Saigon Anniversary

It's the end of April. Do you know why this month is important in American history? It's the 36th anniversary of the fall of Saigon and the end of US involvement in Vietnam.

The Vietnam war was such a nexus for the internal struggles and cultural changes the US was suffering through. The entire 1960's seemed to have been a real cultural turning point that would have ripple effects around the world.

But what's interesting is that there's not much mention of the annivesary anymore in the media. There was for the 25th anniversary, little mention for it's 30th, and now it seems as it's now been relegated to the dustbin of history. I remember it every April because my father was one of the last ones evacuated from the roof of the US Embassy. He was stationed there from 1974-75 with the "US Agency for International Development" (read between the lines). I was just a little kid then, not really understanding the full impact that my father and others were in a warzone and working under potentially life threatening conditions.

My dad's been gone now for quite some time, but the memories of Saigon will not fade. In war time, one is confronted with choices. Does one act of selfishness or does one act with a sense of sacrifice? It may be overblown to call my father a hero, and I don't know if I really see him a such. To me, he was just dad. But to others, he's a hero. He saved lives during wartime. A few of my father's co-workers didn't and left the country early.

There were a group of foreign nationals who were working in the embassy for my father and his agency. On the fateful day, with the North Vietnamese made a huge advance to surge just outside the city limits. Panic was arising. The South Vietnamese locals flocked to the embassy, seeking help, seeking some sort of refugee status, anything--the entire city was falling, the South Vietnamese government was non-existent and the US Embassy was caught off guard; Ambassador Graham Martin was still trying to naively negotiate some sort of cease fire. My father's secretary said she wanted to head home to get her family back to the embassy. But my father told her that he couldn't guarantee that he could get her back in among the throngs. He wasn't even sure if he could get the Marine embassy guards to let her in even if she got back there.

My father gave her his embassy ID card and told her to use it as proof, to use it to have someone call him if she could get back to the embassy. This was risky because if she had been caught by the NVA with my dad's ID card, they would've executed her for working for the Americans. To my dad's credit and those of his co-workers who didn't bug out early, they tried their best to protect their foreign national staff.
But my dad's secretary never made it back to the embassy. There was nothing more my father could do, it was time to evacuate. My dad told me in later years, he wish he had time to go back to his living quarters to get his camera. From the helicopter ride to the Navy ship, he could see the city in flames.

So, eventually, my dad was able to settle back in-country. You know how fathers can be sometimes. Stoic, non-emotive. But I'm sure that my father was rattled, perhaps even haunted with some guilt, in knowing that the foreign nationals that worked for him were executed by the communists because he wasn't able to secure safe passage for them. But roughly 6 or 8 months later after safely returning back to the quiet DC suburbs, where one is always alone with one's thoughts in the suburbs, a call came from the Red Cross.

Maria, my father's secretary, had made it out of Saigon with her sister and brother after harrowing weeks on a boat, trying to find refuge. Years, later, she had told me during one of her visits to our family, that what stood out was the ink black darkness at night. She eventually wound up in in a refugee camp in Thailand where she showed one of the international Red Cross workers the embassy ID card. And that's how they were able to traced and contact my father. My dad sponsored them to come to the US and I remember driving with him to Indiantown Gap, PA to pick them up. Maria and her siblings lived with us for about 8 months until they could find a place of their own.

I have to admit, being a kid, it felt weird having these having these strange Vietnamese living with us. But as I grew older, I had come to realize just what my father meant to Maria and what was left of her family. Years later when they were on their own, Maria and her siblings use to drop in on us unannounced, for some reason. I never quite understood that. But she came to pay respects to my father. The saddest moment was when she came to visit, unannounced again, about a year after my father passed away, and she didn't know he was gone. My mom took her out to the cemetary and Maria, being Catholic, said prayers over my dad's grave and broke down into tears.

I saw Maria last about 7 years ago or so with her husband. She lives in Ohio now and has a daughter. They last stopped by, unannounced again, two years ago, when they were visiting DC, but unfortunately, my mom was out of town and we missed seeing them. But her daughter stopped in to see us about two years ago, she had just graduated from Ohio State and was working in NYC. I don't recall it, but she said she met my father when she was a little girl, so at least my dad got some joy out of knowing that Maria's life had become full.

But here's the thing---as long as Maria continues to honor my father, the memories of Saigon will never go away. I remember once telling Maria that I could never find my father's embassy ID card among his personal effects when he passed away, and she had told me that she had it. And that she treasures it to this day. I had no clue what one simple act my father had done had managed to save three lives from a harsh, wretched life under communist rule (or worse, torture and death in re-education camps). I didn't really comprehend how much he meant to Maria.

When I last talked to Maria's daughter, I told her that her mom's story is now her's as much as my father's story is now mine. As long as they still stay in touch and visit my father's grave site, this piece of history still lives on in our hearts and minds and is passed down through time....

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