Forty years ago this week, my parents rushed my three-month-old sister and me onto a plane, and brought us to the New World. Like many newcomers to the West, we eventually arrived in Southern California. Unlike many others, we chose to keep moving to Canada – to escape the cold.
That joke has been part of our family lore, a lighthearted jest in what was our otherwise unfunny cameo in a dramatic historic upheaval. We flew out of Saigon just days ahead of the arrival of North Vietnamese tanks.
I was 11 when my parents decided that we would become refugees. It was a path that led us, via much upheaval, including two nighttime flights on military transport planes, to a resettlement camp at a U.S. Marine base outside San Diego.
There, lying in a massive tent, on cots placed directly onto a dirt floor, we shivered at night, bundled in military blankets and jackets over our thin tropical clothes. During the days, me still in Vietnamese sandals, we fretted about the health of my infant sister. And so when Canada offered us a place to settle, my parents leaped at the opportunity.
My memories of the inclement California weather were confirmed recently when I spoke with Joyce Cavanaugh-Wood, a Canadian immigration officer who had arrived at the camp at about the same time my family did. As I spoke with her from North Carolina, where she has retired, Europe was grappling with a swelling humanitarian crisis. Last Sunday, an estimated 850 migrants died when the boat smuggling them out of Libya capsized in the Mediterranean.
The following morning, three more asylum-seekers lost their lives when their boat ran aground off the Greek island of Rhodes. On the other side of the globe, Australia has for years been turning away migrants arriving by sea, detaining them on the remote Pacific atoll of Nauru – and now paying Cambodia to accept them.
Back in 1975, by contrast, many people helped the Vietnamese resettle. Through the Canadian Immigration Historical Society, I recently got in touch with some of them.
There was Ms. Cavanaugh-Wood, who spent that spring processing applications from South Vietnamese refugees in Hong Kong, the U.S. Pacific territory of Guam, and California.
There was Charles Rogers, another immigration officer. He remembers rifles being pointed at him during a fruitless two weeks in which he tried to get people with Canadian connections out of Saigon.
I also reached Paul Jacobs, a retired U.S. Navy captain. The frigate he commanded guided a flotilla carrying tens of thousands of Vietnamese refugees to safety, a major rescue success that has only recently come to light. He still remembers parents throwing their children from a helicopter hovering over his ship, his sailors waiting below to catch them.
After Saigon fell, Canada, the United States and other countries helped resettle between 125,000 and 140,000 South Vietnamese people on very short notice. Eventually, more than a million of us would leave. Now I see my son approaching the age when, as a boy, I became aware of the sights and sounds of war. Entrusted with the future of a child, I can look back and appreciate the risks and hardships my parents took to make sure their children had a better life.
A country, and a family, interrupted
My family comes from a small village named Khe Hoi, south of Hanoi, where my ancestors settled four centuries ago.
But the path that led us into the belly of those military planes first began to unspool in the 1940s. Vietnam had been a French colony, but was occupied by Japanese troops during the Second World War. After the Japanese capitulated to the Allies in 1945, communist revolutionary leader Ho Chi Minh proclaimed Vietnam's independence. Though it was not to be that simple: The French returned, and the First Indochina War began.
Some of my more distant relatives supported the Vietminh, the movement led by Ho Chi Minh; they included two of my father's cousins, who joined the underground resistance to the French in 1946. My father's immediate family, however, didn't believe in communism. And so, in 1954, when the French were defeated and the country was partitioned, my grandparents, father, uncles and aunts resettled in South Vietnam.
The conflict between the two Vietnams – the Second Indochina War – which was famously joined by the United States, was the backdrop to my childhood. My earliest memories are of rocket shellings; nighttime scrambles to mosquito-infested bomb shelters; and, the morning that the North launched the Tet Offensive in 1968, the sound of gunshots, which to my young ears sounded like firecrackers.
By the spring of 1975 – I was 11 by then, and just finishing elementary school – the South Vietnamese military was collapsing and the North was ascendant. Letters from relatives in France – who had access to uncensored news reports – warned in veiled words what my parents already suspected: A catastrophe was imminent.
Still, I was detached from the concerns of adults, and I didn't grasp what was going on – even on the morning when our classes ended early after a rogue South Vietnamese air force pilot bombed the presidential palace.
That air strike, which added to the confusion of the last days of the country, took place on April 8. Charles Rogers also remembers it. He was in charge of immigration at the Canadian High Commission in Hong Kong, but had been sent to Saigon to aid in the departure of relatives of Vietnamese residing in Canada.
The mood in the final days, Mr. Rogers recalls, was chaotic. Artillery fire could, at times, be heard in the distance. One night, he and a colleague ventured outside to get some relief from the tropical heat. It was past curfew and militiamen held them at gunpoint. They placated them with money and cigarettes. The gunmen especially appreciated the smokes: Paper currency was losing value by the day.
Mr. Rogers's mission ended with the Vietnamese government stopped issuing exit permits, and Ottawa ordered the closing of the embassy.
Around that time, my mother and father had decided the future was going to be grim if we remained in our country. Warfare had also been the backdrop of their childhoods: When he was a teen, my father had once been detained by French soldiers during a roundup at our ancestral village (although he managed to talk his way out of it). During those years of war with the French, my mother's family endured a harrowing flight into the jungle, hiding from the French – and, in the process, losing all their possessions.
With the spectre of more troubles approaching now, they weren't going to let someone else decide their fate. We needed to leave.
In those last days, my parents liquidated their life savings and busied themselves with errands that, to my 11-year-old eyes, were confusing, intense and mysterious. They also sought out an acquaintance who worked for an American airline and got our names added to the list of people to be airlifted out of Saigon. Their savings would bribe our way through the paperwork and the police checkpoints.
They explained to me that we would be leaving our home – that our journey could be dangerous, and that we might be separated. For me, this was a lot to process. After living in a tiny flat in the hospital where my father worked, we had been in the process of moving to more comfortable quarters on another floor. I was starting to settle into a new school, make new friends. I had been looking forward to the future. Now those dreams of happier days were fading away.
Suddenly, we were hiding in a series of strangers' houses, bringing with us only small carry-on bags with a few spare clothes. Mine was the size of a lunch bag. I have no idea how my parents managed to pack the formula and diapers that my infant sister would need.
After a few nights on the run, we made it to the tarmac of Saigon's Tan Son Nhat airport. Next to a darkened runway, we waited with other families until an American military turboprop transport plane landed with a deafening roar. I don't think the plane even stopped its engines as we all scrambled up its back ramp, my mother holding my sister to her chest. We dropped to its metal floor before taking off in a steep climb.
"This is it," I thought, as I peeked at the orange-and-yellow glow outside, taking my last glimpse of Saigon.
The next morning, groggy, we found ourselves sitting in a noisy, cavernous hangar at Clark Air Base in the Philippines. I spent a lot of time scrutinizing the unfamiliar faces and uniforms of American military personnel. My parents spent their time filling out paperwork. One form required my height and weight; my parents gave it in metric. The air force clerk had a chart to make the conversion to imperial units, but it obviously wasn't set for scrawny Asian boys: My weight fell below the chart.
Then, having been processed, we waited. A big part of life as a refugee is that you wait.
Babies tossed through the air 'like basketballs'
Back at home, things were unravelling at a rapid pace. Within days, the communist forces came close enough to Saigon that Tan Son Nhat airport came under fire.
The evacuation mission now turned to helicopters. Off the Vietnamese coast, a task force of the U.S. Seventh Fleet was waiting in the South China Sea. Among its ships was the frigate USS Kirk. Its captain, Paul Jacobs, who is now retired, recently shared with me his memory of seeing the South Vietnamese military helicopters "stacked up" in the sky, crammed with people desperate to leave.
The Vietnamese pilots of those copters were army personnel who had never landed on the heaving deck of a ship. But, somehow, 18 helicopters managed to get down safely. Repeatedly, sailors ditched the arriving choppers overboard to make space on the small landing deck for other ones.
One aircraft, a twin-rotor Chinook, was too large to land at all, but the pilot managed to hover low over the Kirk while keeping clear of its structures. Babies were tossed out "like basketballs" to be caught by sailors, before the adults jumped, Mr. Jacobs recalls. The pilot then steered the Chinook toward the starboard side of the Kirk, took off his flight suit and bailed out before the helicopter smashed into the sea, its rotor blades snapping and cartwheeling into the air.
In all, the Kirk picked up about 150 people that day. Frightened, in shock, but relieved to have escaped, they were transferred the next morning to a larger ship.
Mr. Jacobs was then ordered to turn the Kirk around, head back toward Vietnam and rescue remnants of the South Vietnamese Navy, which by then had fled to Con Son, an island 100 kilometres off the mainland. There, the Kirk found about 30 Navy vessels, along with fishing and commercial boats. They were crammed with about 30,000 people.
Sailors from the Kirk visited the ships to refuel them and carry out repairs. They brought fresh water, looked after the sick and transferred pregnant women to the American frigate. Then, the Kirk and a handful of other U.S. naval vessels led the ships toward the Philippines. Their passage was slow and tortuous: The Vietnamese boats were overloaded, and barely seaworthy. "God looked after us," Mr. Jacobs says.
On May 7, after six days, through mercifully mild weather, the refugees landed safely at the Subic Bay naval base, their voyage a major humanitarian success that went unnoticed at the time.
Some refugees died during the journey but one death in particular deeply touched the crew: a one-year-old boy named Bao, who had come down with pneumonia. They gave him a burial at sea.
One month later, the Kirk docked in Guam, where the refugees had been resettled in a camp. Mr. Jacob remembers with evident pride that the crew, on receiving their pay, went to the commissary to purchase food and clothing for the refugees.
They met Bao's mother, who thanked Mr. Jacobs and his sailors. "I'll never forget," she said, "what you already did for my son."
A numbing journey and a new life
The ships saved by USS Kirk weren't the only ones sailing out of Vietnam that spring.
On May 2, a Danish freighter, the Clara Maersk, picked up an SOS signal and saved more than 3,600 Vietnamese crammed onto a sinking cargo ship, the Truong Xuan. The Clara Maersk transported the refugees, including three babies born during the journey, to Hong Kong – where Ms. Cavanaugh-Wood had been dispatched from Canadian immigration headquarters in Ottawa, after it had become clear that the end of South Vietnam would create an outflow of refugees.
When she got to the Sek Kong camp, at a military airfield in the New Territories, the rainy season had started. "Conditions there were really bad. People were living in tents. It was really muddy. People were very, very traumatized," she recalled.
Soon she was redirected to Guam, where even more people were arriving, and where she joined Mr. Rogers, who had been trying to get people out of Saigon the previous month. Working out of a trailer, they were part of a team of Canadian officials screening potential immigrants, filling in forms, performing medical and security checks, and then arranging flights to Canada.
Ms. Cavanaugh-Wood spent three weeks there, just after my family had transited through. We were at a camp called Asan, housed in former U.S. Navy hospital buildings whose interior walls had been knocked down to make room for long lines of army cots. The barracks were crowded and there was little privacy either in the sleeping areas or the showers. I spent a lot of time wandering by myself.
Then one evening, a bus picked us up and drove north, to Andersen Air Force Base, from which B-52 bombers had launched strikes on Vietnam during the war. There, another military transport plane awaited us. We sat in rows on the floor, with canvas straps stretched across each line of passengers in lieu of seat belts. Then the plane took off for the long, numbing transpacific flight.
Finally we arrived in Camp Pendleton. A Marine base near San Diego, it had been turned into one of the main hubs receiving tens of thousands of Vietnamese into North America. We were issued military jackets to help ward off the cold. I had to roll the sleeves well above the elbows for mine to fit.
The adults around me had lost their homes, their jobs. They didn't know what lay ahead. One woman sharing our tent sobbed and complained angrily.
Ms. Cavanaugh-Wood had also arrived at Pendleton. She remembers the camp as a place less dusty than Guam, with better sanitation. "There was not a lot of gaiety," she says. "Many people were confused. Standing in line, waiting to be interviewed, there was a lot of apprehension. Even after they were accepted, they were not sure what it meant. … They had stepped off a cliff into the unknown."
She found that most of the first wave of newcomers were quite qualified to immigrate to Canada: skilled, educated and with a good command of English or French.
One was a woman who had been a receptionist at the Canadian embassy in Saigon. She was in her early 20s and was with her two younger sisters. Their parents hadn't been able to leave. "They were very, very fearful for their parents," Ms. Cavanaugh-Wood recalls. "Being the eldest, she was taking responsibility for her younger sisters. She was very brave."
Months later, Ms. Cavanaugh-Wood was visiting her own family doctor in Ottawa when she bumped into the young woman – who was now the clinic's receptionist.
About 7,000 Vietnamese came to Canada in the five months after the fall of Saigon, my family among them. After we landed in Montreal, with $350 as our entire net worth, my parents started anew. Their professional credentials weren't recognized, so my mother, a pharmacist in her 30s, worked as a parking-lot attendant and then as a clerk in a clothing store.
My father, in his 40s, studied so that he could practise medicine again. Together with fellow Vietnamese-refugee doctors, he sat on the floor in our one-bedroom apartment, reviewing textbooks and exam papers. Eventually, he was able to work as a family doctor. Later, my mother earned her licence and opened a pharmacy next door, offering advice to Vietnamese newcomers.
Another sister was born. A new life started.
Clouds back home, but open arms abroad
For those who remained in Saigon, life became very bleak.
Hundreds of thousands of men and women associated with the old regime, or even merely deemed untrustworthy, were sent to re-education camps.
Those who remained in the cities led a regimented existence. Neighbourhoods were divided into cells of 20 families that were monitored by a security officer. Owning a typewriter was illegal. At school, teachers were replaced with new instructors whose classes included mandatory political indoctrination sessions.
One of my friends told me that her father, a doctor, was arrested because he was suspected of being a former collaborator of the South Vietnamese government. The accusation was false, but he was jailed for eight months before he was released without trial. In the ensuing years, it took her five tries before she was able to leave Vietnam covertly aboard a boat.
Another friend, a student in his 20s, also had paid smugglers to get him out of the country. His group included three young boys who had been sent alone by their parents. At one point in their journey, in order to reach the little junk ship that would sneak them out of Vietnam, they had to crawl through a pigpen. They got scared and had to be gagged by the other boat people so they wouldn't scream.
Once at sea, they hoped to be picked up by merchant ships, but were ignored. Eventually, they reached Malaysia. When they got to the shore, my friend, having worked on the boat engine, tried to wash his hands in the seawater, and saw a piece of human scalp floating there. He learned that, a week before, another boat of Vietnamese refugees had run aground on a sandbar. Thinking they were on safe ground, people jumped out and drowned when the tide rose.
By the late 1970s, more and more people were fleeing by boat, despite the threat of high-seas pirates and the risks of sinking. Thousands of boat people were arriving each month in rickety vessels that managed the journey to Hong Kong, Thailand or the Philippines, where they languished in overcrowded camps.
A key moment came in the fall of 1978 when Malaysia tried to turn away the Hai Hong, a freighter packed with 2,500 people, mostly Vietnamese of Chinese ancestry. Quebec immigration minister Jacques Couture, a Jesuit and former worker-priest, and his federal counterpart, Bud Cullen, played a key role in breaking the standoff, by accepting hundreds of the Hai Hong passengers.
Their arrival also touched the public's heart. Under new legislation, churches, community groups, and private citizens could sponsor boat people and help them settle in. By the end of 1980, 7,675 groups had sponsored nearly 40,000 people to come to Canada.
In 1986, for the first time, the laureate for the prestigious Nansen Refugee Award, which honours those who have helped the forcibly displaced, wasn't an individual or an organization. The United Nations Refugee Agency awarded the Nansen to a country – Canada.
A past whose echoes continue
In 1997, as a reporter for The Globe and Mail, I went on assignment to Vietnam to cover an international summit. While there, I met the other branch of my family – the one that had sided with communism, and whose ranks now included cabinet ministers, diplomats and party functionaries. One of my father's cousins had a framed photo of herself with Ho Chi Minh. Another joked: "Maybe we should have been more forceful on the propaganda; that way your uncle and your father would have never left."
But we talked more about family matters than politics. My relatives remarked that I looked like my grandfather. I realized there was a reason they didn't say I looked like my father: It had been half a century since our clan had been divided by war – they had never met my father as an adult.
The Vietnamese government had by then loosened its hold on the economy, but the country remained a tightly controlled state. Yet even today, although there is Internet access and TV reality shows, although some gay rights are being recognized, and former refugees have returned to exploit business opportunities, Vietnam remains one of the world's last one-party Communist states. Political dissidents, land-rights activists, bloggers and religious groups repeatedly face harassment and jail time.
And Vietnamese refugees are again in the news.
In recent years, most of the seafaring asylum seekers being turned away by Australia have been Afghans, Iraqis, Iranians, Tamils from Sri Lanka or Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar. But Vietnamese boat people have also reappeared by the hundreds, their numbers surging since 2013.
A week ago, an Australian Navy vessel, HMAS Choules, arrived at the Vietnamese port of Vung Tau, returning 46 asylum seekers who had been intercepted at sea and denied entry, earlier this month. In a video released this month, the Australian government warned that "If you come to Australia illegally by boat, there is no way you'll ever make Australia home."
Four decades after the fall of Saigon, the exodus hasn't ended. In a world awash again with refugees and boat people, it is worth remembering a time when nations gave desperate people a chance to start a new life, in a new country.