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Archive for Sunday, June 19, 2005

Memoir of a refugee

Author seeks voice for South Vietnamese

June 19, 2005

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— A new memoir seeks to dispel lingering and painful misperceptions about the Vietnam War by relating the journey of a South Vietnamese refugee-turned-U.S. Marine - a journey that began 30 years ago in Arkansas.

Quang X. Pham, who came to the United States with his mother and sister 30 years ago, recently launched a book tour in Little Rock for his autobiography, "A Sense of Duty: My Father, My American Journey."

By the time the last Americans were airlifted out of Saigon on April 30, 1975, Pham and his family were in Guam, on their way to a refugee camp at Fort Chaffee near Fort Smith, 120 miles west of Little Rock.

But his father, Pham Van Hoa, made a choice to stay with the South Vietnamese air force rather than join his family before the fall of Saigon. He was taken prisoner by the North Vietnamese for 12 years, as a part of Ho Chi Minh's re-education of those who fought alongside U.S. forces.

"He could have gotten out with us that night, but I don't think I would have had the sense of duty that I did, and when we were reunited, he saw that, too," the 40-year-old author said.

Pham became a U.S. citizen in 1984, while a college student at the University of California at Los Angeles. He joined the Marines and served in the Gulf War.

He recalled seeing what he felt were mocking depictions of America's Vietnamese allies in "Platoon" and "Full Metal Jacket" while his father was still in prison. His father was released in 1987, and the U.S. Marine and the retired Republic of Vietnam fighter pilot were finally reunited in Pham's home of Orange County, Calif., the largest settlement of Vietnamese outside Vietnam.

The father and son shared a sense of duty to country, but the younger Pham was inspired to write his story out of anger that his new country had abandoned his father's.

"He was in prison for more than 5,000 days of hard labor," Pham said. "There were 30,000 of them sent to prison for more than 10 years. The longest American prisoner of war was there for 9 1/2 years, but I've had top military officials tell me they never realized the Communists kept holding South Vietnamese all those years afterwards."

Pham said he was angry that former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger won the 1973 Nobel Peace Prize for negotiating what President Nixon called "peace with honor" at Paris, because "there was no peace and no honor" for the South Vietnamese left behind.

His passions were stirred again last year during the presidential race when the Vietnam-era military service of President Bush and Sen. John Kerry came under scrutiny. Political commentators recycled old myths, Pham said, by downplaying American military missteps and claiming the South Vietnamese abstained from their own fight.

"History is written by the victors, and that's why the South Vietnamese voice has never really been heard," he said. "I'm not trying to rewrite history. I'm just trying to fill a void."

Pham and his family's first stop in the U.S. mainland was San Francisco in April 1975. However, then-California Gov. Jerry Brown refused to take in the refugees and the plane headed on to Little Rock after refueling, Pham said.

By contrast, retired Army Lt. Col. Dick Clohecy, a Vietnam veteran, and his wife, Gloria, who lived near Fort Chaffee, befriended the Phams and brought them clothes for the relatively cool weather. Pham said the Clohecys moved to Texas and the two families lost touch in 1995.

"Arkansas and Fort Chaffee are like my Ellis Island," Pham said, "and it's always good to go back where you came from."

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