Tuesday, December 18, 2012

And Then There Were Helicopters

Nguyen Thi Minh Nhat

"And Then There Were Helicopters"

We lived right in Saigon. I have three brothers and six sisters. I am the seventh child. I was just ten years old when we left Saigon.
I don't know exactly what my father did for a living. At one time he worked at the American Embassy. We knew that if the Communists came in they would chop his head off. And my mom didn't like that idea so we decided to leave before they came in.
Starting in early April my dad asked my mom to keep the kids home just in case we left all of a sudden. Then my dad came home on April 28th and said we were going to leave right away. We didn't prepare anything. This was in the afternoon. Before that my mom warned us not to tell the neighbors. The only person who knew we were leaving was my mom's closest

friend who lived across the street. She was the only one who knew, because it was dangerous to tell anybody for some reason. I think, if we got there and didn't leave and came back, people were going to be mad.
There was a family in our neighborhood who left and their door was locked and all their furniture was still in there. They just left everything there and was gone for a couple months and people didn't even know. They just disappeared.
My dad came home that day with a big black car, came home and took us to the airport. My mom bought us these little backpacks so it was easy for the kids to carry them. She didn't know what was going to happen so she wanted to be prepared. But then at the last minute we kind of left everything back because he said we had to leave immediately.
My mom was trying to find all the kids -- there were ten of us all over. She didn't know how long the trip was going to be and she told my oldest brother to go and get some food. He went out and got some food. Then my dad came home and said we had to leave right away. And my brother was still gone.
My aunt came over and my mom left the house to her. But then when the communists came in they wouldn't let her have it and they took it over.
When left the house and we finally all got out to the car. My mom was really confused and everything. And in the confusion she forgot my little brother. We left so suddenly, you know, and we didn't know we were leaving that day, so the whole neighborhood came out. The car was waiting there, all the doors were open, the kids were in there, and my mom brought everything out that she wanted to keep. She even brought dishes, all this china that she really loved. Everything was out and she was so busy trying to find my brothers and sisters she forgot that my youngest brother was sleeping inside in his crib.
The car drove away for about a hundred feet. My mom was really confused. She counted but she didn't even really know if all the kids are there. But a neighbor, the woman who lived across the street, came running out holding my little brother and calling. The car was driving off and so the neighbor was carrying my brother out. We wouldn't have forgotten him, but just at that moment nobody noticed.
The car backed up and my mom got out and got my brother. So everybody was there by that time and so she said good-bye to everybody -- the whole neighborhood was out staring at us. We knew we would not have a chance to come back if we didn't make it. We couldn't come back because my dad had worked for the Americans. So this was it for us.
All of our neighbors were crying and waving goodbye, I remember.
We drove out to Tan Son Nhut and we got to the gate. And they checked our identification and everything. My oldest brother wasn't supposed to go, he was too old. He was only 20. But before President Thieu left the country he passed a law saying any males over nineteen are not supposed to leave the country. So my brother wasn't supposed to go. My dad got him some kind of fake paper. He had to pay a lot to the people who do these things. The paper got him in all right.
There were a whole lot of buses just outside the gate. So we had to get on a bus. And as the bus was driving in they started bombing in back of us. The bus was kind of shaking and everybody was screaming. I was really scared. Everybody was scared. That was the first time I experienced bombing.
Anyway, we were supposed to leave on the 28th. The plane was supposed to come and take us out straight to Guam. From there we would fly to the U.S.
We all got off the bus and went into the terminal building. There we waited there for the planes to come down and pick us up. As everybody was waiting somebody came and said the planes couldn't make it. They couldn't land anymore and nobody would be able to leave. My mom didn't know what to do, whether to stay or leave. Some people decided to leave the airport and some decided to stay and see what happened. For the some who left home, they were afraid to come back because what would the neighbors say and what was going to happen to them.
We stayed and waited until about midnight and nothing happened. My mom was running around trying to find milk and stuff for my little brother. He was real young -- just a year or two old, so he drank milk. She tried to find milk from people she knew and who had worked with my dad. We waited until midnight. Nobody knew what was going on. Everybody just stood and waited in the night. Almost everybody was asleep and then in the middle of the night there was this plane that flew right over and dropped a bomb really close. I saw the plane because the rest of my family was kind of tired and lying around on the floor. This was in the dark, and out of nowhere there was this real big explosion.
First when the planes came over, everybody got down on the floor where they were. When the plane left everybody started running. People started running. Everybody started running. We all ran outside and there was a little dip in the ground and I remember my brother pushed every one of us down there. There was water in it and it was really dirty. We all went down in the dip and came out all muddy. We were down there for a while. Later there was silence and nothing happening. It was dark.
Then we went inside and just waited to see what happened. I remember I didn't sleep at all. I don't think anybody slept the rest of that night.
We waited inside the whole night, until the sun came up. Nobody knew what would happen next. Planes came over, dropped a bomb and left. That's what I remember.
Then the sun came up and someone came and started talking saying that planes couldn't get down because of the bombing. And some people said he was a communist for some reason. He came in he said that the Americans had left us, I remember. He said something like, "They deserted you. They left the country and went back to the United States. That was the morning of April 29th. He said that the Americans had left us and gone home.
We didn't know what to do or where to go. And then there were helicopters. The helicopters came down and people were happy, everybody came out to the grass area. We went outside and we were sitting in the grass. There was I think two thousand people around, and there was around a hundred helicopters flying around in the sky. I can see it right now.
I felt kind of excited and kind of a little safe, but not really because the Viet Cong aircraft were flying around, too, we knew. But they didn't bomb us. I think there was some agreement that they were not supposed to bomb, or something. So the helicopters came down. Soldiers were coming out of them and they would surround the area around the people. They had guns and they were all around us. As they came down, a group of people would be sent up to aircraft. I think about fifty at a time.
My family stayed together. On the ground a lot of people left gold and diamonds and all that stuff. We saw it, but nobody was interested in it because they were worried about their lives. I saw it myself. That day I saw a whole bunch of diamonds in this suitcase that was wide open lying on the ground. It was stuffed full of thousands of diamonds. And there was gold all over. People just dropped everything and ran.
We brought things. My mom even brought a little television. It seemed like she tried to bring everything. But my dad took it and threw it away. She was always hanging on to her china, she thought the U.S. wouldn't have any. She was very funny. And in the end we threw everything away, just left it on the ground and headed for the helicopter.
We got on the helicopter. They took us up and took us and we flew away to the Midway.
The helicopter was crowded with people. Everybody was kind of silent. I looked down -- you know at the back of the helicopter there's the space you can see through, no door or anything -- I looked through it and saw things. I saw the terrible things down there. Nightmare things.
We headed straight for the Midway.
I knew we were going to Guam, and when we landed on the Midway I thought it was Guam. It was so big, such a big ship. An aircraft carrier.
They had the rope they handed us in the helicopter and they had some Marines, a couple of them standing near the rope just to make sure you got out all right. We hung on the ropes.
Everything happened so fast. At that time I was holding a doll and I was kind of amazed at the size of the ship. I let go of the rope and I was walking toward the edge of the ship because I was looking back and this Marine guy caught me and picked me up and carried me back to the family.
I was just amazed at the place. I thought it was Guam but I knew it was moving. I looked at the water and I knew it was moving. I thought it was an island, but how come it was moving? And I was just wondering at that.
We left everything behind at the airport except for some money. But now the money wasn't worth anything, we thought, because you couldn't change it to any other kind of money. So all we had was the money but it was worthless. Then we heard that the American sailors were buying it as souvenirs. There was this guy who came buy, Vietnamese and he said he'd trade it for my dad. And somehow my dad trusted him and he went off with the money. He said he was going to trade it for American dollars. So he left and we never saw him again. Then we didn't have anything anymore.
My brother got lost on another ship and we found him later. He wasn't on the same helicopter because he was with a group in front of us -- my older brother. We were kind of pushing him because he thought we couldn't make it. So he went with a group in front of us.
The Americans fed us right away. And they assigned us beds that the soldiers didn't need. I don't know where they stayed but we stayed in their place.
We stayed on the Midway for I think two nights and three days. We watched what happened on the deck on a little screen tv beneath the deck. They had it down there for us. And I saw them pushing the helicopters off. I was wondering why, until later when they talked about it being too many, so they pushed them in the ocean. And we watched that on television.
My sister and I went down to the floor below us where the cafeteria is, where they served the food. We could go there anytime we were hungry. I wouldn't eat because I was afraid I would be bombed again. I just couldn't eat. I was just asking the Americans if we were going to be bombed again. I thought maybe they would know and tell us.
The sailors and Marines were really sweet. They made me a sort of mascot for the ship. They'd put me on their shoulder and take me all around the ship. I didn't speak any English and they didn't speak any Vietnamese. But they'd come and talk to us or tried to anyway. They brought us Cracker Jacks. That was the first American thing I had. We wanted some chocolate, but we didn't know how to tell them "chocolate" in English. And they couldn't understand. And they brought us all these things and they'd hang around with me and my little sister. It was really fun. We didn't want to leave the Midway. Ever.
Later my dad told me that it wasn't Guam. He said it was a ship. I couldn't believe it was a ship. I kept thinking it was an island. It was so big and I was little.
Later they transferred us to another ship. That was when the hardship started. We went through a lot on these ships. You didn't have a bed, hardly any food, everybody just had to sit. It wasn't that crowded, but you just sat there with nothing to do. One of the ships had no water, one of the ships had no food but had water. We stayed for a day on each, I think.
A motor boat transferred us from one ship to another and from then on we just went from one ship to another. It was kind of scary when they transferred us. They had two boats and they had this thing that hangs and you walk over. Some people wouldn't. But they had this thing on the ocean in case you fall. My mom didn't have any shoes then because she lost a shoe when she was running for the helicopter. Her toes were burning. She had to tiptoe. We went through this process over and over. Finally they took us to Guam. And from there we went to Camp Pendleton.
Then I started having the dreams. I just dreamed that they came over in planes and bombed us at night. I started having them in California. And I'd wake up crying and I'd be real scared. It was the same feeling I had at Tan Son Nhut, the same feeling, kind of scary.
We went through a lot I guess, my family. But I know other people went through worse. So I think we were lucky.

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