Story of the Week

Escape to Freedom on a Stolen Plane

posted May 4, 2017, 9:43 AM by Eli Roberts   [ updated May 4, 2017, 2:04 PM ]

Escape To Freedom On A Stolen Plane

by Ketty Nguyen

My mom rushed in the house saying in a hushed voice, “Kids, go pack up as if we are going to the beach. Do not take a lot of things.” That was the precise moment reality hit me that this is truly happening and it is real. I remember all the events on that day as if it had happened yesterday. It was the third day of April, 1975. I was then 15 years of age.

A few weeks prior to the above instruction from my mom, my Uncle Khiem, her 7th brother, who was then a pilot for the Vietnamese Air Force, had been flying dozens of flight missions to the central and south of Vietnam. In the last few months before the fall of Saigon, he was assigned to fly missions to bring supplies to refugee camps. He paid my mom a few visits discussing with her the possibilities of taking the family out of the country since the situation didn’t look too good. He had witnessed too many main cities in the central and the south falling one after another into the communists’ hands. The fact that our own city will be the next target is inevitable. I overheard the conversation one time even though they both talked in a hushed voice. My uncle looked solemn, saying, “I don’t know when I’ll be able to obtain the plane and set the plan into motion. But you need to be prepared and ready to go at a moment’s notice. The situation is dire out there and if we are stuck here we might as well be dead!”

My mother nodded and said, “Don’t worry, I’ll be here. You just let me know when.”

My mom became the head of household by default since my dad left a few years before to the U.K. Before he left, they had both opened an all English school called the International School of Saigon where it served the children of foreign diplomats and high government officials. My mom hired teachers from different countries and she ordered textbooks from the US. My other three siblings and I attended the school, so I had many friends from other countries. In addition, my learning the English language and being bilingual would later help me to help others in ways that were unknown to me at the time.

In addition to running the schools which was a half day affair, my mom was a very socially conscious person. One of the many things she did was volunteer with the church group to help distribute foods to the refugee camps.

One day when I was about 10 years of age. I was sitting comfortably in the living room chair reading my favorite book. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw my mom carrying cardboard boxes one by one, and putting them on the living room floor. Curiosity got the best of me. I dropped my book so fast that I forgot to put the bookmark back in it. I ran over to where the cardboard boxes were situated. I couldn’t helped myself wondering what was in all those boxes. I took a peek inside one of them and saw something wrapped in a white blanket. I slowly peeled back the blanket as if it was a special surprise gift just for me. As I peeled back the blanket I began to realize… Oh My God!! A tiny little baby! I had never seen a newborn baby in my life. I took a closer look at this tiny human being with its cute tiny face, hands, fingers and feet. I touched every part of the baby’s body and became intrigued with it. The baby was asleep, not knowing what was happening outside of its secure box. As I went from one box to the next checking each of the babies, my mom touched me on my shoulder saying softly, “Help me take these boxes to the van. We are going to take them down to the Holt International Orphanage so they can take care of them.”

I looked up at my mom and asked, “Where did all of these babies come from?”

My mom sighed and said, “You know how the war has been going and destroying cities and villages. People fled their homes to our city and they have no place to go. I found these babies abandoned on the side of the streets. So I obtained some cardboard boxes and some blankets to wrap them in. And here they are!”

During most of our weekends, my mom would take us to the beach about an hour or so drive southeast of the city. The servants and my mom would prepared yummy foods to take with us. The best part of my days was looking forward to spending the weekends at the beach. I became attached to the crystal clear warm water, the white sandy beaches, the palm trees, and the yummy fresh coconut water plucked fresh from the tree. At night, we’d stay up late out on the porch floor of the beach house looking up at the skies full of stars! There were no sounds of bombs.

Earlier, I had visited the village where my grandma lived, and at night I’d hear the sounds of bombs all the time. My grandma would pulled me under the bed to hide. There was no electricity in her village nor any running water. We had candles or oil lamps to light my grandma’s small hut. She left her house when my uncle died, and went to the city to live with my dad’s sister. She then would occasionally come to my house and visit for a few days.

Leaving My Home

My life was going as normal as can be when my mom told us we need to pack. I remembered what she had mentioned to us about leaving and not to inform anyone of our plans of leaving the country. I felt apprehensive and overwhelmed as to what I was going to pack. Pack like we are going to the beach like we always do? I ran from one room to the next trying to absorb all the things from my home into my memory so as not to forget them. I took a small handmade bag my grandma bought for me one New Year’s Day. I stuffed in a few clothes and started to take most of the pictures of my family and my parent’s wedding. As I was sitting there contemplating what to take next, my sister ran in the room and said, “You better go get Grandma because we are leaving in a few minutes.”

We all filed into the van, and as I was helping my grandma up to the van, she turned to me and asked softly, “Where are we going?”

I smiled and said to her, “We are going to see my dad which is your son, Grandma.” I think she was satisfied with my answer so she quietly sat down. In my heart, I don’t know what I’m saying to grandma is going to come true or not. I just wanted her to get in the van and go with us without giving us any fuss about it since we were in a hurry. As soon as the door closed, the van started moving. I looked out the window and waved to my servants standing there like they always do when we left for the beach on the weekends. I felt sadness knowing that this was the last time I’d ever see them. They had no idea that we were gone for good. I looked back at the scenery of my neighborhood slowly fading away like the clouds. In about an hour, we came to my uncle’s residence. When I got inside the gate of his house, there were a lot of people there with suitcases, too. I looked at my things and I have to say I truly packed light. Then a call came in, and every one rushed to their cars.

We drove to the outskirts of the city to an open air field that looked empty and abandoned. As the car moved into the field, I looked up in the sky and saw a huge airplane circling above us. When the plane landed we all opened our car doors and ran to the plane! At that moment it seemed like everyone was for himself! I had to help Grandma out of the van, and take my own bag. Leading her towards the plane was a difficult journey. Since the airplane’s engine was still running, there was a strong wind coming from it, and stuff was flying everywhere. I felt like it took me forever to get me and my grandma up that plane. I was the last one to step on the plane. I looked to the back door of the plane which was still open and saw a military jeep parked about 100 feet away. One of the crew members got off and went towards the jeep. As soon as that crew member got off, the plane took off while the back door was still open! Someone hurried to have it closed as the plane started ascended to the skies!

Every one sat down on the floor since this is a cargo plane, not a passenger plane. The floor was made of steel bars, so it was quite uncomfortable sitting on top of it. But no one really cared. As things settled down a bit during the flight, I went to the window to see what was out there. I noticed we were flying so low that I could see the tree tops!! It was cold in that airplane but I didn’t complain. I saw my grandma and a group of elders form a circle and pray. At the time, I had no idea where we were headed or what awaited us.

In Another Country- A Journey of A Thousand Miles

After a few hours, at about 7:30 pm, we landed in Singapore. While my uncle and other elders talked to the airport officials, we waited inside the plane. While we waited, the airport people brought us some food, which was so nice and sweet of them. As we were waiting, I realized that we were in another country! Out of nowhere it hit me hard that I may not be going back to my country ever again! Suddenly I burst out crying. I finally calmed down and sat on the tip of the plane door. Right around midnight, several police vans approached our plane. We were then taken to a facility in Singapore which I later found out was a prison compound that was no longer in use. As soon as I got out of the van, I was escorted on both sides by two women to a room.

There we were ordered to change into orange jumpsuits and were again escorted upstairs to another huge room where the door was made of black steel bars, as were the windows. The windows were way up high so I couldn’t reach them anyway. On the floor were mattresses and blankets. On the farther side of the room was an open area for showers. I was too exhausted to think about whether the mattress was comfortable or not. I flopped right on down to it and fell fast asleep. I slept like a baby.

I woke up the next morning to the sound of the keys outside our door. The guards came in with a cart of food. Trays of rice, veggies and fish were distributed to each of us. I later learned that the foods they had served us was vegetarian. Since I noticed at every meal, we’ll always have tofu! Staying there for three weeks was uneventful. We were allowed to go outside for about an hour. The women were then allowed to go to the kitchen and cook the food. They even had a dental and medical mobile to check us. My siblings and I talked to the nice guards to pass our time. We were being guarded 24/7. We were not allowed any TV or newspaper so we had no idea what was happening in our country.

After three weeks of staying there, we were sent back to the very same room from before. We again changed into our clothes, and were taken again in several police vans. I had no idea where they were taking us. As I was sitting in the van with bars across the windows, I looked outside the city streets. I noticed how very clean the streets were! Not one piece of trash!! It was a beautiful city and I told myself that one day I want to go back here and visit this city. After about an hour’s drive, the vans went inside a huge gate. We kept going until I saw several houses on site with fences all around the huge compound.

This was the first time we were together as a group after we landed our plane in Singapore because the men and women were separated in that prison-like place. Here we were allowed to be together. We had no idea what this place was. The officials told us that we can go anywhere we want except outside the fence. As soon as we got out of the police vans, we explored the many small houses. There were beds, blankets and pillows in each. We went to another house which was the kitchen with two huge refrigerators. We opened one refrigerator and lo and behold…it was full of food!! We were elated and thinking about how kind these people were to us. Outside the fence was the ocean. I used to stand along the fence looking out at the water and missing my beach days back home.

After two days of staying there, we heard that the mayor of Singapore would be coming to visit us. We were told to form two lines so that when he comes he could walk in the middle of the lines. As the hours approached we went out and formed two lines as instructed. The mayor came and shook our hands and brought us gifts.

The next day, we were again taken in the police vans and to the airport where a passenger plane was waiting. The police vans stopped right beside the plane. We all boarded the plane. Other passengers were allowed to board after us. Again, I didn’t know where we were going. But at this point, I was confident that it would be safe and hopefully the end of the journey.

Our next destination was Saipan. We were bussed to a very nice hotel. We were then ushered up to the 5th floor. That was my first time ever in my life spending time in a hotel. A nice one at that! We were allowed to stay there for about a week. Every day we ate in the hotel restaurants and it was the first time ever that I tasted white milk. To me it tasted delicious! In my country, milk was only given to old people and babies. We were not allowed to have any milk! I asked my mom, “Mom, who’s paying for all of this?”

My mom said, “Well, I don’t know. Maybe the UN?” She has no idea! At the end of the week, we were then bus to the airport. It was midnight when we got to the airport. In the morning, we were again bussed to another place. This time it was a wide open spaced camp. It was a complete contrast to the hotel we had previously stayed in or the prison complex. The first thing I noticed; the thousands of tents and people milling around! All of them were my own people! I had no idea what was happening to my country even at this point. I had been away from my country for over a month now, and finally here I am with my family in this vast tent camp in Guam. We then shuttled to a tent and found empty cots. We were told to just take an empty cot since there’s no assigned tents. I have never felt so exposed before because there was no privacy. Now we are forced to sleep in these tents with a lot of people around us. The toilets were make shift toilets, and the showers had no doors! We had to walk quite a ways to get to these places. My aunts and the ladies decided that we should take our showers in the evening where there might be less exposure to the outside world. The place was noisy 24/7. However, gradually I got used to it. Just a few days in, my mom announced that she’s going to register us. She came back with our meal tickets. Whenever I go to eat, the lines were like miles long! The food to me was bland, but I ate it anyway. The people who served the meals were all military people wearing uniform.

At times, my mom would be out all day and didn’t come back until the evening. I have no idea where she went. One day, she came back and told me that she’s been helping the immigration officials by interpreting for them. She then asked me, “I’m tired today. Why don’t you go and help interpret in my place?” At first I was about to protest that I’m too young being only 15! I turned to my eldest brother and he quickly shook his head… No! He told my mom that his English wasn’t as good yet, since he had been attending an all French school until we left. So I decided to obey my mom. She immediately took me to a huge tent. There were tables set up in a u – shaped with typewriters on each of the tables. My mom introduced me to one of the officers there. He looked at me and told me to sit beside him. I did as I was told. There was another officer on the other side of me. I was wedged right in the middle. People started coming in, and thus was my first ever job at working as an interpreter for the immigration office. I had no idea that the people being interviewed by the immigration office workers were all top government officials and high ranked people in the military.

One day, I was working as usual, and one of the officers walked in to be interviewed. He was quite annoyed seeing a kid sitting at the table between two immigration workers. To him (and most Asian cultures, kids were not allowed to sit with adults) much less help to interpret! He started getting rude, and before he knew it, he was being escorted out! That left me a bit scared because this was my first time ever working, even as a volunteer. When I finished work each night, I would be rewarded with foods and candies from the PX. One time I had fried chicken from there. It was totally a new kind of food for me. Fried chicken? I thought! Wow! In my country, chicken was only reserved for special occasions like the New Year or weddings. But just for an ordinary meal? That was totally strange to me. However, I was elated to have food that was not from the camp! When I got back to my tent with my goodies, of course my siblings were curious as to what I had gotten that night. I shared most of my rewards with my siblings. I was glad I didn’t have to be in line to get food anymore! Working there, I realized that Immigration was trying to place people in the US and that this camp was the last leg of our journey.

There were three camps that they tried to place families in. One was at Pendleton in California, one in Fort Chaffee, Arkansas, and one other camp (I forgot the name) located in Florida. My whole group of 56 people were separated at the camp in Guam. My own family had been placed in Arkansas. Later my mom told me she wanted to go to California, but it was full, and so was Florida. It didn’t matter to me, because I didn’t know where Florida, Arkansas, or California even were! Finally we were called to a bus and boarded a plane, this time to the US. The flight was the longest one I could ever remember!

A New Life

At long last we landed in the U.S.A. This time we were taken by military vehicles to yet another camp. This one was an enclosed army camp. There were thousands of barracks. We were then moved to a big barracks where they again processed our papers and assigned us shelter. My first impression was that it was huge! The barracks were full of bunk beds. Thus, our family ended up staying in that camp for three months or more before we were processed again to go to other countries or states.

During that time, my dad finally flew from England to the camp to meet us there. That was the first time in 7 years that I saw him again! We were all happy to see him. He told my mom how he heard of an orphanage flight that crashed just before we left the country. He was in despair thinking that we were on that plane!! Before we had left our home in Vietnam, the Holt International invited my mom to go with them on that plane. Thank God she said no! However, I felt very sad upon hearing the news that the plane with the orphans crashed. I thought of all those babies that my mom had once brought home in cardboard boxes. Now they are gone? How could it be? Life is so unfair at times.

Later on, I also learned that we were almost deported back to Vietnam when we were staying in Singapore. The list of names of us people on the plane were sent back to the prime minister of Vietnam. When he saw my mom’s name he declined to have us deported. In addition, after meeting some friends here in the US, they told me that when we left, the media called us traitors and that if we were ever sent back, we would be executed on the spot!

Thinking back on all the events that happened, I’m grateful that I made it here in one piece. The experience had taught me how precious life and freedom is. I learned to value each moment of my life and to be strong in the face of adversity. Thinking of my family’s escape, I can sum up the unpredictability of life with this:

Yesterday was just a dream

Today is the reality

Tomorrow an unknown …

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