Visiting old refugee camp Fort Indiantown Gap,

Pennsylvania, April 2013


Nguyn Tài Ngc


Ghi chú: Tôi nhận thư của hai người bạn đề nghị tôi nên dịch bài viết về chuyến đi thăm trại tỵ nạn Fort Indiantown Gap sang tiếng Anh. Tôi nghĩ hai người bạn này ư kiến rất đúng tôi cảm ơn người Mỹ chỉ viết bằng tiếng Việt th́ làm sao họ hiểu. Bài viết "April-30-1975, the day I left Saigon", tôi dịch từ bản tiếng Việt tôi viết rồi post trên Saigonocean, không nghĩ người Mỹ sẽ đọc thế hai năm trước một đài radio Mỹ ở North Carolina liên lạc với tôi, phỏng vấn tôi trên một chương tŕnh phát thanh của họ vào ngày 1-5 để kỷ niệm ngày 30-4. Thành ra hy vọng bài này rồi cũng sẽ được người Mỹ biết đến t́m đọc.        


Sitting on a bus looking out at the small, square, plastic pieces that were lighting the lanes on the freeway, I was intrigued. Do they actually run on electricity or do they just reflect light from the bus’ headlights? My question was quickly answered by the total darkness coming from the opposing traffic. Since there wasn’t a car in sight, I knew that the pieces simply reflected light shone on them.

This was what passed through my mind when I was on a bus the evening of June 5, 1975. I was on my way from Harrisburg Airport to the refugee/military camp Fort Indiantown Gap in Pennsylvania.

Earlier that morning of April 30, 1975, I left Vietnam on a battleship that belonged to the US Navy's Seventh Fleet. One week later, at 2 AM on May 5th, the battleship arrived in Subic Bay, the Philippines. After resting and feeding for two days, we were then flown to Orote Point, Guam on a C-130 cargo plane. On May 9th, we transferred to another camp, Asan Annex, still residing in Guam.

After staying in Guam for a month, we were finally picked to fly to America for permanent settlement. San Francisco was the stop-over, and our final destination was Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Numerous buses were then used to transfer the refugees on a forty minute journey to the refugee camp.

Unaccustomed with the surroundings, I was constantly in awe the entire trip: Seeing the huge DC-8 airplane for the first time, walking into the modern structure of the San Francisco Airport, hearing the blonde American flight attendant ladies speaking English, a language so foreign to my ears, and now the fascination with the reflectors glued on the freeway.

My medical examination in Fort Indiantown Gap, June 1975

My student I.D. in 1974

Thirty-eight years later, I am now back at the camp I once lived. A lot of things have changed: President Ford is no longer in office, the beautiful young, pretty, pin-up girl Bích-La-Thôn has now retired with old age. I can speak English better than before, being able to correctly pronounce, “Give me a sheet of paper”, rather than, “Give me a sh*t of paper". Fooling around with my wife without thinking about the consequences, I now have four children. My hair has turned from jet black to completely gray. Even though so much has changed within the past couple of decades, there is one thing that remains the same. I feel exactly the same as the first day when I arrived here that June in 1975: I am overwhelmed with happiness to be able to live a free life in America.

Not wanting to face the barrel of a M16 gun or even the gun turret of a tank when taking pictures (because I look like a terrorist and because this is a military camp), I stepped into an office to ask for permission to take photos. I explained to the young soldier that I am from California and that I used to live here when I first came to America. I told him that I came back to visit and cherish the good old memories. Most of the people I meet for the first time would be on guard because to them I look suspiciously like a drug cartel, but not to this young soldier. He welcomed me back and told me to take as many photos as I wished.

Fort Indiantown Gap is large, about 18,000 acres. Active military planes still occupy a good chunk of land. There are a few on display right along the road: three helicopters, some tanks, one jet fighter, and one C-130 cargo plane.

I took the C-130 from Subic Bay, Philippines to Orote Point, Guam. I remember the trip scaring the daylight out of me because everyone sat on the floor. I sat near the tail, close to where the giant metal door lowers to the ground to load and unload cargo. I was afraid that it would open up mid-flight, dropping me into the abyss for a certain death.

The refugees were housed in four sections: 3, 4, 5, and 6. I lived in Section 6. My barrack was #78, so my “address” was 6-78. According to the soldier, most of the barracks in these four sections were taken down because of old age. The cost of fixing was too high, therefore demolishing the barracks outweighed the renovation effort. 32,000 Vietnamese refugees came here for relocation in 1975. In 1980, in operation Mariel boatlift, Fort Indiantown Gap was once again the place to process another wave of refugees. 19,000 Cubans came here from April to October in 1980 because Fidel Castro announced to his people that whoever wanted to leave Cuba may do so. 120,000 Cubans jumped at the chance, took up Castro’s word, and crossed the ocean to come to the United States.

I have to say that we Vietnamese have a lot bright ideas. Some of the refugees took the blankets from the airplane with them to the camp and tailored them into winter coats. They walked around the camp wearing blanket outerwear with no shame, but rather, with a sense of accomplishment. Losing almost all of the blankets in every flight, the airlines ceased providing blankets to passengers on subsequent flights.

The days spent in Fort Indiantown Gap were probably the best times I have ever had in America. While the whole South Vietnam fell into unprecedented hardship, my fellow countrymen back home suffered tremendously, some were imprisoned, some were sent to education camps, and some were executed,  I, on the other hand, was successful in escaping from Vietnam to America. I lined up three times a day for meals, enjoyed outdoor movies with a giant screen on a grassy hill at night, and was entertained every once in a while by variety shows put up by other refugees.

Re-education session for 26 generals of former South Vietnamese army in 1975. Second from left is one time Defense Minister, General Nguyễn Hữu . was imprisoned for 12 years, decided not to emigrate after being released and lived in Vietnam until his death in 2012. (Note : all color, war photos are from TIME and Newsweek magazines, issues April and May 1975)

Lower-ranking officers at another re-education camp

In haste, Vietnamese newspapers were published with articles relating to refugee issues and American life. In Guam, the name of the newspaper was Chân Trời Mới – “New Horizon”, and in Pennsylvania, the name of the newspaper was Đất Lành – “Good Land.”

I still keep a lot of these newspapers until this day.  In the first issue of the Chân Trời Mới – “New Horizon” published on May 2nd, 1975 in Guam, on the last page was a petition printed in two languages, Vietnamese and English:

Guam, 28-April-1975


To The Government & The People of The United States of America

We, the undersigned intellectuals who have been evacuated to Guam, recognize the great efforts of the American government, the Governor and the people of Guam in securing our safeguard.

However, most of the highly qualified professionals are still stranded in Vietnam. We therefore urgently entreat the Government and the People of America to continue the effort in bringing them back to freedom. We who have been more fortunate in being brought here before, are ready to share our place and the little we have in order to save as many of our fellow countrymen as possible with us.



Đảo Guam Ngày 18 tháng 4 năm 1975

Kính gửi Chính phủ Nhân dân Hiệp chủng quốc Hoa Kỳ,

Chúng tôi tên dưới đây những nhà trí thức đă được di tản tới đảo Guam, nh́n nhận những nỗ lực lớn lao của chính phủ Hoa Kỳ, của vị Thống Đốc nhân dân đảo Guam trong việc bảo đảm an toàn cho chúng tôi.

Tuy nhiên, c̣n phần đông những chuyên viên ưu c̣n bị mắc kẹt tại Việt Nam. vậy chúng tôi khẩn thiết thỉnh cầu chính phủ nhân dân Hoa Kỳ tiếp tục nỗ lực đưa họ về vùng tự do. Chúng tôi, những người may mắn được di tản tới đây trước, sẵn sàng chia xẻ nơi ăn chốn chúng tôi thể được ngỏ hầu cứu vớt được càng nhiều đồng bào của chúng tôi chừng nào càng tốt chừng nấy.

Tuy nhiên, phần đông những chuyên viên ưu vẫn c̣n bị kẹt lạiViệt Nam. Do đó, chúng tôi khẩn thiết thỉnh cầu chính phủ nhân dân Hoa Kỳ tiếp tục nỗ lực đưa họ về vùng tự do. Chúng tôi, những người may mắn đă được di tản tới đây, sẵn sàng chia sẻ nơi ăn chốnít oi khiêm tốn của chúng tôi để cứu vớt các đồng hương càng nhiều càng tốt.

The petition was signed by twenty-four doctors, two engineers, one marine surveyor, one dentist, eight pharmacists, one economist, nine professors, one pilot, one CEO of a private company, three unknown, and Phạm Duy.

Even though I was only a young kid back then, I remember that I did not like what I read in this petition:

1.   The signers probably never read The Book of Virtues because they were self proclaimed as “intellectuals.” Whatever happened to the one basic virtue: to be humble, that was taught to children  ever since elementary school?

2.    "When it rains, it pours."  These people reminded the government and people of the United States that there were still "elite professionals" left behind in Vietnam and to speed up the efforts of bringing them to the U.S. What about the not-so-smart, the mentally challeged, the stupid minds, the average Joe, the street vendors...? Leave them back in Vietnam, let them suffer with the Communists? If parents, children, spouse, and siblings couldn’t solve simple math problems, then let’s not save them?

This simple plea showed the lack of thoughtfulness from these self proclaimed “intellectuals.” First, they were so naive to think the U.S. will immediately act upon their request. Second, let’s say that the U.S. would send elite commandos back to Saigon. How would the commandos differentiate the “elite professional” from the average Joe with bombs exploding everywhere “Show me your ID... Hmm… your ID doesn’t say that you are smart people.” ?

The main reason I show this petition because one of the signers was Pham Duy. Pham Duy was a famous songwriter, well respected before 1975. Why would Pham Duy and these people sign that petition in April 1975? They were keenly aware that out of millions of South Vietnamese at that time, they were the only fortunate few who were lucky enough to be rescued by the U.S. government from North Vietnamese  Communists’ dominant. Therefore, they begged the U.S. to put in efforts to give their counterparts a chance just like them (note that this petition was signed on April 28th, 1975, two days before Saigon fell. It means that these people had escaped South Vietnam before its collapse).

Thirty-eight years later, the ink from this petition has still not dried, yet now a lot of Vietnamese refugees have forgotten the crime of the Communists. They have forgotten that it was them who begged the U.S. to rescue them, to rescue more South Vietnamese, fearing for their life.

In 2005, after thirty years of living in the United States, Pham Duy came back to Vietnam to live under a regime he was so fearful of. He forgot that he had left Saigon while the heroic South Vietnamese soldiers were still fighting to defend his freedom, giving him and thousands  other people enough time to flee. Now that the danger has passed, his thinking about the past has changed. When interviewed by BBC in December 2012, Duy was asked about  The refugee songs” and "The infamy songs” he wrote in refugee camp in 1975.  He conveniently told the interviewer not to bring up the subject since he did not want to talk about it. Here is the excerpt:

"BBC: You wrote "The refugee songs", "The infamy  songs"  in the Philippines (refugee camp), is it correct?

Pham Duy: These songs were  composed when I was panic, please don't bring it up. I forgot about it already."

Standing in front of the barracks at Fort Indiantown Gap reminiscent of life in the refugee camp in 1975, I still vividly remember that fateful day of April 30th, 1975, the day I left my country.

On April 30th, 1975, in the face of war, while the United States was utilizing all kinds of aircraft, warships, and soldiers to rescue hundreds of thousands of refugees like me to resettle in a peaceful, far away place known as America, my own country and fellow countrymen, the Communists, were firing artillery into the sea of Vũng Tầu and Cần Giờ to try to kill us. I saw with my own eyes ocean water exploding in the air from bomb shells, forcing hundreds of boats to disperse from gathering around my barge. Our own ship had to increase speed in order to get away, after pulling up the ladder which had been lowered to the barge earlier for the refugees to climb up to the ship. Later on in the U.S. , I found out the writer Chu Tử was killed on the ship Việt Nam Thương Tín near Cần Giờ.

It is ironic that the North Vietnamese Communists, who share the same Vietnamese blood with me, were determined to kill their own people, while America, sharing no relation or responsibilty to us, sacrificed their own soldiers to save thousands and thousands of refugees. American soldiers were the ones who brought me to Fort Indiantown Gap for a new life of freedom.

Some Vietnamese back then who begged America to rescue them, were brought to the U.S. to live just like me, now go back to Vietnam to make a living: business people, singers, M.C.’s , songwriters... They enjoy making money in Vietnam, oblivious to the fact that the society they are in now is still controlled by the same people who were responsible for killing one million South Vietnamese in the Vietnam War. They also forget that it is these Communists who took away their possessions, who tried to deprive their freedom in 1975.

Unlike them,  I’m not the type who bites the hands that feed me. America has spent money, resources, and their own blood to provide me a happy life. There is no way I now would be ungrateful. There is no way  I now would turn my back on them, not repay my debt, and go back to Vietnam to enjoy my life or to make a living.

Refugees were given a gift box from American Red Cross

Letter informing me I was scheduled to leave Fort Indiantown Gap for San Diego on July-09-1975

Our airline tickets to San Diego, July-09-1975

Menu on TWA flight, July-09-1975

In America, I was lucky enough to work for a company that manufactures automatic welding machines. Our products were used in the construction of ships, space shuttles, and in the nuclear industry. Twenty years ago, our equipment was sold to Newport News Shipbuilding. This company is located in Newport News, Virginia. and right now is building two aircraft carriers, the USS Gerald R. Ford and the USS John F Kennedy. I was fortunate to have an opportunity to come to this largest private ship building company in the United States. My trip was filled with emotions. It surprised because I never thought that I would be able to visit a shipbuilding company in America. It also touched because I felt like I was part of a company contributing our part to make America stronger in the world. I am honored to be able to repay my debt and to continue contributing my share to the Government and to the People of The United States for bringing me to America.

Thirty-eight years later, standing in front of the barracks I once lived in Fort Indiantown Gap, my feeling toward America is unchanged. It is exactly the same as the very first time I set foot on the American battleship on the sea outside of Vũng Tầu: I forever owe gratitude to this country.

There is one thing that is different between thirty eight years ago and now: I am now a naturalized American citizen.

Not just a simple American, but a proud American.

Nguyn Tài Ngc

April 2013     


War photos are from TIME and Newsweek magazines, April and May-1975 issues