Escape to freedom as a teenager from communist Vietnam

Photo by Leslie Ozawa

At Fort Irwin’s Asian-American Pacific Island Heritage Celebration on May 13, Lt. Col. Thomas Nguyen, shared this story with the Fort Irwin community: what life was like under the Vietnamese communist regime, and how he escaped with his two older brothers and 40 other refugees in a fishing boat aimed at Malaysia across the South China Sea in January 1980.

An updated version of detailed account of his family’s life under the communist this article and his escape to freedom is at:

In 1975, Nguyen was almost 15 years old and living on an army installation near Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) with his parents and two older brothers and three sisters.

His father, Khanh Van Nguyen, had just retired at the age of 58, after serving 22 years in the South Vietnamese Army, as a signal corps officer. He had joined the Vietnamese Army in 1953.

From when he was very young, Nguyen loved airplanes and dreamed of joining the air force. He watched the Vietnamese air force pilots return from their daily sorties, how they turned their planes sharply before making their final approach to the Tan Son Nhut airfield near his home.

The fall of Saigon

On the morning of April 27, 1975, about 11 a.m., he saw two A-37 fighters flying fast and low over his house, then the thundering booms of bombs being dropped nearby.

A few F-5E jet planes from Tan Son Nhut air base took off and chase the two A-37’s away. Nguyen wrote, “I remember clearly that it was the first time in my life that I saw these F-5E jets flying that low with a full payload of ammunition under its wings and a giant bomb under its belly.”

A few hours later, his parents evacuated the family to his older sister’s house near downtown Saigon.

“As soon as we got outside the base, I couldn’t believe the chaotic scene I saw,” Nguyen stated. “Thousands and thousands of people pouring onto the streets, all headed to Saigon, some people riding motorcycles, some riding bicycles, the rest just walking, yet nobody knew where they were going nor what they were supposed to do next.”

The next night, all of Saigon went dark, because employees abandoned their workstations. His father went outside, radio in hand, to listen with some neighbors to the BBC news broadcasted from London, to learn what was happening.

By the next afternoon, it was clear the communists had taken over all of Vietnam.

“My mother was crying like a baby … my father didn’t say a single word. He just sighed heavily every few minutes,” Nguyen wrote.

Life as pioneers in tropical jungle

A few weeks later, Nguyen’s father learned the communist government was giving away jungle land at Cam Duong village, about 80 kilometers northeast of Saigon. Each family was given about two acres of land per person to turn into farmland.

“I will never forget the day we arrived to accept our land. It was approximately 12:30 pm. After the local government official measured and marked our portion of the land, my father immediately took a jungle knife, went to the surrounding trees and chopped off big tree limbs to build our first house before night fall,” wrote Nguyen.

Led by his 59-year old father and 52-year old mother, Nguyen’s family became pioneer farmers in the dense tropical forest. They survived by fending and learning by themselves, along with about 20 other families from Saigon, to clear the jungle, make bamboo traps to catch wild animals for meat, plant crops, and live off the land. They drew water from a stream 15 miles away.

“The most difficult part was carrying the buckets filled with water and walking up the hill in slippery and difficult jungle terrain, all this barefoot,” Nguyen wrote. “After two years of hard laboring, we were able to make a nice farm out of our jungle land. However, soon after, the local communist government announced a new government program to plant rubber trees on this land in an effort to turn the whole area into a government-owned rubber plantation.”

At least one member of each household had to work for the government-owned rubber plantation. When harvesting was done, the farmers could sell their rice only to the government at a “very dirt-cheap price.” The government allowed the farmers to keep only a minimal amount of rice and other crops.

“They would have their patrols come down to each house in the village and inspect what food and crops each household had, based on their headcounts,” wrote Nguyen. “I think this is the principal failure in communism. After the villagers knew that they couldn’t keep enough rice and other crops to feed them and their family for the entire year anyway, people started not to make so much crops, because they realized that the more they labored to grow crops, the more they would have to sell their crop at a dirt cheap price to the communist government.”

Revolt against the regime

The next year, in 1978, Nguyen’s father learned from a fellow farmer that former South Vietnamese soldiers were organizing a guerilla force and recruiting volunteers for a major uprising with help from the United States.

D-day never came. A week before the planned uprising, communist soldiers in jeeps went to houses where the secret members lived and arrested them. About a week later, communist channels broadcasted news that the regime had arrested thousands of members of para-military organizations, mostly from central to southern Vietnam. Most of those arrested were 20 to 50-year-old men.

Nguyen believes his father wasn’t arrested because the authorities believed that as a 61-year old, his father was too old and weak to be a militant.

The family bided their time. After five years, Thanh, the oldest brother, was able to find someone organizing a secret trip to escape Vietnam.

Four attempts at escape

It took four attempts before the three Nguyen boys escaped. After paying an organizer, they timed their escape after Christmas 1979, when the Pacific Ocean would be calmer for the next three months.

Thanh was then working in Saigon, so the boys and their mother planned carefully to meet each other in a small coastal village in southern Vietnam, without letting the locals know they knew each other. With so many strangers coming to the village for the same reason, suspicions were raised, and the first three attempts at escape on Dec. 27 were called off.

Their organizer kept trying. Early on the morning of Dec. 28, the brothers were told to join about 40 other people on two ferries to an island off the coast. Once there, they quickly dispersed in small groups of twos and threes.

At 6:50 pm that evening, they were all told to board a tiny boat that would transfer them to a bigger boat.

In his speech on May 13, Nguyen glossed over his earlier account of their harrowing story at sea, on a boat with a broken engine, being robbed by Thai and Malaysian pirates, and having their rickety boat towed closer to a Malaysian island by a passing cargo ship.

“The fourth attempt was a success and we were able to board our boat that night. After six days and seven nights on a tiny wooden boat in what turned out to be the most dangerous journey of my life in the pursuit of freedom, our boat landed to the coast of Malaysia and we were admitted into the refugee camp in Pulau Bidong, Malaysia,” Nguyen said in his speech. “After spending seven months in the refugee camp in Malaysia, my two older brothers and I arrived to Washington DC in July 1980.”

Nguyen’s older sister, who had married a U.S. Army officer in 1973, was living in Arlington, Va. She took them in for a few years, until they were able to go off on their own, finding jobs and completing their education with scholarships, grants, and part-time jobs on and off campus.

By 1992, Nguyen, his two brothers and sister were able to sponsor their parents and three other sisters to leave Vietnam and live in the United States. In 2003, his father passed away at the age of 87. In 2010, his mother passed away at the age of 87.

The price of freedom

Nguyen closed his speech here by saying:

“I’d like to take this opportunity to thank America for her open arms and her generosity. I salute you all, our men and women who serve in the U.S. armed forces. I want you to walk away from this event today with the same lessons that I learned – that when we lose our country, we lose everything. We lose our family, our future, our livelihood, our dignity and our very basic right as citizen. Remember, the power of your mind will let you survive your adversities, as long as you have the will to use it and fight against your adversities.”