Story of a Soldier: An Oral History Interview

I want to take this opportunity to interview my grandfather for this project. Not only because he is the oldest person in my family with many knowledge about the family history, but also because he had gone through a lot of changes throughout his whole life. Without him, I would not be here in the United States today. Having all these opportunities given to me, I feel much more fortunate compared to my parents and my grandparents. Most importantly, I want to connect more with my grandfather because all of my other grandparents have passed away. One of my regrets in life is not being able to talk and learn more about the past of my other grandparents. Therefore I would like to use this chance to get closer to my grandfather before it is too late. Below is the transcript of our conversation.

My grandfather at Khe Sanh in 1968.

Q: What do you know about your family name?

A: I don’t know since when do we have the last name Vo, but it has been with us since my grandfather, which is your great great grandfather. We have been living on the same land since my father settled there. The last name has been passed down a long time ago just like many other Vietnamese last name such as Nguyen, Tran, Le, etc… And now we still have the lineage hall in our town as you know.

Q: How was your life during the Indochina War? What was Nha Trang like during this time?

A: It was difficult but I managed to still go to school and the war ended before I finished my middle school. Then I went to the high school of city Diên Khánh. After that I wanted to go to a University in Nha Trang city. Even though my score was more than enough to get in but because we could not afford it, therefore I had to go to a smaller community college for about 2 years. After that, I started teaching from 1958 but Viet Cong started the war. The South Vietnamese government started to recruit more men to join the army. I wanted to protect the country therefore I joined.

Q: What were your parents like?

A: My dad, your great grandfather, opened up a small school at the family house to teach the people in the village, whoever wanted to learn were always welcomed. He passed the entrance exam of the Nguyễn Dynasty at the capital Huế. He was considered an official scholar, but he refused to stay in Huế and work for the Nguyễn Dynasty. He went back and opened up the school at the family house and started teaching. While your great grandmother was just doing small business, buying and selling here and there.

Q: How was your relationship with your parents?

A: We were very close. We have lived in at the same place together for a long time. The family house has been there for over 100 years now. It has not moved anywhere.

My grandfather playing soccer with his friends.

Q: At what age did you start working for the U.S. government?

A: I was around 22 when I first trained at the Thu Duc school in Saigon. After I got out of Thu Duc school, I learned some English and then went to Okinawa, an island in Japan. After Okinawa, I flew to Malaysia for another warfare course, near Singapore.

Q: What was your rank?

A: After Thu Duc school, I was only a Second Lieutenant. Two years later I was promoted to First Lieutenant. And another two years later I got promoted again to Captain.

Q: How was your life during the Vietnam War? What was Nha Trang like during this time?

A: Even though it is during a war, the family was better off compared to after Viet Cong took over the country. Nha Trang was once a peaceful place to live. During the war, our Air Force has to destroy to the main bridge in Nha Trang to stop the Viet Cong from advancing further.

Q: What was your role during the Vietnam war?

A: I was a Captain and my team has 3 other soldiers. My role is to spy on the Viet Cong and collect information so that I can report back to our base. It was a dangerous job.

Q: How often did you visit home?

A: I came home every Tet for about a week.

Q: Can you tell me anything you know about the soldier’s life?

A: Although it was during a war, and my job was dangerous, but everyone in the army was living a decent life. We were never hungry. We could support our family and let them go to school.

Q: How was it like being on a battlefield?

A: I remember I was at Khe Sanh, at the border of Laos and Vietnam, Viet Cong attacked the Khe Sanh airport. This happened during Tet Mau Than 1968. Khe Sanh base was built by the U.S. in effort to stop the Viet Cong supply from the North to South Vietnam. At this time, I was at Khe Sanh to spy and collect information on the Viet Cong. The Viet Cong broke the peace record of ceasing the fire during Tet. They started attacking the Khe Sanh airport, I had to run into the jungle with my team. We stayed there for about 3 days until a helicopter came and picked us up and took us to Da Nang.

Q: How did you feel when the North Vietnam took over?

A: Everyone was scared and so was I. I took my family, 6 people total including your dad, all the way South in 1975 to get away from the Viet Cong. We were going to go on a boat to escape but unfortunately we got caught and we had to return to the family house. After that I was put in re-education camp.

Q: What did you do after you lost your job in the army?

A: After the Viet Cong won the war, I was put in re-education camp. Everyone was living a rather peaceful and prosperous life until the Viet Cong took every thing. They closed all the trading ports, we were short on food, and no one affiliated with the old government could get any job. To sum up, it was an extremely difficult time for our family.

Q: How long did they put you in the reeducation camp?

A: I was put in the re-education camp for almost 7 years.

Q: How did they treat you in the camp?

A: Only one word “inhumane.” They only fed us twice a day and it was the same food everyday. Every meal consisted of white rice and old, hard, boiled cassava. Each of us only got a handful of rice for each meal. We had to work everyday, we were not allowed to leave. Every once in awhile, they would feed us a piece of pork as big as my thumb. I lost a lot of weight and I was in the hunger state most of the time. I saw many people get tortured and beaten pretty bad.

Q: What possessions did you bring with you to America and why?

A: I did not bring much with me, I only brought some clothes and important paperworks to prove that we were refugees.

Until today, my grandfather still despises the Communist. After all, they were the reason we have to leave our behind our motherland and look for a new life in another country. Sometimes I ask myself, what if the U.S. did not leave South Vietnam so soon? South Vietnam could have been another developed country like South Korea or Singapore, instead of being a developing third world country today. I might have been able to have the same opportunities in my own country as I do being here. Nevertheless, my grandfather’s stories have motivated me even more to work harder towards my goals. If my grandfather can survive the atrocities he’s been through and if my parents can endure working and living in a country where they can not even speak the native language, then I can definitely handle what is in store for me as it is nothing compared to their obstacles.