Middle School News & Stories
If you are 13 years old, the Vietnam War might not mean much more than an entry on a history timeline.
But if you lived through that period, either in the United States or in Vietnam, you know that the event had far-reaching political, social, and cultural consequences for both countries and the world.
Forty years after the fall of Saigon, the Middle School heard the harrowing stories of three Vietnamese faculty members whose families experienced the war, left everything behind, and rebuilt new lives in America.
"It is a life of pain and suffering and survival but also one of gratitude," said Monika Le, above, a math teacher in the Middle and Upper Schools whose mother and father rarely talked about their difficult past as she was growing up in Seattle.
Michael Sclafani, a Middle School history teacher and the 8th grade dean, introduced the assembly by providing historical context for the period. Joel Doerfler, an Upper School history teacher who protested against the Vietnam War, talked about why he opposed the war. “To unleash war is to unleash horror,” he said. “Wars almost inevitably get out of control. Wars generally make things worse and they lead to other wars.”
Doerfler recalled that in the 1960s, the war had the support of public opinion. A slogan of the time was “America Love It Or Leave It.” But as the decade wore on, the war became increasingly unpopular. While he said the protestors did not cause the end of America’s involvement in the war, their efforts contributed to the country’s eventual pullout.
The Vietnamese teachers, however, had a different view on America’s involvement. Their fathers were members of the South Vietnamese military who were fighting the Communists, and they said they welcomed U.S. support.
Ms. Le's father, a high-ranking military officer, was able to leave Saigon in an airlift from the U.S. Embassy with 15 members of his family as the city was about to fall. She showed photographs of the chaos and desperation in the streets as people tried to get into the Embassy so that they could flee.
Her mother left with her two brothers on an overcrowded boat from the harbor. One of the engines immediately failed and the boat had to be pulled out to sea by a tugboat. The boat soon experienced a complete engine failure, sprung a leak, and began to drift. A Danish cargo ship responded to the distress call, and rescued almost 4,000 people, the largest boat rescue in history.
Both of her parents lived in refugee camps before arriving at the refugee camp in Fort Chaffee, Ark., where they met. Churches sponsored the resettlement of the refugees, so her mother went to Philadelphia and her father to Seattle. They married a year later and settled in Seattle, where Ms. Le was born. Today, she identifies with two cultures: her American upbringing and her Vietnamese history.
Deb Faber, the Lower School academic technology coordinator, said her parents were originally from North Vietnam, but fled to the South as the communists were coming into power. Her father had witnessed the assassination of his father by the Communists.
Her parents had nine children and as Saigon was collapsing they worried about how to get their children out. They thought about giving two of their sons to an orphanage so that they could be airlifted out through Operation Babylift. But her mother couldn’t leave her children. They thought about her father and oldest brother staying to fight the Communists and her mother leaving with the younger children, but her mother couldn’t speak English, and convinced her father that he must come too.
The family boarded an overcrowded boat. “We were elbow to elbow,” she recalled. “There was no room to lie down. If you were really sick, you could go below deck.” The boat tried to land in Thailand and Singapore but was turned away. It ran out of fuel. The passengers were starving and distraught. Eventually a U.S. Navy ship pulled alongside and threw them cans of food, such as sardines and Spam. “I had never tasted anything so good,” she said.
The Navy transported the refugees in groups to a camp in the Philippines. From there, they went to camps in Guam and Wake Island. Although her father spoke fluent French, France would not allow the family to settle there. And so they, too, ended up in the refugee camp at Fort Chaffee. “It was like a beach resort for us,” she said, compared to where they had been. They were thrilled to have indoor plumbing and outdoor movies.
Her oldest brother and sister were accepted to a college in Oklahoma that took Vietnamese refugees, and the family moved to Texas to be close by. The Northwoods Presbyterian Church helped them settle in their new life. While church members received them warmly, others were not so kind. The family experienced considerable antagonism because public opinion had turned against the war.
Michele Hoang, a Middle and Upper School math teacher, said her father lived in Hue, a city in central Vietnam. It fell in March, and her father and grandfather were captured and imprisoned by the Communists in what were called “re-education camps.”
Her father was in the camp for five years. When he was released, he learned that his girlfriend had married someone else. But he met the younger sister, fell in love, and married in 1981. They had two daughters and struggled to make ends meet.
In 1984, Ms. Hoang's dad left for America so that he could earn money to support the family. Her parents sold their wedding rings so that her dad would have money to relocate. He, too, left on a boat, and eventually found sponsorship to settle in California. In 1990, his wife and daughters were able to join him there.
Like the others, Ms. Hoang said her parents spoke little about the past. As she prepared to speak at the assembly, she had an opening to talk with them about what they had experienced. “I feel I have learned a lot about my history that I didn’t know before,” she said. “It was nice to have this excuse for us to talk.”