SAN JOSE, Calif. — Just before the unveiling of a new memorial wall honoring seven heroes of the South Vietnamese military Saturday at History Park, an army in exile of middle-aged Vietnamese men and women — some dressed in battle fatigues, many wearing red berets and gold shoulder braids — rose to their feet as the national anthem of the Republic of Vietnam was played. Some saluted their homeland's yellow and crimson flag; others wept and held hands over their hearts.
The country whose heroes nearly 200 people came here to honor is a nation of ghosts — the Republic of Vietnam fell to communist North Vietnam on April 30, 1975, and thereby ceased to officially exist — but one with an anthem, a flag and a heartsick army of former refugees, many of whom form 10 percent of San Jose's population. Seven of those ghosts were conjured up for the memorial wall, representing millions more South Vietnamese citizens who perished during and after the Vietnam War.
Surviving family members were given yellow balloons and pennants as each of the heroes' stories were told, then released the balloons — meant to symbolize setting their souls free. Six balloons soared high into the sky, but one got stuck in the branches of a tall tree just downwind of the Viet Museum.
The wall was the work of the Lam Son Artistic and Cultural Special Group, which raised the funds for its construction, then got the city's approval to have it consecrated on public land. "The reason these seven are memorialized is because we know their stories," said Salle Hayden, manager of education at San Jose's Immigrant Resettlement and Cultural Center. And their stories are remarkable in a number of ways, not least of all because six of the seven honorees committed suicide rather than be captured. "They did that rather than be taken and used as symbols by the communists," Hayden said.
Gen. Tran Van Hai, whose son Viet Tran had come from Houston, Texas, to attend the ceremony, could have escaped capture as the North Vietnamese army closed in on Saigon 39 years ago.
"He had a helicopter," his son said, "but he decided not to go. I know my father. He didn't want to run away. A lot of the other commanders abandoned their soldiers."
Instead, his father poisoned himself in his office.
"There's a lot of emotion today," Tran said. "People who lived in the south believe in democracy. When that collapsed, we felt we lost our country."
Some of the suicides strained the cultural divide between what many Vietnamese consider an honorable death — and the view of their American counterparts. Major Dang Si Vinh was honored with a spot on the wall, despite shooting his wife and seven children in the head before taking his own life.
By any cultural reckoning, there was little doubt about the heroism of Col. Ho Ngog Can, who was captured, then taken to a stadium to be executed by the North Vietnamese after the war ended.
"They wanted the people to see that he was dead," said Craig Mandeville, an American adviser to the South Vietnamese army who fought side by side with Can. "He was believed to be some sort of invincible guy. The North Vietnamese thought that, too, and I even thought that when I fought with him."
Can was the only one on the memorial wall who died long after April 30. "After the communists took over, he was still fighting," said Ho Nguyen, his son, who remained in hiding with his mother for four years before fleeing for the United States.
"He said, 'OK, the country's fallen, but by God we're still South Vietnamese and we're free,' " Mandeville recalled. "So he went down to Chuong Tien province and rounded up all these soldiers down there to form a Free Vietnam."
Col. Can didn't live long after that, but the legacy of his struggle lives on.