My name is Nguyen Huu Tao, and I am from the Hung Yen province in the northern part of Vietnam. In 1954, when I was 8 years old, Vietnam was split into two different regimes and one million Vietnamese citizens living in the North decided to leave and enter the South. My family was a part of this group who moved to the South, and I was raised there for the majority of my childhood. I remember how the South was set up as a democracy and with three branches of government like in the United States, while the North was set up as a communist society with just one party and only benefiting the people who were controlling the government.
Growing up, I remember there was a period of peace and how the student life was very beautiful. Life was all about going to school, studying, and being with your friends. Now, it is no longer like that. I was sent to a Catholic high school where I could have been a priest, but due to an illness, I was sent home back to my family, never to return. After high school, I attended the College of Political War in Da Lat in Central Vietnam, where for two years I studied politics and psychology in relation to military warfare. I also studied many other different subjects, all kinds of things! Then I noticed the environment, government, and war become more intense and eventually I had to leave school to join the war. Basically I was only in college for a couple of years before I was drafted.
During the war, I was a soldier in a platoon known as Section Three. To understand the military, you need to also understand the setup as well. There are seven sections within the Vietnamese military, known as the Ban Nhan Vien. Section One was recruitment and members, Two was intelligence, and Three was operations. Section Four was maintaining supplies, and Section Five was psychology, which was a unique one for the Vietnamese military forces during the war because we actually had a unit where we would study the mentality of our soldiers - I’m not sure if the U.S. even had something like this. Section Six dealt with communication among the groups, and the Section Seven was the technology section, focused on research and development. While our military was allied with the United States, the North had many of their own allies, including China, Russia, Hungary, Poland and other Eastern European countries. For two years I was in Section Three where I carried out operations in Southwest Vietnam, right by the border of Cambodia. Some of the operations would take about a couple of days and some took as long as two weeks.
Afterward, I was promoted to a new position as lieutenant where I oversaw the entire province of Tuyen Binh. In this role, I had access to everyone’s information. This record, a book, contains all the information about you, such as where you’ve lived your whole entire life, where you went to school, who your family members are or were - it basically kept track of everyone you know and everything you had done. I had to do a thorough background check on whoever wanted to come into my province. For instance, if there was a female who wanted to relocate to my province to be an elementary school teacher, I had to review her book and her paperwork. Then I would contact the province she was from previously and start tracking where she had been. This is how we knew if she was safe to be in my province, or whether or not a person was Viet Cong or any of our other enemies.
On April 30th, 1975, we lost Saigon. It was like any other day at work and all of a sudden, we were relieved from our post. After the Fall, I returned home to my family, but then the Communist Party threw me in jail. I was in a re-education camp for almost 7 years. If you want to ask me what life was like in jail, well, it was difficult, unimaginable, full of suffering. They starve you to death so you would start losing your mind. You think that you could handle starvation for a few days, but what happens when it becomes a few weeks, a few months, a few years?
When I was released from prison, America had just started the Prison of War (POW) program (1). If you were held in reeducation camps or jails for three or more years, you could be sponsored over. I brought my whole family, my wife and my three children, to America this way. At the time, my first daughter was 6, my second daughter was 3, and Thanh, my son, was only 4 months old. My other family members came through the Orphan Program.
Thanh Nguyen, Nguyen Huu Tao’s son: The rest of my family came through the Orphan program, where if you adopted an orphan, a child born from a Vietnamese parent and an American parent, America would sponsor you over quickly (2). Many of my relatives did this. I have many adopted cousins in Texas.
I came to America through Ronald Reagan Airport in 1991. I was 46 years old at the time. My impression was that it was so different from anything I had ever seen in my whole life. What amazed me the most was the transportation and the roads here! The roads were so large, there were buses, and a subway. The atmosphere was such a drastic change from what I had known in Vietnam.
The government gave my family a bit of money and I immediately found a one bedroom apartment for my whole family. I had no time to study English because I had to immediately rush to find a job. Life was not easy, and I did not have a chance to wait to settle down properly or get used to the environment. Going to school was not even a possibility for me since I was already 46, and I had to support my 3 young children.
With the help of a friend, I landed a job at the Ritz Carlton Hotel. My salary was about $4 an hour. I worked diligently year after year and eventually my pay slowly increased to $9 an hour. The company would send me to take classes and workshops at my workplace, and I then began to do more maintenance duties such as fixing things like the heater or dealing with electrical issues around the hotel. By the time I retired, I had worked at the Ritz Carlton for 25 years and was making $18 an hour.
I’m glad you’re asking me these questions because I never really talk about any of this. I want to let my son know why he is here today. All I want is a happy life for my children where they are able to do whatever they want, like get an education for instance. I never once pushed my son to be someone he did not want to be because that’s something from my generation, and is not something I believe in. My dream is that my son will be successful in everything he does, but most of all, be happy. I also hope to live long enough to see Thanh get married. I hope to see all my children build families and happiness around their own choices.
There is nothing more that I ask of life now that I am in my 70s. Today, I am at ease after retiring. I also believe strongly in my Catholic faith. I find a lot of peace when going to the church nearby my house. I go very often, almost every day, because there’s something nice and meaningful in being able to enjoy this aspect of my livelihood.
(1) "On 30 July 1989, the US and Vietnamese governments issued a joint statement that they had reached agreement on the emigration of former political prisoners and their families...This included 21,500 former re-education camp detainees and family members..."
(2) "...departures under the Orderly Departure Programme increased dramatically, reaching a high point of 86,451 in 1991. This included...nearly 18,000 Amerasian children."