Although I am happy with Culture Night 2015 because of its meaningful theme and great performance, and impressed with many other activities of Stanford Vietnamese Student Association (SVSA), I’m especially proud and fond of SVSA because they get together to commemorate the Black April every year. This year, thanks to an opportunity that they described as “extremely fortunate,” Major General Lê Minh Đảo of the former Army of The Republic of Vietnam accepted SVSA’s invitation to give a talk on April 30th, 2015, during the commemoration of the 40th anniversary of the fall of South Vietnam.The commemoration took place ten days after the Culture Night. In spite of the overwhelmed schedule, a group of SVSA members, including Ivy Nguyễn, Lillian Vũ, Emily Nguyễn, Kevin Trần, and Nora Nguyễn, went to admirable lengths to thoroughly prepare for this historically important event. Many SVSA members shared their thoughts and introduced the event on their Facebook front page. Ivy Nguyễn, co-president of SVSA, wrote: "I am here and being who I am today because of my parents' and millions of Vietnamese’s fight for freedom. Please join us on Thursday, April 30th 6-8PM at Kehillah Hall to commemorate the date that we lost our homeland and the lives that were sacrificed. This year, we have the honor of hosting General Le Minh Dao, the Major General who led the last major battle of the Vietnam War. He will share his experiences and reflections, a once in a lifetime opportunity and something you will never get from a textbook.“ Anna Lê shared: “With parents who were forced to live in a reeducation camp for ten years and who grew up during the times of struggle of post-war Vietnam, I was always reminded of what life in Vietnam meant. The stories told by my family have defined how I view myself and my culture. I am very proud to be a Vietnamese American and am grateful for all the efforts of those who have come before me. In honor of the sacrifices and bravery made by the people of Vietnam, please join Stanford Vietnamese Student Association (SVSA) and me in commemorating the 40th anniversary of the fall of Saigon.”
The event was slated for 6pm to accommodate students and working people. At that time, traffic was heavy on all freeways leading to Stanford; however, people departed early in order to come on time. SVSA members came to the curbside in front of the Kehillah building to greet guests, and they also brought larger American and Vietnamese flags to the front lawn, a very smart and thoughtful gesture that helped attendees find meeting room easily. The commemoration this year was especially meaningful due to the 40th anniversary and the appearance of General Lê Minh Đảo. Beside the SVSA members, there were many parents and a few non-Vietnamese guests. Kehilla Hall was cozy with around seventy seats. Along the back wall of the room, a long table stood lined with drinks and trays of delicious Vietnamese foods. I felt amused, realizing that the young organizers are very practical and open-minded: working hard for a good cause, but not overlooking people’s need to fuel the body. Another small detail that stood out was the organizers’ appearance. Their simple yet elegant attire for the meeting with the respected guest on a solemn historical day reflected their maturity and sophistication. As with any important event, the commemoration opened with the poignant salutation of the American and Vietnamese flags. A minute of silence followed. Then a guest speaker presented a summary of the Vietnam War that focused on many facts that were well-known by all southern Vietnamese who’d lived through the war, but that had been largely under-documented by the American media. The overhead screen displayed the image of the Xuân Lộc battlefield in early April 1975. Columns of gushing black smoke covered the sky. Red fire from burning tanks glared amidst the dark surroundings. Guns blasted in the background as the commentator spoke: The name of Xuan Loc has become synonymous with hope and heroism. General Le Minh Dao defies the Communist… The general appeared. An iron helmet cast a shadow on his forehead. His face was tense but fiercely determined. He announced, “I will keep Long Khánh, I will knock them down here even if they bring two divisions or three divisions!” The video stopped. The program introducer continued: “That was General Lê Minh Đảo forty years ago. Recently, I’ve seen more video of him on YouTube. During an interview in April, 2000, he mentioned the death of a soldier and his voice shook as he was on the brink of tears. From that I realized that a hero is not only someone who isn’t afraid to die for his belief, but also isn’t afraid to cry for others’ suffering. With that, please welcome Major General Lê Minh Đảo.” The eighty-two-year-old General came to the podium, to the admiring applause of everyone. “Today, I’m very happy to have an opportunity to meet the Stanford students…” he started modestly. After going through a brief biography, General Lê shared his thoughts by answering questions that were sent to him in advance. He spoke in Vietnamese, and two parents took turns to translate his talk to English. The questions ranged from asking about historical events (“What is the biggest lesson you want to share with others from your experiences before, during, and after the war? What do you think the younger generations should learn from the Vietnam War?” and “What is the meaning of the Xuan Loc’s defense?”) to inquiring about current actions (“What should my generation remember about Black April and why is that important?”). There was also a short question with an endearing hint of youthful curiosity: “What was your biggest fear when you were in prison?” General Lê answered with the heart of an army leader, of a witness who survived decades of devastating war, of a POW who had suffered seventeen years of revenge in captivity, and of a Vietnamese political refugee still fully devoted to his motherland. He clearly pointed out that at the end of the Vietnam War, the people of both North and South Vietnam lost, and the sole winner was the international Communist power. He talked about all the tragic suffering that the Communist regime brought upon the Vietnamese people. He shared his difficult experiences being a member of a country that was an American ally, but that was ultimately traded as a pawn by the world powers. And he spoke from the heart about his constant worry for the survival of Vietnam as long as the Vietnamese government continues to act submissively to China instead of putting Vietnam’s sovereignty above all else. Responding to the question about his fear in prison, he said, “Several times before, I was ready to sacrifice my life in battles. So I had nothing to fear in prison. I also relied on my trust in God, it helped me feel more at peace. However, I was often troubled by the fact that my fellow soldiers and officers had obeyed my order to stay and fight; as the result, they were slowly perishing in prison and their families were also suffering tremendously.” However, he continued, when reunited after almost twenty years in prison, his comrades assured him that they’d never harbored any hard feelings toward him, because he had fought shoulder-to-shoulder with them, sacrificed together with them until the last moment. Forty years later, Xuan Loc was still the pride of many South Vietnamese, was still the answer to the world, and forever stood as the symbol for the relentless spirit and combat capabilities of the Army of Republic South Vietnam. General Lê also talked to the young SVSA members with the compassion of a parent, a grandfather. When asked “What can young Vietnamese American do to support the sovereignty of Vietnam?” his loud, clear response was: “First of all, you should do well in school.” This brought a burst of laughter from the students, because no matter how much Vietnamese they knew, they all understood that very familiar saying, a statement that they’d heard countless times from the elders in their families since childhood.
General Lê continued that he strongly believed that many in the audience would acquire the ability and credit to hold important positions in the American government or army. He said, “When you deal with the world on behalf of the US, the first thing you should remember is: always keep your word, do not betray.” The young, inexperienced students probably didn’t catch all of his feelings, but the parents like myself could see a trace of bitterness in his “do not betray” advice. In my opinion, even if the youngsters couldn’t fully understand the emotions of a combat general who had been abandoned by his ally, his heartfelt counsel about integrity, loyalty, and putting one’s comrade over one’s personal gratification was the most valuable lesson to remember for anyone in any position. The talk lasted one and a half hours and was followed by a questions-and-answers session. Until the last minute, the students participated fully and listened attentively during both the Vietnamese talk and the English translation. To make this occasion even more memorable, two parents and the Vietnamese language lecturer at Stanford dedicated two songs in Vietnamese and English. The first song was “Nhớ Mẹ,” (Missing You, Mother) which was composed by General Lê and a friend in the concentration camp, and the second song was “Có Những Người Anh” (“There Were People”) to pay tribute to the soldiers who had sacrificed their lives defending South Vietnam for over twenty years. After that, SVSA representatives came up to express their appreciation and share their thoughts. They talked about their family experiences and their feelings as part of a younger generation raised in a peaceful country, but not oblivious to the painful past and continuing struggles of the older generations. Ivy Nguyễn said: “ … For the first eighteen years of my life, I struggled to process how my two parents could have had so many life-altering and traumatic experiences in only the first thirty years of their lives yet still be the loving and caring supports they are today. However, during the past few years away from home, maybe because of my maturation into adulthood, I have noticed that my parents are not the superheroes that I had thought them to be; they are human and they bleed just like you and me. They struggle with reconciling the loss of their homeland with the opportunities a foreign and sometimes unwelcoming land can bring. This trauma has trickled into all of our lives, silently pulling puppet strings on our families. It’s time for us to acknowledge now how past trauma affects all of us today. And it’s time for us to support and strengthen our multi-generational and thriving community…” They also talked about understanding of their responsibility, as in the speech of Lillian Vũ, co-president of SVSA: “…We have no medicine to heal us, only memories to guide us. Through these memories, through the sharing of stories between parents and children and wise mentors, we can see how far we’ve come and why we’re here today. We can’t shy away from the things that discomfort us, that challenge us to feel sorrow for those we don’t know and things we haven’t experienced. In many ways, it’s our responsibility to continue sharing these stories and to find opportunities to have these moments in which we come together to reflect upon our history, our culture, and ourselves. In these ways, we, as a community, can grow stronger and take the next step forward.“
The event ended with a candlelight vigil. Standing next to each other in the soft, cool spring evening, three generations of Vietnamese Americans commemorated the loss of three million Northern and Southern Vietnamese soldiers, sixty-five thousand American and Alliance soldiers, and those who perished in prison or died during the escape to freedom. We also expressed gratitude for our health and the destiny that allowed us to make it to America, so that we could come together on this special day. Then we prayed for peace and the sovereignty of Vietnam. Afterwards, we arranged the candles into the number 40. The light flickering in the gentle night breeze seemed to wave to the people who were still lingering around, not yet ready to part. Although I felt happy to participate in a meaningful event with the young people, the number 40 reminded me of how fleeting time was; and a longing, somber feeling was once again heavy on my heart.
* If Culture Night 2015 brought me nostalgia as well as hope for the young Vietnamese American community at Stanford, then what happened on April 30th, 2015 helped me clearly see their sophistication and raised my hope to a belief. General Lê Minh Đảo had the same thoughts. He repeatedly said that after meeting the students at Stanford, he felt happy because his hopes and expectations for young Vietnamese Americans had been well-placed. Moreover, seeing their actions proved to him that his two-decade-long effort to share his experiences and to encourage younger generations had been fruitful. Before going back to his home in Connecticut, General Lê showed me his favorite souvenir of the trip to the West Coast. It was the Thank You card from SVSA with a handwritten message in Vietnamese. The message started with “Chúng con xin trân thành cám ơn ông … “ (We sincerely thank you…) We both laughed and agreed that the spelling mistake in the word “chân thành” made the card cuter and the occasion even more memorable. To me, the card was a reflection of the SVSA members: pure, admirably close to the distant motherland, but needing a little more guidance. That guiding responsibility rested on the shoulders of the War’s first adult generation – that of the General--and the generation bridging the gap between the motherland and the new country--parents like me. However, we must always remember that for our advice to be effective, it should be realistic. In all his talks, General Lê often affirmed that he never forgets that the young generation is, first and foremost, American. He urged them to devote effort to accumulating strength and credibility for themselves and for the Vietnamese community in this new homeland. He reminded them not to forget about Vietnam, the place that contributed four thousand years of civilization and culture to their uniquely beautiful souls today. He has strong convictions that many SVSA members will hold positions of great influence on US policy in the future. At that time, he hopes that they remember the lessons of Black April, so that they promote decent and considerate action toward Vietnam and toward all smaller countries. He believes that this would be the most effective diplomatic tactic to rebuild the world’s trust in the US. I fully agree with General Lê. Hence, I wish to have more opportunities to remind the young Vietnamese Americans that their roots will be always important. A deep understanding and appreciation for their roots empowers them to grow higher. I also hope that future generations will never forget Vietnam, a tiny country occupying a strategically important position on the Asia’s Pacific shore. That country has always been the protecting frontier for the whole Indochinese Peninsula. It has often been used as a political cushion to absorb the suffering in conflict between big world powers. I hope that in the future Vietnamese Americans will support Vietnam’s sovereignty and help its citizens to fight back against oppression. The Vietnamese people have suffered tremendously throughout Vietnam’s history. To this day, forty years after the end of the war, the country of Vietnam and its people haven’t stopped bleeding. Khôi An
As children of Vietnam refugees, my generation has been well-integrated into American culture and society and is somewhat separated from the country of Vietnam and its past. What should my generation remember about Black April and why is that important?
We must remember that the 30th of April 1975 marked one of the darkest day in modern VN history because:
It is important to remember the Black April because you should never forget your root, the past defines the present. Knowing this history behind this date helps you answer the question ‘Why am I here’? It is a cumulative of sacrifices and efforts of your parents and grandparents who came here after the Black April.
What is the biggest lesson you want to share with others from your experiences before, during, and after the war? In other words, what do you think the young generations should learn from the Vietnam War?
For younger generations in Vietnam I want to them to know about the crimes the Communist Party are committing against the country and its people. They should realize that the party must be eradicated. I would also like to alert the younger people that:
For younger Vietnamese American, especially the Stanford students in the audience, I believe that one day many of you will hold important positions in the US government. I hope you will remember and follow these advises:
If you have influence with the American Foreign affair:
If you have a role in the American Military:
Knowing that other divisions' defenses at the time were significantly weakened, how did that drive your morale or strategy in the battle at Xuan Loc?
I realized that the other divisions did not have a chance to fight due to the lack and often conflicting orders from the central government. However, what happened with other divisions did not affect me at all. I was the commander of my division 18, on the battle filed I did my duty regardless of how grave the situation could be. My soldiers were of the same mentalities, we were determined to fight until the end and we did. Also, we were ready to follow order, in that case, in protecting the perimeter of Saigon regardless of the circumstances.
What is the meaning of the Xuan Loc’s defense?
What do you think about the situation of Vietnam right now, especially in the face of China’s aggressive behavior in Asia? What can the young Vietnamese American do to support the sovereignty of Vietnam?
The Vietnamese Communist rulers are puppet of the Chinese. For as long as the history of Vietnam, Chinese government always aimed to dominate VN and turn VN into a province or territory of China just like Tibet. Specifically, right now VN suffers the most in the aggressive behaviors of China recently in The Sprats and Paracel island regions. The Philipines are more vigorous in their defense against China’s actions thanks to their alliance with the US. Without a big change, Vietnam runs a risk of losing its sovereignty and even its identity as a country in a long run. The young Vietnamese American can help by studying hard, succeed in your work, make a lot of money. The goal is to become prosperous and strong in order to have big influence in your community. At powerful positions, you would be able to advocate for a sovereign, free and democratic VN within your sphere of influence. Be informed about VN situation, always keep in minds that VN’s sovereignty is in constant danger as it has been in our history. Don’t forget your root and continue to educate and bring up your offspring with good understanding and pride of the Vietnamese roots.
What was your biggest fear when you were in prison?
Several times before, I was ready to sacrifice my life in battles. So, I had nothing to fear in prison. I also relied on my trust in God, it helped me feel more at peace. However, I was often troubled by the fact that my fellow soldiers and officers had obeyed my order to stay and fight; as the result, they were slowly perishing in prison and their families were also suffering tremendously.
However, when I got out of prison and reunited with my comrades, many of them ensured me that they never had hard feelings toward me. They said “We were soldiers and we fought together, and we all knew that was what we should do”.
In the 40 years after the VN war, many secret document were made public. From there, it became more and more apparent that the USA planned to abandon South Vietnam since 1972 after it started the diplomatic relationship with China. What is your opinion on this?
The so-called Vietnamization of the war reduced the US military strength from 500,000 in 1969 to mere 45,000 in 1973. It was a transitional period to prepare the South Vietnamese Army to assume all ground combat and logistic of the war while the US was to continue air support, to provide ammunition and parts for weapon maintenance and upgrades. But what happened was not that!
The hidden agenda was to abandon South VN, completely and unconditionally. Sequence of history were:
How did you adjust to life in the United States? What support networks did you have and what communities did you join?
I was over 60 when arrived in the US, but I did not have much problem in the beginning because I had been in the US before. I spent 11 months in Fort Benning, GA for infantry officer training in the mid 1950 and I had worked with US military advisors when I was an officers in the South VN Army. At first, I supported myself by working at a restaurant as the manager. When I reached the age to receive social security income, I decided to stop working and devoted all my time to share my experience with fellow Vietnamese refugees, especially younger Vietnamese American generations.
I am not formally in any organization, except the family of the 18th Division. However I participated in a lot of meaningful activities such as the event today at Stanford. Just last weekend I was in Phoenix, AZ to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the fall of South Vietnam, organized jointly by the Vietnam War American Veterans and the community of Vietnamese American in Phoenix.