“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.
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.
When it comes to listing events, we can’t miss first mentioning our exhibit booth at the Association for Asian Studies annual conference taking place March 16–19 in Toronto. Acquisitions editors Pamela Kelley and Stephanie Chun, and marketing managers Royden Muranaka and Steven Hirashima make up our staffing contingent at this important meeting, which is attended by numerous UHP authors (and prospective authors) of Asian studies titles.
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Below is the current lineup of author appearances scheduled for the coming weeks—including a couple already past—mostly for our Hawai‘i-related titles. Unless otherwise noted, these events are free and the public is invited to attend; books will be available for sale and signing.
Thursday, March 16, 7:00 to 9:00 pm,Volcano Art Center, Volcano Village, Island of Hawai‘i Hawai‘i’s Kōlea coauthors Oscar “Wally” Johnson and Susan Scott will give a slideshow presentation on the amazing migratory bird at the Volcano Art Center Niaulani campus. While the event is free, a $5 donation would be appreciated. See more details on the VAC website. Wally leaves the next day to return to Montana, while Susan will stay on to do a signing on Saturday at Basically Books, before heading home to O‘ahu.
Saturday, March 25, three separate events in Kamuela and Hilo on the Big Island of Hawai‘i Dr. Billy Bergin and his son Dr. Brady Bergin, both respected equine veterinarians, will do a marathon book launch and signings for their new book, The Hawaiian Horse. The schedule and locations include:
• 9:00 am to 12 noon, Parker Ranch Store, 67-1185 Mamalahoa Hwy., Kamuela (phone 808-885-5669).
• 1:00 to 2:45 pm, Basically Books, 160 Kamehameha Avenue, Hilo (phone 808-961-0144). Includes a short talk.
• 3:00 to 4:30 pm, Lyman Museum, 276 Haili Street, Hilo (phone 808-935-5021). The authors will do a talk as part of the museum’s Patricia E. Saigo series of public programs. The cost is free for museum members and $3.00 for nonmembers. Read more on the event here.
Ms. Kawakami has scheduled additional presentations on Picture Bride Stories, including one on Thursday, April 13, 12:00 to 1:45 pm, at Kaua‘i Community College’s International Education Center (Office of Continuing Education and Training Bldg., Room 106 C/D). On Saturday, April 29, she will be at Temari‘s annual “BOLTS of Fabric & Fun” sale to participate in the 11:00 am Textile Talk Stories with Ann Asakura, and will sign books before and after her presentation. The BOLTS event is being held at Japanese Cultural Center of Hawai‘i(which has its own Things Japanese annual sale the same day).
Thursday, April 13, 12 noon to 1:15 pm, Kuykendall Hall 410,UH Mānoa
At this Brown Bag series sponsored by the Center for Biographical Research, David Hanlon‘s talk, “‘You Did What, Mr. President?!?!’ Writing a Biography of the Federated States of Micronesia’s Tosiwa Nakayama” explores his work behind Making Micronesia.
UHP Author Serhat Ünaldi addresses the passing of Thailand’s king:
“After the death of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, Thailand is preparing for Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn to succeed him on the throne. The king’s declining health seemed to coincide with the beginning of a decade-long political crisis, writes Serhat Uenaldi, and in the end Thai democracy died long before the king.” [source: BBC.com/news] Read more here.
Many of the characters and locations featured in Frank Chin‘s The Confessions of a Number One Son are based on the author’s experiences living on Maui over four decades ago. In 1969, Chin taught at San Francisco State, but decided to take a break from teaching and move to the island, where he worked as a carpenter with some old friends from Berkeley. Over time, Chin grew anxious to return to the mainland, but found that he couldn’t afford a plane ticket home.
As fate would have it, he learned of a playwriting contest sponsored by the East West Players, a showcase theater for Asian American actors in Los Angeles. The top prize was a thousand dollars. Over the course of several weeks, Chin wrote and submitted a play, and eventually found himself sharing the award with Momoko Iko—thereby earning half of the prize money, which was more than enough to buy a plane ticket back to California. That prize-winning play was The Chickencoop Chinaman and the rest, as they say, is history.
This August, forty-five years after Chin left Maui, editor Calvin McMillin decided to travel to the island to investigate the writer’s old haunts, especially those featured in the novel. He visited Wailuku, located at the mouth of ‘Iao Valley and near the landmarks of ‘Iao Needle and ‘Iao Stream (historically known as Wailuku stream). As Calvin reported after his trip, seeing the lush and beautiful natural environment in person added a new understanding of the novel’s Hawaiian backdrop.
After visiting the historic Iao Theater, Calvin followed in Frank Chin’s footsteps (and more recently, those of Anthony Bourdain) by eating at Tasty Crust, an old-fashioned local diner in Wailuku, and concluded that the startling similarities between Tasty Crust’s breakfast menu and the main character’s diet in The Confessions of a Number One Son was unlikely to be just a coincidence.
“I ate in restaurants. Spam and eggs, canned Vienna sausage and eggs, canned corned beef hash and Portuguese linguica and eggs, and canned ham and eggs out of a typical greasy spoon for breakfast. The mass eats of the white missionary culture and U.S. military now a part of island culture. The wonders of canned processed meat—a part of life every morning—sealed up hunger with grease.” (page 43)
Calvin also visited many of the beach locations featured in the novel and drove to Lahaina’s Wo Hing Museum, which offers information about Chinese immigration to Maui in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.