When Refugees were the Good Guys: Escape from Saigon by Ron Steinman
This is a story about the people America considered good refugees, immigrants withstanding, if you will, not the maligned ones of today who are fleeing oppression and possible death who cross our southern borders in the hope of finding a better life. I am going to tell you of some so-called good refugees who became America’s responsibility at the end of a war because of what they, most of whom were men, had contributed to the American effort in Vietnam. In the case of NBC News, for whom they had been loyal and fruitful contributors to our efforts to cover the news, they would eventually become our personal charges, immigrants from the Vietnam War but good ones, desirable ones.
Despite having a difficult and different language, different customs and religion — though some were Catholic, others were Buddhist, and animists — everything about them was foreign, including the shape of their eyes and the color of their skin. But they had one thing going for them — Americans considered them their refugees, even though they were from a foreign land.
In truth, they were a big part of my own family.
My experience with these refugees began in 1975 when the Vietnam War ended faster than anyone thought it would. First, take a minute for some background. My wife came from Saigon where most of her family lived and worked. Just to show how the many religions of Vietnam affected my family, some practiced Buddhism and animism while others were Catholic. They all got along.
As the North Vietnamese rapidly marched from the northern tier of South Vietnam it ran into little or no opposition from the South Vietnamese. The Vietnamese who wanted to make America their new home feared retaliation from the North Vietnamese if they stayed in Saigon because they had worked for an American company. NBC News, where I worked, assembled a team to help get its staffers to the United States. NBC also planned to assist our Vietnamese staffers and their families once they came to America. No one cared at that point how difficult the resettlement would be. Only flight mattered.
I volunteered to return to Saigon to help with the evacuation. I knew Saigon and Vietnam well. As NBC News bureau chief for two and a half years, then from my base in Hong Kong and London, I had covered the war for more than 6 years. But my wife, who was still recovering from a serious war wound, begged me not to go. She feared I might die at the hands of the North Vietnamese or the Viet Cong. I understood I could not leave her in a state of anxiety with our two small sons in a new country where she was still a stranger so I relented, and I remained in New York while my colleagues worked to get the Vietnamese staff and any of their family members connected to NBC News out of Saigon.
As Saigon was falling, where communication with anyone had always at best been poor, I lost touch with my family members. I knew some members of the family had got out but I knew little else. I eventually learned that the women, including Josephine’s pregnant sister and an 18-month-old nephew, and her father and mother got on a special bus from Saigon to Tan Son Nhut Airport. There they nervously waited for seats on a transport plane that would carry them off to the unknown. My wife’s three brothers were missing. They seemed to have fallen from sight. In panic mode, the women, Josephine’s two sisters, her mother, her father and the wife of one of her brothers, kept the line moving, got on the plane and soon were on their way to Guam, the next step on their road to America. Though they would have their freedom, missing their men was a major problem.
The men, though, had another tale to tell.
As Saigon was crumbling, Josephine’s three brothers, Khai, who served with special services in the South Vietnamese army, Khiet, a mechanic with the Air Force, and Quan, a radar technician, gathered at the family home on Phat Diem Street hoping that somehow they would find a way to escape their ravaged country. Then it happened, as if by divine intervention, a very close friend who was in the navy and whom I later designated an honorary cousin so he could get his papers, arrived on their doorstep with the means of escape. But they had to move and move fast. A Vietnamese navy PT boat was at a dock in the harbor of the Saigon River waiting for them. If they got there in time, it would take them on board and ferry them to a safe port of call.
As with many in Saigon, the young men had motorbikes. They jumped on their two-wheelers and followed their friend through a disintegrating Saigon. Mortar rounds were hitting the streets. Machine gun fire tore through the alleys. Explosions echoed in every neighborhood. Approaching the docked PT boat, they could see its engines revving up and the boat readying for its journey. To where no one knew. The men dropped their bikes, raced to the boat, and jumped on as it was pulling away from the dock. The boat gunned its engines and bolted from the harbor, bouncing waves drenching the deck.
The brothers and everyone else on the boat had no idea where they were going but they knew they would soon be on their next adventure, the one that would free them to pursue a new life.
The family and the newly minted cousin would soon be on Guam, then in the Philippines, Camp Pendleton in Southern California, Fort Chaffee, Arkansas, and finally Indiantown Gap, Pennsylvania. My next move with the help of my wife was to get them reunited under one roof at my home in Rockville Centre, New York. Challenging, yes, but hardly impossible, as you will discover in Part 2.