When my father, Nguyen van Chuyen, passed away in May 2017, I began researching his career as a Commander in the South Vietnamese Navy and reconstructing our escape on ship at the fall of Saigon on April 30, 1975. On the morning of April 29, representatives from the South Vietnamese Navy visited each home in the naval compound to obtain a final headcount for ship evacuation. We had 19 people in our party: my family had seven, my aunt’s family (mother’s older sister) had eight, another aunt’s family (mother’s younger sister and son) had two, and our nanny had two. My father previously offered sanctuary in our home to his siblings and their families; however, they declined fearing the uncertainty of the tenuous and unofficial escape plan, pirates, and capture by the Viet Cong. Capture would mean execution for treason or torture in a “re-education” camp, which several of my uncles endured and survived for 13 years.
It was past midnight and into the early morning hours on April 30 when my father and uncle observed our neighbors — one of whom was a high-ranking official in President Thieu’s administration — heading to Hai Quan Cong Xuong (Navy Shipyard and Dock). It was about a 15-minute walk. Because I was not yet 2 years old, my father carried me. During our walk, my mom remembered looking back at the desperate faces and cries of thousands of people trying to scale the barricaded iron gates. We were incredibly lucky, she thought. If the South Vietnamese Navy, the local police, and volunteers did not guard those gates until every ship left safely, the mob would have overtaken us. Saigon fell around 4:00 a.m. that morning.
As I retraced our steps from that day, I learned that we were among the 30,000+ South Vietnamese refugees rescued during Operation Frequent Wind, the largest humanitarian rescue mission in U.S. history. South Vietnamese Deputy Chief of Staff Captain Kiem Do and then-special attaché to the U.S. Department of Defense, Richard Armitage, orchestrated the unofficial and risky plan to save the South Vietnamese Navy and their families. Armitage gave civilian orders — an unorthodox move — to commanding officer Captain Paul Jacobs of the USS Kirk to return his ship to Vietnam at Con Son Island, the rendezvous point. In addition to rescuing daring helicopter evacuees in a way reminiscent of Mission Impossible, Captain Jacobs and his crew protected, fed, provided medical care, and transported us to Subic Bay in the Philippines. From the refugee camp there, we were transported to another refugee camp in Guam until two churches in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania sponsored us to America in the fall of 1975.
The NPR piece, "Forgotten Ship: A Daring Rescue As Saigon Fell, describes the heroism of Captain Jacobs and his crew. As a sidenote, I spoke with Captain Jacobs in October 2017 and met with Mr. Armitage in person in December 2017 to thank them. Both men did not view themselves as heroes; they were simply doing their job and doing the right thing. Captain Kiem Do is next on my list to contact and thank. I feel like it’s my duty to keep the legacy of these heroes alive and to tell a positive story coming out of the Vietnam War. As U.S. Navy historian Jan Herman wrote, I was one of the “lucky few” to reach this path to freedom.
If anyone has any information about Trung Ta (Commander) Nguyen van Chuyen from Hai Quan Khoa 7, or if there are any alumni from his Naval Academy Class Khoa 7 or subsequent Class Khoa 8 or 9, I would be eternally grateful for any photos or memories about him.