Franco-American veteran in Vietnam revisited

Vietnam- Chu Lai, Mekong, Saigon, Cu Chi and Subic Bay, Philippines:  My husband Richard is a Franco-American Navy Vietnam War veteran. He served in Chu Lai with the Seabees, Mobile Construction Battalion 71 (MCB 71) and again aboard the USS Intrepid, in the Gulf of Tonkin.

Richard L'Heureux USN Chu Lai Vietnam

Richard L’Heureux with the U.S. Seabees Construction Mobil Batallion 71, in Chu Lai Vietnam.

Therefore, the Vietnam War article written by Ron Steinman, published on line in the History News Network, caught my attention, because I witnessed the immediate aftermath of the collapse of Saigon, an experience that was described by Steinman.

Our Navy family lived on the Subic Bay Naval Base, Republic of the Philippines, in 1975, during the fall of Saigon, at the end of the Vietnam War.

Witnessing this overwhelmingly eventful history in April 1975, required us to become involved in the consuming humanitarian efforts by base personnel to respond to the massive evacuation of refugees from Saigon. Most of the first waves of the desperate arrivals were flown to Subic Bay, landing at Cubi Naval Air Station and Clark Air Base. Many of the refugees spoke French, because their country had been a colony of France.

Obviously, the Vietnam war has sadly been embedded in our family’s history.

Subsequently, a few years ago, my husband and I revisited Vietnam, as tourists.

Mekong Eyes river boat passengers Juliana and Richard L'Heureux

Mekong River cruise boat with Juliana and Richard L’Heureux during our visit to Vietnam.

Although we enjoyed our visit to Ho Chi Ming City, the walks through Old Saigon and an overnight cruise on the Mekong River, the memories about the war hung over our time there, because one of the sites we traveled to were the Cu Chi Tunnels. Today, those tunnels are the site of a Vietnam national park. In fact, the Vietnamese Army lived in the tunnels during the day and launched war operations at night, against the American military.

Steinman’s article quotes letters he found, written by a Vietnamese gentleman during the time in April 1975, when Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese Army. “Fighting and chaos were everywhere,” said one letter.

Vietnamese who successfully fled Vietnam were housed in refugee camps in the United States, on Guam or in the Philippines. Thousands were retained at Subic Bay.

Following is an essay I published in the Goose River Press 2015 Anthology. I am grateful to editor Deb Benner for accepting this essay, whereby I described the experience I participated in during the April-May 1975, evacuation of Vietnam refugees, while in the Philippines.

“A Meaningful End” is the title.

“Dedicate some of your life to others. Your dedication will not be a sacrifice. It will be an exhilarating experience, because it is an intense effort applied toward a meaningful end.” Dr. Tom Dooley (1927-1961) was an American physician who worked in Southeast Asia at the outset of American involvement in the Vietnam War.

In my formative years, when I started thinking about becoming a nurse, my decision was influenced a great deal by the heroic work of an inspired physician named Tom Dooley, M.D.  During the 1950s’s and early 1960s, Dr. Dooley’s humanitarian work in Vietnam and Laos were documented in his autobiographical books. He wrote about his work to bring western medical and obstetrical sciences into the people living in the jungles of Southeast Asia, known then as French Indo China.

Fast forward to 1975, in Subic Bay, Philippines. While immersed in the midst of thousands of Vietnamese refugees, I thought about how many of them were likely from families who had been helped by Dr. Dooley.

When reading Dr. Dooley’s books as an impressionable teenager, I certainly had no idea that one day I might be face to face with the people he had been helping in Vietnam. Later, I thought sadly about how much work he left behind.  As a matter of fact, I asked myself whether any of his humanitarian efforts had made a difference in the lives of Vietnamese people.

In 1975, I was on a boat in Subic Bay, in the Philippines, literally face to face with hundreds of desperate Vietnamese refugees who were on board, being transported by the US Navy to an island in Subic Bay. Each of them was visibly despondent and desperate. They were experiencing a humanitarian relocation.  To a person, they were fleeing the fall of their crumbling nation to the victorious People’s Republic of Vietnam.  It was the end of the Vietnam War and the US was pulling out, fast.

In April of 1975, the Vietnam War was going badly for the South Vietnamese. In spite of the impending collapse of South Vietnam’s government in the months before the war ended, American military and their families, who were living on military bases in the Philippines, at Clark Air Base and Subic Bay Naval Station, were ill prepared for the humanitarian crises that unfolded, when Saigon fell.

As a result, there was little advanced warning or training for the humanitarian crises we witnessed, when many thousands of Vietnamese refugees arrived in Subic. When the iconic helicopter was lifting the refugees off the roof of the US embassy in Saigon, most of those who survived wound up in hastily created Philippine camps. An urgent call for help by the International Red Cross mobilized the military families living in the Philippines.

Distressed Vietnamese refugees arrived in the Philippines around the clock. Many of them piled on like logs on a forestry truck inside of US military transport airplanes to fly the relatively short distance from the besieged Saigon airport to the Naval Air Station Cubi Point and Clark Air Force Base.

Unfortunately, there were other uncounted numbers who fled by hanging on to practically anything that floated across the South China Sea. Tragically, the mortalities among those lost at sea will never be known.

Many found passage on cargo ships, living as family units in metal shipping containers.

I boarded one of the refugee ships with a US Navy physician. We were taking a count of how many of the passengers might have tuberculosis. My nursing care consisted of counting those who were considered to be “sick”.

“Who is sick on this boat,” we asked?  Although French was the language they were most comfortable speaking, the refugees responded to the word “sick”. A few of the refugees began to point out people among them who they identified as being “sick”.

Many boat refugees who arrived in Subic were found living in cargo bins. They  were overwhelmingly young adults who appeared to be middle class Vietnamese. Their social class notwithstanding, they were people without a country. Their grief was evident, because they knew it was impossible for them to return to their homeland.

One young girl was crying uncontrollably because her dog was left behind.  I also saw a few American ex-servicemen who had likely stayed in Vietnam after their discharge from the military, but were now among the refugees.

Participating in this humanitarian rescue effort brought to mind the images of the people described by Dr. Dooley, in his autobiographical reports. Surely, some of his patients were probably among those who the Americans were helping to evacuate from their war ravaged country.  Sadly, I recall wondering how many of Dooley’s patients were, in fact, among those we had left behind?

I suspect many of those who were left behind were considered to be sympathetic to Americans and, thereby, forced to attend reeducation camps, after the war ended.

Refugees arrived by the thousands.  After landing, they were transported by trucks and buses to Subic Bay.  Pontoon boats waited for them to board, to be moved to Grande Island. This tiny shelter island was really a beautiful park and recreation site in Subic Bay. Grande Island was where American military families enjoyed picnics, hiking and camping while living on the busy Navy base. As a recreational respite for the base personnel, the island’s hiking trails would lead walkers to the remains of a few World War II sand block fortresses, built by the Japanese to defend Luzon Island, during the occupation.

Vietnamese refugees were herded by the thousands into quickly erected shelters on this beautiful piece of property, dotted with austere structural relics of World War II.

Many didn’t even have the benefit of receiving any shelter, at all. In fact, so many refugees were herded together on Grande Island, it became impossible to count them. Their population density was too thick to arrange for a population count. As a result, the base recreation facilities provided horses from the Special Services stables, to the few who could ride them, to use as transpiration on Grande Island, while a population census could be organized.

Part of our jobs as volunteers was to pass out cans of soda and bologna sandwiches to every refugee, but this effort was absolutely useless. The Subic Bay water was quickly littered with white bread, floating like a carpet of white alien fungi. We didn’t understand, at the time, the cultural shock of giving the Vietnamese food to eat with their fingers. Obviously, sandwiches are not served with any utensils.  Moreover, few of the refugees could tolerate eating white bread. As for the bologna….well, it was a strange flavor and texture, to say the least.  So, they threw the sandwiches away.

Instead, what the refugees yearned to eat was rice. Many even carried small bags of rice on their person, during their arduous journey.

Looking back, I realize how my minimal contribution as a Navy wife, at the time, was more or less a side bar, when compared to the experiences of the Vietnam War’s military nurses. They cared for the physically and mentally wounded military when trauma care was most needed. They helped to provide medical treatment, mental health and drug rehabilitation care during the war.

Over the decades, since these events happened, I’ve frequently thought about the dire circumstances faced by the thousands of frantic Vietnamese refugees

In a way, it was a blessing to realize that Dr. Dooley didn’t live to witness the carnage, whereby his work to establish jungle clinics was swept away by the victorious Viet Cong army.

Quite unexpectedly, there was a chance episode of closure to the experience we left behind when we returned home from three years living in the Philippines. It was exhilarating to hear from one young man, over 30 years later, who happened to be involved in a serendipitous conversation with my husband.  While we were living and working in Maine, my husband came home with a story to finally bring closure to the experiences I reminisced about.  In a work project, he’d been on the telephone speaking with a young man in Texas, when the chit-chat turned to the inevitable, “So, where are you originally from?”, question. It turned out, the young man on the telephone was living in Texas, but his family had been among the refugees who were housed on Grande Island, in Subic Bay, during the 1975, emergency evacuation of Saigon.

As a matter of fact, the young unidentified Vietnamese man broke down in expressive gratitude to those of us who he never knew, but who had helped his family to escape from the Viet Cong, after the Vietnam War ended.

Dr. Dooley’s quote certainly came full circle to me with the young Texas man’s story. It seemed as though the physician’s spirit was, somehow, influencing the telephone conversation.Through him, we heard a meaningful end, because the humanitarian work we did was acknowledged.

Americans visiting Vietnam today are welcomed with enthusiasm. It certainly seemed to us like the hard working Vietnamese people have achieved a meaningful end to the era of turmoil.

After working as a nurse for most of my career, I am proud to say, I am still inspired by Dr. Dooley’s dedication and sacrifice.

Responding to the Vietnamese refugee crises in the Philippines was a rare nursing opportunity. I participated in a sad historic event, while, also, being part of helping to provide unknown thousands of people with the opportunity to start new lives.

We thank Richard L’Heureux, USN-Retired, for his service.

Juliana L'Heureux

About Juliana L'Heureux

Juliana L’Heureux is a free lance writer who publishes news, blogs and articles about Franco-Americans and the French culture. She has written about the culture in weekly and bi-weekly articles, for the past 27 years.