Sunday, April 30, 2000

Vietnam: 25 years after the fall

Victories follow a lost war
Many Vietnamese have built successful Tristate lives

By Mark Curnutte
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        The 70-year-old man owns a $410,000 home and a metal-coating business, and drives a Mercedes-Benz.

        Each of his 10 children went to college. He has 21 grandchildren and two more on the way.

[photo] Thao Pham, left, and his son-in-law Diem N. Pham
(Enquirer photo)
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        By all accounts, he's living the American dream, a dream unimaginable 25 years ago this week when he and his family were running for their lives in their native South Vietnam.

        Thao H. Pham was among the tens of thousands who fled their homeland when the capital city, Saigon, fell 25 years ago today, April 30, 1975. He and his family drifted for days in a fishing boat before being plucked from the sea by a U.S. ship.

        Out of the lost war has come triumph. Hundreds of thousands of South Vietnamese refugees made their way to the United States and made good. The country lived up to its promise, too, offering the refugees the opportunity at a new life. Mr. Pham and his family are among the most successful of the Tristate's 3,000 South Vietnamese refugees.

        For several years, he worked with U.S. intelligence. Mr. Pham holds a grudge against the American military for how it conducted the last years of the war. His opinion of his new home is considerably warmer.

        “I appreciate the people, the land, the opportunity,” said Mr. Pham, sitting in the conference room of the West Chester plant of Anotex Industries Inc., not far from his home. Seated beside him and translating were his eighth child, V. Dominic Pham, and Diem N. Pham, Thao Pham's son-in-law and company co-owner and president. (Pham is a common Vietnamese name, similar to Jones in the United States.)

        “If I were still in Vietnam, I wouldn't have the business,” said Thao Pham, who speaks Vietnamese but understands some English. “My children would not have succeeded. They would be working in the rice paddies. I wouldn't trade what I have.”

[photo] The Pham family in 1975, a month after arriving in Latonia.
(Enquirer photo)
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        Still, the anniversary of the fall of Saigon — and the end of the war and the loss of their country — brings bittersweet memories, a jarring combination of mourning and thanksgiving.

        The Phams used to commemorate the day with a family meal and discussion, but that exercise proved too painful and has stopped.

        Remembrances are now private. Thoughts of 1975 are never far away.

        As a young man, Thao Pham worked with the French military in its attempt to re-establish its Vietnamese colony after World War II.

        A war between the French and the Viet Minh revolutionary force, directed by communist leader Ho Chi Minh, raged from 1947 through 1954. That year, the Geneva Accords temporarily divided communist North Vietnam and the noncommunist Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam) at the 17th parallel.

        Mr. Pham, who supported South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem, ran a successful construction company that built bridges and roads. Mr. Pham and his wife, Lai Hoang, and their growing family lived in the port city of Vung Tau, about 50 miles southeast of Saigon.

        After President Diem was overthrown and slain in 1963 by South Vietnamese generals, Mr. Pham was jailed for a yearbecause of his political ties. By 1965, though, he had been hired as a consultant by U.S. military intelligence.

        Mr. Pham stayed loyal to the war against North Vietnam and the Viet Cong, its communist supporters in the South, even after the United States scaled back from a 1969 high of 543,000 troops.

        A cease-fire agreement was signed in Paris on Jan. 27, 1973, and on March 29, the last U.S. ground forces left Vietnam.

        But the war went on. In early 1975, South Vietnamese forces crumbled in front of a North Vietnamese offensive.

        By March, the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong had forced South Vietnamese troops to retreat to the Central Highlands region of South Vietnam. Congress refused to grant President Ford's $722 million emergency aid package to South Vietnam, allocating less than half of that amount mainly for the evacuation of Americans from Saigon.

        In April 1975, Thao Pham was in Saigon. The communists were closing in on the city.

        On April 23, the U.S. military offered to evacuate him by helicopter to its ships in international waters. “Saigon was chaos,” he said.

        But he refused to be flown out of the country.

        “Family comes first,” he said. “We can give up everything but family.”

        On April 24, he took a bus home to Vung Tau. Mr. Pham's plan was to get his wife and 10 children back to Saigon and the U.S. helicopters.

        But on April 25, the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong, in surrounding Saigon, cut off the road between Vung Tau and the capital.

        “Plan B was to go out to sea,” Mr. Pham said. “You didn't have time to think about anything else.”

        He threw birth certificates and other personal papers in a briefcase, and the family packed fresh water, dry noodles, rice and dried beef. Then, with artillery fire booming in the distance, they walked 3 miles on dirt roads in the dark toward the water.

        Mr. Pham found a man he knew with a 15-foot fishing boat. He paid to get himself and his family aboard. There were already 20 people on the boat. It was April 28.

        Two days later, Mr. Pham heard on a two-way radio that Saigon had fallen.

        At 7:52 that morning — after 19 straight hours of continuous flights — the last U.S. Huey helicopter lifted from the roof of the embattled U.S. embassy in Saigon; 1,120 South Vietnamese and 978 Americans were flown to safety aboard U.S. ships. Eleven U.S. Marines, the last of a force of more than half a million, were on the final flight, their guns trained on their former allies.

        By 5 that afternoon, the Phams were rescued by a U.S. military cargo ship, the USS Pioneer.

        Back in Saigon, at about the same time, the North Vietnamese had changed the name of the capital to Ho Chi Minh City.

        The Phams left behind a shattered home. An estimated 1.5 million Vietnamese (1 million from South Vietnam) died in fighting between 1957 and 1975. Tens of thousands of civilians were killed. The land had been torched by Agent Orange. The infrastructure was in ruins.

        The family was bound for an emotionally damaged country, one bitterly divided and grieving — scarred by anti-war protests, counterprotests and a nightly casualty count on national television.

        More than 58,000 Americans lost their lives in Vietnam, the first in 1959. Another 365,000 U.S. troops were wounded.

        Some 1 million South Vietnamese, about 5 percent of the country's population, took to the seas when Saigon fell. The ones who weren't picked up by U.S. ships either died or eventually came ashore elsewhere in southern Asia.

        Thao Pham, his wife and 10 children headed to Latonia, Ky., where they would be sponsored by Holy Cross Catholic Church. A Covington priest was an officer with U.S. Catholic Charities and connected the church and the family. The family was routed through a refugee camp in Pennsylvania.

        The church set up the family in a house on Lincoln Avenue. The younger children attended Holy Cross Elementary, where English teacher Marg Wilbers took an interest.

        Ms. Wilbers, now the church's pastoral assistant, also taught special summer school classes for the Phams and other Vietnamese children living in the Diocese of Covington. The older Pham children, like Mr. Pham, went to work.

        “They wanted to start a new life,” Ms. Wilbers said. “Mr. and Mrs. Pham definitely wanted their children educated.”

        Thao Pham worked as a laborer for a tire company.

        On board the ship in the South China Sea, the Pham family had met a South Vietnamese soldier still wearing his uniform. He was Lt. Diem N. Pham, who would marry Thao Pham's oldest daughter, Lien Pham, in 1980.

        Diem Pham had bypassed an opportunity to go to college to join the military in 1969. He was 19 and fought for his country for six years.

        In April 1975, he was in a battle near Saigon, one of the last of the war. His division retreated to the port city of Vung Tau.

        They were filled with shame and fear.

        “Many men did this,” said Diem Pham, who gestured to his head as if holding a gun. “I had to be talked out of that. You would see groups of four or five men in a circle, and they would set off a grenade. We did not want to fall into enemy hands.”

        The overloaded U.S. ships sailed to Subic Bay in the Philippines. Soldiers were asked to give up their weapons and uniforms. The next stop was Guam. From there, they went to a former World War II military camp in Pennsylvania for refugee processing.

        Diem Pham was sent to New Jersey but moved to Latonia two years later to be with his future bride. He found work with a metal-coating company and brought his future father-in-law into the company. He also took chemical engineering and metallurgy courses at the University of Cincinnati.

        In 1988, Diem Pham and his father-in-law pooled their resources.

        “A big gamble. Like poker,” said Diem Pham, now 50, cupping his hands and pushing an imaginary stack of cash and chips into a pot.

        Anotex Industries Inc., a metal-coating company, was incorporated in 1989. It opened in 1990, specializing in anodizing, a process that hardens the surface of aluminum and makes it more durable without adding weight.

        “When we were living in Latonia, we had many nights when we were here (West Chester) until 3:30 in the morning,” Diem Pham said. Customers praise the company for its quick turnaround.

        His father-in-law moved to West Chester in 1993. In keeping with Vietnamese custom, the family of the oldest son, Vinh Pham, 35, lives with his parents. Vinh Pham is the company's production manager. Seven family members comprise the company's work force.

        Diem Pham moved to Sycamore Township to be closer to the business.

        Last year, the company built the Rialto Road plant.

        The gamble has paid off.

        Family patriarch Thao Pham, a practicing Catholic, knows the family's success isn't its own.

        “I know it was God who brought me here,” he said. “The grace of God allowed us to prosper.”

        Coming Monday: Tristate Vietnamese mark the 25th anniversary of the fall of Saigon.

- Vietnam: 25 years after the fall
Chemist escaped to U.S. and P&G
Precarious boat trip ended in freedom
Vietnam, U.S. mark anniversary Continuing coverage from Associated Press

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