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Almost Angels Chapter 4

July 12th, 1967. Monsoon takes on a whole different meeting in Viet Nam. The rain had been coming down all morning. I had infiltrated a platoon just a bit east of the central highlands this morning, posing as a replacement that was lost, looking for Charlie Company. Wasn’t difficult, most of the guys didn’t really give a shit, as long as you had round eyes and weren’t carrying an AK.
I watched them trying to slog in the mud. It seemed it was raining both directions, up and down, and maybe sometimes sideways if you got a breeze. I know it was miserable. I really couldn’t feel the heat and the moisture, but I could see despair and frustration written on their tired faces.
The heat caused a misty fog to rise up to meet the down pour. The sounds of the jungle were muted, for a while, as if those creatures were trying to find a shelter, too. The smells were mixed, rotting vegetation, wet earth, sweat from the men, and the lingering smell of exploded ordnance that hung heavy in the air. They had just fought a short battle. No one killed, but a few wounded. The Huey’s had just lifted off about the time I showed up. I stepped back into the jungle, my ‘16 slung over my left arm, my right hand wrapped around the stock. I smiled. The ‘16 was a hologram too, it would never hurt anyone.
I had walked about 20 feet past the perimeter, and leaned against a large mahogany tree. I fixed my eyes on my surroundings. I had been bouncing around the country, from about 1960 thru 1973, trying to get a feel about this most controversial war that America had been involved in in the 20th century. I had even followed some family history of a 10th generation uncle who had fought here. During the earlier years, it seemed like the US was doing some good, then it just fell apart. So many reasons why, but we don’t want to get into that.
There, to my left, a flicker of movement. A small bird, flying from one bush to another. No, there was something else. I watched intently. There! Just a bit closer. Oh, a conical straw hat emerges from the undergrowth. Then a head and shoulders, dressed in black pajama type material, belted, with an ammo belt, a young Vietnamese lady, maybe 25. Hard to tell for sure. Sometimes the women seemed ageless. She moved forward slowly, I turned to face her.
I watched as her weapon came up, a bit of surprise on her face. Go ahead, dear, you are going to be more surprised and it will warn the platoon. She fired at me, not more than 20 feet away. I smiled, then touched my ring, and faded from sight, reappearing about 30 feet to her left. She had a shocked look on her face, couldn’t believe her eyes! When she pulled the AK around, I smiled again, and disappeared again, back in the bush behind her. She turned and retraced her steps, retreating from the sounds of gunfire coming from the camp. Wonder if she will tell anyone that she saw a GI ghost? Probably not. I moved back to the other side of the camp, and appeared beside a stack of boxes that had been unloaded from the choppers. No surprise attack this time.
Two beeps inside my head and Misha said, “Jamie, don’t do that. That is a potential tear, you can’t interrupt the flow of events.”
“I know. But these guys have been hit once today, they look so stressed, and worn to the bone.”
“Still, dear, you cannot interfere at all.”
“Ok. This is hard, you know.”
“I know. Think up something interesting to do when you get back, We will take your mind off of it.”
“We will, hmmmm? Okay, later.”
“Oh, by the way, there is another angel near you there. Maybe you can hook up.”
“Gotcha. I will scan for him.”
I scanned the area for a hundred yard radius. 57 warm bodies, no electric blips. She must have been mistaken. I widened to 200 yards. Still none. I decided to jump, as my shift was about over.
Back at the center I ran some video trying to find a good spot to record. Later that evening I found it, some pictures taken by correspondent Joseph Galloway. The pictures were of a battle that took place in 1965, near the Drang River, the “Ia Drang Valley. I had mentioned a 10th generation uncle, well, he was there. A member of the 7th Cavalry. Family history had perked my interest many times about him. I had seen pictures before, I had even stalked an old ‘movie’ called “We Were Soldiers”. That is, with our technology we can step into a movie and interact with it. But this would be different. This time I would be actually in the bloody battle.
I talked to my supervisor, and told him what I wanted to do.
“Jamie, of course we want this recorded. But after what you did yesterday, we can’t risk having a tear in time. I dunno, many of these people from this battle went on to have important positions, influential positions. I understand it is personal to you, but you screwed up yesterday.”
“I understand, Sir. I could, you know, just remain invisible the whole time. Maybe I would have to miss out on dialogue with the soldiers, miss out on that interaction. It would be better than nothing, and I really want to do it!”
Well, needless to say, I won the battle. But I had to make the jump with another recorder, Ron Clark. Ron was one of the oldest recorders that I knew, he was about 42. Yeah, I know, that isn’t really old. Hardly more than a teenager in 2518. Men now can live to about 130, women, 10 or 15 years longer. And, for the most part, remain active.
Ron and I decided to make our jump about mid after noon on November 14th, 1965. By then, Lt. Col Hal Moore and his troopers would have made contact with the Vietnamese, and hell would have broken loose.
Ron would be visible and I would not. Punishment for being ‘too creative’ the day before in the jungle. Now, understand, Ron can see me, but the soldiers can’t. I found a patch of trees and told Ron to lock in on me, seconds later he was standing by me. It was sounds of battle all around me.
Within a few minutes I had 3 bullets pass through me. I could not see where the fire was coming from, but it seemed all around me. We had appeared at LZ X-Ray. The battle went on sometime after dark. Helicopters were bringing supplies, and taking out wounded. Heroic men flying into certain death, then miraculously flying back out again. Sometime that evening I knew that the man who had taken the pictures I had seen, Joe Galloway, would be arriving. But I missed him. Later in the next morning I saw him, when napalm was dropped close by, he rushed out and pulled another soldier out of danger. The thing that struck me, was all the famous people I was to read about were here, just behaving like men, fighting, struggling to stay alive. Yeah, they got medals, but not near enough. I wondered where my dear old uncle might have been. But in a meleè of this sorts, is not the time for a family reunion. Besides, that is forbidden, to contact a predecessor, at any time. On November 16th, parts of the men marched out, on the 17th,a group broke off for LZ Albany. As they entered a clearing near to the LZ, they were ambushed, the casualties were high. They were finally all pulled , but the NVA would be back, and the war would go on for about 8 more years and about 55,000 young American men would never see their home again. And countless thousands would visit Viet Nam nightly, in their dreams. The nightmare would be saddled up for the rest of their lives, for some.
I was, myself, touched by this visit in history. Ron and I both recorded different parts. Another recorder, of Vietnamese descent, recorded it from the other side. Now students can go to the archives and they can step into the battle and witness the horror, and the heroism, of those two days. Perhaps, if this type of deterrent had been available earlier, wars would not have been so easily entered into. Instead, the public was shielded from war scenes. Hal Moore, Basil Plumley, Joe Galloway, the heroic pilots, and others will find their place in history. I will never forget them, myself.
Now, I have some days off, before looking for more history. I have seen many wars, that seems to be what is most demanded. Maybe next time I will find another place in history, a peaceful place.
Yeah, or not.


A very touching story about the Escaping Vietnamese in 1975.

You should always count your lucky stars that you live in a country that is still as secure as America. And you better hope and pray that it stays that way. This story is told by Harold J. Murphy the man who experienced it. I thought it worth passing on, I found it on Janette Maring’s page, Fallen Leaves. I hope you enjoy it.

Around 1975 I got the urge to go to sea again. It just comes over you once in a while. If you have any family or friends who’ve been to sea, you understand. I started when I was very young and it was almost impossible to quit. All the time You’re ashore you’re thinking about going back to sea.
I went to New York and they had a ship, the Greenville Victory, with a carpenter’s job open, and they told me that the third mate was going to leave the ship at some point and I would relieve him. So I sailed on the Greenville Victory as a Carpenter. We loaded ammo in Port Chicago on the West Coast and we took a load to Cam Ranh Bay and Danang in South Vietnam.
The Vietnamese didn’t really know how bad it was at that time, I’m sure. And I don’t think we did, either. We knew that it was bad and that they couldn’t last too much longer. But I don’t think anybody knew that the North Vietnamese were going to break out as quickly as they did.
We went to Cam Ranh Bay first and then Danang. In Danang it was a very tense situation. You knew something was going to happen. They had swimmers in the water trying to plant mines on ships and there were boxes of concussion grenades every fifty feet along the deck and we’d chuck them overboard once in a while in case there were any swimmers in the water.
We went back to Thailand to load military cargo and return to the United States. But as soon as we arrived there, this thing broke loose, so we were sent back to Vietnam. That was on Easter Sunday in late March. We were sent to Danang and told to rescue survivors.
We were aware of what was going on in Vietnam. The United States had pulled out a year or two before. I was aware that they were in deep trouble and that we had really done them a bad turn. I felt really guilty about that.
The first place we got into was Cam Ranh Bay, and there we started to load at the docks and it was utter chaos. So we left the dock and went out at anchor, and the people came out in small boats and we loaded them from boats. They lived on these boats you know and some of them came out with their belongings. Of course we couldn’t take anything except the people, some foodstuffs and their little 50 cc Honda bikes. We let them take those — I don’t know how many of them.
These people were civilians — women and children and South Vietnamese army personnel, obviously on the run, whom we tried to disarm because we did not want all of those weapons on the ship. We did the best we could. But you had to be there to see this. This was really chaos. We loaded them in cargo nets, put the booms over the side and loaded them like cargo, and they just clung to each other trying to get aboard. And some came up the gangway.
At any rate, we disarmed as many as we could. We had a whole room full of rifles and grenades and weapons, but we didn’t get them all.
We loaded about ten thousand people. This was a Victory ship, remember. It is about a 500 foot 9 or 10 thousand ton ammunition ship with five cargo holds. We just loaded them like cargo. They were everywhere. Even the lifeboats were full of people.
We tried to keep them out of the main interior of the ship, the crew’s quarters, but they were in there, too. We fed them what we could, but there were too many of them. We just did what we could for them. We all felt, at last I did, that maybe in some little way we could atone for the lousy things we did to them — because we did, really. We shouldn’t have gone there in the first place, maybe, but once we were there we should have done what was right and we didn’t. We just left and said, “Here, now you do it!” And they were incapable of doing it.
We had no food. They brought rice with them, and the ship could make about fifteen tons of fresh water a day with the evaporator, and they were using thirty.
So we set up the fire hoses and turned the fire pumps on so they could at least bathe in salt water and wash the excrement off the decks. It was real bad.
Ammunition ship holds are lined with wood battens to prevent seat from damaging the ammo, anti-sparking and everything else. They were ripping the wood down off the lining of the hold and building fires so they could cook their rice. Of course they started quite a few fires. Some of the fires got out of control and we had to put them out. So we cut oil drums in half eventually — fifty gallon drums. We gave them tools to cut the wood properly and put it in these fifty-gallon drums and cook their rice over those and not start any fires on the ship.
The entrance to Cam Ranh Bay is surrounded by high cliffs, fortified with 105 mm howitzers, and we didn’t know if they’d start firing them at us. But luckily, about the time we had as many people aboard as we could handle, we were hit by a very heavy rain squall. Visibility fell to practically zero and we got out under cover of that.
The US 7th fleet was offshore. It had orders not to come any closer than thirty miles, so they lay offshore, but we were naturally in radio contact with them and under their command as a Navy ship. We were civilian crew, but a Navy ship.
We were told to take them to an island called Phu Quoc, offshore near the border between Vietnam and Cambodia. I think it took us two or three days to get there. We we arrived there, we anchored and planned to discharge the people there and then go back and see if we could help some others.
Well, the people refused to get off the ship!
The landing craft that were supposed to disembark them didn’t show up. So we lay there at anchor for a day or so. They got very uneasy, and they finally sent a delegation up to the wheelhouse. This is why Captain Ray Iacobacci says he was lucky to get out alive, I think. The delegation was a Catholic priest and other people who were representing the people on board. And their demands were that we leave the area immediately. They would not go ashore. They said that, number one, Phu Quoc was a former penal colony, which they didn’t like the sound of. And second they would be trapped there if the Communists did come. There was no way off this island and they were dead meat if they stayed there, they feared.
Then they said they had enough weapons and explosives in the hold to destroy the ship and they would do exactly that if we did not leave immediately. They had a Gulf Oil road map with them and we asked them where they wanted to go and they pointed to Vung Tau, the port at the mouth of the river that leads up to Saigon. So the ultimate decision was, “Let’s get the hell out of here.”
I sympathized with them. I don’t blame them. I’d do that, too. Captain Iacobacci said, “What am I going to do?” I said, “What the hell. Haul the anchor and get the hell out of here.” It’s simple. I think everybody understands what they were saying. There was no escape from there.
You know I didn’t really feel my life was in danger at all during that time. But also I didn’t doub that they would sink the ship. I had no doubt that they meant exactly what they said.
They never threatened an individual crew member. Oh, no. We were their saviors.
We left Phu Quoc and we returned to Vung Tau. I forget the total length of time they were on board the ship, but it was at least five days, and we were really without food or water for they, to speak of.
During all of this operation we lost one person. Some of them had come out on a barge, and one little boy fell between the ship and the barge and did not come up. That was the only fatality we had. Actually we were ahead of the game, because I think two babies were born on board.
We were in Vung Tau when the country fell to the North Vietnamese. We watched the choppers go overhead from the Embassy. We knew it was all over. The chaos broke out again. Thousands of boats came out to us. Small boats, big boats, all kinds of boats. And we loaded people from the boats with our cargo nets mostly. And when they left their boats they would poke a hole in the fuel tank and set it on fire so the Communists wouldn’t get it. The whole place was full of burning boats. Those boats had been the people’s homes. And now it was sad to see people burning their own homes.
What those people went through — I think a lot of American people would go crazy. They set fire to their homes with all their possessions. They couldn’t bring anything on board with them.
We had to move every so often because they crowded around us, so many thousands of them that we couldn’t work. We had to back away a mile or so and start over again. We did that several times. I think we sank one boat with our propeller in the course of backing up. It was total confusion. But we continued to load people on into the dark until we were full. And then we took that load to Subic Bay in the Philippines.
We had no problems. We confiscated as many weapons as we could. Some we kept on board and thousands were just thrown overboard.
The people wanted to get out of there, so they cooperated with us. Everybody on the ship that could do anything did it. Where it was down on the gangway handing up babies or whatever it was. There were a lot of kids, a lot of babies, handed up from man to man up the gangway.
The whole crew was involved in this thing one hundred percent. This was more than just a job loading ammunition. Those people were in big big trouble. Their lives were on the line. We were the only hope they had to get out of there. They were American sympathizers or in the eyes of the North Vietnamese they were the enemy, they were collaborators. We were the enemy of the Communists and these people had cooperated with us and that was their death warrant right there.
There were no deaths on the way to Subic. And we added one more baby — a boy — to the number of refugees making the trip.
When we had been back in Saigon there were a couple of relief organizations that showed up with tons of food. We were stocked with food for the second pickup. We were much better prepared for the second go around. We made fire pots to cook the rice on top on tripod legs and on the fantails, back aft.
We didn’t know what we were going into the first time. All we knew was, Go in and see if you can rescue some of those refugees.
The refugees were all very friendly, considering what they’d gone through and were going through. They were wonderful people. And there were so many of them! They were everywhere. For me to walk from midship to the bow I had to go through all these people. They would move aside to make a path for me so I could walk through. Every square inch of space was filled with people.
There was an island in Subic Bay that they used as a staging area. They took them all to that island and I guess tried to ascertain names and identification and make some kind of record of what was going on, and they had us stand by. We stood by there a month or two in Subic Bay in case we were needed to transport them to Guam, which was going to be the main staging area. But we were never used for that. I think most of them were flown to Guam. But we stayed for the time until they were sure they didn’t need us.
I think we did a good job. We got eighteen thousand of them out of there. I wish we could have gotten more.
After Subic Bay we went to Mobile, Alabama, and we had a big reception in Mobile. You had the mayor and the whole town and the band and all that good stuff, you know. We’ve all got a pice of paper that says thanks for a good job, which is nice.
You can talk about it afterwards and try to find reasons for what you did, but actually there’s the thing to do and you just do it. Maybe later on you think about it. “There these people are, let’s get them out of here” — It’s that simple. You are so full of adrenaline at the time that you don’t really think about it. Seamen are a funny lot, you know. They do the job when the job has to be done. They are good people, the best people I ever knew in my life. They just do the job. These are merchant seamen, not military personnel. Professional sailors that each do the job of ten men. the ships we sailed on, a ship like that, the Greenville Victory, was a ten thousand ton ship with a crew of about thirty-eight men. If it had been a Navy ship it would have had a crew of three hundred and fifty men. We are professional seamen and I was always proud of that.
I never ran into any of the people I brought out at that time. I’ve often wished that I had a name of somebody that was on that ship that I could meet — one of the Vietnamese that got out of there on the Greenville Victory and made it here. I read an article in the paper not long ago about the Vietnamese community on the West Coast and how successful they had become, some of them. They are industrious people, great great people. They work hard, don’t want welfare, want to work and sends their children to school. One of them, I think, graduated at the top of his class at one of the military academies I read recently. That kind of thing doesn’t surprise me one bit. It surprises some of the rednecks that these people can to it. But the Vietnamese are very intelligent people and they are industrious.
I spent a lot of time in the Far East and I think that probably my experience in Vietnam really showed me what those people are made of.
My own dhildren are thirty-seven, thirty-five, thirty-three and a stepson who is fifteen. After I was back I told them I thought that we had abandoned those people in South Vietnam and nobody ever asked me if I thought we should pull out and leave those people. Nobody asked anybody anything. You don’t have any say in what happens: then you have to regret it. I felt very strongly when I was there that — you could almost see it in their eyes — “Why did you abandon us? Why did the Americans leave us?” Not with animosity. It was like a kid would look up at his father and ask, “Why did you hit me?”
But they were wonderful, those people. I love them. I really do. I wish we had gotten them all out of there. Or better yet, I wish it wouldn’t have been necessary to get them out of there. It should not have been necessary.

The sellout of South Vietnam and our troops from Henry Kissenger

In this declassified ex-Top Secret Document, Henry Kissenger, speaking with Chinese Premier Chou En Lai, discuss the world situation in 1972. The first twenty-six pages are about China, India, Pakistan, and Russia. Pages 27 through 37 are about the sellout of the South Vietnamese People, and all of the American Military Forces that had served and died or suffered in other ways. I read it all the way through. It made me angry, it made me cry, and it disgusted me that my country would do such a thing. Oh, by the way, my Hippie Friends, Mr. Kissenger said your protests were meaningless, just a minor nuisance. Read it, it is worth your time.

Click on this link and it will open in Adobe Acrobat, as it is a PDF file.
HAK 6-20-72 (1)

Life and Times of Le Van Minh

I hope you will read this story of Minh, it is very compelling. I spent a lot of time in Minh’s neighborhood in 1962, and watched the street waifs. Sometimes whole families would live in a four foot wide alleyway between two buildings. They shined shoes or anything else to earn a meager existence, and mind you this is even before the war actually started, I can imagine how much worse it became. I shared this from Janette Maring, a Vietnamese orphan girl, from her Facebook page Fallen Leaves, a Memoir of Unsung Heros


Le Van Minh was not quite 4 years old when Saigon fell to the Communists and the last Americans left
Vietnam in the spring of 1975. He doesn’t remember the sound of artillery fire and rockets exploding at dawn.

He doesn’t remember the burning buildings or the communist tanks rolling down the streets or the soldiers in green pith helmets who would transform Saigon – once known as the Paris of the Orient – into Ho Chi Minh City.

Le Van Minh had been fighting a personal battle. His enemy was polio, and it left him scarred and broken. It turned him into a child whose twisted body forced him to walk on all fours. “Sequellae of poliomyelitis acquired at 3 years of age,” medical records would state years later. “Flaccid paralysis both legs . . . Unable to walk unaided. Normal mental development.”

Le Van Minh, a Vietnamese boy

Le Van Minh
Newsday photo by Audrey Tiernan

If Minh, now 15, has detailed memories of the years that followed, he says little about them. The picture of Minh’s past comes together like an impressionist canvas – in specks of shape and color. It has been pieced together from his own brief, sometimes reluctant, recollections and from the sketchy medical and government documents that were handed over to Rep. Robert Mrazek (D-Centerport) on the day he carried Minh onto a plane in Hanoi.

For the first 10 years of his life, Minh lived with his mother – a farmer from the south named Le Thi Ba – in a poor neighborhood on the outskirts of Ho Chi Minh City. He has a vague memory of a great-grandmother who was kind to him but he does not talk about anyone else in his family.

A fuzzy photograph on a government identification card shows the unsmiling face of his mother, a darkhaired woman who looks older than her 36 years. Le Thi Ba would have been about 19 when she gave birth to Minh – the first of her four children and the only Amerasian. She later married a Vietnamese man and had two sons and a daughter. Her husband died recently, according to documents. Le Thi Ba never told the son who was crippled by polio about her relationship with his father. All she said was that the man was an American, a sergeant in the Army. He was one of the thousands of GIs who left children behind as victims of the conflict that the United States never officially called a war. When the soldier’s son was 10 years old, Le Thi Ba ordered him to leave her home. She just said, ‘Leave’.

Minh recalled last month as he sat in the U.S. embassy plane that carried him out of Vietnam and to a new life in the United States. I just went outside – out on the street. The street became home. For the next five years, Minh’s world was limited to a few dusty blocks in downtown Ho Chi Minh City.

They were near the Saigon River, where he taught himself to swim and where each New Year, he watched the fireworks of a great celebration. The center of his world was once called Tu Do Street. During the ’60s and ’70s, it was a bustling downtown street crowded with the bars that catered to GIs.
Tu Do means freedom in Vietnamese. But that was not the name by which Minh knew it. The Communist government that drove out the Americans changed the name Tu Do to Dong Khoi – uprising – Street. It was
there that Minh struggled to survive.

Photographs of Dong Khoi Street, when it was home to Minh, show old women who squat on the pavement
selling vegetables and cigarettes from straw baskets, a gray-haired man with no teeth who offers cooked ducks displayed on metal hooks. A wizened grandmother who rocks an infant in a hammock that is the child’s only bed, a naked boy who sleeps on the hard sidewalk while his mother comforts the baby cradled in her arms.

People in straw coolie hats rode rickety bicycles on the crowded streets of Minh’s world; old French
Citroens and Russian Volgas passed by. On one block, a row of red 1957 Chevrolets waited for use as wedding limousines. Every morning, an elderly man washed and waxed the cars with their chrome moldings and large fins. Horns honked on the byways and entrepreneurs sold everything from shoeshines to sex, and from ivory Buddhas to opium.

On Dong Khoi Street, Minh played with about a dozen other young beggars in a six-foot-high pile of construction rubble. He slept in doorways and, at daybreak, he would crouch on all fours on the tiled
sidewalk in front of the Cuu Long Hotel, once called the Majestic. He never entered the crumbling hotel, where eastern Europeans dine on prawns and sip Heineken beer in the rooftop restaurant. Where the white linen table cloths are stained and gecko lizards dart along the walls and the waiters dress in bow ties and frayed black tuxedo jackets. He hoped a foreigner would be moved by his American face and broken body. He would tug on the pants legs of western-looking visitors. “Joe,” he would say, “I’m hungry, give me money.”

Sometimes, he would offer an origami flower that he fashioned from the foil of discarded cigarette packages.

To those who asked, Minh would say he was an orphan – perhaps because he thought of himself as one or
perhaps because he knew how to play on the heartstrings of strangers. It is on Dong Khoi and the nearby side streets that it is possible to see Le Van Minh most clearly, to find a context for a hazel-eyed child scurrying on his hands and feet with a paper rose in his hand. It is his time and place as much as Minh himself that offers a clue to his personal equation.

On a good day, Minh would panhandle as much as one hundred dong – the equivalent of about 10 cents. He
would go off by himself and meticulously fold the paper currency into tiny pieces and hide it in the pockets of his tattered shirt and pink shorts. He was afraid that other beggars would steal his earnings. He had a friend, a Vietnamese boy named Ti, who carried Minh on his back and protected him. But sometimes, when Minh was alone, bigger and stronger children beat and robbed him.

Often, he would use the money to buy food at Bar Five on Dong Khoi Street, where the vinyl-covered stools were torn and an old American calendar decorated the wall. Minh was not without benefactors. Sometimes, when Minh was broke, the owner of Bar Five would give him food for free. Once an American cameraman gave the bar owner enough money to feed Minh for three months. And when he had money left over, Minh would take it to an elderly woman who sold mother-of-pearl laquerware at a neighborhood shop. The old woman acted as his bank – she would keep the money for him and dole it out whenever he needed vit for food or, once in a great while, for clothing.

A few weeks ago, as he waited for medical clearance in a hospital room in Bangkok, Minh missed the street people who had become his family. He did not miss his half-siblings or the mother who had abandoned him.

He said only that he did not want them to join him in the United States. He stared into space or turned the channels on a television set rather than talk about them.

On his last night in Bangkok, with the help of his interpreter, Minh wrote a letter to the people he missed.

He listed Ti and the man from Bar Five and the woman in the laquerware shop. He said hello. He told them he was safe. And he said he was sorry that he had not been able to say goodbye.
Minh had no time for farewells when he left Ho Chi Minh City last month. He was picked up by three government security guards in front of the old Caravelle – a French-built hotel on a busy street corner that once provided a scenic backdrop of the city for American television journalists who did their war-time broadcasts from the rooftop terrace. The guards pulled at the sleeve of Minh’s shirt. Come, he remembers one of them saying.

Minh thought he was being arrested. The men in khaki-green uniforms were a constant source of fear to the street beggars in the city many Vietnamese still call Saigon. Like cops walking a beat, the guards would patrol the area near the river, where hotels such as the Caravelle and the Cuu Long still cater to visiting foreigners.

And where young urchins in torn and dirty clothing beg for food and money. The guards would shoo
them away, swearing at the children with round eyes and freckled faces,spitting at them and calling them bui doi – the children of the dust. The guards would yell didi didi – go away, go away – and sometimes they would beat the children with billy-clubs or cart them off to jail in vans.
Most of Minh’s friends – particularly the Amerasians – knew the sting of the guards’ curses and their clubs.

The group scattered when the three men grabbed Minh – they hid in doorways or ducked into the shops that line Dong Khoi Street, they ran off to play on the old French guns mounted in cement near the harbor or to swim in the murky waters of the Saigon River .
The Amerasian did not see his friends again. The guards put him in a van and took him to jail. The next day he was transferred to an orphanage, where he cried as his sun-bleached hair was shaved off.
No one told Le Van Minh he was on his way to America.

Le Van Mimh, a Vietnamese boy

Le Van Minh, a Vietnamese boy
Newsday photo by Audrey Tiernan

In London, Le Van Minh wondered if he had landed in America. “No,” Rep. Robert Mrazek said.
“This is England. ”

America came next. The first sight was a picture of the Statue of Liberty in a magazine on the
plane carrying him to the United States. Minh looked at the photo. “America,” he said.
When the 747 finally landed in the United States yesterday afternoon, Minh said nothing. Mrazek
picked up the Amerasian teenager as he had Saturday at an airport in Hanoi and carried him into the
glare of television cameras in Kennedy Airport. “This is the Big Apple, son,” the Centerport
Democrat said. “You’re home. This is New York. ”

The crippled boy from the streets of Ho Chi Minh City put his arms around the congressman’s
neck and Mrazek wiggled the purple visor on Minh’s white cap and they walked through the bodies pressing against them in the crowd. Surrounded by police, they walked through the terminal as people in gift shops and ticket lines turned to stare.

Moments later, they faced the press and 100 of the Huntington High School students who had
succeeded in a months-long campaign to bring Minh to the United States. As he would throughout
the media circus of his welcome home, Le Van Minh – whose first name means “bright” in
Vietnamese – smiled and remained silent.

It was impossible to know what he was thinking as students surrounded him, touching him and
congratulating one another on his arrival. It was difficult to know what made him wave during the
welcome, drawing applause from the American children.

It was almost as difficult later to know what was going on in the mind of the tiny teenage
refugee as the van carrying him and Mrazek weaved through traffic on the parkways to Long Island.
According to his interpreter, Xuan Bell, even Minh’s Vietnamese vocabulary is limited. He was a
street beggar in Ho Chi Minh City, and has virtually no formal education. He seems quick to learn
but even in Vietnamese, he lacks the verbal skills to truly express what he is feeling.
“We’re going home,” Mrazek said. “We’re not there yet but we’re going home. ”

Minh repeated the last word. “Home,” he said in English.

He looked out the window a great deal, fascinated by the lanes of traffic. He asked Bell about the
radio antennae on the passing cars, he commented on the large size of the station wagons and
Cadillacs, and he pointed at a black Corvette and told Bell he liked it.

Mrazek laughed. “I’ll buy you one,” he said.

At another point, a train passed alongside and Minh did a double take. He stared at the trash on
the parkway divider – at the cigarettes and beer cans and dented hubcaps. Why don’t they pick up
the trash, he asked Bell. In Vietnam, he said, the trash would be treasure to his friends on the
street, who would collect it and sell it. “They would be very happy,” he said in Vietnamese.
The dark blue van left the parkway and headed along Jericho Turnpike. Le Van Minh looked at
the drugstores and pizza parlors and delicatessens and gas stations and some apartments under
construction and asked where the tall buildings of New York City were. Finally, he leaned against
Mrazek’s chest and fell asleep clutching his new flag.

When he woke up, the van was pulling into the driveway of the 200 year-old, black-shuttered yellow
house on Centerport Harbor where he will stay with the Mrazeks until he moves into the home of
his foster parents, Eugene and Nancy Kinney, on the same street. The door opened and 5-year-old
James Mrazek ran barefoot out of the house yelling “Minh, Minh. ” Then he yelled to his father, “Bob,
could we show Minh his new bed? ” Then, “Minh, you’re on TV. ”

Inside, 8-year-old Susannah showed him the family’s 16-year-old cat while James bounded around
the room. “Minh, Minh, I want to show you our swing,” he said. “Let’s give him a ride,” the little boy
told his father. “Is he still crippled? ”

Instead, the two boys laughed together as Minh watched James swing back and forth.
Then the boy who slept in doorways in Ho Chi Minh City was carried upstairs to his room. The
new twin bed was covered with sheets bearing the emblem of professional football teams and decorated
with stuffed rabbits and bears. He sat on the bed and Susannah climbed on it while James ran
into his own room and brought out a game.

“Minh, you wanna play Monopoly,” James asked.

Not now, said his mother, Cathie Mrazek.

Soon afterward, Minh’s foster family arrived from down the street. The Kinneys, their daughters,
Caroline, 22, and Christie, 19, and their adopted Korean-born sons, Robert, 15, and Joe, 13, gathered
around the bed and started asking questions.

Le Van Minh’s new life was beginning. He would swim in the harbor that Mrazek had told him
about and perhaps learn to use the rope swing in the backyard. He would try to cope with an environment
as far from the opportunistic world of the streets of his native city as a distant nebulae.
There would be doctors and school and adults to obey.

And no one could know how Le Van Minh’s journey home to the land of his unknown father would
turn out. It would be nice to think that the movie on the plane from London had been symbolic.
“Star Trek IV,” the movie was entitled, “The Voyage Home. ” Near the end of the film about the crew
dedicated to the exploration of strange new worlds, Mr. Spock uttered a favorite salutation. “Live
Long and Prosper,” said the man with the pointed ears.

For the moment, all Le Van Minh could say was a simple “I’m tired” in Vietnamese.

© Copyright Newsday, 06/05/1987

Thoughts about the Civil War

In one of my new novels that is written about my ancestors and their involvement in the American Civil War, I have studied them for several years and know quite a bit about them.  Nevertheless, I felt a need to do research to get the history correct. Upon starting this adventure, I came upon a blog One Hundred and Fifty years old written by Rev. Samuel Agnew. It is a journal written by one of their neighbors in 1863 and 64. I started reading it and came away with an entirely new perspective about their lives, and the lives of some of the slaves of that period. Whereas, I could never support slavery of  any kind, for any reason, I found that some of the African American folks did find a way to develop an affinity for their white families.  I found various narratives illustrating that. I am aware of all the horror stories of that period, and have no doubt there are many more than of which I am aware. I grew up in a time and a place where a person of color was not allowed to spend a night in the county in which I lived, and even in my own family witnessed many disparaging remarks about the African American people.  I was an adult in the 50’s and 60’s when the struggle for racial equality was at it’s height.  I find it still difficult to understand when I hear the remarks about our president, and know that most of the criticism of his presidency is based not on what he has done, but to the color of his skin.

Tippah County, MS Confederate Vets

Tippah County, MS Confederate Vets