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'Thank you, America': Vietnam native reflects on the war 50 years later

By BRANDI BOTTALICO | The Capital, Annapolis, Md. (Tribune News Service) | Published: May 9, 2015

Ted Nguyen had one message to share April 22 — 40 years to the day he escaped from his native South Vietnam.

"Thank you, America."

During the Vietnam War, the Annapolis resident was an Army captain in charge of telecommunications for the South Vietnamese government, which was supported by the United States and other anti-communist allies.

"We fought with the Americans … so they bring me here. They say, 'Ted, if you get stuck in Vietnam, you get killed,'" said Nguyen, 75, who shared his story with The Capital last month.

On the 50th anniversary of the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War, Nguyen and other veterans are recalling their last frantic days in Saigon and tours of duty throughout the war. Among other commemorations, PBS has been airing the Academy Award-nominated documentary film "Last Days in Vietnam."

"Fifty years ago, you didn't tell anybody you are a Vietnam veteran," said Rayfield Purnell, of the Vietnam Veterans of America Baltimore chapter. "The American public has changed."

Forty years ago, the war raged as the Army of the Republic of Vietnam made a last-ditch effort to block the North Vietnamese Army advance on Saigon. On April 21, 1975, the exhausted garrison of Xuan Loc surrendered. The president of South Vietnam resigned the same day and later departed.

"By then, everyone in Saigon knew the war was lost and to stay meant to be sent to camps of re-education or worse," Nguyen said. "The people around us spoke of executions and what the communists would do to their children."

Nguyen said as Americans were fleeing, he and his wife sought to give their three children up to soft-hearted Americans for a secure life beyond Saigon through Operation Babylift, an American mission to airlift children out of the country. But they were told the operation was canceled after one of the flights crashed, killing many on board.

But they were able to get affidavits of support from Nguyen's brother, a naturalized citizen of the United States residing in California, sent to the U.S. Embassy in Saigon. Nguyen and his family rushed to the airport in military evacuation buses for what Nguyen described as the "most hair-raising ride" of his life.

As desperate Vietnamese looking to escape crowded the streets, the panic stricken driver hit something, possibly a person, Nguyen remembers. And the airport was also surrounded by thousands of Vietnamese.

The Nguyens were on the edge of their futures. If the bus were to stop for any reason, they would likely end up in concentration camps and tortured because he supported the Americans with the South Vietnamese government, he said.

But they made it and watched Saigon fade in the distance, staring at the city for one last time.

"Saying goodbye to our land was the saddest moment of our final hours in Vietnam," he said. "My wife and I glanced at each other with tear-filled eyes for a long time. We are all being lifted heavenward to safety. I knew I was living a moment in history with my wife and my three children."

Their journey brought them to an Air Force base in the Philippines, then to Guam and then to California. Once in the United States, they went to Omaha, Nebraska, for three months to look for work before soldiers were able to get him a job at the Naval Academy and they moved to Annapolis.

"Americans are very generous," he said. "They gave us opportunity."

Nguyen worked at the Naval Academy mess hall as an operation manager for 10 years, he said. Then he worked as a manager at McDonald's on West Street for 22 years before retiring.

He is proud of his three children, two of whom have degrees in engineering and one in sociology, he said.

"We came to this land as refugees of war with a pair of empty hands and a bag full of broken dreams," Nguyen said. "Now we are in paradise not because of its beauty or richness, but because of its people, the compassionate and generous Americans who took us in 38 years ago and healed our souls and restored our faith in humanity."

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©2015 The Capital (Annapolis, Md.)

Visit The Capital (Annapolis, Md.) at www.hometownannapolis.com

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

FILE - In this Tuesday, April 29, 1975 file photo, U.S. Navy personnel aboard the USS Blue Ridge push a helicopter into the sea off the coast of Vietnam in order to make room for more evacuation flights from Saigon. The helicopter had carried Vietnamese people fleeing Saigon as North Vietnamese forces closed in on the capital. (AP Photo/File)
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