“Trần Đình Trụ’s life story was one of grace, fortitude, and devotion to his family. A skilled seaman and a naval commander, he journeyed from North Vietnam to South Vietnam as a young man, and then from South Vietnam to the Philippines, Guam, Japan, and ultimately, the United States. In his memoir, he recounts his evacuation from South Vietnam in 1975, his experiences in a refugee camp in Guam, and his decision to return to Vietnam in October 1975 with more than 1500 Vietnamese repatriates as the captain of the Việt Nam Thương Tín. After he successfully navigated the ship back to Vietnam, the new government viewed him and the repatriates with fear and suspicion. Trần Đình Trụ suffered physical and psychological brutality in “re-education” camps for more than twelve years. On release, he finally rejoined with his family and resettled in the United States. Through his memoir, Trần Đình Trụ captured the singularity of his life story and the universality of despair and uncertainty at the end of war. He will be deeply missed by his family and community.”
Read more about the book and Tru’s life in an essay by Professor Lipman that first appeared in The Conversation and was republished on the UH Press blog.
Originally this post was a way to mark this month’s Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month by sharing personal memories from an editorial perspective of a pioneering Asian American literary icon, Milton Murayama. It has grown to include other remembrances from a marketing perspective. We are all proud to be the publisher of his bestselling novels.
Masako Ikeda, Acquisitons:
I only met Milton Murayama once, at the Asian American studies conference held in Honolulu in 1991. I tagged along with Sharon Yamamoto, who acquired his manuscripts for Five Years on a Rock and then Plantation Boy. Nothing at that meeting was particularly memorable as I sort of stood in the background, but I ended up enjoying serving as his managing editor for those two books. We wrote letters back and forth and continued to do so even as the century changed. Most of the time all he said in his letters was that he wanted to buy copies of his books or he was writing a new book, which wouldn’t be finished for a while.
After Five Years our production department held onto an old computer drive knowing that Milton had not updated his system and refused to do so. Our marketing staff coaxed him a number of times: “Milton, I’ll help you set it all up.” He kept sending me hard copy manuscripts with perforations on both ends along with five-inch floppy disks. The manuscript wasn’t complete so he wanted everything back, including the floppy disks, which he couldn’t find anymore. Right before he sent the very final manuscript, which eventually became Dying in a Strange Land, we had gotten rid of the drive, and there was no way to read his WordPerfect files. I ended up asking our Production staffer to keystroke everything, which she did in three days.
Communication with Milton was always interesting and often a little strange. He’d call to complain about the copy editor who didn’t understand that “Pidgin English doesn’t have ellipses points, or letter spaces in between.” He would also hesitate to say “Okay bye” and hang up the phone, so our conversation would go on for a long time with several seconds of dead silence breaking our talks in the most uncomfortable way.
Milton passed away in July 2016, and I didn’t know it until a month later when we saw the obituary in the Sunday paper. I felt guilty for not staying in touch. I do think of him quite often just as I think about Sharon, his true editor, whose passing was almost fourteen years earlier.
Steven Hirashima, Marketing:
My fondest memories of Milton would be visiting his fudge brown three-story home in the hillside area of Glen Park of San Francisco. Whenever I was in town I would always make a point to book a visit. The ritual was always the same. I would call to
L to R: Steven Hirashima, Marie Hara, Milton Murayama, Dawn Murayama, Carol Abe after “Revisiting Murayama” presentation, November 2008.
say I’m leaving the hotel and heading for the Union Square BART Station. Once at Glen Park, I would call to say I arrived and no more than five minutes later Milton would arrive in his old Toyota and we would head up the steep and winding road to his “retreat in the hills.”
Overlooking the flatlands of the city with Candlestick Park and SFO to the west, I would always be given a tour as to what was updated or repurposed around the house since my last visit (the actor Lou Diamond Phillips’s childhood family had been a previous neighbor), from a newly reapportioned sunroom downstairs to a section outside with a bed of spring flowers to Milton’s designated writing room where tucked in a corner would be his antique word processor (a Commodore 64), which I almost convinced him to ditch in favor of a newfangled Mac but he never wavered and remained forever faithful to his trusty machine.
Any trip to the Murayamas would invariably end in the kitchen where Milton and Dawn were the most gracious of hosts. We would often gather around the large formal dinner table for spirited conversation from his next book project or his time in the 442nd, feasting on a bowl of delicious Alaskan King crab legs and steamed garlic brussels sprouts, masterfully prepared by Milton only minutes before. Looking back, they were wonderful and precious times. How I long for another afternoon with Milton. Until then, God Speed and Aloha.
Carol Abe, Marketing:
My very first encounter with Milton was in 1975, the year his original edition of All I Asking for Is My Body published, the green one with the bamboo forest on the cover and an overly large “$3” printed on the back cover. He and wife Dawn lined up signings at Honolulu Book Shops, at which I was a bookstore clerk (we weren’t called “booksellers” until twenty years later). Of course I bought a copy with my generous employee discount and had it signed, but didn’t otherwise have a personal connection to him. Jump to 2008: I’d been at UH Press for ten years and we released Milton’s fourth and final novel in his tetralogy about the Oyama family. Steve Hirashima had switched to managing our Asian studies list and I did the same for our Hawai‘i, Pacific, and Asian American titles.
Dying in a Strange Land had a pub date of June but Milton called and said he would wait to visit in the fall, when it’d be cooler, and he only wanted to do low-key promotion of a few bookstore signings. Then, as now, the Press had no travel funds to support a book tour anyway. He finally decided November would be a good time to come and would do Maui and O‘ahu signings, but no readings or talks. So I booked a combination of Barnes & Noble and Borders stores that followed his wishes and filled his itinerary. We corresponded by snail mail and exchanged letters. In one of these, Milton revealed some of the real-life equivalents to the characters in his books. He wrote, “There’s more fact than fiction in my stories.”
After a fan of his scolded me for not paying for his travel and doing him justice, a series of serendipitous things happened that culminated in an event more befitting of a literary icon, “Revisiting Murayama: From Plantation to Diaspora.” Gary Pak, as it happened, had videotaped an interview with Milton that he still needed to screen; the amazing Marie Hara agreed to be co-organizer and was a conduit to both UHM English department and Bamboo Ridge; Craig Howes put me in touch with Phyllis Look, who had directed a play of All I Asking. The program developed further by recruiting Arnold Hiura, Lee Cataluna, and one of our student employees, Tricia Tolentino, all tied together with Steve as emcee. (And, by rolling the dice, we obtained funding from SEED and Hawai‘i Council for the Humanities, including an honorarium for Milton.)
During their visit, I had chauffeured Milton and Dawn to four or five appearances, perhaps being a bit manic in my driving. At the end, I asked Milton to sign my copy of Dying in a Strange Land. We all laughed warmly as I read his inscription: “It’s been fun getting to know you. I love smart flaky women, who’re also good drivers.” It was my honor and pleasure to have been a tiny part of his life.
Each of Milton’s novels can be read separately and not in sequence. Dying in a Strange Land is on sale now, at a very special price—click here to order.
The 14th annual Hawai‘i Book and Music Festival happens this weekend, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. each day, and UH Press will once again be there! Come to our tent alongside Honolulu Hale, near the Kristi Yamaguchi Keiki Reading Corner, and be among the first to see our newest titles. Also attend several presentations by UHP authors and follow them to our booth for short booksignings before you head off to the next session. Check out the interactive festival schedule here.
[UPDATED 5/3/18; 5/6/18]University of Hawai‘i Press will be among the local publishers, booksellers, community organizations, and other exhibitors at the 13th annual Hawai‘i Book and Music Festival taking place this weekend, May 5 and 6, at the Frank F. Fasi Civic Grounds next to Honolulu Hale. Admission and parking are free. Visit the festival website to explore its new mobile-friendly schedule, filled as usual with speakers, panels, and activities. Read the latest news on its Twitter feedand check its Facebook posts to share with your friends and family!
UHP authors on the program this year include Sandra Bonura, flying in from San Diego to present Light in the Queen’s Garden, her biography of Ida May Pope—the founding principal of Kamehameha School for Girls—and Patricia Steinhoff, editor and translator of Destiny: The Secret Operations of the Yodogō Exiles. Each will sign books at our tent, located alongside Honolulu Hale on the ‘ewa-mauka side of the grounds (left side of the map above, or click here for a PDF). We’ll have our latest Hawai‘i titles available at a discount and will offer free US shipping on orders taken onsite. Slightly damaged (“hurt”) stock and a few titles in new condition will have special bargain prices.
The schedule below shows participating UHP-related authors and in-booth signings. Other signings will happen on an impromptu basis, so check with us at the event. We look forward to seeing everyone there!
• 4:00 pm | Mauka Authors Pavilion: UH Mānoa professor Patricia Steinhoff speaks on the real-life story recounted in Destinyby Japanese journalist Koji Takazawa.
• 4:00 pm | Alana Hawaiian Culture Pavilion: Dana Naone Hall will be on a panel for her book, Life of the Land: Articulations of a Native Writer, distributed by UHP for ‘Ai Pohaku. Due to the late hour, buy the book ahead of time to sign at her talk.
In response to the emergency, the U.S. military established a refugee camp on this small island in the Pacific. On Guam, the U.S. government planned to assess the crisis and process individuals while preparing camps on the mainland for the incoming Vietnamese. However, approximately 1,500 Vietnamese had another idea – refusing resettlement in the U.S. and returning home.
I first learned of these events when I discovered images of the repatriates in the U.S. National Archives and found “Ship of Fate,” the memoir of a South Vietnamese naval officer, Tran Dinh Tru. His story and that of other repatriates shows the real risks of repatriation if there are no guarantees of protection. This is an important lesson today given the U.S. government’s current steps to make it harder for refugees to enter the country.
Captain Tran Dinh Tru
Tru was a respected career South Vietnamese naval officer. In the chaos of April 1975, Tru evacuated with other naval officers, and he organized for a ship to save his wife, who was stranded far outside Saigon. However, the ship failed to rescue his wife. Like many family members across South Vietnam, she was left behind with their three children to navigate the new political landscape.
Waiting on Guam alone, Tru despaired that he would never see his family again.
Tru was one of more than 1,500 Vietnamese on Guam who did not want to resettle in America. They called themselves the repatriates, and they wanted to return to Vietnam for a range of reasons.
Many were young South Vietnamese sailors who were aboard South Vietnamese ships as the North Vietnamese advanced on Saigon, and their captains had directed the ships out to sea and never returned to port. These young men did not see themselves as refugees.
In other cases, older men and women decided they did not have the stamina to start again in America. Others, like Tru, had family members who had missed connections, and they faced indefinite separation.
The repatriates turned to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the U.S. government and the Guamanian public to make the case that they should be allowed to return to Vietnam. They wrote letters to the Guam newspaper and built massive billboards within the camp demanding their return. The UNHCR and the U.S. could not guarantee their safety on return, and so they made no plans for their repatriation. Frustrated with the lack of action, many of the repatriates escalated their protests.
The repatriates built a makeshift stage. Men shaved their heads in front of a banner that proclaimed boldly in English, “Thirty-Six Hours, Hunger Sit-In, Quiet, Hair Shaving Off, To Pray for a Soon Repatriation.” The repatriates also organized hunger strikes, militant marches through the streets of Guam and eventually set fire to buildings in the refugee camp.
This was a situation no one had anticipated. The repatriates did not want to go to the United States, the Guamanian government did not want them to stay on Guam and the U.S. government did not know what to do. Notably, the new Vietnamese government did not want them back.
The ship of fate
In the end, the U.S. government granted the Vietnamese a commercial ship, the Viet Nam Thuong Tin, to return home. Tru agreed to be the captain due to his experience and skill. The Vietnamese repatriates knew the communist government saw them as hostile interlopers, traitors and possible CIA plants, but they still felt strongly that they must return.
The voyage took roughly two weeks, and the atmosphere on the ship was tense and cautious.
When the ship arrived in Vung Tau, a southern Vietnamese port, the Vietnamese government saw Tru as suspect and counterrevolutionary. They ignored his repeated wishes to reunite with his family, and the government imprisoned Tru in its network of “reeducation camps,” where he suffered for 13 years. These camps punished South Vietnamese men who had fought against North Vietnam and allied themselves with South Vietnam and the United States. They combined prison labor and forced ideological training. They were marked by hunger, indefinite detention, and ongoing physical and psychological hardship.
My research into the limited reports of these events shows that the repatriates’ sentences ranged from months to many years. As captain, Tru suffered their arbitrary brutality the longest.
Tru eventually resettled in the United States with his family in 1991.
It’s worth noting that Tru’s long voyage is unusual. Most of the more than 120,000 Vietnamese who fled Vietnam sought and soon gained resettlement in the United States. President Gerald Ford’s administration allowed them to enter as “parolees” – a loophole in U.S. immigration policy, which did not make provisions for refugees at that time.
However, by the time Tru was released and decided to immigrate to the United States, he was able to do so through the U.S. Humanitarian Operation program. The U.S. government designed this program for South Vietnamese officers and reeducation camp survivors in the late 1980s, and it expedited immigration processes for this population who had suffered directly because of their affiliations with the United States. The U.S. accepted over 70,000 Vietnamese who had been imprisoned in Vietnam.
In my view, the Vietnamese repatriates’ story challenges us to recognize the risks and fears individuals face in moments of crisis, and ponder the difficult decisions that must be made at the end of a war.