TURES COLUMN: The Kabul evacuation and lessons from a survivor of Saigon

Published 10:30 am Wednesday, August 24, 2022

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A year ago, as Afghanistan fell, doomed by the Doha Deal with the Taliban signed in 2020, I was thinking of a close friend’s story from graduate school. An Ngo Lang and her family fled South Vietnam in 1975, coming to America. Her story says a lot about the evacuation and resettling in the U.S. Now she’s writing a book about the role of the U.S. military in that event.

“When the Communists came to Sài Gòn, raining rockets into my city, my family ran, searching for peace,” An wrote me. “My mixed French and Vietnamese mom’s French passport became our ticket out, escaping in one of the largest airlifts in world history on April 29, 1975 from Tân Sơn Nhứt Airport. Leaving loved ones behind, hunger, and near-death on a Navy ship crammed with thousands of other escapees etched everlasting memories in my four-year-old mind.” Her story became part of the American experience. “We became the first Vietnamese refugee family to resettle in Wichita, Kansas. Like the early settlers who came to America in search of freedom and a future, my parents gave it their all — working two to three jobs, my mom went back to college to re-earn her teaching degree and even obtain a Master’s — striving for a measure of comfort and success. My parents’ English language skills were in high demand. Both volunteered to interpret, and my dad translated documents to ease the culture shock for newly arrived refugees.” And she became a great graduate student at Marquette University.

An’s writing differs from other accounts in one very important way. “Even though my tale is another Vietnamese refugee story, it is the first memoir about a family’s escape during the Fall of Sài Gòn with the US-led Operation Frequent Wind. And it is the only memoir that includes startling perspectives of some US Marines involved in the humanitarian endeavor.”

We could learn something from America’s often forgotten service members from that humanitarian event. “I discovered, in researching aspects of the war for my memoir, there are few written accounts of Operation Frequent Wind, America’s shining moment and a shift in strategy from violence [in defense of the South Vietnamese regime] to a compassionate rescue of thousands at risk of persecution, loss of freedom, and possibly death. Yet, there exists no refugee memoirs detailing this historic event.” I can’t wait to assign this to a class to read.

Her story will make you proud of about a shining moment for those who served in an unfortunate chapter in American foreign policy.

“It wasn’t just refugees, but the Marines, sailors, and service people participating in the complex and mammoth mission, who endured much for the ideal of freedom. I was astonished to discover there were only 50 Marines, many of whom were barely even 20 years old, on board the USNS Sergeant Andrew Miller, one of the Merchant Marine ships in the US fleet participating in the evacuation. For almost a week, the Marines cared for the wellbeing and safety of over six thousand refugees, including my family. The physical, mental, and emotional stress they endured was of heroic proportions. During the first seventy-two hours, while refugees streamed on board, the Marines didn’t sleep, eat, or drink, putting the needs of the evacuees — many who were injured, frail, or traumatized — first.”

An went on to write “Even after the ship started its course to Subic Bay, the Marines worked tirelessly around the clock to provide security and meals to the refugees on board. And yet, a Marine I interviewed told me, his voice wobbling with emotion, guilt plagues him to this day, because he should have done more. Another Marine told me, that at night when he tries to fall asleep, he still sees the terror-stricken refugee faces because while the Marines helped many to board the vessel, there were thousands — on tiny sampans, fishing boats and anything that could float, like human flotsam — who were turned away and likely perished. The Marines’ story needed to be told, to honor their service, showing the magnitude of the operation and the desperation of the thousands whose country fell to communism.” I couldn’t agree more.

An is seeking literary representation for her memoir detailing firsthand the events leading up to the Fall of Saigon and the US-led humanitarian operation to save over one hundred thousand Vietnamese lives. 

To find out more about An, visit her at anngolang.com. John A. Tures is a professor of political science at LaGrange College in LaGrange, Georgia. His views are his own. He can be reached at jtures@lagrange.edu. His Twitter account is JohnTures2.