Memories of flight from Vietnam fresh after 40 years of freedom

Van Dinh-Kuno remembers the panic. She remembers the rush to flee Saigon on April 29, 1975, the day before the city was captured by the communists of North Vietnam.

With South Vietnam’s surrender — 40 years ago Thursday — the long, long war would end.

Dinh-Kuno’s father was a military officer on the losing side. Her family had to get out. The Mukilteo woman remembers their horrible voyage, and months as refugees at Fort Chaffee, Arkansas. Except for their lives, all was lost. Here, though, they built new lives.

“Losing our country was a curse and a blessing,” said Dinh-Kuno, 59, longtime executive director of Refugee and Immigrant Services Northwest, an agency based at Everett Community College.

“I was 19 years old. In 20 minutes, every single thing was lost — the place you wanted to grow up, my father’s means of making a living, and my education, up in smoke. We set out for the unknown,” she said Monday.

Marie Tran, an Edmonds Community College business management instructor, was 9 when her family fled South Vietnam days before Saigon fell. Her father had a role in South Vietnam’s government, which put him in danger. It was April 24, 1975, when Tran’s large family was flown out of Saigon on a C-130 U.S. military cargo plane.

Tran’s family also was sheltered at Fort Chaffee before finding a home in Oklahoma. Today, she is co-founder of a nonprofit that helps children in six Vinh Son Orphanages in Vietnam’s central highlands. She started the organization, Children of VSO Inc., with her sister, who lives in Idaho.

“Knowing you’re kind of the lucky one, and were able to make it out and have a better future, we try to do everything we can to give back,” said Tran, 49. She makes annual trips to the orphanages to teach English.

Dinh-Kuno, whose 85-year-old father, Dinh Quang Hoi, lives in Mountlake Terrace, gives back in a different way. She has devoted her career to the refugee agency, formerly the Snohomish County Refugee and Immigrant Forum, which helps newcomers navigate their new lives.

“I am close to retirement after 30 years,” said Dinh-Kuno, who figures she has helped as many as 10,000 people adjust to the United States. They have come from Ukraine, Poland, Romania, Iran, Iraq, Sudan, Somalia, Afghanistan, Syria and other places, each with a unique story.

Even after 40 years, Dinh-Kuno’s memories of her harrowing journey are fresh.

Her father’s initial plan was to escape through Cambodia, but a key bridge had been destroyed. She remembers him telling his family that he wouldn’t surrender, but would take his life. “He had a .45 caliber handgun,” she said. “We knew the communists were closing in.”

On the afternoon they left, her mother could see from the upper floor of their home that crowds were heading to Saigon’s harbor. They took just 20 minutes to pack, wearing layers of clothes but taking no luggage except backpacks filled with food and water.

The U.S. military guarded a harbor gate. her father’s ID allowed entry. Her grandmother was nearly left behind in the crush of people. Dinh-Kuno, her parents, grandmother and 10 siblings made the trip. An older married sibling lived elsewhere in Vietnam.

With about 1,000 other refugees, they packed onto a Norwegian cargo ship with a Vietnamese man at the helm. Her father hoped they would be picked up in international waters. But a U.S. aircraft carrier, which had lowered nets so refugees could climb aboard, only took people from much smaller boats.

“I had to thank God our boat was so much bigger compared to others,” she said. “Some of the elderly couldn’t climb the nets. We’re watching this whole event unfold in front of us.”

Their next hope was Taiwan. As they approached the island nation, Dinh-Kuno recalled, a ship was sent out to tell them that if they tried to land they would be shot. And the Taiwanese meant it, she said.

They weathered a terrifying storm, using the rainwater for drinking. By day eight, with fuel and water almost gone, they were approached by a helicopter. The U.S. military dropped canned food, sent a ship to provide fuel, and helped chart their course to the Philippines. After 11 days at sea, they arrived at the U.S. Navy base at Subic Bay. There, Dinh-Kuno got a baloney sandwich, a Dr. Pepper and a shower.

Families with U.S. connections were flown by cargo plane to Guam, where in 1975 more than 100,000 Vietnamese refugees were housed in tents. She remembers being immunized and getting immigration documents there.

Her family spent May to September 1975 at Fort Chaffee. “We celebrated our first Fourth of July in the camp,” she said. Volunteers brought clothing and taught English.

At last, her family was sponsored by a Lutheran church in Brainerd, Minnesota, where they had to adjust to sub-freezing weather. Dinh-Kuno, a University of Minnesota graduate, is proud that her siblings and three children have all earned degrees. She moved with some of her family to the Everett area after an older brother became a Boeing engineer.

Here, she met her future husband. David Kuno, a U.S. Army veteran who served as a helicopter pilot in Vietnam in 1968. They have been back to Vietnam twice, in 2003 and 2005.

Dinh-Kuno said her father has always urged his children to work hard and appreciate their new country.

“My dad will tell you, America was the only country in the world that had arms open,” Dinh-Kuno said.

Julie Muhsltein: 425-339-3460; jmuhlstein@heraldnet.com.

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