Vietnamese soldier says he ‘lost face’

The Advocate, Baton Rouge, LA

April 29, 1975, was the most humiliating day of Thach Duy Nguyen’s life.

That day the young South Vietnamese officer clambered aboard a U.S. Marine helicopter at Tan San Nhet Airport with his wife and seven children and fled his country.

The following morning, 25 years ago today, North Vietnamese tanks rolled through the streets of Saigon. The Vietnam War was over.

Sitting at his kitchen table, Thach, now 68, passed his hand up and down in front of his watery eyes, showing how he feels as though he lost face.

“I was so ashamed,” he said.

But a U.S. Navy commander Thach had worked with for years in a secretive part of the South Vietnamese headquarters told him his family’s only chance of survival was to flee.

The North Vietnamese would not be lenient with Thach, whose job had been to break communist codes and help U.S. forces find the elusive enemy.

“I remember the words of my father who told my mother to keep us together no matter what,” Thach said. “So, I turned my back and left.”

He has been aching to return ever since, he said.

War is the backdrop on which most of Thach’s childhood memories play out in his mind. The days of playing in the fields of thick grass in a valley between the Song Da and Song Hong rivers are very hazy now, he said.

He remembers his father, a judge, being called away in 1948 to serve in the military during the Indochina War.

He remembers the letter his father sent in 1949 saying he would not be coming home and that Thach’s mother should take the family south.

The power of the communists was growing, his father wrote.

Thach never saw or heard from his father again.

So there was no question in his mind when he was old enough that he would join the military, he said. The war with the communists was up heating up, and it was rumored that America was going to join the fight.

Thach attended the Vietnamese version of West Point. He was dedicated and tough, so he was assigned to be an infantry instructor after graduation.

But Thach was  bright, and the burgeoning American intelligence machine needed bright Vietnamese to help decipher the North Vietnamese codes they were intercepting, he said.

Thach was transferred to the signal corps, where he specialized in decryption, which meant he spent the war in Saigon breaking enemy codes.

Compared to the soldiers in the field, Thach said, he had it easy. His family was in Saigon, and most of the time the war was taking place somewhere else.

Occasionally, a bomb would go off somewhere in town, but those were isolated incidents, he said.

“Life was very normal for me most of the time, so I thought the war was going well,” he said.

Then, in February 1968, everything changed.

Tet, the Chinese New Year, had been recognized for years by both sides with a cease fire. But in 1968, the North Vietnamese launched a major offensive against targets throughout the country, including the American embassy in Saigon.

Thach was pulled from his cozy office job, given a rifle and told to guard a compound, which is where he was when he heard that the embassy had been overrun.

In truth, none of the embassy’s attackers actually made it into the building, but to people of Saigon, who believed that with their superpower American friends the South could not possibly lose the war, the Tet offensive was shocking.

“It was the first time I felt, maybe, things were not so good,” he said.

After Tet, Thach said, he always felt, right up to the end, that the war was not going as well as his government was leading the people to believe.

Thach continued to work with the South Vietnamese and American intelligence offices for seven more years as he watched his country “die a slow death.”

He visited the South Vietnamese war room at some point every day, and every day he noticed “more red dots and fewer green dots” on the map of the war zone, indicating that the North was gaining more territory.

The last week of the war is a blur in Thach’s memory. He said he had a feeling the war was nearly lost, and he demanded information from his commanding officer.

The officer tried to calm his fears, Thach said, but described how the man’s shoulders eventually slumped, and he told Thach to start packing.

Thach spent that week getting his family ready to leave, but until the last moment he wasn’t sure they would go or that he would go with them.

Then, on April, 29, 1975, his mother reminded him of his father’s admonition to keep his family together.

His mother was the only relative he left behind, and he still gets letters from her occasionally.

He said he has enjoyed his life in Baton Rouge, but has never gotten over his guilt for having left Saigon.

“It’s as if something is missing,” he said.