Local man who escaped Vietnam sees similarities in those who fled Afghanistan

HUBER HEIGHTS – It was either find a way to leave immediately or likely face death.

If he didn’t flee his country, Lieutenant Ba Nguyen – a battle-seasoned A-1 Skyraider combat pilot in the Republic of Vietnam Air Force (RVNAF) – would have been rounded up by the soon-to-be-victorious Communist North Vietnamese forces and sent to one of their notorious “re-education camps”, prisons really, where overwork, torture, starvation and disease killed so many during and after the Vietnam War.

Or, he simply may have been executed on the spot because of who he was and whom he’d helped.

That’s the situation Nguyen faced as dawn approached at Tan Son Nhut Air Base near Saigon on April 29, 1975.

The Communist North Vietnamese troops and Viet Cong already were laying siege to Saigon.

“Through the night the Communists had shot a lot of rockets into the base,” Nguyen recalled as he sat in his Huber Heights home the other afternoon. “They were trying to paralyze us.” Just before nightfall, three A-37 Dragonflies piloted by defectors had dropped six, 250-pound Mk 81 bombs on the base and near 4 a.m. a US Air Force C-130E headed to pick up refugees was destroyed just before takeoff by a 122mm rocket.

An AC 119 gunship trying to defend the base was hit by a SA-7 missile and fell to earth in flames, as did one of the two A-1s patrolling the perimeter at Tan Son Nhut.

“I knew that (A-1) pilot who was killed,” Nguyen said. “He was in my squadron. I saw his plane explode.”

Nguyen, who’d trained in the U.S., had amassed 2,500 combat hours and something like 1,500 bombing missions.

He said Communist soldiers in the Tay Ninh province – where his parents were poor, sharecropping farmers – routinely harassed his dad, trying unsuccessfully to find him.

Eight days prior to that final attack on Tan Son Nhut – on April 21 – Nguyen had sent his 24-year-old wife, Yvonne, and their 18-month old son out of Saigon on a C-140 with other pilots’ wives. They ended up in a refugee camp in Guam

He said she was scared to leave: “I told her, ‘You have to go. If you stay here, I won’t be with you. You’ll be on your own. The Americans will take you out now. You’ll be safe and someday, some way, I’ll follow you.’”

That prospect was looking dim as the base came under increased attack and sections of the runways were damaged and unusable.

But about 10 a.m, Nguyen crammed into a larger A-1 E with some 19 other airmen and, while under heavy fire, flew to Can Tho Air Base in the Mekong delta. After a few hours, they flew on to Thailand and within four days he’d made his way to Guam to search for his wife and son.

On April 30, Saigon fell.

Many of those memories – the images, fears and heartbreaks – have come flooding back to the 72-year-old Nguyen over the past couple of weeks as he’s watched the wrenching televised scenes coming out of Kabul, where the United States’ 20-year involvement in Afghanistan was coming to a troubling and deadly end.

“It’s very similar,” Nguyen said, ‘Very, very similar.

“People are desperate, frightened. They know the threat if they worked with the US government during the war. They’re afraid the Taliban will kill them, just like the Vietnamese who were killed by the communists.”

Two years after the war, The National Review alleged some 30,000 South Vietnamese had been systematically killed because a list of CIA informants had been left behind in the US embassy. Other sources have estimated at least 300,000 former solders, public officials and others ended up in re-education camps.

In 1975, the U.S. was surprised by how quickly South Vietnam collapsed. A CIA report had said the government would hold up through the dry season and into 1976.

This time, the collapse of Afghanistan in just eight weeks was even more stunning.

Like President Gerald Ford in 1975, Joe Biden inherited a dilemma not of his making and disengaging from a decades-long war proved difficult and deadly.

On April 4, 1975 Operation Babylift – a U.S. effort to evacuate orphaned children in Vietnam, many of them fathered by U.S. serviceman – took a tragic turn when one of the rescue planes, a Lockheed C-5 Galaxy that was just 14 minutes into its flight, suffered a cargo door malfunction at 23,000 feet.

People were sucked out of the gaping hole and the plane crash landed at nearly 300 mph into a rice paddy. In all, 138 of the 314 people on board, many of them babies, were killed.

One of the survivors was USAF loadmaster CMSgt. Ray Snedegar, whose efforts that day were heroic. He’s now retired in Centerville.

On April 29, 1975 as people were being evacuated by helicopter from the rooftop of the American embassy, two U.S. marines were killed in a rocket attack.

Now, in the chaotic scene that overwhelmed the Kabul airport in the days of the poorly-planned evacuation, a suicide bomber linked to ISIS-K killed 13 U.S. military members and at least 90 Afghans.

In both Vietnam and Afghanistan, many people who aided the U.S. war effort were unable to get on the last American flights that left.

Biden is being severely criticized in some quarters, just as President Lyndon Johnson – who oversaw much of the American buildup in the Vietnam War – once was.

Yet, for all those negative similarities between Vietnam and Afghanistan, there is one thing Nguyen hopes is repeated this time around.

While many American people and some politicians were against taking Vietnamese refugees into the U.S. – one senator suggested they be sent to Borneo – President Ford and Congress stepped up to do what they felt was morally right and honored the promise engraved at the base of the Statue of Liberty.

“I don’t think that these people should be treated any differently from any other people – the Hungarians, the Cubans and the Jews from the Soviet Union,” Ford said.

After initially voting down a resettlement package offered by Ford, Congress soon passed the $450 million Indochina Migration and Refugee Assistance Act and over the next four years 300,000 refugees from Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia were taken into the country.

From that group there have been myriad success stories, none more so than Ba Nguyen’s, which began – quite surprisingly – in Sidney.

What he did when he came to the Miami Valley – eventually willing himself through Edison State Community College, Wright State and the University of Dayton while having an impressive 33-year career as a research engineer at the Air Force Research Laboratory at Wright Patterson AFB and raising three children – is even more amazing than his escape from Vietnam.

Settling in Sidney

“When I was 14 or 15, it was unsafe for me to stay at home,” Nguyen said. “Our area was really unstable. Soldiers would be there in the daytime, but they’d go back to their post at night and that’s when the communists came in to get food and supplies.

“My parents worried they might take me away to be a solider.”

They sent him to live with an aunt and continue his schooling. Eventually he signed up to be a pilot and completed basic training and his initial English training in Vietnam before being sent to the U.S.

He worked on more language skills at Lackland AFB in Texas and then got various flight trainings at both Randolph AFB in Texas and Keesler AFB in Mississippi, where he got his wings.

At Hurlburt Field in Florida he said: “I learned how to drop bombs and shoot guns. The A-1 had four, 20 mm guns.”

Once back in Vietnam he joined the 518th Squadron at Bien Hoa Air Base.

His wife-to-be – a police chief’s daughter – grew up nearby and had gone to a French school for four years. They married in 1971 and the first of their three children – Steve – was born in Vietnam.

After surviving all those bombing missions – at times with his aircraft shot up – Nguyen now says: “I’m damned lucky to here.”

He told of one mission when the A-1 piloted by the flight lead in their tandem attack team was hit by a surface to air missile:

“I rolled and saw the missile right over my left wing. When I levelled, I saw the ball of fire. He bailed out. His name is Duk and he lives in California today.”

One of Nguyen’s biggest strokes of luck came when his family was sponsored by the First United Methodist Church in Sidney.

He recounted how he and his family flew into Dayton’s airport, were met by a couple they’d never seen before and were brought back to Shelby County and put up in a basement.

The next day he said some other people invited them to a picnic:

“They took us to a park and were grilling food and having a good time and I tried to smile, but inside it was a disaster. Everything was strange. I just wanted to be by myself and calm down. I needed to know: ‘Who am I?...Where am I?’”

People at the church helped him get a minimum wage job at a factory and an apartment at half-price rent. They helped with furniture and food, too, and got him an old bicycle to ride to work.

“It was hard work and I was exhausted afterwards,” he said. “I couldn’t ride back across the overpass (on I-75) like I had in the morning, so I pushed it.

“I remember times just wondering: ‘What has happened to me? I was a lieutenant in the Air Force and now this.’

“There were times I just sobbed. But I had a family to support.

“When I was young – just seven or eight – I’d already learned how to take care of myself. I knew how to survive. And now I had to show it again.”

‘They had a good heart’

He was laid off from his job in 1981 and after trying unsuccessfully to find work alongside friends in Minnesota and Washington D.C., he returned to Sidney and was sitting at the breakfast table when he told Yvonne:

“I’m going back to school!”

He was 33 years old, but he said he had to do something to make a better life for his family. After get an associate’s degree at Edison State, he was one quarter away from getting an engineering degree at WSU when Yvonne was diagnosed with lymphoma.

“I was taking her to Lima for chemo and trying to go to school. I didn’t have anybody to watch my kids so I asked a neighbor for help,” he said.

He got his master’s degree in aerospace engineering at UD and competed half of his doctoral studies.

In 1986 he joined the Air Force Research Laboratory and eventually became the chief engineer and program manager on an automated aerial refueling project. His team developed the technology involving an unmanned aircraft.

As for his own flying, he said he hasn’t piloted an aircraft since that fateful day – April 29, 1975.

He and Yvonne raised three children – Steve, Ba Jr. and Shelia, who became the No. 1 singles tennis player at Wayne High School.

Nguyen retired in January 2020. On October 16th of last year, Yvonne died, following a severe health decline. They’d been married 49 years.

“When I lost her, I lost a lot,” he said quietly.

As he talked about the setbacks he’s faced in life, he said: “I believe you must experience some hardships first before you can say life is beautiful. It gives you the appreciation you need.”

He pointed out some photos he has hanging on the walls of his home.

One showed him and Yvonne on a motor scooter as their young son played near the front of it.

On a different wall there were several photos of his wife on their trip to France. Another set of pictures showed the whole family together.

He said he’s returned to Vietnam three times since he left.

He said the happiness in his life has come for several reasons, including “the church people” in Sidney:

“They had a good heart.”

After watching events unfold in Afghanistan over the past couple of weeks, he hopes the refugees can experience “the good heart” of Americans.

Over 20,000 Afghan refugees now are housed on military bases in the U.S. and 40,000 more are in bases abroad.

“I think we should open our arms to them,” he said. “Every Afghan who helped the U.S. against the Taliban, they need all the assistance we can give them.

“If we don’t, they will be punished and probably executed. That shouldn’t happen.”

Like him, Afghans know hardship.

Like him, they deserve to see some beauty, too.

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