South Vietnamese Captain Tells His Story of Repatriation in Ship of Fate

[This is a guest post that originally published on The Conversation.]

The South Vietnamese who fled the fall of Saigon — and those who returned

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Vietnamese at a camp in Guam seeking repatriation, September 1975. National Archives and Records Administration, Record Group 319, Box 19, declassification number 984082, CC BY

Jana Lipman, Tulane University

More than 120,000 people fled Vietnam after the North Vietnamese captured Saigon on April 30, 1975.

This chaotic evacuation has been captured in iconic photos, documentary films and oral histories. How did the Vietnamese seeking safety actually get from small boats or rooftop helicopters to the United States?

First, they went to Guam.

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

Trần Đình Trụ in Orange County, September 2015. Jana Lipman, CC BY

 

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.

Repatriates have their heads shaven at a 36-hour hunger-quiet strike, September 1975. National Archives and Records Administration, Record Group 319, Box 19, declassification number 984082

 

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

Ship of Fate cover imageIn 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.

The ConversationIn 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.

Jana Lipman, Associate Professor of History, Tulane University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

UHP in Illinois this week | Geography in Chicago and Asian American Studies in Evanston

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Association for Asian American Studies

2015 Conference

April 22-25 | Chicago/Evanston, Illinois

Contact Acquisitions Editor Masako Ikeda: masakoi@hawaii.edu

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—UHP series celebrates 15 years!-

Intersections

Asian and Pacific American Transcultural Studies
a collaborative series of University of Hawai‘i Press in conjunction with the UCLA Asian American Studies Center
For complete title listing, go to the Intersections series page on our blog.

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Association of American Geographers

Annual Meeting
April 21-25 | Chicago, Illinois

Contact Acquisitions Editor Nadine Little: nlittle@hawaii.edu

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Debut Fiction: The Blind Writer by Sameer Pandya

NEW RELEASE


PandyaCOVER1.inddThe Blind Writer: Stories and a Novella
by Sameer Pandya
February 2015 | 216 pages
Cloth | ISBN 978-0-8284-3958-1 | $50.00
Paper | ISBN 978-0-8284-4798-2 | $25.00
Intersections: Asian and Pacific American Transcultural Studies

This collection gathers together the title novella along with five short pieces that follow the lives of first- and second-generation Indian Americans living in contemporary California. The characters share a similar sensibility: a sense that immigration is a distant memory, yet an experience that continues to shape the decisions they make in subtle and surprising ways as they go about the complicated business of everyday living.

“Sameer Pandya’s stories are fine-tuned and precise, and carry an emotional load that breaks open inside us in ways that are, by turns, delicate and explosive.” —Gretel Ehrlich, author of The Solace of Open Spaces and Facing the Wave

“Pandya writes with grace and authority about characters revealed to us through their fears and dreams, mistakes and successes, longing and regrets.” —Keith Scribner, Oregon State University

Out of the Dust Poetry Reading by Janice Mirikitani at UCLA

EVENT | FIRST IN PAPER

San Francisco poet and community activist Janice Mirikitani reads from her latest collection, Out of the Dust, at noon tomorrow, January 15, on the University of California, Los Angeles campus. Her appearance is presented by the UCLA Asian American Studies Center, with which UH Press jointly publishes the Intersections: Asian and Pacific American Transcultural Studies series. Originally published in cloth last summer, Mirikitani’s powerful volume is newly released in paperback and will be available for sale at the event.

Click here for the event flyer.

Out of the Dust: New and Selected Poems
by Janice Mirikitani
January 2015 (First in paper) | 208 pages
978-0-8248-5516-1 | $19.00
Intersections: Asian and Pacific American Transcultural Studies

Connective history in the Pacific

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NEW RELEASE


Transpacific Studies: Framing an Emerging Field
edited by Janet Hoskins and Viet Thanh Nguyen

2014 | 236 pages
Paper | ISBN 978-0-8248-3998-7 | $25.00
Cloth (Print on Demand) | ISBN 978-0-8248-3994-9 | $56.00
Intersections: Asian and Pacific American Transcultural Studies

 

Recognizing the increasing importance of the transpacific as a word and concept, this anthology proposes a framework for transpacific studies that examines the flows of culture, capital, ideas, and labor across the Pacific. These flows involve Asia, the Americas, and the Pacific Islands. Transpacific studies sheds light on the cultural and political movements, artistic works, and ideas that have arisen to contest state, corporate, and military ambitions. In sum, the transpacific as a concept illuminates how flows across the Pacific can be harnessed for purposes of both domination and resistance.

 

New and Select poems from San Francisco’s second Poet Laureate

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NEW RELEASE


Out of the Dust: New and Selected Poems
written by Janice Mirikitani

2014 | 208 pages
Cloth | ISBN 978-0-8248-3996-3 | $35.00
Intersections: Asian and Pacific American Transcultural Studies

Though constructed from a depth of experiences with struggle, these poems erupt in celebration of marriage, daughters, and the discovery of self through diversity. Drawing from her own background as a Sansei (third generation) Japanese American, Mirikitani reflects on the many ways we connect through the dust and our ability to rise and renew ourselves from this place. Learn more here.