Fall of Saigon: One Woman's Harrowing Tale with a Happy Ending

This year last month marked the 40th anniversary of the fall of Saigon to The People's Army of Vietnam and the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam. Many people remember the striking images of people evacuating from Saigon and South Vietnam on April 29th and 30th.

Thu-Thuy Truong, Board Secretary for the Red Cross Silicon Valley Chapter and Restoring Family Links Advocate, was 13 at the time and one of thousands of Vietnamese who fled on April 30. The Red Cross chapter in Denver, Colorado welcomed Thu-Thuy Truong as a guest speaker to talk about her experience and how the Red Cross helped reconnect her family with their father, from whom they were separated during the incident. Her story is both harrowing and inspiring.

In this video, she shares an abridged version of her story. 

For more stories from the Colorado and Wyoming Region of the American Red Cross, please click here.

For more information on the reconnecting families services of the Red Cross, please visit redcross.org/reconnectingfamilies.

Former Refugee Shares her Story of Separation and Red Cross Reconnection

Thu-Thuy Truong with her brother, Sy, her sister, Tiffany, and a friend at Fort Chaffee, Arkansas.

Thu-Thuy Truong with her brother, Sy, her sister, Tiffany, and a friend at Fort Chaffee, Arkansas.

Speech given by Thu-Thuy Truong on April 30, 2014 at Vietnamese American Roundtable's 39th Commemoration of Black April.

Good evening ladies and gentlemen. I would like to thank the Vietnamese American Roundtable for inviting me here tonight. It is my honor to speak to you on behalf of my family and the American Red Cross. I would like to share with you my family’s journey to America, the Red Cross, and the lessons learned from that fateful day, Black April.

It was 39 years ago today, April 30, 1975 that my mom and her five children, including myself, became some of the first Vietnamese boat people fleeing from an island south of Vietnam named Phu Quoc. On that same day, in the capital city of Saigon, my father was standing outside the US Embassy amongst thousands of people. He was unable to get in, watching the last of the US helicopters depart from the roof.

Around noon, while General Duong Van Minh was on the radio announcing his surrender, my mother was negotiating with the local fisherman to take all six of us out to open sea. We soon came upon an American cargo ship named Challenger. The Challenger was huge, like the ship in the movie Captain Phillips, with hundreds of boats of all sizes surrounding it.

Although there was no gun fire, it was chaotic with everyone scrambling, jumping from the outside boats towards the ship. I was thirteen years old, carrying piggyback my eight year old brother, Sy. At one point, I jumped onto the side wall of a boat landing on a thin ledge with just enough space for my feet to stand. My arms reached out wide, grasping the wall like Spiderman. A bang rang in my ears as my head slammed on the boat’s wall, then a second bang as Sy’s head also hit the wall above me. Although I could not breathe due to my little brother’s frightful clutch upon my neck, I was relieved to realize that we did not fall backwards into the undulating waters, avoiding being crushed between boats.

Initially, the only way to board the ship was a single rope ladder. The crew quickly retracted the ladder seeing that mobs of people were swarming the ship and falling into the ocean. Finally the ship’s crew lowered a makeshift wooden rig down to the water’s surface, which allowed small groups to climb onboard at a time. Someone with a bullhorn barked out warnings to everyone to stay calm and instructed women and children to get on first.

At dusk, soon after we got on, the rig was abruptly pulled up. I can never forget that loud roar from the crowd echoing the heart wrenching cries from what seemed like a thousand people below. I peered over to see terrified looks of separated family members. We were relieved that our family was intact, yet full of apprehension about my father back in Saigon. Eventually, the ship took us to Guam, and we were subsequently transported to Fort Chaffee in Arkansas, where my mom registered with the Red Cross in search of my father.

My father miraculously escaped that day. He went to the Saigon River filled with loss and desperation, he climbed onto a boat and then another small cargo boat, eventually making his way to Wake Island, where he also registered with the Red Cross. Even in an era before cell phones and the internet, the Red Cross was able to reunite our family in Fort Chaffee three months later.

My extended family was not as fortunate. In 1979, my aunt Vi, her husband Huan, their son, and uncle, left by boat and were never found, presumed lost at sea. On a separate escape route, my aunt Thanh, husband Hung, and their three children experienced multiple harrowing pirate attacks, extreme hunger, heat exposure at open sea and on remote islands, until they arrived at a refugee camp in Thailand.

Although our own Black April journey was a breeze in comparison, it was a pivotal journey which changed all of us in significant ways. The experience prepared my family to cope with challenges after leaving Fort Chaffee, living in a poor and rough neighborhood. Whenever problems arose, such as getting punched by mean kids for no reasons, receiving eviction notices, being robbed, etc… my mom would say: "We lost everything on April 30 and survived until now, we can overcome this."

As a daughter, I would like to say to my parents and the elders: Thank you for risking everything, leaving your home, family, country, to give me a better future. I feel your pain and suffering, but hope that you will also see the “sweet” part of this bittersweet day. We have been given a new life with the generous support of this great nation. We have overcame many obstacles and challenges. Let’s use this experience to find common ground, to unite us as Vietnamese-Americans, and to work together for a better community.

As a mother, I would like to say to my children and the younger generation: Thank you for being here to learn more about your heritage. Understand our humble refugee beginnings, and do not take your comfortable life for granted. Cherish all the opportunities that you’re given, to study hard and pursue your dreams. Strive to achieve not just material wealth, but wealth in culture, in knowledge, and especially in compassion.

As an individual, Black April taught me a lesson in humility. I am so blessed that my entire family was saved by the ship that day. Double blessed that my father was saved. I have the honor now to volunteer with the American Red Cross, working on the very same program that united my family. The Restoring Family Links program helps find family members separated by disaster, conflict, migration, or other humanitarian emergency. It doesn’t take much time or money, but it is priceless to those who are still looking for their loved ones. By informing others about this program, we are forming a valuable chain of information, a chain of hope, and best of all, a chain of humanity.

I sincerely thank you for this opportunity tonight.

Refugee Reconnected with Mother by the Red Cross Pays it Forward

At the tender age of three, Manyang lost his father, uncle, and his home to the Sudanese Civil War, which also separated him from his mother. At that instant, Manyang became a refugee of the war, amongst the other 20,000 displaced and orphaned “lost boys of Sudan.” For 13 years, Manyang became accustomed to living in refugee camps along the border of Ethiopia and Sudan. Stability was nonexistent, nothing was guaranteed. By good fortune, Manyang was brought to the US at age 17 where he learned English and pursued a college degree. Throughout this time, he tried to reconnect with his mother by writing her letters through the American Red Cross. Over the course of many years, Manyang wrote around 220 letters, and finally, the American Red Cross and the ICRC were able to find his uncle, who then passed on the message to his mother. Eventually, Manyang was able to physically reconnect with his mother back in Sudan.

While his life had taken a turn for the better, he could not ignore the continuing crises faced by the people of Sudan. In 2008, he formed Humanity Helping Sudan to help elevate Sudanese refugees from poverty by teaching them vocational skills that will make them self-sufficient. Through this organization, Manyang has been a guest speaker for several summits including the United Nations’ NEXUS Global Youth Summit in New York City and at the African Union in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. In August 2012, the VH1 Do Something Award Show honored Manyang as one of the best world-changers, 25 and under. Additionally, celebrities including Beyoncé Knowles, Ben Affleck, Alek Wek, and Anderson Cooper have recognized him for his humanitarian work.

Manyang has also continued his ties with the American Red Cross, volunteering with the Restoring Family Links program. As an RFL Advocate he works to promote reconnecting family services in refugee communities across the US. In the video below Manyang discusses what it was like to be reconnected with his mother and shares his dedication to the RFL program.

Red Cross Volunteer Reconnects Families Around the World

Since retiring from his career with AT&T in 2008, Mike Farrar has worked tirelessly as a volunteer with the American Red Cross filling many roles including Disaster Action Team Leader, Emergency Response Vehicle driver, and Youth Advisor. In April of 2009, he was inspired to work with the Restoring Family Links program and taken on multiple roles including caseworker, instructor, mentor, and most recently advocate. Through the International Humanitarian Law program, he has also worked to ensure that America's next generation will know and have a respect for humanitarian law.

Mike has said that the Restoring Family Links program speak personally to him as there was a period in his life where his family was separated from one another. Because of this, he knows the pain of separation and the joy of reunion. As an instructor, he always encourages caseworkers to approach their work as if they were searching for their own families.

At the Long Beach Chapter, Mike supervises fourteen volunteers doing casework and outreach. Mike is also a National Disaster responder for the American Red Cross with specialties as a supervisor in Safe and Well Linking and Disaster Assessment. In addition he is the Director of the Veterans History Project in Long Beach, which he brought not only to his region but also to all of California in 2010. The project works to collect oral histories from America’s wartime veterans. He has created a training class to teach staff and volunteers the entire process of interviewing Veterans from the initial call through the submission to the Library of Congress. He currently supports 48 volunteers working with him on this project.

While working to support Restoring Family Links caseworkers across the US, reaching out to refugee and migrant communities, building partnerships with key organizations, and educating local youth about International Humanitarian Law and Restoring Family Links, Mike has also been able to aid families reconnect with one another. In the video below, he shares the story of the first case he worked with the RFL program. Mike was asked to search for a man sought by his sister in Cambodia who the chapter had been seeking for a year. After three weeks of searching, Mike found him and was able to put him in contact with his sister.

Mike's passion for the Restoring Family Links program shines through his work. It is through the dedication of volunteers like Mike that the RFL program is able to continue to grow and provide hope to those separated from their loved ones.

Former Refugee Helps Reunite Families

By Andy Newton, Silicon Valley Chapter, Volunteer Writer

Thu-Thuy Truong, Board Secretary for the Red Cross Silicon Valley Chapter and Restoring Family Links Advocate

Thu-Thuy Truong, Board Secretary for the Red Cross Silicon Valley Chapter and Restoring Family Links Advocate

Thu-Thuy Truong volunteers with the American Red Cross in order to help others in the same way the organization helped her as a child. “I joined the Red Cross because I felt it was my duty to give back, after all that they have done for me,” said Thu-Thuy.

Having fled South Vietnam after the Fall of Saigon in 1975, Thu-Thuy found her father again halfway around the world in the United States, with the assistance of the Restoring Family Links program, a free Red Cross service that helps reunite families separated by disaster, conflict, migration, or other humanitarian emergencies.

Thu-Thuy was only 13-years-old when Saigon fell to North Vietnamese forces. Her father was serving at the time as a high-ranking official in the South Vietnamese government and had to remain in the capital, even as troops were closing in. He made sure his wife and children had a chance to escape the impending danger.

“Three weeks before the Fall of Saigon, a lot of North Vietnamese were heading to the city,” remembered Thu-Thuy. “My father arranged to have my mother and the rest of my family sent to an island off of Vietnam, where my uncle lived. There was chaos everywhere. We were lucky we didn’t have any fighting on the island.”

When the leader of the South Vietnamese government, General Duong Van Minh, surrendered to North Vietnamese forces on April 30, 1975, Thu-Thuy’s mother began to arrange passage off the island, away from the war-torn country. However, it being a small, modest community, means of transport proved inadequate and limited in number. Eventually, Thu-Thuy’s mother located a fisherman who would accept payment to take them on his boat out to open sea. They soon found a U.S. cargo ship, called Challenger. Hoping to reach safety onboard, they approached the vessel, but immediately discovered that they were not alone in their designs.

“There were hundreds of small boats surrounding the ship,” said Thu-Thuy. “Thousands of people were going around, out in the water, trying to find a way on. People were climbing and jumping from boat to boat, falling in the water and drowning. We were just trying to stay together. We didn’t know what to do.”

Finally, at dusk, the ship’s crew lowered a makeshift rig down to the water’s surface, which would allow a limited number of people at a time to climb onboard. “We were about twelve boats out on the outer circle,” Thu-Thuy recalled. “I was carrying my youngest brother. We jumped from boat to boat. It was a miracle we didn’t fall in.”

Thu-Thuy and her family were some of the last ones to get on the ship. “There were still thousands of people out in the water. People were screaming and crying when the crew said they didn’t have any more room. We were lucky we got on that boat.”

The ship took the refugees to Guam, where Thu-Thuy’s family was transferred by military plane to Hawaii and then ultimately to Fort Chaffee in Arkansas. When they arrived at Fort Chaffee, they registered with the American Red Cross, in hopes of finding Thu-Thuy’s father, whom they had not seen since before Saigon fell.

Thanks to the efforts of the Red Cross volunteers assisting with the Restoring Family Links program, Thu-Thuy’s father was reunited with his family three months later. He had escaped Vietnam by river, eventually reaching safety on the U.S. territory of Wake Island, where he registered his name with the Red Cross.

Now, years later, Thu-Thuy is working with the very organization that helped bring her family back together. She is the Board Secretary for the Red Cross Silicon Valley Chapter, as well as the recently appointed Chair of the National Restoring Family Links Advocates Group, a select committee organized by the Red Cross national headquarters, composed of volunteers from all over the country. “Our goal is to bring focus to the Restoring Family Links program,” said Thu-Thuy, who has been volunteering with the Red Cross for about a year. 

Among their numerous duties, workers with the Restoring Family Links program go into their local neighborhoods and establish connections with prominent immigrant and ethnic communities, so that, if people become separated from their loved ones halfway around the world, they can more quickly locate family here at home. After Typhoon Haiyan/Yolanda devastated parts of Southeast Asia this past November, Thu-Thuy was active in the Vietnamese-American community in the Silicon Valley area to help people who had been displaced in the Philippines.

As Chair of the National Restoring Family Links Advocates Group, Thu-Thuy hopes to further the program’s efforts to forge these support networks within communities across the country, and to raise awareness about all the good work they do every day. On June 20, the United Nations is sponsoring a World Refugee Day, in honor of the courage and perseverance of the men, women, and children who are forced to leave their homes to escape persecution and violence. Thu-Thuy is planning to take the occasion to share the noble mission of their program.

“It feels good to play a small part in bringing a community together and helping people in need,” said Thu-Thuy. “I feel very honored to work with such dedicated people.”