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This pilot escaped the Vietnam War on a 'borrowed' C-130 plane

By DARCIE MORAN | The Ann Arbor News, Mich. | Published: August 24, 2018

HOWELL, Mich. (Tribune News Service) — His son Phillip Pham, 43, of Dexter recalls the yearly telling of the story well.

Sitting at his kitchen table after reading the Vietnamese Bible, the family would recount the story of how his father took a C-130 with 53 passengers to escape Vietnam days before Saigon fell.

As a child, Pham didn't quite appreciate the significance of the story, and the American lives that played a role.

Pham and his father, 71-year-old Pham Quang Khiem, shared the story with Vietnam veterans Thursday, Aug. 23, when an education center and replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, known as the "Wall that Heals," opened at the Spencer J. Hardy Airport in Livingston County. The mobile exhibit is in town through Sunday, Aug. 26

"When we look at freedom, what we escaped from, the communist government ... that's something I feel the need to give back," Phillip Pham said. "We owe our lives to these soldiers."

When reached by phone on his way to Livingston County on Thursday, his father laughed as he explained he really only borrowed the plane and didn't steal it.

"I didn't keep it myself — the Air Force got it back," he said.

Lt. Pham Quang Khiem, who goes by Khiem Pham, was a South Vietnamese Air Force pilot in April 1975, when he fled the country with his family in tow.

At that point, it seemed certain that the country would fall to the communist North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces and Khiem Pham, then 27, feared he and his relatives in the military would be captured by their enemy and forced to do hard labor. They might die doing it, he thought.

So, Pham and a close friend devised a plan.

The United States, an ally to South Vietnam, had pulled out two years before, but they'd provided pilot training and airplanes. One of those airplanes was the C-130 that Khiem Pham now keeps pictures of in his wallet and phone.

Pham talked another member of the Air Force into letting him co-pilot the plane and he gave his family notice to meet at an abandoned airstrip. The other crew members didn't know the true plan until they landed, and the buddies unloaded the rice they were supposed to be delivering.

As Phillip Pham recalls the story, his mother ran to help his older sister, who was almost trampled as everyone boarded. Then someone had to run and grab him, four or five months old, before they took off.

When they did, the elder Pham was full of joy at the successful takeoff. Still, they were leaving behind all they knew. Phillip Pham said his mother grabbed only a few photo albums.

"It's hard, when you are born there, you've grown there," Khiem Pham said. "Suddenly in a moment you have to leave the country with your family and you are thinking it's a better future with leaving the county (than if) we stay back there and we don't know what the future looks like."

The family made it to Singapore a few hours later and would become refugees in California before eventually settling in Dayton, Ohio. The U.S. took the plane back. Khiem Pham went on to be commercial pilot. He's since retired.

He's gone back to Vietnam three times since his escape, but Khiem Pham said it no longer feels like he belongs.

Phillip Pham said he's watched his dad tell the story over the years and recount that he wishes he could have saved more people.

The younger Pham said with age he's grown to appreciate the sacrifices of the fellow crew members left their families behind that day, but also of the Americans who died for them and taught his dad the skills he needed to escape.

He recalled one veteran embracing him in tears after he told the story and said thank you. That's why he hopes to keep sharing it.

His father shares similar sentiments.

"They came to Vietnam and fight along us and I have to thank them for the fight for our freedom," Khiem Pham said. "I just think, I wish we won the war, so we don't have any regret."

©2018 The Ann Arbor News, Mich.
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