest, and in spite of intense resuscitation and transfusion, expired shortly after. Among the civilian victims that we knew, the son of a coffee plantation owner died on the spot. A friend known from high school, Major D. C. Thanh, suffered an opened wound on the abdomen from a piece of grenade. Another classmate, Captain N. D. Tam, had a knee crushed almost completely. Both were operated that night by Dr. Ton. Ten years later, during a class reunion at Mr. Thanh’s home, the two friends were still grateful to Ton for having saved their lives. There were so many casualties in that little town that the repercussions lingered for a long time after the tragic event.

In front of the operating room of the Ban Me Thuot Military Hospital, Dr. Ton (3rd from left) standing next to Dr, Thuyen (1963).

After the work was over, Dr Ton needed to take a few days off, and finally joined his family in Dalat. Dr. Thuyen covered the hospital during his leave, as he has done on other occasions.

If we did not experience these harsh situations, we would not have been able to appreciate the full value of life. If something had happened to the physicians in that town, who would take care of the patients and residents in the community? How could a 14, 15 year-old youth commit such a far reaching act of violence? What was the motive behind these acts of terrorism? There were many components of the powerful will factor that we cannot understand—similar to what is going in Iraq nowadays.

It is amazing that we still remember these cases after 40 years, like a movie playing backward. In 1967, Ton was transferred to the Cong Hoa Central Military Hospital where he worked in General Surgery with Dr. T. M. Tien, Department Head. Three years later, he was selected as a Pediatrics faculty member of the Saigon University Medical School. For post-graduate training, he got a fellowship to study Pediatric Neurology at the Children’s Medical Center of Southwestern Medical Center, in Dallas, Texas. Back in Saigon in 1973, Ton worked at the Children’s Hospital (Benh vien Nhi Dong) until 1975.

Those were all important milestones in our life—but the most important one was leaving Vietnam in a critical time of history.

THE ESCAPE FROM SAIGON 

During the last days before the Fall of Saigon, there were many plans for our family to leave the city. Yet, none seemed to work, until April 28, 1975 when there was a phone call from a relative in the family. This nephew was accepted by his American co-workers to be air-lifted from the city’s Tan Son Nhut airport along with his “immediate family.” Needless to say, Ton had to look like his father as much as possible, and Binh Nhung, as his mother. This was the only way to escape.

On that morning, we rushed to the airport, carrying two small suitcases for the whole family. By this time, our family has grown to include two sons, Hung (11) and Phong (10), and a daughter, Thao (3 ½). Among the items we brought were a lot of cash money in case we needed to pave the way.

We stood in a long line in order to have our papers processed. When our turn came, it was late in the day. All the full planes departing safely to land at Subic Bay in the Philippines had already gone. The airport was crowded by people of all categories. We waited anxiously inside the bowling room, along the alleys where people sat or lay down haphazardly. The restrooms had been flooded by many days of over-usage.

That night, time went by slowly. Now and then, we listened to several distant gunshots and artillery salvoes. Suddenly, we heard a call: “Everybody to the trench!” Adults and children rushed from the bowling room into the ditch outside just as the airport was rocked by a tremendous, deafening explosion. Boom! As we covered our heads in the foul-smelling ditch, we thought that the world is crumbling around us. The airport had been severely damaged by artillery shelling. Many people were wounded and some were killed.

On April 29th, the last day before the fall of Saigon, the morning was very bleak. The large C-130 commercial planes were no longer able to land on the unusable runway. A dead silence weighed on all who remained on the premises. Staying was like jumping into the fire-pit. Should we go back home, or stay and wait for the unknown? Half of the people around us left to try other escape routes, by land or sea. We decided to persevere and stay together as a family on the spot, facing destiny, hoping to be rescued by helicopters. While waiting, as the excruciating hours passed by, we saw looters holding sacks lolling around, looking for foods and staples to take from the pantry shelves and storage areas.

As the sun began fading in the tense atmosphere, we suddenly heard the sound of revolving propellers, gradually getting louder—the helicopters appeared on the horizon. Everybody rejoiced at the thought of being rescued soon. We were happy to welcome the saviors after two long days of agonized waiting. However, our jubilation turned to dismay when many shots were fired from the ground up at the helicopters. “They are coming!” we thought. The truth was that some 100 South Vietnamese army paratroopers wanted to be air-lifted first, before the civilians. Anyway, the matter was settled by the American squadron calling for reinforcements: a contingent of U.S. Marines soon arrived to surround and disarm the insurgents. After two more hours had passed in order to control the situation, we were finally allowed to board the huge “Jolly Green Giant” helicopter at sunset. Not knowing what to take and what to leave behind, since each one can only bring a small suitcase, many persons had abandoned their luggage, which was thrown all over the runway, opened with contents strewn on the wayside. We had to run to the chopper, our children staying closely by us, shielding our faces from the whipping gusts blown by the helicopter propellers. As the sun set on that unforgettable day, the laden craft rose and made its way to the Pacific Ocean. We looked out of the open helicopter hatch to catch a last view of our beloved city, not knowing if we would ever return, while flames from fire arms glowed on the darkening sky.

We landed on a big helicopter carrier of the U.S. 7th fleet stationed off the coast. Everyone was relieved after taking a shower and resting for the first time after 48 hours. However, at midnight, there was an order to transfer all of the evacuees to a merchant ship via swaying barges. For security reasons, the operation was carried in complete darkness. When it was time for us to be hauled up the cargo ship, we heard warnings from those already aboard, such as: “Don’t climb up here. There is no more room! ” and “We want to go home.” We had to handle little Thao to an assisting military staff person on a narrow ladder on the side of the ship, before we could totter up this ladder ourselves to reach the deck. One by one, the family was pulled aboard the ship with our belongings, minus a suitcase that contained all our important documents and diplomas, along with clothes. This loss cost us many hours of worries and efforts to find ways to validate our credentials later when looking for jobs in the U.S.A., when applying to the Board of Medical Examiners and the Board of Pharmacy.

We waited for departure, but the ship carrying 8,000 people was anchored in one place. It rained all day on the 30th. When we did move in the next days, at some point, we thought that the vessel was returning to Viet Nam. We stayed seven days in our little corner on the crowded deck, in rain and shine, as the merchant ship made its journey through the Philippines toward Guam. When the ship swayed, all the drainages from the makeshift toilets converged to our side of the boat.   A long line was formed at meal times, for rice sprinkled with bits of canned tuna fish. For breakfast, we received our first-ever samples of General Mills’ Lucky Charms and Cheerios cereal, in little colorful boxes. Under the stars, somebody played the harmonica, while on the lower deck, a dead body was returned to the sea. Previous disagreements were also terminated this way, by eliminating the opponent.

We arrived in Guam Island at 6AM on May 7th, and stayed at the Orote refugee camp to have our identification papers processed. To this date, we still have the little 1974 notebook with our Alien numbers recorded as an A followed by the same string of six digits for everyone in the family. Only the last two digits were different. In that notebook were also inscribed the addresses and phone numbers of contacts in the U.S. written by family members before we left, as well as the locations of new friends encountered at the camp. We sat on the lawn, filling out long surveys from behavioral scientists for use in later studies. Days were spent waiting at meal lines in 95 degree heat, while Binh Nhung cared for little Thao who got severe diarrhea, and Ton volunteered at the first aid station. Little did we know that Guam Island was the honeymoon site for many Japanese vacationers at the time.

After four days, we were moved to the more “upscale” Asan Annex, where Hung and Phong could explore marine life at the seashore, and watch outdoor movies in the evening. Twelve days later, we were transferred to Anderson airbase camp, in preparation to depart for the U.S.

On May 26, 1975, we boarded the Pan Am 707 to Honolulu, thanks to the Catholic Charities which processed all our papers. Our first landing in California, was in El Toro, 40 miles from Los Angeles; then, a bus drove us to Camp Pendleton in Southern California. During that drive, many passengers wished that they could take a detour and visit Disneyland! We were distributed jackets with linings for protection from the cold weather. In early June, it was cold at night under the tent in the mountains. The food from the mess line was plentiful, with oranges and apples as options for each meal.

The children attended English classes during the day, reading on the history of California and America. Although life was bearable, all we wanted at that juncture was to get out of the camp. One by one, camp residents left to join their sponsors’ families. We were very happy to receive a sponsorship notification from Ton’s nephew Khiet Dao and his family living in Mishawaka, Indiana.

On June 10, 1975, 40 days after leaving Saigon, we boarded a United Airlines jet bound for Chicago, and then transferred to South Bend, a medium-sized town in Indiana with a population of 130,000. Khiet welcomed us at the airport in South Bend, and then drove us to their townhouse in Mishawaka, the twin-city named after an Indian princess. His wife Hang, and children Charles and Cynthia were staying in one room, leaving the other room for our family. The first night in the Carriage House complex marked the end of our six-week voyage around half the globe across the Pacific Ocean and half of the U.S. We have reached the most crucial milestone in our lives. From then on, the future was in our hands.

Our story was only one among thousands in history and related to war. Another striking episode was experienced by one of our physician friends. Along with a dozen people on a small boat, he left the country with his son. During the most dangerous and harrowing journey imaginable, all perished except three. Our friend hung onto a board for survival, without food or water for several days. Nothing could be more unbearable than seeing your child dying helplessly in front of your eyes. Another classmate’s son lost his sight during the ordeal due to lack of medical care. We learned that thousands of “boat people” perished on the seas during their escape. To reach the shore safely was a miracle in many cases.

For our family, that very first voyage out of our native country was also the most important event in our lives. Viet Nam is the destination of our next planned family trip to revisit the country and witness its major changes over this time.

Recorded from memory by Ton Tran and Binh Nhung Tran, San Diego, February 10, 2006

(Next blog entry: Tony Tran adjusts to life in America.)

Comments
  1. Binh N. Tran says:

    Thank you for posting our story. Although full of hardships and uncertainties, our escape was considered mild, compared to other heart wrenching stories. Our motto was: Go or stay as a family. not allowing separation under any circumstances.

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