Collateral Damage



While I have serious thoughts, I seldom write about them. This story is serious, so if you are looking for your normal chuckle at my scribblings you might want to move on. This has to do with war. Or rather, the aftermath of war. Wars have consequences and those consequences are far-reaching and long lasting.

A little background. I was an airman between the years of 1967 and 1976. Of those years I spent the time between 1969 and 1972 either in Viet Nam, around Viet Nam or on my way to or from Viet Nam. There was a war and I willingly did my part, without question. In those days, the US was divided along lines of the military industrial complex and those adamantly oppose to the war in Viet Nam. I suppose there was a large portion of the United States that was not in either camp and just wished the entire thing would go away. It is much like the United States today in early 2017, although the issues facing the nation today seem almost comical in comparison. That could be because I fought my war and I am willing to let others struggle with whatever real or perceived wrongs that are left in the world. I am sure there are many.

Now being an airman, I served my time behind the battlefronts or in the air over friendly territory, if one can say that there is a friendly area in a war theater. There were always things exploding, shots being fire, and airplanes burning up but none of it was directed at me personally. A stray rocket or bullet could have injured me but I never gave it much thought. I think that is why we send young men off to war-they think they are immortal. My last flying mission I came in on a C-47 with one dead engine and one sick one. Since I was days away from returning to the US to marry my sweetheart, I decided that that was my last mission. The next time I took to the air was to leave Viet Nam. I left Viet Nam in November of 1972 and the Paris Peace Accords were signed in January of 1973, so the war was over. At least for the Americans.

However, in December of 2014 I met a young lady who brought it all back for me. Her name is Hanh. I met her on a tour bus in Hawaii. I was taken with the fact that she was so energetic, enthusiastic and that she spoke English with an Australian accent. She was young enough to be my daughter and looked, as is the way with Orientals, young enough to be my granddaughter. I never asked, but I calculated that she had to be 44 at the time we met.

Being an inquisitive soul, I had to find out how she came by that accent. And this is the story:

Hanh’s grandparents were landed gentry in North Viet Nam. The French believed that they could continue a policy of colonialization in Viet Nam after World War II but ran into a revolution against such policy by the Viet Minh. In 1953, the French lost a decisive battle at Dien Bien Phu and the Geneva Accords of 1956 divided the country on the 17th parallel. The Viet Minh took over the northern half and many North Vietnamese Catholics were allowed to flee to South Viet Nam to be resettled. This Operation Passage to Freedom settled some 710,000 North Vietnamese, mostly Catholics, to South Viet Nam. Hanh’s grandparents and parents were among these people as they had been stripped of their land and had no reason to stay.

Hanh’s father grew up in South Viet Nam and eventually worked with the US government in their fight to keep South Viet Nam independent from the north. The US involvement in that war ended officially on April 30, 1975 with the evacuation of the US embassy in Saigon. The last hours of this evacuation, or Operation Frequent Wind, was well documented on TV and in the newspapers. Many thousands of Vietnamese who had assisted the US during the war were evacuated on April 30th and many more had been evacuated before that date. Many were left behind. Hanh’s father was one of the latter.

Having assisted the US, Hanh’s father was arrested. He faced 7 years in a re-education camp. He convinced the Communist that he had not aided the US but was merely a law enforcement officer in South Viet Nam. This got him a one-year prison sentence. Hanh’s mother and the twelve brother and sisters went to live with an uncle on the coast of Viet Nam to await the release of their father.

When he was released, he rejoined them and Hanh’s father and uncle built a boat. It was an unpowered sailboat that was 43 feet long. When it was done, all of the children including then 6-year-old Hanh were loaded onto the boat. I believe there were 27 souls on board. Her oldest brother, who was 22 at the time, captained it. They were pushed off to parts unknown while the parents remained in Viet Nam. The reason the parents stayed behind was that if the children on the boat were captured they would be put in prison, and they would not be fed unless their parents did it.

They escaped capture, made it to Indonesia and were immediately taken into a refugee camp there. They were awaiting to be taken into a home in some western country. Since there were 12 of them, and they wanted to stay together, this provided quite a challenge. Eventually, a family in the US was found that would take all 12 of them. Hanh and her family refused to go. The last thing their father told them was that they were under no circumstances to go to the US as it had betrayed them by leaving them behind.

They continued their wait and soon there were two families in Australia that were willing to each take six of them. Since the two families lived close together, Hanh and her siblings took the offer and were resettled in Australia. They were well cared for by their new families and did well considering where they had started.

All the brothers and sisters immediately started working on getting their parents to join them in Australia. It took them ten years before they obtained release of their parents who then joined them in Australia. It was a joyful reunion but this is the part of the story that always brings a tear to my eye.

While they were apart, Hanh’s mother knitted clothing for her two young daughters, one of which was Hanh. When they were reunited, her mother gave Hanh the sweater she had knitted for her. It was sized for a small six-year old girl. Hanh was 16 and almost a full-grown woman when her mother gave it to her. That is so sad in so many ways.

However, there are many sad parts to this story. Her cousins were resettled in the US. Her uncle went to join them. Her father never saw his brother again because he refused to visit the country that he felt betrayed him.

Hanh eventually came to the US to find work as I suppose the US offered better jobs for someone like her than Australia did. She was returning to Australia to visit her family for Christmas when I met her. Since it is such a long flight, she chose to overnight in Honolulu before continuing her journey. This is where I heard her story. We met again on her way back to the US.

I do not know what has compelled me to write this story now. Maybe it is because there are supposedly more refugees in the world now than at any time in human history. Maybe because the world has a thirst for war that seems unquenchable. I think mostly it is that things I did for all the right reasons, had consequences that cascaded from one generation to the next. I am thankful that Hanh gave me a rear view look at the consequences of war.



January 31, 2017 · 11:24 am

6 responses to “Collateral Damage

  1. Larry E. Burnworth

    Bob: Great story…. this should be required reading for every politician…. Thank you; Larry

    Larry E. Burnworth H: 415.453.1128 C: 415.517.7999 e-M:


    • Vern Edgren

      Thank you Bob. I too made many trips to and from Viet Nam. Radar Tech was my MOS but I made several inflight refueling missions off the coast. I never gave the people of Viet Nam much thought at the time, I was 22, but later realized the mess we left for them by pulling out.


    • Bob

      You were there. And you are right about the politicians. I have been going merrily along thinking I never personally ever killed anyone until a 14 year old asked recently. “How about the people who were bombed by the airplanes you maintained?” Never thought of it that way and glad that I never did. I did what my country asked of me. A weak defense but it is all I have.


  2. Russ Leeman

    You never fail to make a valid point. For those that have never served in one form or another. That
    take the privileges we take for granted as entiitlements with no thought as to what length others have gone through to insure their privileges. Thanks for the insight.. Take Care


    • Bob

      Russ; Good hearing from you. Freedom does have a price. It does not always have a dollar sign in front it, but there is always a number.


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