Sunday, December 16, 2012

Xuan Le, Cao Daiist and Soldier, Remembers Vietnam

Xuan Le. Cao Daist and soldier.

I was in Danang in the spring of 1975. In March I was right in the city and I was there on March 29 when the city fell.
That day in the afternoon, my commander came and told us, "Well, this is it, men. I tried to contact the headquarters in the region for directions. But I could not communicate with them. So now it is up to you guys. You need to be prepared to decide whatever you want to do. Maybe choose a path or maybe disband or whatever. Make up your mind and do it.
I belonged to the Regional Provisional Force of Danang. Only Danang had one and Cam Ranh had one. But the other places in MR one had smaller forces like militia men. I was a PFC in the force.
It is better that we not talk about the Hac Bao robbing and killing people in Danang, going crazy. It is really much better that we not discuss it because it was only a small group involved in that. Men who did those things were not only a Hac Bao, the marines, rangers and frog men did it too. But it was inevitable because it was a time of chaos./ And I just don't want to remember it. I don't want to bring it up. I don't want to talk about it.
The paratroopers were disciplined. They were very good, they never turned on the people. But they continued to fight from Phang Rang, they fought on from there and with drew to Long Khanh and then they withdrew to the Saigon area.
Most of the killing took place because the Marines were running for their lives. They heard rumors that the communists were coming and they feared for their lives and they ran. They went to the ships and barges along the coast line and tried to beat the civilians to the ships. In that time of chaos people were in panic and so they just shot people who got in their way.
The paratroopers, I really wasn't with them, but I heard of their actions and their moves.
Actually chaos took place in Danang on the 28th of March and it continued utni the 29th. By 4 in the afternoon of the 29th, the communists had come into the city.
They came in in tanks. I was not at the airport or the docks. I wasn't planning to run after the commander dismissed us. I went straight home to be with my family and with my relatives. They did not think of leaving and I just did not want to leave without them. And besides, I thought to myself, I was just a PFC so I shouldn't have anything to worry about.
Was I afraid of a bloodbath like 1968? In 1968 I was still a young kid, and I wasn't in the military but I remembered what happened. And in 1975 I was somewhat afraid, but not really about being killed or massacred, because I felt that I was just a small simple soldier and I never did anything bloody, I never killed anybody or anything , so I didn't think they would hurt me.
I was afraid of being killed by somebody, sometimes. But I didn't think about it much. When I was still in uniform with my gun and my military badges, so I was afraid they would mistake me for somebody important and shoot me. But I wasn't really worried because I thought my only crime was that I did my duty as a citizen and I never was involved in any bloody matters with the other side or anybody who lived in the city.
I myself was never involved in any open fire battle. My duty as a soldier and a guard was to protect the city of Danang. And we as a group, my fellow soldiers and I never had the chance to engage in any battle. But as far as the last day of the city of Danang we did not have to open fire at anybody because we received the order to disband before they came in.
I wasn't aware when the troops were ordered to abandon the Highlands, I didn't hear anything about it. I became aware of it only when Thieu resigned, that's when I heard over the radio what he had done.
Of course I was so surprised to see the troops from Danang and the highlands. I was surprised when they withdrew. They were good strong troops in Danang and then they just collapsed. They just collapsed, like that. Who could ever think of such a thing happening. I was really surprised.
I was at the bottom ranks of the military so I didn't see the general in MR I, not I. And I was not aware of rumors or explanations as to why things were happening and the Army was collapsing. The people of Danang didn't generate rumors or explanations either. I knew that in 1968 and 1972 there were a lot of demonstrations by antigovernment people. I think those people who demonstrated were like puppets on the strings of the communists.
I don't know the reason why why there were killing of the innocent people in Danang by the soldiers. I didn't think they were doing it on purposes. They were just panicking and they wanted to run. They only threatened those people who had boats. They wanted the fishermen to take them out to see to the shops so they threatened them. But I didn't think they were on a rampage killing innocent people for fun. They were just frightened. And I don't think there were that many killings either. Only a small number. One place there were some killings was at the national bank when people tried to get money to flee. And again that was something I just heard about and was not involved in.
The city was not too bad. But at the dock, that is where the chaos really materialized and manifested. The soldiers were really afraid and really wanted to run. And so they forced fishermen to take them out to the ships.
The local police force and the provisional force, nobody actually was there to protect the citizens of Danang because everything collapsed. Everybody went his or her own way, so there was no open fire between the Vietnamese and others. I was at home and was not aware that the evacuation was still going on when the communists marched into the city. I saw at that time soldiers taking off their uniforms and just wearing their underwear and tops, and many of them ran to their civilians homes and asked for clothes and shirts. At that time we were worried. The military people, the South Vietnamese, were really worried. By 4:00 when the tanks came in everything just suddenly died down and became quiet.
My first time seeing the Communists was from 4:00 am on when the tanks drove into the city. Oh, boy. Then the people, some of them, came out to welcome the communists and a good number of the fifth column was there. But by the next day, from every area they just popped up and they occupied the administrative posts in the city. But they did not get to hold higher positions because the higher ups were from the North and they were designated to run the Committee that administered the city.
The fifth column people rode motorbikes into the city. Of course I was surprised at the number of fifth column people. Many of them were students. They had been antiwar and antigovernment and they had been the servants of the communists before being indoctrinated by the communists and they got there strings pulled by the communists.
They came into the city on the 29th and 30th of March. By the next day they had formed the military monitoring committee which took care of the situation in Danang. They ordered that everybody come out and present themselves to the new administration and that anybody at all who had been in the military or the government, all of those who had something to do with the former regime was to turn himself in, and they said that if they did not and they were captured they would be executed. I heard about executions on the night of the 29th. The local fifth column went to the homes of the people who worked in Room 2 the investigation unit and they killed them. I heard that they took them to the Ben Cat base a few miles from where I lived. Those people just disappeared. The local infiltrators knew who worked for whom and who did what. So those who worked with the former regime were already identified by the fifth column. Anyone who worked in investigation was identified and they were now in trouble. They had a list of their names and they took those people away. Some of them lived near me and that is how I knew of their fate. They shot about four people near me that night. I only knew of those cases.
Everybody was scared. Whenever the communists gave an order everyone followed it instantly because everyone was afraid of being jailed or killed.
The fifth column included many refugees from the countryside who came from the rural area to the city and they made up the large part of the fifth column.
South Vietnamese military, there were a small number who were also fifth column, and I knew that they were there, some officers and soldiers were infiltrators for the communist side. I said that there must have been infiltrators. There were some jerks in Vietnam who sold military supplies to the communists, too. They were biting the hand that fed them. They got materials from their own government and then gave it to the communists.
I don't know of any sabotage of the army by those within the military. But I think they were there, otherwise, how could the communists know exactly where to shell. They knew all of the important storage places of the military.
About two days after the 29th of March the communists organized people and ordered them to participate in festivities for the liberation of the city, so I had to go, they went around in all of the neighborhoods and told people to go. I wanted to create no suspicion on their part. I stayed up the whole night long to be there and help them do what they wanted to carry out this celebration business.
It was really crowded. At least one member of every family had to go. It was at the stadium and it was really crowded. I didn't pay much attention to what was said there by the communists because it was kind of sad. They shouted a lot of slogans, but I didn't pay much attention to them.
They had a parade and displayed the tanks and rockets and all those things. I don't remember if they said anything about Saigon or the war. I just didn't listen to them.
The elderly were the ones that were most happy about the turn of events because they thought now the country had peace and now their children would not have to leave home and join the army and die anymore. So they were the ones who were the most happy. But the rest of us were not.
The changes took place slowly. The communists organized a stronger administration and regarding the economy made no immediate changes. There were no dramatic changes until a few months later. everything happened in a slow gradual manner. I am not sure how they operated. They took over the headquarters of the ARVN MR I and they stationed their own soldiers there for their 5th Corps headquarters there.
As a soldier of the former regime I had to undergo reeducation. I went for 15 days right in Danang. I was lucky because I was only a soldier, but the officers had to go, and they did not return. I think they were just gone for good.
From lieutenant and up they considered those people to be leaders and they were sent away for reeducation. But from the rank of Sergeant down to private. They took over a school and they preached to us all day, it went on for 15 days. Nothing sank in when I was there because my mind was elsewhere. it was all slogans and it went in one ear and out the other. They wanted us to express our opinion at the end of each day and we didn't know what to say and so did not say aything. We went home at night. Nobody, after fifteen days, changed their mind. They didn't become indoctrinated with Marxist ideas.
In front of the indoctrinators we said, "Yes, yes,we understand." We just did lip service to them. And I know that deep down they must have known that we were not believing what they said, but they just went on with their teaching and indoctrination. We pretended to learn and believe and then they pretended to believe what we said back to them. It was all just a big lie that everybody agreed on. Very sad.
The economy, the situation was such that there was no economic activity. Then they formed the military monitoring committee and put up notices asking people to return to their normal everyday activities. They told the people that they were free now and they should work as they usually did. They told everyone to go back to the regular work places and to be assigned new tasks within those work places. The people responded because they had to and they needed money. After my fifteen days of reeducation I got a job as a barber. Then later I became self employed. My father was not a barber, only me. I decided to leave because I could not stand an oppressed life any longer under them. A life without freedom to do as I wanted.
After I worked as a barber for myself for a few months. They deceived me into going and doing forced labor. They told me that if I left for six months that when I finished my tour of duty I could come back to Danang and get paper s and work at any profession I wanted. So I left for Kham Duc in the Tam Bien area which is near Kontum and Plei Ku When I got there they told me I had to stay for three years. So after six months I just took off because the conditions were very harsh and I did not think I could live there that long. They called us just the Young Volunteers like all socialist countries have.
The area was near the border of Cambodia and Laos, and after six months with three friends we decided to leave. One night we had saved some rice and just slipped away from the camp and had to cross rivers and we walked. We walked
about 60 kilometers back to Danang. There I went into hiding and changed residences often and the unit police force did not really go after me because the govt was new and did not pay much attention. But starting in 1979 they were more strict and they hunted people down, the people who left the new economic zones. They caught me in 1978 and I was sent again to do forced labor to do it at another project in Tam Ky, about 70 Km from Danang. This time they told me I would be gone for three years. But I was at the project for a few months and then I fled from the camp again and went into hiding until 1979 when I left the country.
In 1978 I was hiding around in Danang and I did not have any means to leave the country. But people were leaving all the time. You went to bed one night and then you heard the next morning that two or three families had left. Starting especially in 1978 it was a common occurence that people left the country like that.
I left with my nephew. I wanted to leave but I had no means to. But by 1979 one of my nephews brothers who was a fisherman decided to leave and he had a boat. My nephew was conscripted and sent away to Ban Me Thuot, but when he heard there was a plan in the family to leave the country, through his wife, he decided to go home. he injured his eye so he could get special permission to return home. He came with me and we went to a rendezvous place by the sea. We left on a Sat evening from Danang and I left with friends from the neighborhood. That evening on a Sat when the Comm soldiers put were busy entertaining themselves in the nearby park, we dressed up as workers, blue color workers and went to a small boat. Then we navigated out to the rendezvous place where the fishing boat was waiting for us. There were two boats and 32 people on that day.
We were broken up into small groups and exited from different ports, but within the Danang area, we got on smaller boats and got out to sea, and it was planned that by 11 that night the other two fishing boats would rendezvous with us and we would leave the country.
That night when the fishing boats came to pick us up something happened. One woman decided not to leave, and another man who left with another group and was separated from his wife and his children, who were in another group, but they were separated, he thought they were not coming, so the boats had to circle the area for three hours waiting for the group that did not show up and finally a person and two kids showed up and told us that group got detained by the Comms and unfortunately his wife and children were detained, so finally what happened was that he had to make a decision, he talked it over with his brother in law and nephews, and they said he should consider leaving because it would be dangerous to go back. But the other woman we had to put in a big basket, a really big one that would hold one person, and she paddled back to shore because she refused to proceed with us. And I did not have to pay go to since I knew the boat owner. I felt I should not say anything. It was very dark at night. The last thing I saw was the top of the Son Tra mountain, and I thought that this was it, I had to leave because I wanted freedom. it was sad, but I made the decision by myself and so I had to leave.
The woman did not want to go but her child did not show up so she had to return and to try another time. That night everybody was crying because this woman was put in the basket, everybody cried and they cried for the man, too, who had to leave his family behind.
There were some Am forces stationed at Son Tra back then. By the morning we were safe. We did not see any other boats or ships around. We headed toward China. We landed at Hainan island off China. Boy, that area. The people were so poor there. it was really bad. The people there gave us one can of diesel fuel and then half a bag of rice and then two tubs of sugar, we stayed there two days and two nights and then headed to Hong Kong. That was June 1979. I arrived here in Sept 1980.
Is America what I expected. I wanted to live a free life not constricted by any outside forces. I think that America is what I thought of it to be. It is free and I could read a free press here. It is what I wanted. When I was in the refugee camp I could have gone to England, but I just wanted to come here to the US. it is free here, but not unlimited freedom. You are free as long as you do not do anything illegal. (I like that kind of freedom. I thought also that one day I might return home to Vietnam.
Right now I am not working. I am trying to get my barber's license so I can work as a barber again. But I have had all kinds of jobs here. But now I am going to school for my license.
When Saigon fell, I expected it. I really did. When Ban Me Thuot was lost and the other cities, all of MRI, we knew that the Comms would gather all of their forces to take Saigon. Besides, MRI fell, and Saigon could not survive for long on its own. In 1972, when there was heavy fighting, the summer of fire, remember the period of fighting at Ha Lao, lower Laos, there was heavy fighting then but we could hold it off then. But the So Vietnamese troops could fight back and hold off the invasion of the Comms, but now with MRI falling, what was there left to protect Saigon. So it was of no surprise that Saigon fell.
This was the end of an era. I dream of Vietnam at night. I dream that I am being chased by the Comms, getting shot by them, so I wake up feeling quite fearful and frightened. Now, if hou go to Vietnam, you need to visit all the major cities to see how the people live. Especially they have hard lives in the New Economic Zones and they cannot talk Some run away and they just become street people. They do not have enough to eat. When I was there they were eating garbage and peelings from potatoes. Now they are starving again. They do not even have rice to eat anymore. They have to eat Bo Bo kernels. You need to write the truth about Vietnam, how they live under Comm rule. Any family that has any member overseas, that family can have something to eat. But for those families that do not have members overseas, then they really starve. The others live off relatives from America.

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