Sunday, January 20, 2013

Nguyen Ngoc Tien: The Fall of Kontum

Nguyen Ngoc Tien.

With the loss of Ban Me Thuot, on the 10th of March, 1975, Kontum was shaken up and a lot of people from Kontum decided to evacuate to Pleiku. Pleiku was the place that people from Kontum moved to. I left Kontum by land and I moved to Pleiku but actually I wanted to go to Nha Trang, but Route 7 was not open at that time so I got stuck at Pleiku. After the majority of Kontum people evacuated and there was only a small number of army officers and the mayor of Kontum who stayed behind, and route 7 was the only route to Saigon from the highlands, and it was blockaded atthat time. My family and I lived in Kontum for 15 years. Since 1960 until the time we evacuated. And around that 1975 I was a governmental worker, I was the finance chief of the town.
I was extremely surprised by what happened, because I thought that they would hit Kontum first and that they would try to overcome Kontum first, and then they went ahead and took over Ban Me Thuot, and by doing that they cut the highlands in half, and it was such a surprise.
On and after the 10th of March, people of Kontum started to evacuate, and my family didn't leave Kontum until the 15th of March, and we drove by car to Pleiku, and at Pleiku, my family tried to find a means to go to Qui Nhon, and so they rented a helicopter to fly to Qui Nhon. But I stayed in Pleiku. Why did I make the decision to leave? Because we could not coexist with the communists. We were free people and they were communists. And I knew that we could not coexist, and besides I was a governmental worker, they would not leave me alone, so I had to go, we had to leave.
Kontum was never overrun by the Communists in 1972, there was some heavy fighting then but they never even got close to the town. The only time it fell into the hands of the communists was in 1975. I was in the convoy of tears at the time but I was to the rear of the convoy, and that is why I got captured, whereas a number of people were lucky enough to get away and to move on.
Let me describe for you a little bit about the convoy of tears. You know there were a lot of people, and people were mixed up in terms of ordinary citizens and military personnel. You would have civilians taking a ride on the tanks driven by the military people, and then you would have military people of different units trying to get a ride with the infantry branch, especially the rangers, they tried to hitch a ride with infantrymen. And along the way, many people die d. Just common people died. And a lot of military people died during that trip also. Especially the rangers. They committed suicide a lot. They did it so easily -- like by hanging themselves. Like the trees, they were not even real tall. With the branches close to the ground, but they just hanged themselves in the trees. And it was such a sorrowful sight when we saw them hanging in the trees. It was such a sorrowful sight.
We were moving along in the convoy of tears and we were being fired at by the communists and because of the intense firing I moved from the convoy and ran into the forest. And they got me there.
I was captured on the 19th of March. I was about 30 or 40 kilometers from Pleiku, on the road to Phu Bon. Cheo Reo is part of Phu Bon. You know what happened? The army that captured me, they were under the direction of Van Tien Dung, because they came from the North, they were not guerrillas or the National Liberation Front people, they were northern soldiers who were sent south. I was lucky that they came from the North, I attribute that to luck. So my life didn't end there. Because if they came from the South Since they were from the North they just kept you as prisoners, but from the South, they would have killed me off right away. I was together with just civilians and it was a large group, and they considered me as just a civilian. I was scared, but I didn't think I would die in their hands then because I was mixed in with the civilians. There were a lot of people that they captured and they made us work for them by carrying things, as they moved southward. I did not see them shoot anybody, but I saw a lot of people dying along the way. A lot.
They said, "Well brothers, where do you want to go, now that we have liberated you all?" They said we should stay and not try to leave. The soldiers of the Northern Army were very young and I thought that only the higher ups knew what was going on. The soldiers didn't They didn't have a lot of education or sophistication.
The people they captured around me were just lowland people like us. The soldiers they didn't know anything, what they tried to tell us ws that they recited what they had been told. They didn't know anything else. They just told us what they had been told.
They tied me up in the beginning, one morning, for half a day or something like that. Then they untied me so I could help carry their stuff. Not everyone had to help them carry their stuff. Why did they have a lot of stuff to be carried, anyway? They used us on an as needed basis, whoever was around at the time they wanted to have something to carry, they asked. But they didn't have a lot of stuff for us to carry. They fed us, one handful of rice and some salt, and that was it. How long was I kept prisoner, about two months.
I remember there was one particular person from Kontum who had worked in the post office. And now he was a cadre for the Communists. But only a few of the people of Kontum turned out to be Communists. It wasn't anything important, because before 1975 they were just regular nonsignificant employees in the government.
I didn't think we would be able to regain control because by that time everything was out of order. And the situation was so chaotic and there was no leadership at all. After the departure of General Ngo Quang Truong then General Cam took over and then he also left and they designated a Col. to take over and then this person took off, and another person was designated to lead the military, it was just a succession of people leaving their posts. There was mass chaos and nothing could be done. I didn't think we would regain the region or that we could fight back effectively. General Pham Van Phu was in command in the area at the time, not General Truong.
When Saigon fell I was in jail. I was a prisoner. Before the fall of Saigon I and other prisoners had high hopes that Saigon would not fall so that there would be an exchange of prisoners, and when we heard that Saigon fell, it just killed our hopes and despair set in.
I was first a prisoner in Phu Bon and then they returned me to Kontum. It wasn't a real prison, it was just a makeshift prison camp, with a wire fence to close us in in a particular area. During the time that I was a prisoner, my family was in Qui Nhon and when they released me they said to me that since I had no criminal records, and no anti-people activities, they temporarily released me. But they said that because at that time I did not tell them that I worked for the former goernment.
I knew before we got separated, when they left Pleiku, I thought then that they were in Qui Nhon. I was held in Phu Bon and that is where they released me. I was ordered to return to Kontum, but I escaped, and instead of going to Kontum I dressed as a civilian and took and made a detour and went to Saigon instead.
How did I do it? By car. So, in Saigon, I had no idea what to do. I was unfamiliar with Saigon and didn't know anything about it. I wanted to add one point. I was captured on the 19th of March, 1975, and then on the 20th of March they also captured a number of generals and colonels and high important people from the police department from the Kontum area. I recognized one colonel from my area and another colonel from the Ban Me Thuot area. That night, the same day, the 20th of March, they put these people together with us. But that same night they then took these people away. They only released me, but they didn't release these officers. The assistant commander of MR II, General Dam, and the Cols who were also acting mayors of Kontum and Ban Me Thuot, Col. Mayor of Ban Me Thuot was Col. Luat and a number of Cols and other high ranking officers. They were taken away at night and I didn't see them again.
I stayed in Saigon from 1975 until 1983. I worked at different jobs in Saigon trying to hide my identity so I would not be returned to Kontum. I always had an idea of leaving and was looking for a way out of the country. So in 1980 I left my children leave Vietnam, my wife and I did not leave until 1983. They left by boat and ten days later we got news of their whereabouts. Their boat was rescued by a Norwegian ship, and it took them to Japan where they stayed for seven months and then they were resettled in the US. Of course I was afraid of being sent to a reeducation camp or to the New Economic Zones. So every morning I left the house, as though I were going to work or to run a business. So that the special police force of the neighborhood would not become suspicious of my status. I didn't see any Americans after 1975.
There was corruption in the South. The North had lived a harsh, spartan life style, and now they came into contact with material things, and so they wanted things. Another thing was that they started to bicker among themselves because of jealousy, and some had good jobs and some didn't and so on. There were conflicts among the Northerners and there was pressure from family members from the Communist officers who returned South because now their families wanted special favors and special things and they complained to their relatives. People wanted material things from relatives in the Northern Army. And so the officials became corrupted very easily, and now it became a natural thing for them to take bribes, it was just an open thing and everybody knows about it. I feared being captured or dying and so I waited to leave the country. But then there came a time in 1980 when I had to make up my mind and sacrifice for my three children to get the chance to leave. They were lucky they left when they did and they made it. And so then I continued to plan for myself and my spouses escape. So we went back to the same organizer and we left and made it to and we didn't have to abort the attempts. We only tried once and we made it like our children.
The organizer of the trip was somebody that we knew and he had organized many trips already, the one including that our children took. It was safe and we were not worried that we would not lose money or anything. He organized around 13 trips and only one or two didn't work out, we were told, and it was due mainly to bad weather. He didn't swindle people out of their money. We trusted him.
I attribute my family's luck, getting out safely. There were many people who had to try many times, 10 times or more and they got cheated out of their money. We were really lucky. We landed in Indonesia. There was a 4 day and 3 night trip. We took a long course and avoided Thai pirates. We were then sponsored by Hanh, or relatives, and with the help of the USCC.
America. As I landed in San Francisco, on the 13 of June 1984, I started feeling freedom, this sense of being free and I felt that this was a big country and that my life, my family and I, our lives, would be safe.
Even though American is a big and strong country, I always think of Vietnam. Life in Vietnam was much slower and you don't have that many worries. But then again, one cannot live with the communists because of their political ideas.
We have lots of freedom in this country. It would have been nice to lead the life style of Vietnam but then I cannot live together with the Communists.
What should I tel my children and grandchildren. Right now we speak Vietnamese at home and I try to instill some Vietnamese ideas in my children. We practice the customs of Vietnam. here at home. The older three know, and we don't have to worry about them losing their roots. The young ones we try to to teach the teaching of the traditions and the customs, and we want them, and we try to help them maintain their Asian roots.
We live in America and our children are touched by this culture. When they are out of school they move out on their own, so they will have to tell their own children about Vietnam. But if we lived together I would tell my grandchildren about Vietnam. But I am afraid they will not live here. I would tell them if I could that even if Vietnam was a small country, life there was nice and things were nice and you didn't have a lot of worries. I would also tell them about the changes after 1975 and the ruling of the communists and how life became so disruptive and chaotic. But I don't think that they would ever want to return to Vietnam. Only the old people would want to go back when the communists are gone.
What is the cause for the loss of Vietnam. There are three: 1. the Vietnamese system was so corrupt, from top to bottom, and a lot of corruption was going on. 2). the aid of the American government, when they gave us at a distance aid, they did not give things that we could use, raw materials, things we needed. They only gave us tangible things, that could be used then and there. So when there was a cut in assistance, things started to shake. 3. the way the people grouped themselves after the death of president Diem. I see that there started to be different parties and gangs, people drifted into different groups, and they did not do they were not united after that. They were in different competing groups, there was no unity in the country after that time.
The use of illegal drugs. I knew that from time to time there were drug arrests. But when I was in Saigon, I would see a lot of young people shooting up right there in public, but then when they got arrested, that didn't deter them. After 1975 I saw people dying from not having drugs, they just dropped dead on the streets, like that, because they didn't have drugs to satisfy their cravings.
What did I think of General Nguyen Van Toan. On his skills as a leader, there were rumors about him. I didn't think his being relieved from his post was due to his involvement in the use of illegal substances. But it was to my mind with the issue of girls, too many females. I met General Phu only two times, when he came to meetings. He was still young then. At the time he came up for the meetings was when things started to happen. I heard no rumors about him and heard he had a good character.
I grew up in the Central Region, in Quang Nam, and after 1947 I moved to Saigon for schooling. In 1960, when I graduated I was assigned to a post in Kontum, and that's where I lived until things happened in 1975.
Often now I dream about Vietnam. At night I would have dreams that I was back at my work place or on my way home. I dream about Vietnam all the time. There will never be a day when I don't dream about Vietnam. Never ever.
I worry about the third generation here in America, they will be like the American kids. and I don't like that.

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