San Diego Professor Recalls Painful Memories Of The Fall Of Saigon
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. You're listening to These Days on KPBS. And we are here, broadcasting live from the USS Midway Museum on San Diego Bay this morning, because the museum is hosting an anniversary event. It will mark 35 years since this ship was involved in Operation Frequent Wind. It was essentially a helicopter evacuation mission which ferried thousands of Vietnamese evacuees from Saigon before North Vietnamese troops took over the city. Just minutes ago I spoke with Dr. Dzung Le, whose family came on board this ship back in 1975 during the chaos of that evacuation. But not everyone who wanted to leave Saigon managed to get out. I’d like to welcome Professor Kimloan Hill, who teaches Vietnamese language and culture at UC San Diego. Professor Hill, welcome. Thank you for being here.
KIMLOAN HILL (Vietnamese Refugee): Thank you for having me.
CAVANAUGH: Now you and your family were prepared to leave Saigon as it fell to the North Vietnamese but why didn’t you leave?
HILL: Well, at that time, I was working for U.S. Catholic Conference, the offices in Saigon. And it was the – I was working for the orphanage improvement program. And just from February on, we had been evacuating a lot of orphans from northern of South Vietnam to Saigon, and my job was taking care of them, providing nutritions and organizing the social worker taking care of them. And…
CAVANAUGH: That’s a big job for such a young woman.
HILL: Yes, I was very accomplished then. But then when they come in – And I was on the list to leave a month before but like with Dr. Le case, I wanted to take the whole family out so I was bumped down to the nearly bottom of the list. And when by the 26th or 27th, the Communist troop was coming near, at that time, every night I went to bed I knew that they are coming. On my, you know, on part of me, I cry every night and just feel like I was dying and keep waiting for my family turns to leave. The U.S.C.C. office were telling me, okay, don’t worry, just have package everything ready when your turn to leave. We’ll have someone to come over and collect you and your family. So I keep working and I keep telling my mom and my dad, don’t worry, they will come, and they will never leave us. And then I keep working, taking care of the orphans. But on the 28th the U.S.C.C. open their warehouse and told all of us like there would be a curfew, everything, so why don’t, you know – They asked each of the employee take home some rice and food that they usually save for the orphanages, and went home. And my mom say this is a sign that we are not leaving. Why don’t you go to the airport? And we all go to the airport and sit because we live right next to the airport.
CAVANAUGH: Right near it.
CAVANAUGH: What was it like at the Saigon airport in those days? Like we’re talking the 28th and 29th.
HILL: I didn’t go in but I worked.
CAVANAUGH: Uh-huh. I see.
HILL: But every night when we were sleeping, we heard the bus that evacuate the people like Dr. Dzung Le family going to the airport, and then you hear the plane taking off every night. And the feeling was you are being left behind. And you keep urging, okay, I wish they come and pick me up but you were told that you are not leaving until someone to come and pick you up. And I was so sure that I would never be left behind.
CAVANAUGH: But you were.
HILL: Yeah, I was left behind and…
CAVANAUGH: What was it like when the North Vietnamese troops did, indeed, take over Saigon?
HILL: Well, the 28th, they start shelling the airport, and the 29th, of course. And my whole family left and they took my Honda, the motorcycle. I went out to the U.S. Embassy and I went out to my former office to see if anyone there and to see if I get any information where to go, what to do. And when I went to my office on Potster (sp) Street, No. 10 Potster Street, I still remember it, and it was the – all chaotic, you know, people coming into the office and looting, taking – I even saw them go into my office and took – took my…
HILL: …electric typewriter those day. And my heart was broken. I say, oh, no. And then I went to the U.S. Embassy. I cannot get in, the line was so long, and Marine soldier was standing guard. At that time, they did not let anybody to come in anymore. So by the time I drove home, my family already left. I was all alone. So I – I’m out of gas. My gasoline – my motorcycle didn’t have any gas so I walked along the railroad track to my cousin home and my – I was told that my parent didn’t stay there so I didn’t know where my parent was. On the 30th when the Communist troop walk in, I was walking back along the railroad track to trace back to my house near the airport and the feeling was I wish one of those bullet that there was – stray bullet would go through me because all of a sudden I left all of the hope to live and I knew that I was dying. And the life in those day was just all of a sudden you don’t have any life anymore because all of a sudden in the blink of eye, you lost your country, you lost your identity, and you lost who you are because South Vietnam no longer a country anymore.
HILL: And so your identification, your job and everything gone with it, you know.
HILL: And you become no one.
CAVANAUGH: Now when the Communists, the North Vietnamese, took over, because of your job, because you were working with westerners basically, they wanted you to be reeducated.
HILL: Well, when they came in, they ask – they announce on the radio that everybody have to register somewhere, either at your village, your district, or your former job or if you are a soldier, you have to go to the military camp. But I no longer have my job so I cannot come to my office to register. But at that time I was also a student at the University of Saigon, so I went to the university to register myself and report that I worked for the U.S.C.C. And I was told that I should go back to my house and wait for the call. And then it was around June, I got the announcement on the radio that everybody at such and such category have to report. And I receive a letter in the mail telling me that I should bring with me enough clothing and traveling item for three day travel. And I went for almost a year. And…
CAVANAUGH: For almost a year.
HILL: Yes, I went to University of Saigon and set up my tent, my mosquito net and sleep. And then in the middle of the night, I was put into one of those prisoner truck transporting before and at that time I didn’t know where I was, where they took me. And it turned out that I was grouped with other students or civilian that worked for American and they divided us between female and male group and we were trained in Marxism, Leninism and doctrine. And we were put to work in the, you know, to clear up the, what they call the former war zone in order to transit it to economic zone.
CAVANAUGH: We – I just want to tell our listeners because the wind has really kicked up on this flight deck.
CAVANAUGH: We are broadcasting live from the flight deck of the USS Midway Museum on San Diego Bay. It is a very windy day down here and perhaps you’re hearing that as our canopy teeters in this very strong breeze. I’m speaking with Professor Kimloan Hill. She teaches Vietnamese language and culture at UC San Diego. We’re here because the USS Midway Museum is observing the 35th anniversary of Operation Frequent Wind, that is the airlift of Vietnamese evacuees from Saigon at the end of the Vietnamese war, the Vietnam war. But Professor Hill is telling us what happened to the people who were not able to get on those helicopters, and she just told us about getting into a reeducation center and staying there. But you did not stay in Vietnam. You eventually got out. And that, in and of itself, is a harrowing story. Tell us about that.
HILL: After a year I was released and because I was a good citizen. And I told the captain that who handed me a piece of paper that I have always been a good citizen except I were born on the wrong side of the fence. And they left me go home. And I start selling fruit on the street of Saigon and do like selling, what do you call it, stuff like gold and…
HILL: Yeah, jewelry that’s smuggling from North to South.
HILL: Anything that banned by the government, I start doing those to make money. But on the black market, I heard that there are a few ship people ready run away. And I happened to meet this man, he was a former Air Force officer but he used false identity in order to stay in Saigon instead of being shipped to concentration camp. And somehow we talked to each other and we decided we are going to work together to organize a trip out of Vietnam because it was just hopeless. You know, being educated and being exposed to freedom in – freedom of port, more or less, and now you cannot say anything. You cannot speak anything, and the life was hopeless. And you see that it was just like you are dying. And so we organize our trip to get out of Vietnam. And we bought a boat in three meter by nine meters, I would say 9 feet by 27 feet. Eventually, we could not – I could not recruit a doe (?) who has money to finance on my boat to get out then I recruit a young man, 16, 17, who were about to be drafted, Cambodian war, to work with us for free. And then it was a fishing boat. And then…
CAVANAUGH: There were many – I don’t want to interrupt you but there were many Vietnamese who left the country in that way.
HILL: Umm-hmm. Yeah.
CAVANAUGH: In fact, I believe people in this country started to call them boat people.
CAVANAUGH: People who left Vietnam in boats…
CAVANAUGH: …just set out to sea hoping that they would be found.
HILL: That’s true.
CAVANAUGH: Is that – How long…
CAVANAUGH: …were you at sea?
HILL: I were at sea for one week. You were correct in saying we just left. We just left with our – and hoped that somebody would pick us up. Many people die in the sea or met pirate and was raped. In fact, and later on I met – I become a volunteer for U.S.C.C. in the U.S., an interpreter, I met many woman who was raped and have a tremendous, I mean, traumatic effect on their life. But I was lucky. I was floating in the sea for one week after we have met this storm then our boat was wrecked and the food was disappearing and gasoline disappear so we just float for one week. And just about one week, we decided to go home. The people on my boat decided, okay, it’s time to turn home. They going to get their cloth and make sail, tie together and make sail to go back to Vietnam. Then at that time I told them if you’re going back, I’m going to jump overboard. I’m not going back. I don’t want to go back to reeducation camp again. And I don’t know whether it was lucky or God or whatever, the group were – most of us were Catholic so they pray every night, and the night before they pray but I was preparing to jump overboard the next day. I told my little brother, who is now not little anymore…
HILL: …I told him that, okay, if anything you go back and if they ask you any questions, say I don’t know, my sister just took me. But then we start seeing two big chimney, you know, go – show up on the horizon. And one of it was a British merchant ship and the other one’s a China – from Chinese, you know, ship. And thank God we get the red ship first, the English, first. So they say you are lucky because you run into the other one then they would bring you back to Vietnam.
HILL: And so after they fix our boat, they left me float. They say, you know, okay, we cannot take you because you have to – we have to go to Macao, that if we take you then we cannot land it in Macao. So why don’t you – They give us a compass and they say why don’t you go that direction. We went that direction and we encounter a U.S. Navy ship. And at that time, it was Friday. So I was told that the Pentagon is closed and U.S. Navy ship were not allowed to pick up any refugee at this time. And so it was President Carter at that time and he was – they contact him. He was – Somehow, he give permission for us to get in. So that my president, my hero.
CAVANAUGH: So, I wonder, after your telling of this compelling story about leaving Vietnam, have you been back?
HILL: I have been back since 1994 almost every year. First, as a – I went back to school when I was 40 years old in history. And I went back as graduate student the first time in 1994 and then I come back almost every years between Vietnam and France to do research and write my dissertation. And now I have been coming back since the year 2000 to be the field director for a Vietnamese Advancement Abroad. It is funded by Fulbright program. So actually I’m coming back again this June.
CAVANAUGH: How does it feel to go back to a country that obviously you love…
HILL: Rejected you.
CAVANAUGH: …but you fought so hard to get out of. I wonder, what kind of a mix of emotions do you have?
HILL: 1994, it was scary because I have no idea what it would be like. And I, instead of going to Saigon, my hometown, I chose to go to Hanoi. My family say you go to tiger lair, you know, you go in there. And then when the plane was circling, I saw all of the former – I saw the security police and I have to tell you, in those moment I couldn’t stand up on my airplane to get off the plane to go to the airport, I was so scared. But I said to myself, you know, the only way to know is to go in and I need to deal with it, to get in to deal with it. And I came in, I show my passport, and the Custom officer asked me, so where were you born? I say Hanoi. I was born in Hanoi. And I said, so you are the ‘54 people, right? 1954, Vietnam divided. I go – I say, yes. They say, what do you return for? I say, doing research on Vietnamese workman history. And he let me in.
HILL: And I make friends in Hanoi, and actually I didn’t go back to Saigon until ’06.
HILL: I end up falling in love with Hanoi and the people and the cultures and everything. But I came back to Saigon now, so many people living here in the U.S., especially former Vietnamese immigrant, are still very skeptical of the government and still don’t trust the government. Politically, it’s still a Communist country that is to control people but economically and everything, people life is much better and people are living a better life. And as long as you don’t involve in political or anti-government activity, you are free to do what you want. And then a lot of Vietnamese do come here but for economic – Everybody want to go to America, you know, and so a lot of people still wanted to come. But I have been advised many people stay in Vietnam. If you have relative there, they send you a hundred dollar a month, you can live like a king in Vietnam. The medical, I go to doctors there last year and everything. I have to tell you that situations is improving. Of course, it won’t change overnight but I think they’re changing. But you cannot expect the government to adopt capitalism freedom because then what they are anymore if they should deny what make them who they are. Yeah.
CAVANAUGH: What makes them who they are.
CAVANAUGH: I want to thank you so much. What a story.
HILL: Okay, thank you for having me.
CAVANAUGH: Thank you so much.
HILL: Thank you. All right.
CAVANAUGH: I’ve been speaking with Professor Kimloan Hill. She teaches Vietnamese language and culture at UC San Diego. You can learn more about our Midway special at our website, KPBS.org/thesedays. Next, we’ll hear about how a section of Camp Pendleton was turned into an almost instant relocation center for Vietnamese refugees. Our live broadcast from the USS Midway Museum continues in just a few minutes.