35 years ago today, a dash for freedom
David Allen, Staff Writer
Created: 04/29/2010 02:15:51 PM PDT
HUU VO owes his 1975 escape from Saigon to a well-timed birthday.
Vo, now a family practice doctor in Pomona, was an intern at a Saigon hospital when he requested and received a day off for his birthday: April 29.
But when he got home, his brother was packing. Through a connection, his brother, a government tax official, was planning to leave immediately on a South Vietnamese navy destroyer for America. Would Huu like to join him?
South Vietnam's president had resigned April 21 and artillery shells had begun falling on Saigon as the North Vietnamese army advanced.
Thousands of their countrymen were already fleeing, or trying to, and Vo had considered leaving too. But this was awfully sudden, and he had a medical career in front of him.
"You want to live under communists?" his brother pressed him.
It was a persuasive question. Vo began packing.
"I made a big decision - be a doctor, or be maybe nobody in the future," Vo told me. "But I took a risk for freedom."
My risk was far less: I'd contacted Vo for an interview without knowing his story, but figuring he'd have one. We'd met briefly at two Pomona Christmas parades. I knew only that he was a leader in the local Vietnamese American community.
Vo turned out to be a gold mine on the subject of April 30, 1975: He'd left his homeland for good that very day.
On April 29, there wasn't time to see his parents or contact his girlfriend. Vo stuffed
clothes, and his stethoscope, into a sack and drove to the port with his brother. A small boat took them to a bigger ship.
Loaded with 300 refugees, most of them from the South Vietnamese army, the navy destroyer put out to sea early on April 30.
"It was raining," Vo recalled. "It was like they were crying for Vietnam."
When the South Vietnamese government fell at 3:30 p.m., the news was transmitted to the destroyer. Its flag was lowered.
Even sailors wept.
Vo and his shipmates wondered if they would ever see Vietnam again.
Still, there were positive moments. The U.S.'s Seventh Fleet had orders to pick up any refugees in the water. (Not surprisingly, the water was soon full of people.) And anytime a U.S. ship would pass, everyone on Vo's ship would stand and salute.
On May 15, the ship reached Guam, in U.S. territory. "What a relief. We are safe," Vo said. With his medical training, he volunteered to help in the refugee camp.
He asked there about his chances of practicing medicine in the United States. The answer was discouraging.
Vo flew to Camp Pendleton, a Marine base that was used as a refugee camp, on June 10. Vo was handed toiletry items and, given the heat that morning, a puzzling bundle: three blankets.
He didn't know anything about California's extremes.
"That night, it was so cold!" Vo recalled, laughing. He asked for a fourth blanket.
On June 26, sponsored by an American his brother had known in Vietnam, Vo moved to Gardena and got a job at Alpha Beta. He stocked shelves at night while studying for his medical exams by day.
Americans were very giving. His coworkers would put items on the top shelves for him so the would-be doctor wouldn't strain himself and at the end of their shift would buy him breakfast at Carrows.
"America was so good to us. They opened their arms. It's the land of opportunity and the land of hospitality, " Vo said.
Vo worked his way up by taking better-paying jobs. That first year, the Buddhist also sold Christmas trees. A friend gave him a USC sweatshirt to keep him warm, a fashion choice that prompted a customer to ask: "You're from USC and you work here?" He explained and she gave him a big tip.
In March 1976, despite the discouraging talk in Guam about his chances, Vo passed his medical exam and the accompanying English exam.
With his brother's family, Vo headed east in his new Toyota Corolla hatchback to Jacksonville, Fla., for his three-year hospital residency.
They treated it as a pleasure trip, visiting Vietnamese American friends along the way and seeing the sights of their new country during the course of a month.
"Oh, beautiful! America is beautiful. The meadow, the mountains, the rivers. So beautiful," Vo said.
In 1980, he returned to Southern California, working first at Lanterman Developmental Center in Pomona and two years later opening a clinic. It's located on a stretch of Pomona's East Holt Avenue that's home to several businesses and restaurants that cater to the Vietnamese community.
The walk-in, family practice clinic is an unprepossessing place. The clientele includes Asians, Latinos, blacks and whites. Vo is the sole practitioner.
"In the old time I'd be like a small-town doctor," Vo quipped.
By the late 1970s, while concentrated in Orange County as they are today, Vietnamese Americans were moving to Pomona and neighboring cities, attracted by local colleges and cheap housing.
Vo was among those who organized Vietnamese American Community U.S.A., a Pomona-based nonprofit that hosts cultural events, offers scholarships and works with local government on issues of concern. He's currently its president, as he has been for most of the past 29 years.
Speaking of presidents, in March 2009 Barack Obama visited a solar-car plant in Pomona a half-block from Vo's office. Quite a contrast for the former refugee who wondered if he would have a future.
Vo's journey wasn't typical. He wasn't squeezed into a fishing boat without food or water with a hundred other people, beset by pirates or storms, on a perilous trip to Cambodia or Malaysia before eventually gaining passage to America.
And he was able to pursue his vocation in his new homeland, also a rarity.
Yet the details are less important than what unites the 2 million Vietnamese refugees: a dash toward an uncertain future far away that still seemed better than the alternative at home.
"We wanted to live in a free country," Vo said.
He and others will gather at 5 p.m. Sunday in the Pomona Civic Center plaza to remember the fall of Saigon, the beginning of their new life, those they left behind and the cost of freedom: 58,000 U.S. soldiers and 1 million Vietnamese soldiers.
"It's 35 years, but when we talk about it, it's yesterday," Vo said. "Close your eyes, the memory's there."
Vo has never returned to Vietnam, feeling that it's not right for him to do so as a leader in the community and not desirous of doing so anyway, not while Vietnam has such limited freedoms.
America, by contrast, is the greatest country he's ever seen.
"Americans have to realize, we are very lucky to be here," Vo said. "The hygiene, the lifestyle, the law, the order. When you drive, there's order. Except in New York, maybe."
I pointed out that Americans spend an awful lot of time complaining.
"That is freedom: You can complain," Vo replied. But he added: "You should be positive and constructive. "
He's an upbeat, energetic man who doesn't look his age - 60 years, as of Thursday.
He's aware of, and grateful for, his lucky breaks. One of them came 35 years ago when he got a day off from work.
"If no birthday, I might not take off," Vo said. "So I believe in destiny."