Around the 30th of every April, the anniversary date of the fall of Saigon, I get in touch with some of my former Vietnamese ESL students to see how life is treating them.
Twenty-seven years ago, with U.S. fighter planes providing air cover and marines stationed on the ground near the American Embassy, Americans entered the final stage of a mass exodus from Vietnam.
During the 19-hour evacuation, the nearly 1,000 Americans still left in Saigon battled their way onto the departing helicopters. Four marines were killed during the escape—two as a result of a bombing at Tan Son Nhut Airport and two when their helicopter crashed into the South China Sea.
So ended with a whimper the American involvement in Vietnam. The cost: over 55,000 American lives.
Whatever our mission may have been at the outset, we didn't achieve it. Looking back on Vietnam is as painful today as it was the day we pulled out for good.
None of my students was at the U.S. Embassy that grim 1975 day. They were in tiny villages wondering about their fate.
Those who fled by sea became known as "boat people." More than 1 million landed in refugee camps between 1975-1982. Most of my students spent years in Thailand, Singapore or Hong Kong.
When new war refugees enrolled in my class, I asked them to tell me their story. I was always fascinated by how diametrically opposite their lives had been from mine. During the height of the Vietnam War, they were running for cover while I was sitting in a cushy office on the 50th floor of One Liberty Plaza on Wall Street.
Of all the students who came through my class, none had more spine-tingling tales than Thuy Nguyen.
Nguyen was one of the "Lost Commandos," a group of South Vietnamese operatives who were hired and trained by the U.S. Army and the CIA to execute covert missions behind northern enemy lines.
But because the North had spies informing them of the dates and times of the planned parachute drops, all of the commandos were either killed or captured.
Prior to his death, former CIA director William Colby, who was Station Chief in Saigon during the early years of the war, gave an interview to Mike Wallace of "60 Minutes." Colby confirmed that the missions were doomed from the start and never produced a shred of helpful intelligence.
When asked by Wallace if the concept was a failure from the get-go, Colby said, "Yeah, yeah, didn't work."
Nevertheless, the drops into the North continued for seven years until Colby, finally disgusted, went to Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara to insist that the plan be scratched.
McNamara refused and instead turned the operations entirely over to the military.
Nguyen was captured in 1965 and spent nearly 20 years in a North Vietnamese prison camp. He recalls being beaten or tortured nearly every day during his captivity. Nguyen, like all of his captured buddies, was in prison so long the U.S. wrote him off for dead.
When I caught up with Nguyen a few days ago, we talked about the war. Even though he speaks no English Nguyen, now 62, remembers the names of John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, the men he considers responsible for his ordeal.
"When we first learned that the Americans were going to step up their involvement in Vietnam, we were elated," Nguyen said. Our government was weak and corrupt. The Viet Cong were determined and well armed. But the Americans never stepped all the way up. You'd send 2,000 soldiers and after they were killed you'd send 3,000. When they were dead, 5,000 more came. That was no way to fight the north."
"In the end," Nguyen concluded, "I wish America had never become involved."
Nearly four decades after his capture, Nguyen bears no particular grudge against the U.S. As far as he is concerned, all past debts are settled.
The U.S., after years of haggling, finally paid $2,000 per year for each year spent in prison to all the surviving commandos. This sum represents the agreed upon amount when the soldiers first enlisted for duty with the CIA.
And in 2001 the 300 commandos living in the U.S. received the Presidential Unit Citation for exceptional heroism.
As for Nguyen, a stroke has slowed him considerably. But he still has goals: he hopes to become a U.S. citizen and live to see his children graduate from college.
Nguyen considers the U.S. to be the best country in the world.
Joe Guzzardi [email him], an instructor in English at the Lodi Adult School, has been writing a weekly column since 1988. It currently appears in the Lodi News-Sentinel.