An Engineer’s Role in a War: Doc Nghiem’s Story
Profilers: Justin Chang, Sabrina Sy, Vy Ho
Background & Life Before the War
What was your life like before the war?
I lived at a farmhouse next to Hanoi. So in 1946, when the French started bombing the zones occupied by the Japanese, we had to flee Hanoi. The family fled into the backcountry and lived there for 2 to 3 years. By the time we came back, the farmhouse was destroyed. The land was still there, but the farmhouse had been destroyed, so we settled back in Hanoi, where I went back to school with my two brothers until 1954. During all these battles, when we went to the back countries, we met with the resistance, the Viet Minh. They hosted village meetings and they performed a lot of teaching, talking, and singing. When we went back to Hanoi, it had been reoccupied by the French. In 1945, Ho Chi Minh found the Democratic Republic of Vietnam and claimed the country from the French, but the Allies decided to give it back to the French, so Ho Chi Minh went back underground and continued fighting the French until 1954.
There was a ceasefire and the French retreated to the South. Almost a million people followed and migrated to the South. At the time, I was in elementary school and did not know much. It was relatively safe in the cities, so we didn’t feel much of the war. There was news of the war, but the war didn’t show up in the cities. I had just passed my middle school exams when my father came back home with news that we had lost the country and that we were to migrate to the South. He came and announced that we had lost everything in the North. He took a job in Đà Lạt at the Imperial Guard Office and sent us back to school. I was a freshman in middle school at that time. I was twelve.
That’s a little bit of a timeline so we can relate my age and my time there with the events. I was at the French lycée where I graduated with a baccalaureate before I went to Saigon and attended the Faculty of Science for a year. And then the next year, 1962, I took the exam for civil engineering at the College of Engineering in Phú Thọ, Saigon. I graduated with a degree in civil engineering in 1966. From 1966 to 1967, I worked at the Industrial Development Ministry, which was trying to industrialize South Vietnam. I was assigned the field engineer position at a sugar plant in Quảng Ngãi, Central Vietnam. It lasted only a year. I built the plants halfway. I hadn’t finished it when I was drafted. In the middle of 1967, I attended boot camp at Thủ Đức. At the end of boot camp, I was advised to report to the Vietnamese Military Academy, the National Military Academy in Đà Lạt.
I was very glad that, with my Buddhist upbringing, I could serve the country in that capacity because I was not fit to serve on the frontlines.
Buddhist Affiliation During the War
Can you speak to your religious affiliation at this time, especially in context of Buddhist persecution under President Ngo Dinh Diem?
It was kind of complicated. Somebody may say that President Diem was a devout Roman Catholic, so he was perceived as unfair to non-Catholics. There was some of that happening.
But in general, Buddhism is an embracing and noncommittal religion. It’s very flexible. Buddhism is about embracing and accepting others instead of excluding them. Unfortunately, when President Diem scheduled that referendum in 1955 and became the President of the Republic, his Roman Catholic background did favor him but also became a source of disturbances later on. It was a weakness, but I never imagined monks would be going to the streets and driving Mercedes to do so. It didn’t fit with me. In order to organize, you have to have had funding from somewhere, so to me, it was very suspicious. Under Diem, there was persecution, there was prohibition, there were raids of temples, but if I could see it as a weakness, so could the Viet Cong, our enemies. It is not clear who was funding whom. But the immolation of several monks still occurred. I disagree with monks for protesting in that manner, but I don’t know what else they could have done.
President Diem was facing enough problems from communist sentiment that had emerged after 1954, spurring rebellions in regions in the South and building a growing opposition against him. He had a lot of problems with the Cao Đài, Bình Xuyên, and the Hòa Hảo, groups that had been supporting the French under French colonial rule.
Without solid evidence, I could tell you only that this was not the complete truth, but the persecution did happen. The self-immolations, the raids of the temples all happened, contributing to a lot of turmoil and culminating in the assassination of President Diem and his brother.
Role at the Military Academy
Could you describe your role as a professor at the military academy, and can you give us a sense of how war and education were intertwined at this time?
Being an engineer from a reputable college in Vietnam, I was summoned up to the military academy with a bunch of colleagues. We were told that we were to be academy instructors in a four-year curriculum. The military academy had just been rebuilt, a couple of years back, in 1966. The military academy changed from a 2-year military program to an enriching, all-round 4-year program with humanities, social sciences, history, and advanced engineering. This was modeled after the U.S’ Military Academy, West Point. We called it the “Mini West Point.” We had military advisors and a bunch of books from West Point. We had to write curricula and figure out cost programs before we could teach.
As the school changed, an instructor with just a bachelor’s degree was not enough. So the USAID gifted us educational grants to obtain graduate degrees in the States and Australia. The condition was that: if you signed up, you would have to come back and serve 10 years at the military academy. The situation, with the war at the time, was very intense. The draft used to be for 2 years; you served for 2 years and then you left. But, with the war continuing on, 2 years became 4 years. By the time I was drafted, it was 8 years. It was between 8 years or 10 years, so I might as well take the scholarship and build up something from it.
Graduate Student in the U.S.
What was your life like in the U.S. when you came here for graduate school?
So I went to the States, to the University of Florida. After two years and a half, I got my master’s degree in Civil Engineering and came back in 1972. But if you’re a foreign student, in the summer you don’t take off; you just stay around campus. You don’t have anything to do. I had five American roommates. During break, they would drive me to visit their parents. I found that everything there—the human side of people—is the same. They had their parents, parents who supported their schooling. Everything we have, they have. And everything they have, we have, so there were no differences. The only thing that was different was the accents they had.
One accent was the Alabama accent. When I went to Alabama, it was all fields. I met my roommate’s father. I saw very few people. I saw the countryside and landlords just like my parents. We went to town, but there was only one Sears store, no bigger than McDonald’s today. There was only one model in there with the same hat and the same outfit as the one in the Sears store in Gainesville, Florida. So that was introspective and quite nice to see. I was alone there; no Asian had ever visited that area of town.
I had roommates from Queens so I went to meet their family who were of German descent. I met the whole family, their grandmother, sisters, and everybody around the corner. There was also one roommate from Boston. I didn’t visit him, but I did visit the family of a Jewish roommate of mine who was from Long Island. From Queens to Long Island, there was a difference. From a Catholic to a Jewish family, there was a difference. They showed me their temple and book of knowledge. They spoke French, so I enjoyed a few conversations with them. It was an eye-opening thing. They were all very human, very friendly. I felt accepted by them.
Return to Vietnam
How did you come back to Vietnam? What was your role upon your return?
I finished my studies. When I came back, I was made Second Lieutenant because of the time I spent in the army. I was assigned to be head of their highway. There were several divisions in the civil engineering school department like the water division, the structural division, and the architecture division. I taught a class from ’72 to ’75.
It was an emotional conflict. In one sense, I felt honored to be there, to be equipping them with knowledge they needed to be leaders of divisions and whatever they were capable of being. But before they got to that point, they had to go through a test of fire. And I was mourning so many of them.
After the Tet Offensive, I heard that half of the graduates became disabled, only a few months after graduation. That was a shock. Hearing these stories about graduates and still coming back to the academy was the hardest part of teaching at the military academy.
Fall of Saigon
What were your final days or weeks like as a professor of the military academy during the Fall of Saigon? What happened afterwards?
At the military academy, in the final days, it was quite sad. The cadets were still students. They had received training but had no real battlefield experience. The plateaus were lost first, then a month later, the whole Highlands were lost. The whole time, the plateau next to the shore was threatened. The roads to Saigon were all blocked off. We had to decide whether to stay and fight or evacuate. We were not a fighting unit and we numbered, with all 4 years of classes, 1000 people. It was decided by the head of the military academy who consulted with Saigon that we needed to evacuate by road, down to Phan Rang by the sea and from Phan Rang to Phan Thiet, where we would be picked up.
It took me 7 days to get to Saigon. We were stuck in Phan Rang. We were bombed. We were stuck in Phan Thiet. We were shelled before getting in. but the problem I saw was that the shelling was not all from the enemy. The enemy was not visible. The shelling was coming from the town itself trying to prevent refugees from coming in and disturbing the security of the town. On the road, we had a lot of civilians following us. That was disturbing for me too. Those people were trusting us to defend them, and here we were in uniform, retreating with them following.
There were many accidents on the road. One that comes to mind was a father carrying his son, the same age as Quan, my first son whom I was fortunate enough to send home with his mother on a plane, one of the last planes to go to Đà Lạt and Saigon. The father was on a motorcycle, lying on the road, the son was all bloody and crying on the left side of the father. On the right side was the father’s bloody head. Nobody stopped. The hospitals were not open, everyone was running. You could see the desperation and fear.
I heard later on that a lot of people, a lot of children, died that night. When I got to Saigon, I was glad that we had gotten there without losing somebody. We did lose a few cadets and their families. We were skirmishes by the Viet Cong, but a former graduate from the military academy broke their resistance, and we went through. It was a blessing.
Re-education Camp & North Vietnamese Regime
Like many former South Vietnamese officials, you were sent to re-education camp following the end of the war. What were your experiences during that time?
It was the 30th of April when General Minh finally surrendered to the Viet Cong. About three weeks later, we had to go to meetings, what they called district or neighborhood meetings, so they could track where everybody was. They announced that all former officers, officials, and administrators were to go to a reeducation camp for 10 days. So we packed food, clothes, and supplies for ten days. We resided at the school house next to Cho Lon. We had about 500 there.
In the first three months, we had to attend daily lectures by those they called headmasters. My headmaster had the knowledge of a third grader. But he was in charge. He talked about how great Ho Chi Minh was and all these other things that we were supposed to digest. We were told that by joining the army and doing what we did, we were traitors to our country and now had to make amends. We were told we had to be grateful to the new regime for sparing us. Everyday, we had to write self-criticisms. It was more like self-incrimination. We kept doing that for quite a few months. Some guys invented things to put down that would not cost them dearly afterwards.
Escape by Boat
When you left the country, you ended up in a refugee camp in Singapore. How did you feel leaving the country, and what were your experiences in the camp?
The boat that I was on was organized without the knowledge of the militia [or local law enforcement]. It was bought directly from a fisherman. He and his wife were going to pilot the boat. It was a very small one. It was 12 meters long.
There were two patrols going after us. Again, desperation. There were still a few kilometers. And I said to the guys, “if we’re captured, so be it.” So, they listened to me and fortunately, in the horizon, clouds started forming. There was a storm ready to come over. We looked back and the patrol boat had disappeared. They left, probably in fear of the approaching storms. When the morning came, the water was very calm, like we were in a lake. The boat was overloaded. It was only 8 inches above the water in the back. It was a riverboat. We started the plan we were going to use before. We started to use wood planks to build a deck. We lined the wood across the boat to keep the sun at sea from killing us.
There was a black and red boat, a regular freighter that had been following us since night. Near noon, they reached us. And they had no colors, no flags. The only thing was on the side it said “Captain.” On the stern, there was the word “Hamburg.” It was a West German boat. On the prow of the ship were black haired people, and they were all Vietnamese. They were refugees, people that had been rescued by this boat from previous encounters. We were the fifth encounter they had had. We had 30 people. They rescued us. I was told I was to relocate to Singapore to wait for a country that would grant me to come as a refugee.
On U.S. Involvement in the War
How do you feel about U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War?
I think it was a mistake for the U.S. to send troops over to Vietnam. You see, the war in Vietnam had to be won by teaching the people whom to trust. The appearance of American troops made me feel as if the grass had been cut under our feet, because now, all of a sudden, we were puppets of Americans rather than fighters for our own country. Granted, our forces were not strong, but we hadn’t asked for personnel. The support we had asked for were armaments and the stuff Russia and China had been equipping North Vietnam with. But now, South Vietnamese were fighting for the interest of the United States. I still wonder, to this day, what would have happened if the Vietnamization program had come earlier and, instead of having troops, we had armament and economic support from the U.S.
War Refugee in the U.S.
How did you feel coming to the U.S. as a refugee?
Once they got us in, they treated us like humans, and that set up my course of life in the United States where I was determined to serve. I had survived to serve this country instead of my own where I had been considered useless, When I got to the U.S., I thought the rest of my life should be spent integrating with this country and doing the best I can to contribute good things. And I think, in that note, I have done so.