I mentioned in a previous post that I would document my story which is a recollection of my Mother’s story which now also forms part of my daughter’s story. Here is the beginning of my story, I’ve documented the recollection of my mum’s memories so I hope to do her story justice.
My story starts with the fall of Saigon, 30 April 1975. My mum remembers the confusion and desperation of people who didn’t know what was happening, what they should do or where they should go. I was 11 months old and my mum, who was a former US employee for the CPA (Central Purchasing Agency) went with a servant to the US Embassy to see if she and her family could be taken out of the country. She was informed that there was a bus that would take former and current employees with their immediate families but they had to leave straight away. My mum was still waiting for her husband, my dad, to return home from his army compound. As a result, my mum didn’t leave on that bus – she also didn’t want to leave without her extended family – her mother, brother and his family.
My mum made the decision to go home. She and her servant took a bus back home and waited for my dad to return, she wasn’t sure when he would arrive. My mum said that the Vietnamese President had surrendered so the soldiers of the South Vietnamese army had laid down their weapons. All commanders sent soldiers home, so my dad left his compound and went home to collect my mum and I. My mum said she remembers that people were running everywhere; they didn’t know what was going to happen or where to go – it was an atmosphere of chaos and confusion. People just knew they wanted to leave. My parents were of the same mind, they wanted to try and find a way out of the country as fast as they could. My mum said that we all jumped onto a Honda motorbike to get to a meeting place organised by my mum’s uncle. My mum’s Uncle was in the Air force and had informed them to be at a certain location – where a helicopter would arrive to take them out by air. They had to get to the roof of the building so they could board the helicopter. When my parents arrived, there were too many people, they could not get onto the roof and the crowd were almost tipping the helicopter over so it had to leave. Another escape attempt foiled.
My mum said that my dad’s best man had advised him to go to the seaside and see if there was any chance to escape by sea. My parents set out to the Navy compound/ dock in Saigon. When they arrived, they saw that it too was very crowded and full of people. There were Navy ships bringing people back from Da Nang to Saigon as there was a US base in Da Nang. There were people scrambling to get on board the ships that were returning as soon as it had reached the dock. The men would climb on board and then pull their wives and children on afterwards. As a result, my mum said that many people fell into the water. My dad got on board a ship and pulled my mum who was carrying me, onto the ship. The servant girl who had come along, threw my mum a bag with some clothes, nappies and baby formula but didn’t get on board. My mum thinks she wanted to go back to her own family. She never saw her again.
My mum said that there were so many people already on the ship but more were still scrambling to get on board. The Navy Commander was on board the ship my parents had scrambled onto. He also had his family on board, but what people weren’t aware of, was that the ship wasn’t working – people just scrambled on board any ship, they were desperate to leave Saigon. The Navy Commander and his team worked to get the engine started. My mum said that luckily, they were able to fix the ship’s engine and when it started, everyone cheered! My mum said she didn’t know how many people were on the ship, she guessed hundreds! She said they all sat with their legs crossed and drawn up to their chests. My mum also had me on her lap so it was very uncomfortable and cramped. In hindsight, my mum now realises that she had to escape without her extended family anyway, to give her immediate family a chance of survival.
When the ship left the dock, my mum said that everyone thought that the ship was going from one side of the Mekong River to the other – like a ferry service. Little did they realise that it was going out to sea. My mum said that the captain of the ship used a black tarpaulin to cover and hide the crowds of people on the ship on the top deck so that it would not be suspected of anything other than a Navy ship. This way, when communist helicopters flew overhead, they would not see the people crowded on board. Most people were taking a chance by getting on this ship. They felt it was better to take a chance to escape even if it meant drowning. People thought it would be better to die in the river than live under communist rule.
My mum said that after some time, people heard that they were at open sea. The Navy ship rescued a lot of fishing boats that had fled to sea. My mum said at one point, there were so many people on board that the ship was taking on water. All able men had to bail out the water. During the course of the journey, my mum said that they were allowed to quickly stretch their legs then crouch back into position so everyone could fit. Each family was given a handful of rice as all other food and water had been depleted. The only water that became available after the fresh water ran out was sea water. My mum said so many people got very sick and everyone became quite smelly. Their clothes had turned black due to the dirt and grease on the ship. She said that she remembers people would go around and touch you on the shoulder and if you made no noise, you were thought to be dead. When this happened, my mum said people were thrown overboard so there would be more space on board the ship. My mum said she was tapped on the shoulder and asked if she was still alive. My mum answered ‘Yes’. She did not want to be thrown overboard.
This is the beginning of the journey for my parents and I – this is our story. I will continue the story once I have finished editing the next part of our journey. It’s an amazing story and not unlike other refugees at the time. I’m glad to finally be documenting this for my own benefit as well as my daughter’s. I hope it sparks curiosity to find out your story so you are able to share it with friends and loved ones too.