Excerpt from a witness from the Hue Massacre:
“…a squad with a death order entered the home of a prominent community leader and shot him, his wife, his married son and daughter-in-law, his young unmarried daughter, a male and female servant and their baby. The family cat was strangled; the family dog was clubbed to death; the goldfish scooped out of the fishbowl and tossed on the floor. When the Communists left, no life remained in the house.”
It was a bright, sunny day as a little girl was walking hand in hand with a beautiful young boy, playfully skipping every other crack in the ground. Rays of sunlight reflected brilliant smiles on the two children’s faces, filled with innocence and untainted hopes and dreams. A laugh erupted from his tiny lungs, ringing the air like the sweetest bells. My cousin was taking her beloved brother, who was known for his handsome features, for an afternoon walk. In one split moment, he was gone. His sister was running home for a split second to grab something she had forgotten. In that short amount of time, a rocket missile shot from a nearby mountain missed its target and just like that, a child that had so much potential for a bright future was lost to a senseless war. My father was attending classes at school at the time and was unaware of the gruesome violence that took place until he arrived home and saw the splattered blood in front of his house. He and his brother-in-law rushed to the hospital in panic, fearing for the worse, but it was too late. Little Tung had already passed from a cruel world to a better place. This was the first of many casualties in my family. Not soon after, my father’s 16-year-old cousin lost her leg from yet another rocket missile. Terror and suffering wracked my family over and over, day after day, month after month, year after year. A ceaseless, never-ending horror story that unfolded before their very eyes. No tear would grant them mercy.
Vietnam was never a peaceful country. If it wasn’t the Vietcong, it was the French. If it wasn’t the French, it was the Chinese. It was a land that endured thousands of years of warfare, slaughter, and death. The Vietnam War was the final, long drawn breath of a tortured country.
My father grew up just like anyone else during that time: find an occupation that will keep you from being drafted. He was young, sneaking out to play in a silly rock band named after an acne cream. He won Taekwondo competitions, played soccer, and painted. He was enrolled in his first year of college as an art major when the aftermath of the war started catching up to those who tried desperately to avoid it. Two family members were specifically targeted.
My uncle was a second lieutenant in the South Vietnam military police, a shoo-in for mayorship, and my great-uncle was studying to perfect the art of enlightenment. Both were viewed as threats to the Vietcong; religion was just as scandalous as being on an opposing military force. My great-uncle, Luong Si Hang, was a Master that led a religious organization, Vovi, based on the Buddhist principles of kindness, meditation, and the search for inner peace and harmony. Despite all this, a Communist newspaper framed him as a general of the South Vietnam army, solidifying the target he was already burdened with. As a result, he was consistently arbitrarily imprisoned and humiliated up until he fled from his country.
Once American troops pulled out and abandoned the mass of suffering citizens, Saigon was doomed to fall and on April 30, 1975, it did. My father was present in the crowd that surrounded the US Embassy, trying his hardest to get onto the last helicopter that would eventually fly off without a single glance back on the people it abandoned. Countless people held on to the hope that those helicopters would return to save the very ones they claimed to help. When those helicopters did not return, they were crushed with the hard truth that they, along with the rest of the country, had faded into the forgotten.
Hopes and dreams were shattered as the South Vietnamese were left in the hands of a brutal Communist government. My father’s uncle and brother-in-law were imprisoned simply because they were drafted into the South Vietnam Army. Not because he was involved in combat or warfare. Just drafted. My cousin was born while her father was still in prison and had to visit him behind bars for most of her life. Villages were pillaged, women and children were raped, left to die, and the massacres continued. My father, like many others, had hopes that the Americans would come back and save his country. Instead of fleeing, he wanted to stay with his family and stick together as one unit, to support one another. Choosing to endure the war, he started college. My family believed in miracles and redemption, that they weren’t truly abandoned by the US. Their resolve was punished as the Vietcong started to target civilians and students. My father had just completed his first year of college as an art major when they began pulling students and forcing them into the Vietcong army. It was then that my family knew it was time to leave.
For months, they tried to escape on boats, but were caught each time. The plan was to head towards Malaysia where a refugee camp was set up to assist those who fled. Finally, on October 1, 1978, my father, as well as his sister and two brothers with their children, were able to escape on a small fishing boat that was cramped with 142 people who desperately hoped for a brighter future, chasing the elusive dream that was called freedom. Out of eight siblings, only three were able to escape with my father that night. They set sail for Malaysia with their heart on their sleeves. Their luck did not last long as the tiny boat’s engine gave out and a massive storm changed their course towards the Philippines. For five days, the boat floated aimlessly in a vast ocean and eventually was wrecked on a coral reef. There, for 42 days, my family had to survive on nothing but the environment around them. The children, my cousins, were the first to die. Illness and starvation were the refugees’ greatest enemies. Soon after, cannibalism caused those on the boat to turn against each other. My family stayed true to their morals and refused to succumb to such horrors, choosing to leave their fate to rainfall and whatever food they could fish. Sharks swarmed the boat constantly; they could smell the stench of death from miles away. People were dying exponentially and were either eaten or thrown overboard to avoid the cannibals. My family was an example.
One by one, my father watched his loved ones die. One by one, he protected their bodies from starving people with red in their eyes. With each dying member, my father would clasp his hands in prayer, hoping that his ancestors would guide the dead home before he was forced to toss their bodies to the sharks. We lost eight members of our family, including a newborn baby born that breathed life for the first time on that boat. He, along with his father, mother, and young siblings, died soon after. In a stroke of bittersweet luck, my father somehow survived 42 days and nights without food and water.
On November 18, 1978, a Taiwanese fishing boat miraculously happened to come across their shipwreck. My father had withered down to skin and bones, a skeleton with half an ounce of life left in him. Out of the 142 that boarded that boat, 46 survived. My father once described seeing death looming on the horizon. By that point, he had lost most of his eyesight and hair, but he recalled seeing a brown horizon, beckoning him home. He fought with all his might to resist and soon after, his efforts were awarded as his eyes fell upon the blurry outline of the Taiwanese boat, his heart filled with unbearable emotion and happiness. Once aboard the boat, my father was conscious just long enough to find a tube of toothpaste and hungrily ate it as his first meal in six weeks before falling unconscious. It took 16 days to finally reach Taiwanese shores where he was immediately rushed to a naval hospital, fading in and out of consciousness within the tiny four walls of the ambulance.
When he woke up, his vision was at 20% capacity. The world was a blur, but hope gripped his heart, freeing him from the cage he had been locked in for two months. He eagerly wanted to get out of bed and breathe the fresh air, only to crumple to the ground; his muscles had atrophied and he could not walk. There was no strength left except for the one in his heart. He credits the soldiers there for playing a major role in his recovery: there were always two by his side to assist him. Over the course of two months in the hospital in critical condition, his strength slowly returned and so did his eyesight. Step by step, his legs gained strength. Leaning against the walls for support, he slowly began his journey to recovery. Of all those rescued, he was the last to leave the refugee hospital. Six months after his rescue, he was given an art gallery to recreate the scene he witnessed on the boat as part of his therapy. He painted a wall mural of what he saw each day on the boat in all its explicit horrors. That was the first time the world was exposed to the cannibalism that occurred on the boat. Reporter after reporter came to interview him until he couldn’t take it anymore. An author that wanted to share his story eventually approached him. And so, a biography was written in Taiwanese titled, “Tears of the South China Sea”, with his gaunt face gracing the cover because truly, more tears and blood had been shed in that sea than it will ever see. He still has a ragged copy to this day.
Once he was back to full strength, he was sent to the Taiwanese camp that was set up to relocate the refugees. He spent 18 months there, waiting for an answer that would change the course of his future. He requested to go to America, but no one would take him in. At the time, a refugee had to be accepted by a foster family in order to immigrate to that country. Right when he was about to give up all hope, a Belgian family had volunteered to take him in. He started a new life there, acclimating to a European culture, and eventually met my mother there. The rest, as they say, is history.
Today, the month of April now has the moniker of “Black April”. Why does it exist? Why should it matter? Black April, otherwise known as Independence Day in Vietnam, is a day where all Vietnamese immigrants mourn the loss of countless loved ones in silent candlelight vigils, regardless of which side of the war they were on. Death had no preference. I grew up watching my father light an altar in memory of my deceased family, his eyes holding back tears as he lit three candles and three incense as tradition holds. I don’t know those people other than the pictures that lined the altar. I wish I did. I know they are family, and I can feel the pain that my dad feels each year. But I was robbed of a lifetime of colorful conversations from the uncle that would have been mayor, learning strategies from my other uncle who was a famed lieutenant, and to learn kindness from an aunt who was known for her unrivaled beauty and compassion. They, along with their spouses and children, are lost to history and not a single textbook in America mentions anything about the aftermath. Nothing about the consequences of a powerful first world country abandoning us in our most dire time of need. It is not a day for celebration. It is a day to mourn, but to be thankful for people, like my father, who risked their lives so that his children, my sister and I, would be born into a free country. That we would have the potential to thrive and prosper, to have what he couldn’t have. To breathe in the land of opportunity. To be free.
© 2016 Jennifer Tran. All rights reserved
Jennifer Tran is a first generation Vietnamese-American, a senior at UNA working on her BFA in Digital Media, Graphic Design concentration. She desperately tries to intertwine her heritage and culture each day, grasping onto it as much as she can so that she does not lose sight of not only who she is, but also how she even exists. Her family currently resides in Orange County, CA.