S.D. Veteran And Refugee Remember The Fall Of Saigon
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April 23, 2010 – The story of two San Diegans whose lives intersected 35 years ago during the fall of Saigon.
SHARON HEILBRUNN (KPBS Reporter): Thirty-five years ago, the lives of two men intersected on the USS Midway during the Fall of Saigon. Their paths were very different. One man was fleeing from the Vietnam War and the other was helping to save him. To Dzung Le, who was 18 at the time, it is a story of sorrow for what was left behind and of hope for a promising future. For retired Navy Commander Vern Jumper, it is a tale of heroism, one that involves saving thousands of refugees during what was known as Operation Frequent Wind, the largest helicopter evacuation in U.S. history. Little did the men know that they would both end up in San Diego, living just miles apart, sharing a piece of history that forever changed their lives. The story begins on April 28, 1975 in Saigon. Dzung Le and his family, like thousands of Vietnamese, were preparing to evacuate their home country as North Vietnam invaded the South. DZUNG LE (Vietnamese Refugee): The bad news came when dawn came. Because when dawn came, it turns out that there were sporadic rockets falling into the airport. We don't know where, but the latest news is that the plane cannot land. So there's no more plane. And I remember that when people were saying that then, there was really a sense of panic. I mean, I looked around and people are crying because, essentially, somebody would say very loudly that the Americans are gone. HEILBRUNN: About 25 miles off the coast of Saigon sat American Vern Jumper, air boss of the USS Midway. He was preparing his crew for the launch of 10 h-53 helicopters, which would be used instead of airplanes to rescue the refugees. VERN JUMPER (USS Midway): On the 29th is when it actually started, it was around noontime and we got the word to start launching the h-53s. LE: At about maybe 11 or so, because I know it's before noon, we hear a loud noise, a really, really tremendous noise because you're talking about 10 or so humongous, you know, the biggest helicopters coming at the same time. HEILBRUNN: As the refugees boarded the helicopters, Dzung and his four sisters were separated from their parents. It was the first time any of them had ever been in an aircraft. LE: I looked down as we rose above Saigon. It looked very peaceful. HEILBRUNN: Aboard the USS Midway, Vern Jumper was busy directing helicopters to land on the flight deck. JUMPER: A sailor would take a rope into the helicopter and say "hang onto this rope" and everybody would grab a spot on the rope and he would take the end of the rope and lead the refugees off of the helicopter to be taken down on the hangar bay and processed. Giving them food and water and if they needed any medical care. It was very sad. A lot of children, a lot of elderly people. If you could put yourself in their situation, they were leaving their country and they had no idea where they were going. And you could see the sadness in their eyes. LE: Once we get on, we realize that OK, so this is good. This is good. So we feel safe and sorrow, and all kinds of crazy things going on at the same time. HEILBRUNN: For nearly 30 hours, helicopters launched and landed, transporting more than 3,000 refugees to the Midway. JUMPER: It was chaotic, I have to admit that, but it was controlled chaos. There were little kids running all over the flight deck or the hangar deck. Not one little kid went over the side. That in itself, to us was a miracle. HEILBRUNN: Dzung and his sisters were transported to a cargo ship, and then Subic Bay, before reuniting with their parents in Guam, where the family was processed and eventually sent to Camp Pendleton. They lived in tents for several months until a church in Upland, CA sponsored their large family, and helped them rent a house there and buy a car.But dzungs father, who had worked as an accountant in Saigon, and was the highest ranking civilian in their home country, could not find a job. So, Dzung and a sister took a variety of jobs, and the family relied heavily on government assistance. Dzungs father shuttled his children to and from community college, and eventually, dzung found himself graduating from medical school as a pathologist. HEILBRUNN: When you came to America when you were a teenager did you ever imagine that now this is where you'd be - on a campus at UCSD working as a pathologist? LE: Well, it's unreal. Even after being here for 20 years, every time I walk down this corridor it just seems unreal. HEILBRUNN: Today, Dzung is married, with two children of his own. His life is so very different from the one he left in Saigon. By many standards, he has lived the American Dream. But like many refugees, he feels guilty for leaving his country behind. LE: Even now, 35 years later, I can still feel that. Because I feel that we are very lucky to be here, but there's 40 million at that time that weren't so lucky. It really hurts when you think about your close friends, and they have to do this, do that, to survive. And it will never go away. Until today, every time when April comes around and we talk about the fall of Saigon, 35 years later, I've spent more years here but it's still, it's different. It's very different minds for all of us when April comes around.