The Escape of Anh Tuan Tran: Part One

Anh Tuan with his RVN Marine unit seated for their graduation photo.

Anh Tuan with his RVN Marine unit seated for their graduation photo. Anh Tuan is second from left in the second row with arm on elbow of fellow Marine. (Photo courtesy Anh Tuan Tran)

By Marc Phillip Yablonka
Author and Military Journalist

As Americans, we have tended to look at the Vietnam War through an American lens. Concerned for ourselves as a nation, whether we fought in the war or protested it from the safety of the American heartland, we have tended to think about that long ago conflict as only ours. But there was another prism through which we might have been looking all along. That of the people whom we had sworn to protect: the people of South Vietnam.

One such person was a Republic of Vietnam Marine who also fought for his country and paid a heavy, heavy price: Anh Tuan Tran.

After graduation from Truong Bo Binh Thu Duc (Officer’s Infantry School in Thu Duc) in 1972, Tuan joined the Vietnamese Marine Corps and was assigned to C Recon Company, HQ battalion of the Vietnamese division, operating in Quang Tri Province as 1st Lieutenant, reconnaissance squad leader.

The whole division at that time consisted of three combat brigades, with one recon company, one artillery battalion, one medical company for each brigade, with the Vietnamese Airborne Division forming the first line of defense against the North Vietnamese Army.

“Because I was on the front lines, being in an elite force, I was always ready for any enemy movements. My recon company was the eyes and ears of the 369th Brigade. Depending on the orders from HQ, we frequently penetrated enemy territory to collect intel,” Tuan said from his home in suburban Toronto.

He was stationed at and around Dong Ha, Con Thien, right next to the DMZ a full two years after President Richard Nixon’s “Vietnamization” policy, which severely limited American involvement in Vietnam.

In early February 1975, (two months before the fall of Saigon) Tuan’s unit had orders to transfer its position to the local regional forces. From Quang Tri Province they moved to Da Nang to defend the city. Upon arrival, Tuan and his team were under heavy artillery bombardment from the mountains. Their mission was to penetrate enemy positions to locate and report coordinates to RVN Marine artillery units, and to return fire.

“My team had to infiltrate at nightfall. Ascending a high observation point, I tripped on a booby trap. The grenade exploded and I didn’t feel my leg. Everything went dark; my NCO had to transport me back to HQ on a makeshift hammock.”

“That was a very scary time. I was not afraid of dying, I was afraid of living the rest of my life as an amputee. I was so young. I’d hardly lived my life at all,” Tuan said.

He spent three days at the triage center of the medical team and was transferred to the Central Military Hospital in Benh Vien Duy Tan, adjacent to Da Nang Air Base.

“One night there were rumors the city was going to fall. Around midnight, the last flight of a C-130 to Saigon took off with only heavily wounded aboard.”

“One guy next to me bandaged his head and was carried away to the plane. I was not that quick thinking and remained at the hospital.’

The next day, a Marine GMC truck took Tuan back to the Marine headquarters medical unit located near Bai Bien Non Nuoc Beach. An Airborne GMC came to pick up their own. The hospital slowly emptied out. Everybody else was on their own.

For Tuan, that meant evacuation at the beach.

“Every one of us was ready. We all looked out towards the ocean. At dawn, lights appeared, revealing three ships on the horizon: one big ship and two smaller ones. The two smaller ones moved slowly to shore. Suddenly, the sea came alive. A strong gust of wind sent rafales of high waves to the shore. Battalions upon battalions lined up in columns ready to board,” Tuan recalled.

“But suddenly, far up on the highway appeared three M113 armored carriers, one speeding towards the Marines’ columns on the beach.” When it breached the security perimeter, the Marines sent warning M79 shots. The M113 returned fire with its M60 on board, sending the Marines scattering all over. It continued speeding towards the ocean, entering the water, and started floating towards the ships, but sank after the waves overcame the vehicle. The guys who drove it thought their amphibious light tank could operate on the sea. Poor guys! Ignorance does kill,” he said.

“Someone must have leaked the evacuation information to the populace because suddenly, after the M113 arrived, thousands of civilians, women, and kids with their belongings, came running to the beach; they stepped over each other, fighting, creating chaos. The sound of artillery shells exploding got closer and closer, finally landing on the beach, creating carnage, killing a lot of innocent people.”

“It was a `sauve qui peut’ situation. ‘Chacun pour soi-meme,’” [run for your life. Each one for himself], Tuan said in his second language. “Total panic. Everybody jumped into the water, trying to swim to the ship a few hundred meters away from shore. I got rid of my crutches and jumped into the water, trying to get in sync with the waves, pushing upwards with my healthy leg. When a wave came, I went up with it. When it passed, I landed on the ocean floor. I waited for the next wave to jump up again while edging slowly towards the ship. I remember my feet not touching the sand but something soft many times. It must have been somebody who had drowned underneath me,” he said.

Half way, Tuan grabbed a floating device someone had made from a poncho.

“Without it, I don’t think I could have reached the ship. So many people were climbing aboard that it became heavily overcrowded and started to be stranded. I was lucky to have my Marine uniform on top of my hospital gown,” he said, recalling that one Army captain was sent back to the beach because his ship was for Marines only.”

That ship transferred Tuan and his fellow Marines to the bigger ship, which then transported them to Phan Rang. It then went back to Cua Viet to rescue more Marines.

Tuan’s thoughts now drift back in time to the Tet Offensive of 1968 and its aftermath.

“When the VC occupied the city of Hue and massacred 3,000 people who were found buried in mass graves, whenever people saw or heard that government troops were leaving, they knew that NVA was going to seize the opportunity to move in.”

“And if the VC came, and you didn’t get out right away, you would never have the chance to leave. So, there was an exodus of people with their belongings crowding all the highway and routes going south. Dai Lo Kinh Hoang (Horror Highway) which happened when VC artillery shells targeted fleeing people on Highway 1, Quang Tri Province, killing thousands,” he said.

Years later, after having escaped Da Nang on the Marine ship, Tuan had this to say:

“Exiting the ship, I followed the flow of people heading south, using all means of transportation: walking, busing, riding on Lambretta 3-wheeler scooters, Camionnettes [minivans]. At that time, people usually gave free access to injured soldiers. That’s why I was wearing my Marine uniform shirt with the hospital pajama pants,” he said.

When Tuan reached the checkpoint at Bien Hoa, he put on his officer insignia epaulettes, was saluted by a Marine MP, and driven to Le Huu Sanh Hospital inside Rung Cam Marine Base, Thu Duc.

The surgeon removed shrapnel from Tuan’s leg and told him he was lucky not to have an infection, and that the salt water during Tuan’s swim to the Marine vessel might have kept his leg from being infected.

“I stayed until the end, and I walked home before the VC came and took over. During my stay at the hospital, I was informed that my unit was stationed at Vung Tau, but because my doctor did not release me, I could not go back. Who knows what would have happened if I had gone back?” he asked, remembering that most of his fellow Marines in the final days of the war used small boats to go out to sea and were picked up by the US Seventh Fleet.

In the last 46 years, Tuan has had ample time to reflect on the final outcome of the war in Vietnam.

“Looking back, the two main factors that decided the outcome of the war came down to the structure, the making of the soldier. First, the NVA soldiers’ mental state had been nurtured in an environment of blind obedience to the Communist Party since birth. They believed that the south suffered under an oppressive regime, and they were willing to sacrifice their lives to liberate the country. Each NVA soldier was brain-washed every day by the commissar political adviser. He feared his own peers would report any weakness. They called each other “Dong Chi,” which meant `same vision, same goal.’ They used any means — lies, threats, misinformation, torture, even killing — to reach their goal,” Tuan believed. “They were robot soldiers.”

“By contrast the South Vietnamese soldier was influenced by his family, his humanity — he could not kill, mistreat elderly, women, children — and most importantly, he could think. He didn’t believe in propaganda. He knew right from wrong. That made him weaker than the robot soldiers who pushed through everything to achieve their goal,” Tuan said.

The second factor, in Tuan’s opinion, was the equipment.

“The robot soldier required minimum basics: food to survive and weapons to kill. Everything else was secondary. He wore sandals and a hat for protection. He required no salary. For one South Vietnamese soldier, you could produce 100 NVA soldiers; the ratio was always 10, 20, 50. or 100 to one in every battle. There must have been a reason why the South lost the war.”

Tuan expands on what he feels that reason was.

As soon as the NVA and VC entered a city, with the help of local followers, they took control of all government facilities, and started patrolling the streets with propaganda themes on loudspeakers. They soon requested people to register their household and encouraged denouncing `anti-revolutionaries’ and reporting all enemies of the people.

“People were confused and scared,” he added. “Who was considered the enemy of the people? Would they be executed? Would there be a new Hue massacre but on a bigger scale?”

A new order came the next day, advising all military and government employees of the “old regime” that they would be pardoned if they voluntarily registered to undergo re-education classes: from Private 1st class to NCOs, three days; for junior officers, ten days; for captains up to generals, six months, according to Tuan.

“They had to bring their own food and clothes, `Failing to do so would face serious consequences,’” the notice said.

“I watched the first `catégorie,’” Tuan said in French, “go and come home. After all, we junior officers were only small potatoes. It would be only ten days, plus the neighbors were watching. The communists were very good at sowing fear to control people. They were masters at lies and misinformation.”

“I showed up at lycée Jean-Jacques Rousseau, my old high school, the pickup point for District 1 in Saigon. I saw some of my friends from university. When we filled out the paperwork, we were told that they knew everything about us, that they seized the Ministry of Defence, and had all the documents. They just wanted to confirm if we were honest to confess our crimes to the people. [They told us] we would be punished if we were not.”

Tuan and the others were organized into ten-person teams with one designated leader to be responsible for each team.

“That night we were loaded into covered Molotov vans. After hours of driving on suburban roads, they made us sit down in columns in a big industrial yard. Then they loaded us into the belly of a big transport ship. I will never forget how dark and suffocating the space was when they closed the lid above us,” he remembered.

“After a few hours, suddenly they opened the lid and released us into the yard to be head-counted again. Then we were loaded back into the Molotov trucks, and the convoy headed back to the city and drove northeast. This time the guy sitting in the back poked his head out from time to time and gave us the information about where we were going.”

At dawn they reached a big walled compound.

“I know this place,” one guy said to Tuan. “It’s Thanh Ong Nam.”

Thanh Ong Nam was the ARVN military civil service base in the Hoc Mon District, in the outskirts of Saigon, not far from the now famous Cu Chi tunnels in what Tuan referred to as “VC country.”

Tuan very soon realized that what he and the others were told would occur was light years away from the reality.

“In the morning, we had to exercise for half an hour. After that, each group sat down in a circle. We started to introduce ourselves. Everyone was forced to express an opinion about the `revolution’, the crime we committed towards the people, if we had any regrets, etc. All of us were exhausted and sleepy after the night before, but we had to keep going.”

“In the evening, the political teacher visited each group to answer questions. The most important questions were, `Are we going home after ten days?’ `How long are we going to be here?’”

They were told, “As long as you study good, you have a chance to go back to your family.”

“He never defined the word ‘good,’ and that was the only time he showed up to talk to us for the next seven days; I knew then I wasn’t going to be home after ten days like they said in the announcement. Like thousands of others, I was being duped by a cunning adversary,” Tuan realized.

Many years later, at an