Refusing to Remember: The Story of an ARVN Medic and Refugee
Profilers: Alejandra Felix, Andersen Le, Natasha McMillen, Arav Sidwhani
Introducing Cong Le
Q: What is your name? And what is your age?
My name is Cong Van Le and age is 84 years old. A little bit old.
Q: What was your life like in Saigon before the war?
Oh, life in Saigon before the war was relatively calm, peaceful, from 1954 to 1960. Because in 1954 the French were defeated at the Dien Bien Phu battle so they departed. According to the Geneva Convention, at that time, Vietnam was divided into two, the North belongs to the communist and the South to nationalist. The people, if they wanted to, they had a choice to live in the North or the South, but South Vietnamese people, they didn’t go to the North to live. But almost more than 1 million people from the North are going to the South. And that time Americans came and they helped us to relocate refugees. They tried to rebuild South Vietnam into a democratic country. So we add the First Republic of Vietnam. Americans helped us financially and militarily to reconstruct the country. But at that time, you know, the North Vietnam, always wanted to control over the South. But, so, during the time before the war from 1954, when the French departed, to 1960, we had a relatively calm peaceful time.
Q: What did you do? What was daily life like in Saigon before the war? Like what did you do? Usually during the day?
Well, before the war, I was young. My youth didn’t have a pleasant or happy life at all when I was young. I should say that I grew up with many wars. I was born in 1939, so the World War II was started. Until 1945, the Viet Minh was a pre-communist faction organized by Ho Chi Minh. The Viet Minh started fighting with the French until 1954. And when the French was defeated and the American came. So we had a relatively good time there.
From 1960 to 1967, I was a medical student for seven years. So I didn’t do much, I didn’t have good time, anything before the war. So I was young and didn’t have a happy life at all during the war, fighting with the French and communists.
Q: Are there any notable significant memories you had of living in Saigon before the war?
I was young. I was young before the war, I didn’t have much, any, favorite memories at all during the pre-war. But after the war, I might have some happy times when watching the American culture on TV, American sports, movies, Western movies. So that’s my favorite memory during the war, but before the war it was okay. Nothing, boring.
The War and Leaving Saigon
Q: What was it like during the war then from your perspective?
During the war, the war was cruel. The war got intensified with time and especially during 1963 to 1970. At the beginning, they start with Guerilla… Guerilla war from ‘95 to ‘63. But later on when they got more ammunition, rocket, tanks, and artillery through the Ho Chi Minh trail they engaged in conventional war, so casualties on both sides, sky high, especially the Offensive Tet. You know, they violated the ceasefire agreement between them during the Tet. The Tet is the New Lunar Year for the Vietnamese and Asian people. They used to have a ceasefire agreement, but the communist violated that agreement. They attacked all the major cities and they caught us off guard by surprise, so casualties from us and Americans were high. But they know they can achieve the propaganda, political strategic victory, but also the tactical victory. That’s why the American public, they saw did not support the war in Vietnam at all. So every day they saw body bags coming home. They wanted to stop the war at that time. So there were too many demonstrations in the US universities, so that was terrible during the war.
So at that time during the war, I was drafted. When I get out of medical school, in 1967, I was drafted into the South Vietnam army. So most of the time I was behind the battlefields on all military operations. A few years later, I was trying to work in military hospital until 1975. So I was in army from ‘67 until ‘75. It was about eight years. So very tough during the war, so I don’t want to remember that.
Q: When did you make the decision to leave Saigon? And why did you make that decision?
Yes. Actually, I didn’t have, I cannot make a decision today because I was in the army, I have follow orders. I cannot make the decision to go. But you know, the Paris Peace Treaty in 1973 gets the US Army to withdraw without losing face, and they, and the Paris Treaty, sorry, also get the North Vietnam to change to invade more South. This treaty was broken immediately after the, and the fighting continued two more years until ‘75. So South Vietnam, according to the peace agreement, South Vietnam cannot get any more aid from the US. They have weapons, they got weapons, but they didn’t have any ammunition. They couldn’t fight because the US Congress did not approve any help. And on the other side, North Vietnam, they had tremendous support, military support from Soviet Union and China. So we lost the war because we didn’t have any ammunition to fight against them. So that’s why we lost the war.
At that moment, fortunately, my wife’s cousin, who was a US citizen, she came home to visit family at that time just about one week before the fall. And she heard the news from the US Embassy in Vietnam that one US citizen can sponsor 20 people, 20 relatives in her family. And my wife asked if you want to go, and she did and suddenly, you know, I followed her and we went to the US Embassy, to the Saigon airport. So we get out of our country by way of airlift operation from President Ford at that moment. So, well, I didn’t make a decision, but my wife made it for us all that’s for sure.
Q: How did it feel to leave Saigon?
Terrible. It was terrible. The last week of April in ‘75. The Saigon City was surrounded by North Vietnam army. They were around us. So the fall of Saigon was imminent. People in Saigon City they were in panic in chaos they wanted to leave, but they didn’t know how. But that rumors circulated in the city that don’t worry about it, Saigon will be a politically neutral state and the French will be back something like that…., but you know with us, fortunately, we got out of the country by way of the airlift evacuation through the Saigon airport. The Saigon airport at that time was in full swing for evacuation of the people out of the country 24 by 24, so it was bad. It was a sad situation, but fortunately, we got out of the country by boat [meant by way of airlift, not boat].
The Refugee Camps and Life in the U.S.
Q: Where did you end up when you left Vietnam initially? Where did they take you?
We left the country by way of airplane, military airplane.
Q: Where did the military airplane end up?
They transferred us first to the Philippines. To, I can remember the Clark Field in the military Manila Subic Bay and they transferred us to Guam Island there, so we were lucky.
Q: Did you ever end up in the refugee camps?
Well, yes, they put us a family of five, me, and my wife, and the three children in the tent at Guam. Yeah, for three weeks and then they transferred us to Fort Chaffee in Arkansas and we stayed there for about one month. So life in the camp was not bad. We had good food, military food, some entertainment, like sports activities, movies, we went to different classes to learn about American history, American culture. We went through the different offices, immigration, to have a legal entry to the U.S. We went to charity offices to look for sponsor. So this was good, nostalgia, nostalgia. Life in the camps was good I would say.
Q: How were you accepted into the U.S.?
Well, they accepted immediately. When we heard that we would be accepted to U.S. we were very happy. The most important thing that we felt at that time when we got accepted to the U.S. was freedom and said no more communism, no more oppression upon my life by communists, so we were happy, we were very happy.
Q: What was it like when you first got to the U.S. and your adjustment to life there? What was it like?
I wanted to tell you about that, the first few years in U.S., we had some difficult times but we survived. You know we were sponsored by a young couple in Memphis, Tennessee. The husband was an intern, a medical intern, but they had a big heart. They sponsored the whole family, they brought us to Memphis, they got us into a new apartment, they brought clothes, furniture, all the furniture from the church, into the apartment, so we almost got everything. He got my wife job the next day, can you believe it? My wife was a pharmacist in Vietnam, but she cannot practice in U.S. because she has to recertify her license again, get a degree in pharmacy, so she got a job for her at the St. Jude Hospital in pharmacy technician. And he got me a job, a temporary job, as a physician assistant, PA, at the local doctor’s office. So during my time for applying for internships in the residency, we got some income so we were not a burden for the U.S. at all.
A difficult time for us was when we brought our kids to daycare every day. We didn’t have a car. The way there, there was no direct line for the bus to go to the daycare, so we had to take the three bus, different bus, to go to the daycare every day, especially at the winter time which was cold. So you know, we will be ok, we enjoyed everything, so the main thing is you know we had some difficult times, but we survived. [Andersen, his grandson mentions] Yeah, and now I’m here so it worked out pretty well.
Q: Were there any noticeable cultural differences that surprised you when you came from Vietnam to the U.S.?
Yeah so it’s different, different because our culture is different from Americans. So even when we are trying to cope from the situation, we try to learn. That’s why we learn in the refugee camps for that, and we are not, you know, we can adapt to the situation, you know, so we can survive, we did ok.
Q: For the first couple years there in the U.S., you mentioned that it was pretty difficult, you had to work really hard to support your family. What kept you motivated?
Well…for us there were two things that kept us motivated in U.S. The first thing was living in the foreign country in a sudden. So we were worried about everything, we worried about language, we have to work hard to learn the language, we work hard to recertify our credentials, we you know, worried about our practice in medicine. Again, can we do it? And that’s why we worked very hard. And also the second thing is the future of our children. You know, our dream to go to the United States was the education for our kids. If you don’t have a good education, you don’t have a bright future. Fortunately, all my kids were doing good, so they are now all professionals, and they give us six grandchildren and you are one of them [referring to Andersen] wonderful grandchildren. So I think America is the land of opportunity and change in the United States, no more communists.
Q: Have you gone back to Saigon in Vietnam and how was the experience?
I still have family there now, my sister and her family. So sometimes we go back to Vietnam to visit them. Just visit them and see the country how do they do. But I don’t want to interfere with them I don’t want to fight or anything.
Q: Is there any feelings you have associated with Vietnam?
Well I didn’t have anything in me, I didn’t feel anything against them. I just want to see the country to see where I was born and see my relatives in Vietnam. I don’t want to have anything to do against them at all, the system, I have to accept it.
Q: Is there anything you want newer generations to know of the Vietnam war coming from the perspective of a veteran and a refugee?
Well, that’s a very good question. Like it compared to Korea, Korea was also divided into two and Vietnam was divided into two, but the North is communist, supported one thing while the South did not, they wanted to divide the nation, but for what? The [nation was] going down other than the country going… well, um…so you know maybe you ask me that question…I was against it, I was against it, but what can I do it’s the destiny of our nation, but what can I say I just want to accept it, that’s all.