Chơn Thành Refugees — Then and Now

December 19, 2014 7:51 am

UPDATE! April 30th, 2015: The New York Times has published this story today, the anniversary of the fall of Saigon: http://nyti.ms/1PWZThz 

UPDATE! February 28th, 2015: The Guardian has published this story in their weekend magazine: 

This story started 45 years ago on an October afternoon in 1969. An American medic named Bob Shirley and some of his fellow soldiers set up a first aid tent in a small outdoor market. In his downtime, Shirley took photographs of local kids who came in with minor injuries and illnesses. It wasn’t until 40 years later that Shirley pulled these pictures out of storage and started sending them to other Vietnam War vets. That’s when my friend Larry Johns saw the pictures and decided to try and find some of these kids.

After two years of hard work and relentless searching, we were able to locate 16 of them. Right after the original pictures were taken, these children and their families were forced to evacuate in fear of the arrival of the North Vietnamese Army. This meant life in the village of Chơn Thành was no longer safe. Today they all live a long way from their original village, but remarkably they’re still neighbors and in many cases close friends.

Below are some of the pictures Bob Shirley took that day, mixed with pictures I took last week.

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Not long after the original photos were taken in October of 1969, Minh’s family evacuated Chơn Thành for Bình Dương. The family lived in a refugee camp for a year and even though it was very crowded, Minh has fond memories of it because they felt safe and had plenty of food to eat. Today Minh lives with his wife and children in Vũng Tàu. Cockfighting is a favorite pastime of his. Though he doesn’t make much money when he wins, he doesn’t lose much when he doesn’t win. But according to him, this chicken doesn’t lose very often.

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Thanh’s father was a rice farmer and when things were slow he’d travel to other areas to find work. One day he was riding his bicycle to a village 8 km away when he was mistaken for a Viet Cong soldier and killed by US troops. Thanh told us this was such a common occurrence that the US normally gave financial compensation to the family of an accidently killed South Vietnamese civilian man; this way, the family could survive without the father’s income. Thahn’s dad was killed too far from his home though and the US refused to pay, with the excuse that it wasn’t possible to keep track of people who didn’t stay in their town of residence. Today Thanh owns a contracting business and lives in Vung Tau with his wife. His 4 children live nearby.

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In 1984 Sơn was desperate to leave Vietnam so he paid 3 million Dong to take an illegal boat ride with the promise of a better, more prosperous life in an unknown location. They didn’t make it far offshore before the boat was stopped by police and everyone on board was arrested. This was so common in Vietnam that Sơn was only jailed for 8 days before he was sent home. Many people we spoke with said that economic conditions have only improved in the last 10 years. Sơn and his wife live in Vũng Tàu. Their children, some of whom have also tried to escape, still live nearby.

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Two years into his service for the South Vietnamese Army, Thành was almost killed by a B40 grenade launched by the North Vietnamese. The blast barely missed him, but he was struck by two metal fragments, one in the head and the other in his back. Three people were killed in the incident. He spent over a year recovering in an American military hospital. Today Thành is married with 4 children. He enjoys morning walks in the park and taking care of his grandkids.

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Thành is the teenager on the left. Thanh is the boy on the left peeking through, Minh is the boy on the right peeking through and Sơn is wearing the helmet.

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Del:

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After Del returned from the war he didn’t speak about his time in Vietnam. It seemed to him as if nobody else talked about it either. He attended dental school and it wasn’t until after graduating that he learned that more than half his classmates were fellow Vietnam era vets. Returning to Vietnam has been a desire of Del’s for several years. “I wanted to see and remember Vietnam as a country and not just as a war.” He thinks other veterans would also benefit immensely seeing Vietnam as it is today. Del served in Vietnam from August of 1968 to October of 1969. He lives in Missoula, Montana with his wife Shawn.

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Kim:

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Kim worked for the beloved Father Hieu because she was one of the few people in Chơn Thành who could speak English. During our reunion, Kim, who was not in the original photos, stopped by just to say hello and she immediately recognized Rod. After 45 years, she enthusiastically saluted him and said, "hello captain.” Rod responded, “Kim!” She was thrilled that he had remembered her by name. Kim and her husband have 14 kids, of which 13 are boys and their youngest is a girl.

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Lâm & Rod:

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Most of the Chơn Thành refugees were led to safety with the help of a priest named Father Hieu. At the time the original photos were taken, Lâm was teaching literature while pursuing priesthood alongside him. One morning Father Hieu, who has since died, hosted an American soldier named Rod for lunch in hopes of getting some antibiotics for the local people. Lâm was one of the few who spent the afternoon with them that day. When Rod and Lam were reunited 45 years later they embraced; it was the most emotional moment of his return to Vietnam. Lâm never became a priest because he met a woman and married. They live together in Nha Trang and enjoy gardening, raising chickens and spending time with their grandchildren.

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Rod Rodriguez, referring to his time in Vietnam and the day the original photos were taken in 1969: “What I saw here was war and war is terrible. It can be inhumane, it’s very mean and it’s really hard to be nice, to be kind. However what we did at that village broke through all of that. There was a moment that we could be kind, it was a restful time. You didn’t think about what your job was, your job was be nice to these people, let’s show them that we care, and in the field, that was really hard to do - we couldn’t show people we cared. Rod served as a first lieutenant in Vietnam from July of 1969 to July of 1970. He lives in Pasadena, California with his wife Carmie

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The man with the shades on the left is Lâm, the American in the middle is Rod, and the priest on the right is Father Hieu.

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Thành & Cường and Trường:

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Thành and Cường’s father was originally from North Vietnam, but in 1954, he and his sisters decided to move to the South in hopes of escaping poverty. They were warned against moving by the government in the North, who told them they would surely starve, but decided to take the chance anyway. When the family arrived in South Vietnam they were relieved to learn this was not true. They were invited to live in a refugee camp where they were well taken care of and received help finding work. Thành has a wife and child and hopes to provide a good life for them. Cường has a wife and 4 children and works hard to provide them with an education. Both families live in Vũng Tàu.

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When Trường was a kid he and his friends would collect things they found outside of the American military base near his home. One day he found a green metal box used to hold the ammunition for a machine gun and his father thought it would work well for cooking. The first time he used it to make corn, it exploded and burned him badly all over his body. His father survived after being treated at the same US military base where Trường found the box. Today Trường and his wife have 6 grown kids and a farm near Phan Thiết.

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Trường is on the left. Thành is in the middle and Cường is on the right.

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Đồng’s father was a soldier in the South Vietnamese Army and was relocated to a base in Vũng Tàu. This was fortunate for the family because the evacuation of Chơn Thành, their hometown, was imminent and would lead them to Vũng Tàu as well. His father could only take one person on the army plane; he took Đồng. His mother, 5 sisters and 2 brothers had to travel in small groups. It took over a month for them all to be reunited in Vũng Tàu where his father continued to fight for the South. Today Đồng lives in Vũng Tàu with his wife and son. His two daughters live in Ho Chi Minh City.

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Huy wasn’t even aware of what a camera was until he was 14 years old. There was a park near his house where he discovered men taking portraits for a small fee, but it was something his mother couldn’t afford. Until the discovery of this project, the youngest photo Huy’s mother had of her son was his wedding photo. Huy is married with 2 children and works as a mango and banana farmer.

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In 1972, Hải’s father was shot by the North Vietnamese and died shortly after in a hospital. Before the South Vietnamese Army could contact the family, they buried him in a cemetery and neglected to mark his grave. His mother and 4 siblings never got the closure of knowing exactly where he was buried. Hải and his wife live in Vũng Tàu where they farm chicken and pigs. His children are both going to school in Ho Chi Minh City.

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The boy on the left is Hải, in the middle is Huy and on the right is Đồng.

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Thế:

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This is Thế and without him this story wouldn’t have been possible. Thế was only 8 years old at the time the original photographs were taken in 1969, but he remembered almost everyone because of his photographic memory. He even identified kids who were out of focus in the background, or only recognizable by one physical feature like their nose or hairline. After receiving our flier with the pictures he framed and hung it on his living room wall, determined to get in touch everyone that he could. Thế is a cashew farmer and lives with his wife and 3 kids.

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Sa:

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When Sa was 10 years old her mother was bitten by a snake and taken by helicopter to a hospital by US troops. Sa’s sister and the snake, which was taken in for testing, accompanied her mother on the 300 km trip. Sa, her 7 other siblings and their father waited for 3 months without hearing a word or knowing where they were before they finally returned in good health. Today Sa and her husband own a dragon fruit farm near Phan Thiết. Their 3 children are all married and live nearby.

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Larry:

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When Larry was 14 years old, his brother Jeff died while serving in the Vietnam war. The loss left him with a void that lead him to connect with the people who served with his brother. In 2012, he came across Bob Shirley’s pictures and couldn’t stop looking at the photos of the little kids at the market in Chơn Thành. That is when he decided to see if he could track down even just one of the kids. In 2013, he and his Vietnamese fiancé, Kimmy, travelled to the village of Chơn Thành and passed out fliers, but left discouraged upon learning that the kids had been evacuated shortly after the original photographs were taken. A few days later, someone brought the flier to a wedding in Vung Tau where people started to see their husbands, neighbors and friends in the pictures. This story of Larry’s discovery not only helped to fill his personal void, but also the void that many of these people felt from this perilous time.

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Tuàn:

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As the North Vietnamese Army closed in on the village of Chơn Thành, Tuàn's family was forced to evacuate. On their way out of town they stopped at a local school to see a neighbor who was hiding out because their son had fallen ill and died. They needed to decide what to do with the body before fleeing. While everyone was inside the school the North Vietnamese Army arrived and fired at them with a 105 mm M2A1 howitzer. While nobody was killed, his mother was left badly injured with metal fragments from the blast in her leg. She was airlifted by the South Vietnamese Army to a hospital where it took her over a month to recover. Today Tuàn, a cancer survivor, lives in Vũng Tàu with his wife and children.

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Diệm:

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When Diệm was a 9-year-old boy his older sisters would set up a small stand to sell CocaCola near an American military base. It was Diệm’s job to bring them lunch every day and he’d often play with friends on the way home. One day he stopped to join them playing by the river. Swinging from an iron rod above the water Diệm fell in and began to drown as his friends ran for help. Moments later they found an American soldier who was driving a water truck to jump in and save his life. Today Diem lives with his family in Vũng Tàu and they own a phở restaurant. Here he stands in the front room of his home, where they used to run a hair salon.

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7 Comments

  • KIMY says:

    I am very glad to see the lives of people during the past through the war ended.They still live and exist to this day.They have overcome the fear and sadness of childhood.But they are still trying to overcome the difficulties.They want to be rising and they are always want to love with peace and happiness.

  • mary says:

    I’m the niece of Rod in one of the photos. I remember sending treats of fruits&nuts to my uncle while stationed in Viet Nam, I was in high school. Never heard his stories,do glad he could he could go back to see the children he remembered. I know it really warmed his heart to see them again. He is a wonderful man.

  • Curtis Gilliland says:

    Im glad you sent this article to me. I’ve experienced a lot since I first returned to Vietnam 23 years ago. I’ve met people I never thought I would ever meet and see again. One was a lady NVA who fought against me and I here back in 69. Though I never seen her, nor she me back during the war we fought against each other in 68-69. She hugged me, posed for a picture then fixed my lunch. Traveling all over the country from Hanoi to a few hundred miles south of Saign including climbing thru a lot of jungle and mountains I’ve come to love the country. It’s a beautiful country without war and children can walk down paths where we back then lay down for ambush!

  • Mike Mout says:

    I went to HS with Rod and considered him a close friend. This is the kind of behaviour we knew to expect from him. He was a leader in our class (ASB President) and set an example for all of us. He was a good example that you can be popular and do the right thing.

    It seems that behavior has followed him into the military and throughout his life.

  • Michael Truong says:

    Thank you for your service and sharing your wonderful stories.

  • Michael Ma says:

    The story of Vietnam is one of the most haunting events in the 60’s and still is. In Vietnam, the American committed unspeakable atrocity to the yellow race. And got away with it. From Nixon to Kissinger to Westmoreland, they are all butchers. I respect the Vietnamese people, their resilience and love of their country. Please read Robert McNamara’s book. Finally, he was the only honest USA guy whom dare to say that the US got it all wrong. Vietnam, I salute you with all my heart. To me you are the strongest nation on earth. You fighting spirit have won all wars with all the major world powers – China ( ancient ), Japan, France and the USA.
    I salute you, Vietnam.

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