That day’s shelling began at 6 A.M., a heavy barrage of artillery fire from the mountains two miles northwest of Phan Rang AFB. Only four of us were sleeping in the “alert patch,” a quonset hut within sprinting distance of the runway where our A‑37 jet fighters were parked.
Most of the base personnel had been evacuated to Saigon two days before; except for its commander and his immediate staff, the Air Force’s Sixth Division had left also, pushed relentlessly from Pleiku to Phan Rang and now to Saigon. On detached twenty‑four hour duty, we flew whenever and wherever we were ordered, our only certainty the knowledge that if we were still alive after a day and a night on alert, another crew of four would replace us.
The phone rang, its peal louder than the drone of the air conditioner, more persistent than the steady boom that had become so familiar it could almost be ignored. Minutes later, boots half laced, flight suits only partially zipped, faces hastily splashed with water that had condensed on our Plexiglas canopies, we were airborne.
The artillery that had awakened us fell silent, positions concealed by camouflage, foliage, and fog. New orders crackled over the radio. We were to destroy three strategic bridges South of Cam Ranh Bay.
Our beautiful coastal cities were falling one by one like pearls from a broken necklace. Saigon, “Pearl of the Orient, ” must be protected, must be spared for as long as possible. We were short of bombs, ammunition, even fuel for our aircraft, and bitterly aware of the corruption riddling the highest ranks of the military and the upper levels of the government.
But as we climbed above the heavy ground fog and thick cloud cover that had been bedeviling us for days, as we thrust our way toward cruising altitude, the ugliness and the killing and the agony of which I was so much a part were momentarily eclipsed by the endless, ethereal blue of the sky, the diamond sparkle and deeper blue of the sea, the clear softness of the reborn sun. It was a beautiful morning up where I was flying; it was also my last taste and sight of true freedom for nearly eight years.
Vo Nguyen Ba was my wingman. Tall and gaunt, with an austere, high cheekboned face, he was believed by some pilots to be unlucky. The 548th “Black Eagle” squadron had lost six men in the past few months; four of them had been Ba’s wingmen. After the most recent accident, when two following aircraft in close formation crashed into a mountain peak in a stormy afternoon that Ba pulled away from at the last possible instant, he had been transferred to a test‑flight squadron.
No one wanted to fly with him; behind his back he was called “Wingman Killer.” Now, with the need for experienced fighter pilots acute, he was back, and I’d volunteered to take him as my partner. He was a good man and a good pilot; you could read in his face the anguish he’d suffered and the terror he’d born as a witness over the men he’d flown with who had gone down.
There was time, as we headed toward the rendezvous point where an L‑19 reconnaissance plane awaited us, to remember other flights, other comrades‑in‑arms, and for me it was particularly appropriate. I had volunteered to fly again, tomorrow, but it would be my last sortie. I had made careful plans, had reconnoitered my target and even recorded the speech I would broadcast over the open emergency channel of my radio, and I would not be coming back.
Whether what I made, a shred of difference was not as important to me as the gesture of it. With one final burst of defiant sacrificial flame I would condemn the leadership that had betrayed us, the cunning enemy that had cheated the Paris agreement, and issue a last call to my countrymen. It seemed to me then, and still does, that death is preferable to dishonor.
If it was to be both my fate and my choice to live a short life, at least I had the satisfaction of knowing that I had lived it to the fullest, that along with the love of all that is beautiful, in addition to the soft passion of gentle women, I had welcomed the hard challenges, had learned to love the exquisite thrill of the razor’s edge, and had conquered the fear of dying.
For a while, until Cam Ranh Bay appeared on the horizon, I could drift in my memories. There isn’t time, in the heat of combat, to think of anything but the objective of the moment. So during the last few minutes before reaching the bridges of Cam Ranh Bay that April morning in 1975, I allowed myself to think once more about the next day’s mission. It had to be perfect because it would be my last; there would be no dry run.
I had long ago accepted the idea of death in combat. Every pilot does. But what I could not envision for myself was usefulessness, giving up, surrendering. It was unlikely that I would live to fight the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong from some haven abroad; when the time came to evacuate those of us in greatest danger of immediate and summary execution by the North Vietnamese or the Viet Cong, I must allow men with wives and children to precede me. I was alone in the world, I owed my life to no one, and therefore, I reasoned, I was free to take it in the most meaningful way I could.
My plan was simple. Ba and I and the other two other pilots at Phan Rang were due to be rotated back to Tan Son Nhat airport in Saigon that evening. My name was already on the next day’s flight roster; no one had questioned it.
Immediately after take‑ off from Tan Son Nhat, I would drop my first two bombs on Camp Davis, located near the runway, where representatives of North Vietnam and the Provisional Revolutionary Government had been lodged since the signing of the Paris accords. Then I would make a left turn to fly along Cong Ly Street to drop the other two bombs on Independence Palace, home of Vietnam President. Camp Davis and Independence Palace were two symbols of the major authorities held responsible for the tragedy of our country and people at this very time. For as long as it took me to broadcast my message and to bid farewell to my beloved Saigon, I would circle above the city. Then, I would dive straight into Independence Palace itself.
I remember almost word for word the short speech I had labored over. After explaining why I was bombing Camp Davis and Independence Palace, I would issue a call for resistance to the death.
“Dear compatriots and comrades‑in‑arms. I am Ly Tong, pilot of the Air Force of the Republic of Vietnam. We are at the most important moment in the history of our nation. As individuals, as a people, either we are resolved to fight to the death or to accept the shameful and ignominious yoke of the red ghosts. In death I pledge to you that a united and determined people can snatch victory from the Communists. Be resolved to fight and to win. My soul and the souls of all who have sacrificed themselves in the skies and on the fields of battle will follow and support you.”
If Saigon, freed from the treachery of the PRG and President Thieu, did not rise spontaneously to defend itself and inspire the rest of the country to do the same, then at least I would have provided a symbol of resistance to those whom I was confident would one day decide to fight again. I would not then have died in vain. But that was tomorrow. Cam Ranh’s bridges had to fall today.
The L‑19 flying reconnaissance over the target reported heavy anti‑aircraft fire. I was used to overly cautious recon pilots, and I suspected that this one hadn’t flown low enough below the dense clouds and fog obscuring the city to be able to tell much of anything.
I let him know exactly what I thought of that kind of intelligence. “Son of a bitch!” Then I ordered Ba to cover me as I dived and made two low passes over the runways of Cam Ranh airport, reportedly the hot spot of the area. Nothing, no groundfire at all. Angrily, I pushed the throttle forward, gaining maximum airspeed, and shot up from the L‑19 belly towards its nose, in a near collision, leaving the powerful exhaust turbulence in front of their cockpits to make it stall to punish the recon pilot, then prepared for a minimum altitude bombing run at 1500 feet.
Although he never mentioned it, Ba was still haunted by the deaths of his last two wingmen. I would not ask him to join me in the dry passes I planned to make over the refugee clogged bridges. Simply humanity demanded that I warn my fleeing countrymen of what was to come, that I fly low enough to be identified, that there could be no mistaking what I planned to do, and that I give them time too save themselves. I would call Ba in for a single solo run once I had dropped my bombs. That would be enough.
I made three passes in quick succession, no more than fifty feet above the heads of the people who immediately understood and ran towards both ends of the first bridge I had targeted. Only sporadic fire burst from what seemed to be three types of anti‑ aircraft guns‑‑12.7mm, 37mm and 23mm.
I thought how ironic it was that this next‑to‑the‑ last mission would also be one of the easiest and safest I’d ever flown. Thumb inching toward the fire button, I began my climb out of the last dry pass. At barely 100 feet altitude, a roar came from my tail, which split away from the airplane, and the cockpit was suddenly awash in smoke.
For an instant all sound died away‑‑as if I had just awakened from the unconsciousness. The tail section of my aircraft split away, and fragments of my A‑37 spiraled downward like dead leaves caught in an autumn wind. Fiery storm of flames was roaring around me, and smoke billowed into my crematorium.
Half sickened, half suffocated, I fought with the pressure of the G‑forces that pinned me to my seat and made all movement impossible. I strained to reach the D‑shaped ejection handle that would hurl me free like an athlete who strained to compress a spring just beyond his strength. Suddenly, I felt suspended in air having no memory of ever having touched it. Perhaps I did. Or perhaps by mysterious power, the heat of the fire activated the electrical impulse that blew me clear.
Now I felt suspended in air, floating in the sky against a background of fearful whistling noises and a fiery hurricane and, in the distance, the deep, peaceful blue of the sea, glistening all the way to the horizon.
Two minutes later, after only four or five hammock like swings of the parachute, with no time to adjust myself to standing position, I crashed to earth, severely bruising my left side.
Within a short while I was running lamely around the shelter of the nearest canebrake, my mind flashing back to Charles Bronson in thrilling scenes of pursuit; my running technique differed from his. I smiled at this fantasy but still kept on my own awkward gait, fleeing in the drama of my own escape scene, perfectly at ease and even rather excited. I was already certain of what must have happened, what was later confirmed by those who witnessed it. An SA‑7
heat‑seeking missile had climbed up the tailpipe of my
A‑37, blasting it and me out of the sky. I’d never heard of any other pilot surviving that kind of hit. I was the first, and to the best of my knowledge, the last and the only one to do so.
I heard two male voices calling softly to me. “Where are you, pilot? Come out. Let us help you.” But I burrowed deeper into the cane, cursing under my breath, “the hell with you” convinced they were Viet Cong.
A helicopter appeared overhead, coming from the direction of Phan Rang. I thought of Ba, wishing I could reassure him, tell him I was still alive, that the fifth wingman to go down while flying with him would break the curse, but I had run out of the alert hut an hour and a half before without bothering to strap on the regulation survival vest or even my .38 caliber revolver.
Without a radio, signal mirror, or smoke grenade to mark my position, without even a match in my pocket to set the grass afire, all I could do was watch my friends as they circled patiently above, waiting for the sign I could not give. Anti‑aircraft fire drove the helicopter back to base after ten minutes of what I recognized to be a thorough and dangerous search. I saluted the unknown pilot and wished them happy landings.
I had landed on top of a gently sloping hill not far from a highway choked with refugees from Nha Trang heading southward toward Phan Rang, which I judged to be about 30 miles away. My sensible plan was all but undermined, I quickly thought, by the carelessness which had brought me to my current sorry state.
Life seemed to be made up of surprising occurrences which kept popping up, making me regret one thing after another. One small thing I regretted not having now was an essential thing for my plan. I had no shorts beneath my flight suit. I belonged to that breed that was simple at heart. So, under the electrifying flyer’s suit, which was decorated with magnificent badges and insignias that no doubt must have led mumerous dreamy girls of my country to weave all kinds of sensuous fantasies and to harbor secret romantic desires about the dashing and handsome young aviator who wore it.
I had ‑ yes! ‑ under that splendid but weird‑looking uniform, granted a special favor only to my tiny mini‑shorts to lie humbly next to my skin. And sometimes being in a great hurry, I had in advertently left this tiny friend behind. My uniform, which had brought me such sweet attention from the girl before, brought it unwanted now.
If I could find some bits of ragged clothing and sandals to exchange for the gray flight suit and black boots that were a dead giveaway of who I was, I ought to be able to make my way to safety in the midst of that milling crowd. Beyond the sugar cane plantation that was such excellent cover lay a railroad track, a broad rice paddy, and clusters of small thatched huts, one of which sat off by itself. It appeared to be abandoned.
If it hadn’t been for a group of excited children who called to me, applauded me, raced after me, and attracted others, I would have made it. “Bravo, our dear pilot! “unable to suppress the children’s excitement, I had to suffer their admiration with a strange mixture of happiness and misery, a sort of painful pleasure !
I very nearly did in spite of all the commotion. As I darted into the thatched hut I spotted an old olive drab military poncho hanging on a hook near the door. Within seconds I had slipped it over my head, but just as the concealing folds of the raincape fell into place I heard a voice behind me order, “Hands up!” I turned, quickly, hoping to frighten or overpower my unknown challenger, but the butt of his rifle slammed into my chin, and the blood streamed from a deep gash whose scar I have to bear through my life.
My captor was a black pajamaed guerrilla about 55 years old, short and wiry, but strong‑looking. His skin was deeply tanned and leathery; red‑rimmed eyes glared coldly and fiercely at me. I guessed him to be one of those secret sympathizers planted long ago and everywhere by the Viet Cong. He held the rifle awkwardly, as if unaccustomed to it, but the blow he had given me had been nearly enough to knock me unconscious, and I had no doubt he would pull the trigger if I tried to defy him.
A crowd of twenty‑ five or thirty spectators elbowing through children had gathered just outside the hut; they seemed to be berating him for his treatment of me. “Why did you hit him?” The question sounded innocent as if they didn’t recognize the reality.
He motioned with the rifle, ordering me to walk before him toward the highway. “If you run, I’ll shoot.” I was absolutely certain he would. As the crowd parted to let me through I heard a soft voice whisper mournfully, “Didn’t you hear me calling, pilot? I saw you go down and came as fast as I could. Why did you hide from me? I could have taken you to safety.” Not by so much as a glance or a flicker of emotion would I betray the unknown searcher I had automatically assumed to be an enemy. I could only listen in silence, and in silence suffer.
The first time I hadn’t trusted other, and the consequences would be served: How stupid I was. I should have know that no Viet Cong would call so sweetly and so affectingly even their best actors as I knew later.
As we approached the highway, I quickly scanned the throng of civilian refugees for a fast moving vehicle aboard which I could leap. Surely the old man would not shoot at point blank range into the closely packed family groups that included women with infants tied across their breasts and children of all ages struggling to stay together on this road of sorrow.
I spotted bicycles, three‑wheeled motor scooters, a few cars, carts like those used by peasants working the fields, all of them so heavily laden that they offered no chance of escape. Suddenly I heard the roar of a powerful motor. A Lambretta taxi, suitcases strapped to its roof, was speeding along the side of the road. Gambling that the noise would distract my captor for the few seconds I needed, I sprinted ahead, made a grab for one of the door handles, and missed it by only inches.
A camouflage painted open bed Dodge truck with wooden sides pulled up. Almost before I realized what was happening, my hands were being tied behind my back by Viet Cong soldiers who had fastened small leafy branches over their helmets and uniforms. The 30mm machine gun mounted on the truck that was obviously a prize of war was nearly completely hidden under a canopy of foliage.
As I scrambled awkwardly over the tailgate I thought I heard a familiar sound‑‑the special scream of jet engines piloted by angry men bent on destruction. Viet Cong soldiers and refugees alike scrambled for shelter in ditches beside the road and under a stand of coconut palms nearby. For a few minutes I stood alone in the bed of the truck, like a lovesick young‑man, dreaming, ” Better to die by friendly fire than tortured and broken by the enemy. Eight A‑37s had flown from Saigon to avenge my death.
Bombs rained down all around me, and I welcomed them. But one of my new captors, braver than the others, ran to the truck, pulled me roughly from it, and tried to hustle me to safety. I resisted, walking as slowly as I could, holding back, assessing the anti‑ aircraft batteries in action, understanding finally that I had been able to make my low passes, my dry runs, without encountering any significant artillery fire because the Viet Cong advance had been so rapid that the gunners outran their supply lines.
As I watched them shoot the planes now, I realized that it was no simple matter to shoot at “flying birds in the sky or swimming fish in the vast ocean” and that the “chains and locks” could not heighten the spirit of the Communist gunners ‑ Almost every gunner had been chained to his gun. The crew of every gun we passed claimed the kill, so the headquarters summarized and reported up to higher ranks that there were 4 plans being shot down: 1 from 12.7mm, 1 from 23 mm, 1 from 37 mm, and 1 from SA‑7 instead of only my plane!
I smiled at their boasting. Ninety‑five percent of aircraft kills in North Vietnam always were reported to fall into the ocean whose wreckage disappeared and verification was impossible, as a communist artillery commander said jokingly to his Airforce Counterpart, ” If ever the China sea dries up, I guess we’ll all end up in jail.” (Airspace published in Ha‑Noi, North Vietnam.)
I thought I knew what was coming, and I tried to prepare myself. When Nguyen Du, who had done so much damage to the Viet Cong cause that he’d earned the distinction of a $ 10,000 bounty on his head, was shot down, he had been condemned to death by a so‑called “people’s court,” and stoned. Over the years, the roster of those whom we knew or suspected to have met the same fate had grown almost too long to count.
I wondered what kind of difference it would make that I had been shot down so close to the area know as Kilometer 9, a strip of bars, restaurants, dance halls, steam baths, and massage parlors that was many soldiers and many pilot’s home away from home. Many’s the time I’d flown in low after a mission, signaling by acrobatics or waggling wings that I’d soon be there in person. I didn’t think I’d mind too much dying there; I knew that the majority of those whose arms were raised against me would be acting out of fear for their own lives. I decided I would show them how well a man could die.
In a people’s court, the spectators, who are supposed to act as judge, jury, and executioners, are encouraged to curse and insult the prisoner, to spit on him, hurl rocks, beat and kick him as he lies helpless at their feet. Guilt is so much a foregone conclusion that the entire proceeding takes on the air of a well rehearsed play, a comedy with a tragic ending.
The agitprop (agitation and propaganda) specialists did their best to incite the curious and openly sympathetic men and women who called to and smiled at me, but they were unsuccessful. Finally, in sheer frustration, two of the agitprop people leaped into the empty circle in which I stood, shook their fists in my face, yelled, cursed, grabbed my hair, and threw me to the ground. Until that moment, bound as I was, I had offered no open resistance to my tormentors, preferring instead to emphasize the barbarity of their actions by suffering them in dignified silence.
Now, however, I sensed that there was a chance I could hold my own in this game of propaganda and saving face, even win it. I struggled to my feet, took careful aim, and spat directly in the face of the biggest, ugliest, and most churlish of the agitprops. By now I’d begun thinking of the crowd of would‑be judges as my audience. I heard applause, laughter, shouts of approval; instead of stones, I was pelted with cigarettes, candies, all sorts of sweet delicacies. My people’s court trial was over. I was marched back to the camouflaged truck and driven away.
Ahead of me lay years and years of interrogations, re‑ education camps, prisons, solitary confinement rooms, torture cells, ordinary jails, and detention centers. I did not know that my ordeal would last from April of 1975 until August of 1983, and perhaps I would have despaired had I been able to read the future. A journey such as the one whose first step I had just taken can only be lived and survived one day at a time, and sometimes those days must be broken into hours, into minutes, into one breath, one heartbeat after another. After the failure of the people’s court I was driven from one hastily set up interrogation office to another, always moving north along that highway on which I saw more and more Viet Cong and North Vietnamese troops the closer we got to Nha Trang.
Although Communist forces did not actually begin occupying the city until the same day that I was shot down, much of the population had begun the long and fruitless trek south on April 1, as soon as it was learned that government offices had been ordered closed and the American consular staff was being evacuated by helicopter. The entire area was still in such chaos that I was only briefly questioned at each stop, then ordered moved on as soon as it became evident that I would not cooperate.
I watched. Like a large, lethargic, slithering snake, the line of refugees pushed its way slowly southward.
Parts of the snake were speckled with bicycles, laden low with clothing and food and furniture and tools, heavy to the point where wheel‑spokes bent and broke whenever they tried to absorb the shock of the washboard like ruts cutting across the macadam road, and tires blew under the pressure, leaving the vehicle’s owner cursing and kicking the inanimate object as if it were some disobedient servant or beast.
Occasionally, a car would weave its way down the back of the serpent, horn blaring, driver and passengers waving wildly, uttering obscene epithets against the oppressive heat, the dust and the sweat, or at their countrymen who impeded their frantic flight from fear and danger. Peasants who owned water buffalo were prodding and cajoling these last remaining prized possessions, which bawled in angry protest against their masters while laboring under the burdensome utensils of everyday life in the countryside.
From the snake’s head far from where I could see, to its tail miles and miles away in the opposite direction, were these refugees, these other victims of war and its aftermath, the people who had stood on the sidelines, the people who tilled and planted, who battered and haggled, who worked and slept as the machines of war roared past or crashed through roofs and sent them huddling in fear, or fed insatiably on their sons and daughters and husbands and wives and friends and loved ones, leaving them only with their grief and the dreaded sounds of more machines.
They were the old people ‑‑ robbed of their self‑respect, openly and publicly degraded in a land where custom and common courtesy once held them in an almost reverential regard. They were the youngsters ‑‑ the boys who, at first, slid into the smart‑ass lying and cheating and petty thievery, sucking off the surplus affluence that oozed from the monied military men swaggering into their villages and shops and bars by the thousands and thousands. Then later, as the winds of war blew from another direction, they became the beggar boys, panhandling or peddling drugs, surviving on street‑wise experience and primeval instincts.
They were the girls ‑‑ barely into their teens, young but old, with faces that had become black and green and red masks of mascara and eye‑shadow and rouge and lipstick, with lacquered fingernails aflame, whose halter‑topped and mini‑skirted bodies barely had begun responding to the puzzling, primal impulses of puberty. they had sold themselves, some ‑‑ no, most ‑‑ cheaply at first, but eventually almost all of them without fear or regret as they followed the tidal wave of western ways that swept over their backward nation. Then, later, they groveled as wasted, worn out whores who knew no other way to bring home a few coins for food or clothing or medicine.
And they were the children ‑‑ those who never had so much as left their villages once in their short lives, the innocent and the eager who worked at their important little chores and played and bickered and whispered and giggled, who stood in awe of all that was big or new or pretty or incomprehensible, and who now saw torn from them all that was warn and secure. Quite suddenly they found themselves deprived of that which was friendly and familiar, facing the pain of hunger and cold, and a future absent of personal political freedom.
Many in the belly of this snake would never reach their destination, forever deprived of the chance to learn how to read a book or add two numbers or write their own names. Never would they learn about love, or making mistakes or the chance to make their parents proud. Quite often they would die as orphans, unable to comprehend the randomness of the cruelty that determined their destiny.
This is what remained of my countrymen, proud and gentle people who had escaped the vagaries of war with little more than their lives, carrying on their backs what little else they had, now forced to walk in step with the spectra of death.
A dirty, bedraggled, spiritless and pitiful population, they had begun the long and, ultimately, fruitless trek south on April 1, as soon as it was rumored that the South Vietnamese border would shrivel once again.
And it was against the current of this quietly angry, beaten and bewildered mass of sorry that I jostled in a U.S. Army jeep captured months earlier by the two North Vietnamese soldiers who were driving and guarding me now.
For miles and miles we fought against the flow. Fortunately, everything was still in such chaos that I was only briefly questioned at each stop, then ordered moved on as soon as it became evident that I would not cooperate.
I don’t know why I didn’t cooperate. I just didn’t. Maybe part of it was patriotism. Maybe it’s because I saw my captors as a gaggle of stupid shits, who dumb‑lucked their way to a short‑ lived victory that might miraculously reverse itself and show me a hero for holding out.
Maybe it was belligerence. Maybe I just didn’t feel like cooperating. Whatever, by the time midnight arrived, the snake was still moving, albeit much, much slower than before. It wore a weariness woven of aching, blistered bodies, cut and bruised, and battered minds battling surrender. The air was heavy with the fog of despair.
The open jeep was coughing and sputtering its way toward Ru Ri Pass, three miles north of Nha Trang. A cold fog had settled in, reducing visibility to less than 10 yards, and our progress was reduced to the pace of a catatonic slug.
Throughout the day I had remained alert for opportunities to escape, and now, though terribly tired and hands still bound behind my back, I remained determined to take advantage of my guards first sleepy nod or yawn. If I could suddenly lurch to one side, slam the top of my head into the face of the soldier sitting next to me , then quickly stand and deliver a hard kick to the driver’s neck,
I might be able to vault from the jeep and disappear into the jungle under the cover of darkness. My mind skipped over the inevitable crash that would follow an attack on the driver. I’d already survived one unsurvivable accident that day, and my fatigued, punchy reasoning reckoned that wrecking a jeep would be of no consequence at all.
We stopped at a well‑manned checkpoint, where my guards disappeared for a time and new ones took their place. I sat there, in the dark in the jeep, my body stiffening as the night grew colder and a slight drizzle started. A few days later I learned from a prison guard that while I shivered and waited, my fate was being discussed and decided at a meeting that seemed to drag on for hours.
Of course, one faction wanted to execute me right then and there. I already had demonstrated that I was likely to be stubborn ‑‑ and even dangerous ‑‑ prisoner, and, they reasoned, their rapid military advance meant there was little time and even fewer guards to waste on recalcitrant imperialist pilots like me. Besides, it was unlikely that I possessed any really vital information anyway, one side argued. The sooner I was shot the sooner everybody could get some sleep. Piss on him, one side said.
The prison guard never told me how close the vote was, if vote they did, but it was finally decided to send me on to Chi Lang, a temporary Viet Cong rest and rehabilitation center where there was a team interrogation specialists.
Dump him off there, they thought, then let’s get out asses down to Saigon in time for the big celebration.
Over the course of the next three weeks I passed through five different types of temporary confinement before reaching the prison where I was to spend my first full year of the incarceration that went by the name of “re‑education.”
The conditions I encountered and the prisoners with whom I shared them not only reflected the chaotic state of my country during its final days of freedom, but also were foreshadowings of the physical and psychological warfare that the victorious communist regime would soon be waging on every individual in the defeated south.
My first surprise at Chi Lang was how effective our bombing had been.
Chi Lang was non‑descript, jagged tangle of brown, tattered earth, where dust and mud coexisted in some stark and strange symbiotic aberration of mature. Campfires choked the air with low‑ lying smoke, leaving a dull but eerie cast to whatever sunlight struggled through. Stripped of its greenery by our bombs, the camp’s building and exercise areas showed the open, festering sores of direct hits and shrapnel.
Practically every soldier ‑‑ not every prisoner, every communist solider ‑‑ had an arm in a sling or a leg in a splint, their bodies taped or bandage with gauze or cloth to cover the cutting, ripping results of cluster bombs or the agonizing, disfiguring burns of the feared napalm jelly.
The silent, stumbling, limping figures that made their way about the camp gave it a haunting texture that went beyond the realm of reality, some thing that wasn’t openly frightening, but a constant, underlying source of apprehension an anxiety.
The second surprise at Chi Lang was the type of treatment I received, initially at least, at the hands of my chief interrogators, one of whom ‑‑ according to my guards, at least ‑‑ was a North Vietnamese artillery commander and the other the leader of a terrorist unit.
My first hour at Chi Lang I was allowed to sit on a chair, where, resting on a table before me, were a bowl of rice and a dish of pork, the latter a real and rare delicacy to these men who had grown accustomed to eating roots and leaves and rodents and insects and whatever else the jungle offered up.
A pot of hot tea was brought, a bowl of sugar, a package of their best cigarettes. Not even high‑ranking officials always received this kind of special treatment.
The food, the tea, the cigarettes beckoned with their nearly irresistible siren song.
“Thanks, but no thanks,” I said, pushing the small table away from me, then crossing my arms, then my legs. My eyes locked in to the gaze of the artillery officer, and then I lied.
“I’m quite sorry, but I’m neither hungry nor thirsty. And I don’t smoke. Bad for the lungs.”
I thought back to survival training, and the advice of our instructors. Keep your head. Size up your interrogators. Remember that food and drink could be laced with truth‑ inducing drugs. Be polite, but show no fear. Expect to be tortured.
“That is very honorable of you, lieutenant,” said the artillery officer. “Were I in the same situation, I undoubtedly would respond in like manner.”
I said nothing. He continued.
“Let us see now, you are Ly Tong, a pilot with the 92nd Tactical Wing at Phan Rang air force base. Your A‑37 was shot down while you were trying to destroy one of our bridges near Cam Ranh. Tsk, tsk, tsk. I see you were a member of the 548th ‘Black Eagle’ squadron at Phan Rang. How nice to have someone of such esteem in our presence.”
I was pleased that the notoriety of my squadron was so widespread that he would mention it .
“I am still a Black Eagle,” I said to him.
“Most certainly,” he responded. “I stand corrected.”
This North Vietnamese regular was no taller than I, looked to be about 45 and his straight black hair stood in spikes, except for a large tousle that fell over his forehead until it touched his eyebrows.
His eyes were large and black. Whenever he spoke he had a curious habit of tilting his head back just a bit, then closing his eyes about halfway so that he was looking down at to whomever he was talking.
His voice had a soft, disarming edge to it, and his diction and elocution revealed education and culture. If these two were going to play what the Americans called “good cop ‑ bad cop,” I knew right away this was the good cop.
“Bad cop” stood off to my right and slightly behind me. Silent and staring, he was by far the more menacing of the two.
“But please, lieutenant, try now to put yourself in my position” said Good cop. “Just as you know, we must answer to our superiors, and they likely will be quite disappointed with us ‑‑ and you ‑‑ if we are forced to tell them you were uncooperative. We would like only to verify the information we already have concerning your unit strength, and the tactical deployment of planes and personnel that have yet to surrender.”
Again I lied.
“If I knew, I’d tell you. I’m not privy to that kind of information. I’m just a lowly lieutenant. Sorry.”
“I understand,” said Good Cop. “But if you change your mind, feel free to partake of whatever is here. And, for that matter, understand scintillating discussion more palatable to you.”
“I’ll think about it,” I answered honestly, but knowing I would accept none of the bribes. I also was thinking about when “Bad Cop” would get into the act.
The man is just standing there, I thought, staring all the while. I bet he hasn’t taken his eyes off me once since he came into the room.
Unlike Good Cop, he wore no military uniform ‑‑ just black pajamas and sandals. He had very closely cropped black hair and a Fu‑Manchu mustache. I had seen more than a few communist soldiers and officers during the war ‑‑ captives or traitors to their cause ‑‑ but this one was the first I had seen who did have a mustache.
Beard and mustache seem like the grant and sacred symbol of Ho Chi Minh himself. If, in the former time, the Vietnamese people always checked their family register of the three generations to be sure that they could avoid giving their children the same name as their ancestors ‑ the unpardonable offense ‑ nowadays, the Vietnamese communists are doing in the same purpose the different style that seems to mean that growing beard and mustache is violating the sacred image and privilege of Ho Chi Minh.
He was short, about 5 foot‑4, and stocky, with an impressive barrel‑chest that told much of his strength and endurance in a war that slowly but inevitably sapped the juices of life from most other men.
But Bad Cop’s eyes were his most prominent feature. Narrow, passionless slits of darkness, they protected ‑‑ or imprisoned ‑‑ whatever thoughts or plans that lurked behind them.
Bad Cop’s only concession to the war were these eyes‑‑and a thin, ugly scar that criss‑crossed the side of his face. Like a long black leech, it ran from the bottom lid of his left eye across his cheek to the left earlobe. Detouring, it then doubled back along his chin line and came up to the left corner of his mouth, pulling it down into a perpetual lopsided frown.
As disfiguring as it was, the scar nonetheless wasn’t as prominent as one might have thought. In fact, I noticed the two missing fingers on his left hand long before I saw the scar.
“Perhaps, too” said Good Cop, “we might be able to strike an change of sorts?”
“It depends,” I responded. “What did you have in mind?”
“Your freedom for a few public acts of loyalty to your new government,” he said.
Ly Tong drawing the map of Phan Rang air force base so that the communists shelling can destroy all his airplanes and kill all his friends? Ly Tong broadcasting a radio appeal to his comrades to lay down their arms?
Ly Tong praising the generosity and spirit of forgiveness the Revolutionary Forces were prepared to show to those who joined them? And, Ly Tong collaborating the enemy’s air force to drop bombs on the head of his compatriots?
“Gentlemen,” I said finally, “Even trapped animals know how to signal approaching danger to their kind; as a man, I cannot trick my comrades into the trap of sham humanitarianism and reconciliation in which you would ensnare them.
With that, Bad Cop moved cobra-like towards me,
quickly grabbing my neck with his left hand. He caught me off guard, and in my surprise I had no time to resist as his two fingers and thumb latched onto my throat, vise‑like and paralyzing. I offered no struggle.
I looked up and saw a face filled with a controlled and calculated rage. His lips were pursed slightly, and I could hear the air rush in and out of his nostrils. His eyes remained unfathomable.
I watched as he slowly drew his right hand between us and held it momentarily behind his left ear. His eyes narrowed even more, and I could feel them burrowing into mine. Then , suddenly, the cocked arm was loosed, swiftly swinging in a short arc until the back of his hand struck my face. The force of the impact knocked me loose of his grip and sent me sprawling off the chair and onto the floor. At first I felt numb, then I wanted to throw up.
I looked up at Bad Cop. The long, black leech‑scar was throbbing.
“Get him out of my sight,” were his first words. “Immediately! Send him to Dien Khanh before I crush him with my bare hands.”
Good Cop and another guard lifted me up. I stood there, limp, wiping the blood from my mouth.
Then, in a low, resonant voice, came a warning ‑‑ ominous, foreboding, frightening.
“Look at this face, Ly Tong. Memorize it. You will see it again, I promise you.”
The long black leech looked like it was alive, crawling, but staying in one place.
“It is the face of death, Ly Tong. Your death.
Then he turned and walked out of the room
Dien Khanh prison held some of the most notorious criminals in Nha Trang province.
Black marketers, robbers, rapists, murderers ‑‑ many of them heavily addicted to drugs ‑‑ who, together, formed a violent admixture of low‑life, any number of whom could, in a split‑second and with the skill of a surgeon, insert a stiletto or sharpened spike under the chin of an adversary and shove it up into the brain, yawn while doing it, and then walk away with barely a quickened pulse.
These were people who dealt constantly in money and power, savagely and malevolently, and who expended no more conscience and concern about extinguishing the fires of a human life than they did to crunching out a cigarette butt.
Despite my obvious prisoner‑of‑war status ‑‑ and the special treatment I expected because of it ‑‑ I was nonetheless assigned a sleeping place next to one of the most important gang bosses in the province: “Black Toi,” a short, balding, bespectacled character who looked about 35 and came as close as any human could to rivaling in girth the great Buddha himself.
Serene and composed, Black Toi displayed a number of conspicuous features, in addition to his overwhelming corpulence.
His voice ‑‑ that of a prepubescent alter boy ‑‑ was sonorous and sweet, belying the ferociously feral and cunning beast that, unbeknownst to all but his betrayers and victims, paced and prowled within him.
Black Toi, I was later told, personally administered the flaying of one of his heroin dealers who had cheated a customer of an ounce of the precious powder.
Money…that was the one thing. Black Toi could almost condone skimming some of the take, for that was part of the game, part of the action, part of how he, as a teen‑age drug runner, had bankrolled his own foray into the fast lane of grass and coke and smack.
But to shortsheet a customer of shit bought and paid for, now that was another thing…something that was bad ‑‑ very bad ‑‑ for business.
Black Toi made money ‑‑ big, big money ‑‑ on his reputation for delivering the goods, on time with no questions asked. He could be trusted ‑‑ by junkies, politicians, whores, industrialists, generals and American G.I.’s alike ‑‑ and any “bad press” he got from one of his associates was met with extremely harsh retribution.
As to the flaying, I didn’t ask for particulars.
Black Toi also had two deformities: large purple‑black birthmarks ‑‑ from whence came his nickname ‑‑ one covering his right eye and cheek, the other spread across his chest, over which had been carved, with a razor blade, a large map of Vietnam.
Temporarily deprived of cocaine, he was treating his addiction with cold baths and constant massages administered by various members of his gang.
And, in spite of this period of his seeming vulnerability, I was struck by the almost hypnotic manner in which me maintained discipline and control over his minions.
They were like sycophantic slaves. They strutted like peacocks in the aura of Black Toi’s own hauteur, projecting his power, but protected by it as well.
Partly devoted, partly loyal, partly in awe ‑‑ along with a hell of a lot of fear of what might happen to them should they utter the wrong word or step the wrong stride or blink the wrong blink ‑‑ they gave action to Black Toi, every whim and caprice. But, oddest of all, none, I mean not one of them, was on drugs. Only Black Toi.
My first hour in lockup, for some reason Black Toi invited me to join him and the others in as escape planned for the next day.
I declined. I don’t know why, but I just didn’t feel right about an escape so soon after my arrival, figuring, for better or for worse, that I needed time to study my captors, my environment and the procedure of the prison.
Maybe I was being too conservative, too analytical, or too suspicious, but maybe, sometimes, I guess, you just have a feeling.
This was one of those times, one of those feelings. I wasn’t afraid, I knew that. But it somehow just didn’t sit well. And, this time anyway, I decided to listen to the rumblings of my gut.
I also realized that despite my years of fighting the communists, what I knew of them consisted mainly of what I had heard from my parents or what I had heard in conversations about the “intelligentsia” who visited our plantation when I was a boy or what I gleaned in schools, American bars or during the lectures of our military “psy‑war” officers.
First hand, though, I had seen communist corpses only under my wings during bombardment missions. Some of those dead, I knew, had been fooled by the communist song and dance. Others had joined the party at the point of a knife or gun.
I felt sorry that that had been their fate, and that they had died, and that I played a part in their ultimate extermination. But when it got down to who should live and who should die, I knew that I hated them, heart and soul, and that I was the one to live and they were the ones who should die.
Before and after capture, I wanted only to resist the persuasiveness of their lies, their mind games, and the emotional, psychological and physical pain they would inflict. I wanted never to allow them the pleasure of winning my mind. They might kill it, but they’d never win it. Never. Never. Never.
So I sat tight. The next night, shortly after the guard detachment the prisoners had bribed had come on duty, the escape began.
Black Toi was the third man out. He needed his first two lieutenants to help pull him through the small window whose bars they had broken, while three others pushed from the inside.
Watching them struggling frantically to pass this walrus through a hole in a wall was a macabre, slapstick sight, and I giggled to myself ‑‑ for the first time in I don’t know how long ‑ ‑ and then actually nearly laughed aloud.
But then, as I watched one man after another make his way without incident, through the window and evaporate into the darkness, it grew more and more difficult to resist this call to freedom.
It looked like money in the bank. Just an easy, simple slide. I watched as they climbed out of captivity. Sixteen, seventeen…eighteen men had escaped.
The temptation was, well, almost erotically alluring, like the slow sweep of a woman’s tongue over her lips before she whispers an invitation to her room. It was if she stood there, one hand on one hip, the other had beckoning me to her, hair falling over her shoulders, breasts begging to be touched. I couldn’t resist.
And, so, I stood. Then, slowly, I walked over to the last man and got in line.
This was it! I was on my way out. How foolish to figure I should wait, when escape was so simple, so easy!
Black Toi and his gang were long gone.
Nineteen…twenty…twenty‑one prisoners had quickly and quietly hoisted themselves to the window, wriggled through, and run from imprisonment. One more man out, then my turn.
I cupped my hands between my knees and the prisoner ahead of me used them as a step to the window. He used my shoulder first for balance, grabbed the sill and then lifted himself slowly.
I could feel his weight leaving my hands, and I knew he was on his way out. Oddly, when it came so close to being my turn, it seemed as if everything was moving in slow motion, or as if I were in a dream, trying to run with my feet encased in concrete. The tiger was attacking, but the tarbaby had me in its grasp.
My heart beat like a snare drum, but it seemed as if the last prisoner ahead of me would take an eternity to get through the window.
Then, the loud, stunning crack of rifle fire searing through the silence.
There was no thought, just reaction.
Inside the prison barracks, everyone was scrambling for the floor, issuing the sharp, involuntary guttural sounds of surprise and fright.
I admit I was caught off guard. It took a lot of control to accomplish it, but I managed to remain quiet, trying to assess my surroundings in the darkness and the likelihood that any chance of escape remained.
There was no chance. Immediately ‑‑ one could hear the orders shouted across the camp ‑‑ a massive recapture effort was begun. Although there were no reprisals against those of us who failed to escape, the next day I nonetheless was transferred to nearby Suoi Dau Prison.
There was a mass escape planned at Suoi Dau too, this time via a tunnel that was supposed to run under the prison yard and beyond the fence.
Once again I was invited to join in, and once more, I declined.
Inevitably the tunnel was discovered because of the noise made by enthusiastic diggers, most of whom were high on cocaine. Again, only one of their number was executed a lesson to others.
I was three days in a military prison in Nha Trang itself, assigned a sleeping place next to one of the most important gang bosses in the city. Temporarily deprived of cocaine, he was treating his addiction with cold baths and constant massages administered by various members of his gang.
I was struck by the discipline these gangsters maintained over their followers, and the unmilitary slackness displayed by our soldiers, many of whom displayed open contempt for their officers.
The world was topsy-turvy, and it didn’t help any that the men set to guard us were ignorant mountaineer conscripts who could speak only a very few words of Vietnamese. Their solution to any problem seemed to be a quick bullet or rifle butt to the head. No questions asked before or after.
On my third day in Quan lao (military prison), I was abruptly called from my room, handcuffed, blindfolded, and shoved into the back of a truck with two other prisoners ‑‑ one a South Vietnamese army captain named Trung, the other a lieutenant like myself.
Three armed guards sat with us, and once the truck began to move I could hear Trung talking, to himself more than to those around him.
“This is not good,” Trung offered. “No, this is not good.”
Rarely, if ever, is a prisoner told where or why he is being transported, but as Trung and I and our third companion began to smell the sharp, clean tang of ocean air and hear the calls of quarreling gulls, from Trung came a long‑forgotten refrain that briefly ‑‑ but instantaneously ‑‑ froze me in fear.
“….the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus…”
“Why do you pray?” I asked, interrupting his petitions the Christian mother of God.
We had all heard, though not quite believed until then, what the trussed and blindfolded Trung would now confirm.
“Perhaps you are unaware, my friends, that it is common practice for our captors ‑‑ in order to save ammunition ‑‑ to tie up prisoners, stuff them into sacks, weight them with heavy rocks and then throw them into the sea.”
Immediately my mind switched to escape.
How could I do it? How could I get out of this alive? Should I feign sickness? Should I start a struggle, with hopes that somehow during the fight I could remove my blindfold, subdue the guards and then leap from the truck uninjured? The magnitude of accomplishing such a feat brought an ironic grin to my face.
But, as the scents and sounds of the ocean grew stronger and stronger, the grin disappeared and eventually, in a long rush of relief, I resigned myself to it.
If I could suppress the claustrophobia of the burlap sack and the panic‑stricken fight for oxygen, if I could surrender to the inevitability of it all in a relaxed, detached way, it just might be a beautiful way to go.
At least, I thought, it would be a clean death ‑‑ in every sense of the word ‑‑ and, I supposed, in good company.
The truck stopped, and I could hear the driver slam the door. I heard the sound of beach sand crunching and squeaking beneath his sandals as he walked to the back of the truck and released the tailgate.
“The lieutenant,” he said. “That one.”
I waited for strong hands to grip my shoulders, to pull me from the bed of the truck and throw me out onto the sand where I decided I would make a break for it, running blindly from side to side toward the sound of the water, trying to dodge the bullets that were sure to come, until I could hide in the protective womb of water and eventually, somehow, swim to safety.
But no hands touched me.
“No!” came the cry from Trung’s and my comrade, echoing alarm. It was the first word the lieutenant had spoken since leaving Suoi Dau, and it startled the living hell out of me.
“No, please, not me! No! Please don’t do this! No! No! Please, please no!”
I could almost picture what was happening to the lieutenant from the sound of his voice, the urgency in plea after plea. None of his executors spoke.
My mind’s eye could see his shoulders sag, then shake uncontrollably as the weights were tied to his ankles. I could see him bow his head in total surrender as the big burlap bag was placed over him, encasing him.
I could hear him sobbing, “No. No. Please, oh my God please, no.”
The words became more and more faint as he was lifted on the guards’ shoulders and carried to the water.
“No, no, no, no, no……..”
I heard the splash, then ‑‑ except for the gulls and the lap of water against the beach ‑‑ silence.
I leaned my head back until it rested on the side of the truck, imagining his last moments struggling grotesquely for air.
The sound of footsteps in the sand brought me back to my own precarious situation. I could hear the guards, then feel the truck move, as they climbed back into the vehicle with us. Under his breath, Trung was praying.
The tailgate slammed shut. The engine started, and we began to move.
What the hell is this, I thought. Spared? Or are we merely moving to another death pier?
Soon we were back on pavement, and the smell and feel of the ocean was gone. Only then did I take a deep, long breath and let it out slowly.
What I didn’t know was that I was being taken to Nha Trang. It was the last and, by far, the worst of the jails where the victorious and rapidly advancing North Vietnamese army was confining its communist deserters and political and military prisoners until they could be sorted out form the criminal population and sent to isolated re‑education camps.
When our blindfolds finally were removed, Capt. Trung and I discovered that we shared one of the tiny disciplinary cells that once held dangerous Viet Cong and North Vietnamese prisoners who had been guarded by our own government’s special police force.
Five days after our arrival, on April 30, 1975, Saigon fell ‑ ‑ and with it, all our hopes. We mourned in heartbroken silence while the communist radio blared the sounds of celebration throughout the prison.
It was a crushingly dismal and depressing blow.
Worse, facing us were darkness and filth ‑‑ unlike anything either of us had ever imagined ‑‑ for what was considered “the duration.”
It didn’t help any that those who were assigned to guard us were ignorant mountaineer conscripts who could speak only a very few words of Vietnamese.
Some of our guards could not have been more than 14 or 15 years old, while others were women whose unnaturally pale skin and swollen flesh was clearly due to beri‑beri.
Wholly uneducated, more stupid and stolid than viciously cruel, they insisted that we address them as “sir” or “madame.”
Their solution to any problem seemed to be a quick bullet or rifle butt to the head ‑‑ no questions asked before or after.
For three months we lived in the dark, damp dungeons of Nha Trang, fighting the suffocatingly fetid stench.
For three months we were like vermin, scrounging for survival. We were treated no better than the spiders and cockroaches that shared our cell with us ‑‑ though even the insects faced a wary existence, too, as they soon became a staple of our diets.
The first night I used my trousers as a broom to sweep into one corner piles of dried feces left by former inmates. When our toilets overflowed, as they often did, urine, feces, and foul water flooded the cell to a depth of several inches, almost reaching the cement surface we slept upon, the rank odor causing us to gag and vomit up the miserable handful of burned or sometimes uncooked rice mixed with dirt that was the daily food ration.
For three months I gagged at, and then drank, well water in which syphilitic and scabies‑marked prisoners had bathed.
For three months we advanced no farther than these cells, so narrow that we could lie only on our sides, head‑to‑foot. Sleep under such circumstances was fitful and nightmare‑ridden.
For three months we received no exercise ‑‑ other than the calisthenics we were able to perform in our cramped quarters ‑‑ nor did we actually see any of our fellow prisoners, other than our cellmates.
Down the hall from us, about four cells away, was an old colonel who had been commander of the troops guarding Independence Palace when President Ngo Dinh Diem was overthrown and killed in the coup of 1963.
Colonel Nhu, we soon learned, would burn his rubber sandals to heat water for the coffee his family bribed the guards to pass along to him.
We almost welcomed the acrid black smoke ‑‑ it burned our lungs, but it was less objectionable than the smell of our own wastes.
Even farther down the hall was Special Forces captain Cao‑Ky‑ Son, who also happened to be an accomplished musician and poet. This man would sing to us the familiar, now bittersweet, songs of our country ‑‑ a country which no longer was ours.
For three months we saw no sunlight, just the illumination of a 40‑watt bulb hanging from the center of the cell.
For three months we sweated out the days and shivered through the nights, hoping and praying to God we would contract no diseases, for it meant sure death.
Late in May, ironically, none of these “puppet” officers died of disease or malnutrition as the V.C. administration wished, but a V.C. deserter, a second lieutenant, who had escaped from the jungle before the hottest battle field happened, hoping that he would avoid the abuse of his “gay” regiment commander, had committed suicide in this prison when hearing the news that his regiment was on the way through this city and his regiment commander had sent a letter to the chief of the prison, asking for sending him back his regiment.
Finally, in mid‑summer, eyes streaming tears that stung and nearly blinded me in the unaccustomed sunlight, my body thin to the point of emaciation and covered with dirt and sores, I was released from the disciplinary cell in Nha Trang.
My next stop was as spot that seemed at first to be as close to paradise as a prisoner was ever likely to want to get.
After the hell of Nha Trang, Lam Son prison did, in fact seem like heaven. At least at first anyway.
The former Dong De training camp for South Vietnamese non‑ commissioned officers, now was home to 5,000 incarcerated and bewildered souls, most of whom whiled away the endless hours by playing chess, voleil or just chatting ‑‑ and, of course, worrying about their families.
Although the war finally had ended, the survivors ‑‑ the innocents, mainly ‑‑ were faced with the repercussions of the long and costly conflict. There was the rebuilding, and the paucity of food, the absence of money and adapting to the new leaders, the “re‑education,” and, very often, the revenge. It made a man with a family quite uneasy, especially if he were imprisoned.
Unlike other camps, though, Lam Son prisoners were allowed to meet their relatives all day long, every Sunday, at the visiting quarters.
And, as extraordinarily surreal as it seemed to someone like me ‑‑ after three months of solitary confinement my eyes still were blinking rapidly and involuntarily against the assault of unfamiliar sunlight ‑‑ they could receive anything or talk about anything.
And, more amazing still, without the close surveillance of the guards. Even prisoners such as myself ‑‑ the ones without relatives ‑‑ were allowed to join them if their families invited us.
The rest of the week, during daylight hours, of course, we all were free to go to a stream behind the prison to bathe, or haggle with one of the many peddlers who surrounded the camp, buying whatever we needed ‑‑ from wine to tobacco ‑‑ or could afford.
What initially appeared to be a lax and lackadaisical confinement policy, though, actually was a cunning and wise one.
Slowly and most assuredly the regimen changed, and, after about two months, we entered a daily agenda of mind maceration: evening “political courses,” where our attendance was mandatory.
The communist conquerors didn’t push us too hard, right away at least, for fear of touching off any latent hostility or unspent patriotism, or despair, that might ignite us into open opposition or, heavens, violence.
So subtle and clever was this psychological maneuvering that at first I was unaware of it. The communists appeared to be quite the reverse of the slimy, cold‑blooded, scale‑covered creatures I had always known them to be. Here they were civilized and humane, offering a sliver of hope to the imprisoned multitudes, asking only civility and understanding in return. they were smart and they were patient ‑‑ they knew that when hope tipped the scales, these many minions of theirs then were emotionally ripe for the psychotherapeutic plucking.
In fact, as I soon observed, the communists were so adept at this particular indoctrinational masquerade that many a prisoner actually could be on his intellectual deathbed, mentally suffocating from his captors’ mind games, and still believe he was imminently capable of dancing the lively jig of a healthy free‑ thinker.
I saw many a comrade and companion lulled into a propagandistic torpor, and then, every so often, jerked roughly back to the reality of their own servitude.
The lesson was always the obedience of the true believer. And, the alternative was always life behind a barbed wire fence ‑‑ or a bullet in the head. Some choice.
At first I was genuinely surprised at how well these itinerant communist “instructors” spoke. Perhaps it came from a certain sort of confidence that had gestated in the womb of pain and sacrifice they had so long endured, evolving eventually into a zealous, fanatical belief in the cause.
Maybe it was the sincere sense of innocence and urgency that made their messages seem more honest and forthright.
“The standpoint of the old materialism is civil society,” they would tell us. “The standpoint of the new is human society or socialized humanity.”
Not bad, I thought. Idealistic garbage from the mind of Marx, but at least the garbage didn’t stink ‑‑ yet.
And so they would preach to us, evening after weary evening, when our bodies offered no more liveliness than a sack of cold owl dung and our minds were mush.
“The philosophers,” they would always, always say, “have only interpreted the world in various ways. The point is, to change it.”
Changing it, of course, meant destroying individualism, which was anathema to me. And, the way I figured it, to realize true communism, I had to achieve what they characterized as “revolutionary virtue” ‑‑ a state of nirvana achieved only by emasculating one’s mind and marching zealously down the righteous lane of Marx, Lenin, Mao, Ho and all their dearly departed doctrinal saints.
So there I sat, mouth open and tongue out, being force‑fed their moral assessments of mankind and their judgments against non‑believers, and amusing myself with the idea that if all men were “saints” as true communists aspired, the world would not require any political system, even the communism they were advocating. None. Zero. Ha!
Of course, their brand of communism was, in fact, a terminological doctrine. It invented new terms, applied new meanings for words, put cosmetics and perfume on some and cold‑ cocked the others.
“Class struggle” and “exploitation” were the loquacious labels they most often used to arouse hatred, legalize the criminal acts of their one‑party dictatorship, and to serve the corrupt interests of a limited number of political elites.
Of course, as I say, it’s unfortunate this all was done at the point of a gun. Mainly because there was a certain agrarian charm and elegance to these instructors and to their speeches.
To a man ‑‑ and woman ‑‑ it appeared that their vocabularies were broad and deep, expounding socialistic soliloquies that, especially for “uneducated” peasants, were unusually sensitive, insightful, altruistic and adroit.
Though I never told anyone, for a while I actually admired them, much in the same way a battle‑weary warrior respects the strengths and courage and fighting skills of his enemy.
Unfortunately ‑‑ whether for me or for them or for what we each considered “our country” ‑‑ it didn’t last very long.
After a while, after a seemingly endless stream of these incantations, it became quite clear, and painfully disappointing, that their speeches all were canned, each one reiterating ‑‑ verbatim ‑‑ the same ideas, admonitions, exhortations and philosophies with exactly the same terminology, the same phrases, the same pauses‑for‑effect as the instructor before him. Even their body language spoke with one Marxist‑Leninist voice.
Soon these “thought reform” sessions disintegrated into patronizing and offensive demagogueries. We were told ‑‑ over and over ‑‑ the errors of our ways, from the crimes of the Americans to the crimes of the former South Vietnamese puppet regime.
We listened to the pap about the history of the revolution and Vietnam’s new heroes, the drivel about sacrifice and labor, the righteousness of socialism.
We heard nothing but praise for communism and the condemnation of capitalism. Every good word applied to them, every bad work to us. It was ridiculously absurd, and the hypocrisy was so crushingly apparent that it became maddening.
It also was sad, because many of our number were surrendering to this onslaught of propaganda, and never again could they be trusted among us ‑‑ even when the discussions involved the slightest criticisms of camp life or the questioning of national leadership.
It was soon after the thought reform classes began that we also started our first physical labor. We hoed the land, got rid of grasses, and planted the familiar foodstuffs of our people ‑‑ potatoes, manioc, maize and, wherever possible, rice.
Work became more intensive and harder as time passed, with some of us selected for clearing jungle foliage, others for plowing, and still others for road building.
Road building was the work most feared by every prisoner, for it was these crews that faced every day the dreaded duty of clearing land mines.
The first mine I encountered was in a field far from camp, through which ran the two ruts of a gray‑brown dirt road. The area had been cordoned off for months, and the grasses between the ruts and on each side had grown high in their own solitude. Ba joined my three‑person working group. He was a former pilot in my wing who had been captured only a few days earlier. While working, we recalled our old flying stories, while being infatuated with the glorious past, I was taken aback by the calling of my team leader to the front of the detail.
I jogged up to him, stood with my arms folded ‑‑ for is was in my mind that I would never give him, or anyone else for that matter, the satisfaction of standing at attention ‑‑ and waited for him to speak.
He said nothing. Slowly he lifted his arm and pointed his finger toward the ground, toward my left foot. I looked down.
There ‑‑ about three centimeters from my heel, in the right‑ hand rut of the road ‑‑ like three small periscopes, were the prongs of the crude Chinese‑made mine that was submerged beneath them.
No one spoke. No one even moved, certainly not daring to blink an eye for fear it might irritate the weather‑worn and fickle inner workings of the bomb’s mechanism, setting it off for no apparent reason other than it felt the blink of someone’s eyelids.
My eyes rolled involuntarily, and then, like some syncromesh gears shifting slowly by smoothly into place, I automatically concentrated on my breathing. No need to panic, or God forbid, faint, or otherwise provoke this abominable piece of inanimate pain and misery into scattering my body about the countryside.
Everyone else in my work crew had, by now, finally dared look at the ground around them, scouring it for any stray companions to this small, metallic harbinger of death. The team leader was visibly shaken, and, though he was able to remain collected enough so as not to spook anyone else into a frenzied flight of panic, the color had drained from his face, leaving a chalky gray‑white countenance before me, offering no more movement than some medieval statuary.
He knew that his life depended solely on the effectiveness of my concentration and the steadiness of my footwork.
With the deliberate and careful moves of a man only centimeters from probable death or certain mutilation, I began to lift my foot. I knew it was the extremely unnerving stress of the moment, the grinding, oppressive pressure, but very quickly that foot ‑‑ that entire leg, in fact ‑‑ seemed to weigh more than the rest of my body combined.
And then, queer as ever, for a moment I thought it actually was taking on a life of its own.
I mean, honest to God it didn’t want to follow the rest of me. I resisted, disobeying me, trying to take off in another direction…almost toward the tiny periscopes, like some crazed kamikaze pilot, zeroing in on this ship of a land mine, ready to blow it, me, and those around me into the heavens.
I struggled, and, quite frankly, fought my own body. Closing my eyes, I inhaled deeply, clenched my teeth tightly, held my head back, and then slowly, slowly moved the mountain that was my foot and leg. My shins and calf shook visibly, nearly uncontrollably. Then, using both hands around my knee, with one giant step I planted this alien limb well away from the mine, carefully dragging the right leg up to the left…and then hopped another half‑meter.
Only then did I allow myself any semblance of a smile. Everyone else exhaled audibly, and in unison.
The fact that the mines were Chinese was not surprising ‑‑ no more surprising that the fact that practically all the mines we unearthed had been made by North Vietnamese allies and planted by the Viet Cong. Now that victory had been achieved, it was up to these conquerors to harvest what they had sown.
The only other explosives we dealt with were bombs, the duds that fell from the B‑52s and buried themselves deep into the ground, tilted and bulging like obese, wind‑blown tombstones.
The mines usually were difficult to detect, because the action of the wind and rain and undergrowth most often hid any trace of these indiscriminate killers.
And, there was no sophisticated detection equipment available to remove the mines. We merely squatted alongside the road, held a pointed bamboo stick ‑‑ or our sickles ‑‑ at a 30‑degree angle from the ground, and pricked the soil. Gently and courteously, with the respect one might expect from a slave toward his master.
Whenever the stick or sickle ran into an object, we stopped and dug up the area around it. Often much group anxiety was spent on a harmless rock, or on hardened clay that took on the same texture as imagined explosives.
The reason for such exaggerated apprehension was valid, however, as most of us had seen one of our comrades ‑‑ a good friend, a relative, maybe even a peasant boy of 10 or 11 years ‑‑ mangled and maimed beyond recognition by these mines. Many died doing the dirty work of their communist conquerors, and it pissed me off to no end. Mainly because no one gave a good goddam about us, or the life and intelligence and vitality and contributions we carried within us.
We were animals. Cheap. No feelings. Replaceable. Feed’em ‑‑ maybe ‑‑ and work’em.
The grandiloquent speeches meant nothing when it came time to remove land mines. Philosophy was flushed down the indoor toilet. Principle went poof. When one prisoner was killed by an explosion, another would be forced to take his place. Just throw another body onto the fire.
It was frustrating almost beyond my endurance. But endure it I did. Life either came to and end, or it went on.
The mine‑clearing became and all‑consuming endeavor for all of us until “Son Smoke” decided to take advantage of the free entrance to the back‑prison stream by making his escape.
Son Smoke garnered his nickname by stealing into the kitchen late at night to cook the foodstuffs he had stolen during the day. Like the telltale odor of a cigarette smoker, whose habit clings to his clothes and breath, the smells of charcoal and pork and grease clung always to his body, giving great fanfare to his presence much more adamantly than any banner‑bearing brass band.
Immediately after Son Smoke’s escapade, the back gate was closed for good, to the point where each barracks was made to dig wells for their own use. The stream, now, was strictly off limits.
Needless to say, not long afterward Son Smoke was arrested at his home and brought back to Lam Son. Nevertheless, this first escape brought on an inevitable chain of events.
Thin, another prisoner, escaped. Ten days later, he was carried back on a stretcher.
Thanh, a pilot, disappeared when working in the jungle. Five days later his body was buried, the victim of a krate, the “two‑ step” serpent feared most by those of us who traversed the trails of the jungle and swamps.
Then came Dieu, and then a couple of others. All of whom, sooner or later, were found out and caught. Escaping was relatively easy, a matter‑of‑fact escapade, but hiding was damn near impossible. In such an agrarian area, no peasant or farmer ‑‑ no matter what his political, religious or philosophical beliefs ‑‑ could afford to harbor a fugitive. For one thing, there wasn’t enough food to go around. Extra rations raised suspicions, and suspicion could mean prison ‑‑ or death.
And, more than anything else, there really was no place to go. An escapee reared inevitably would head off the to familiar turf of his village and, as every home was checked by police once or twice a week, they just waited around until the hungry escapee reared his weary head, and recaptured him with ridiculous ease.
To redeem his crime, “Son Smoke” became a stoolie, considered by all else as the scum of the camp. these informants, of “antenna” as we called the Judases, brought about more pain and suffering than can be imagined. Using an informant network as a key element in maintaining tight political control, the communists exploited the fear of their invisible “eyes and ears” to generate more fear and suspicion among prisoners.
Son Smoke cooperated with the guards to trap other inmates who were planning to escape. Even when they got as far as the barbed wire, a guard with a machine gun inevitably was there to greet them, like some shark awaiting an unsuspecting salmon migrating instinctively to the river of its birth.
The desperate and frantic escapee, so close to freedom and yet so perilously far from it, might stand and, without thinking, make a break for it. But, a burst of automatic gunfire would cut through the stillness of the night, and the whole camp knew that sound meant a fusillade of bullets was cutting through the organs and bones and blood vessels of yet another body that would never again greet the Vietnamese sun.
Nevertheless, escape attempts became quite common during this time. In one case, a prisoner whose name I never knew risked his life to get through the mine field that surrounded Lam Son. Having been on the mine‑clearing crews many times, he knew enough to recognize these deadly obstacles when he saw them, but finally his heel hit a small jumping mine.
A small, almost insignificant, “pop” interrupted the chess and checkers and voleil one early evening ‑‑ I distinctly remember hearing it and ranking it of little importance ‑‑ and it was not until later that I learned this “firecracker” had mangled the escapee’s left leg.
He had tried to run on his right leg, but the guards merely waited for him to approach them on the other side of the fence. He was taken to the dispensary where a nurse and guards bound him to a table, then used a common wood‑saw to amputate the injured limb ‑‑ without any anesthetic.
He screamed horribly, then lost consciousness.
He never awoke.
Another guy got a real fever, but was not allowed to stay at camp for a cure. On the way to the working place, he was attacked by a serious bout till being delirious. He ran like a mad man and jumped towards the guards. They charged him with a plot of despoiling them of their guns; therefore they rushed to him with rifle butts and sticks. After having beat him badly, they brought him back to the camp and put him in the Conex. The morning after, when opening the iron door, they found out that he had died during the night because of his cracked skull.
There were two other kinds of prisoners under those who had been related early. One nourished their spirits by speculating stories, other by defending their giving up. The former were those who eagerly longed for the B52 bombing. Almost every evening they could hear from a long distance the clash between the communists and the resistance forces in the direction of Phuong Hoang pass, two, three times a week.
The latter were those who were a few, but caused much trouble for their fellow inmates. Some like “old Dai”, a coward, who compared himself to Han Tin as a good example to live in prison. Han Tin was a character in Chinese historical novel. In his youth, he was very poor, going begging for his meals. One day he came in the market, hungry, looking for some generous souls, sword worn on the hip as it used to be. A wicked butcher disliking his half‑knight‑half‑beggar manner stopped him and forced him to creep under his skirt for a food or if not for a fight. Wanting for no trouble, Han Tin bent down his back and tolerated humiliation to survive. Years later, the country was at war, Han Tin joined the uprising forces to overthrow a cruel and totalitarian dynasty. The coup was successful, and Han Tin was promoted to the highest rank in the army thanks to his talent and his feat.
Han Tin’s story had been related many times by people like “old Dai” to self judge their cowardice. Being enraged by their yielding philosophy, I talked sarcastically, “I admire you guys as playing well and even better the role of Han Tin. Yours is excellent because you can creep under the skirt of every communist instead of one as Han Tin did. However, I regret to say that you guys can only imitate Han Tin as a man who crept under the butcher’s skirt, but you never can imitate Han Tin as a hero at the final stage of his life.
The worst guy is an antenna or informer like Hoang. Being in communist prison, we prisoners were suffered by the antenna more than by the enemy. The new regime used an informer network as a key element in maintaining tight political control. Fear of the camp’s informers was strong and persuasive enough to generate suspicion among prisoners.
Such was the way one lived at Lam Son. Sometimes remarkably unusual and downright frightening, sometimes boredom‑filled and depressing. It was a strange existence, but, over time, the human spirit adapts to even the most extraordinary of circumstances, whether happenstance or in regular, routine intervals.
I found myself adapting, accepting the uncommon as commonplace, avoiding situations that might cause problems, or make waves. The struggle became much more of a contest of endurance rather than one of survival.
As such, we were extremely vulnerable to the slightest encouragement or vaguest of rumors from the outside world. When hearsay had it that General Nguyen Cao Ky and General Ngo Quang Truong had come back from the United States and built up the resistance forces in Ban Me Thuot and Rung La, and that Phuong Hoang Pass was controlled by our troops at night, our spirits soared. The prison grapevine crackled with the news that our comrades‑in‑arms were attacking everywhere.
I was sure our rescue was imminent. This meant, of course, that there was nothing more to learn from Marxism‑Leninism, if, indeed, there ever was, and that it certainly was time to prepare for our liberation and repatriation.
I could feel it in my bones ‑‑ the elation, the return of the pride, the confidence, the flight of frustration and powerlessness. It was heady.
And so it was with that glib giddiness of hope, the night before being dismissed from our regular thought‑reform class, when we were asked to provide the whereabouts of our next of kin ‑‑ ostensibly as the place where we likely would stay once we were released ‑‑ that I wrote down the address of the South Vietnam Military Cemetery in Saigon.
The next morning, walking from the mess hall back to the barracks, three guards brusquely interrupted my serendipitous stroll and, grabbing me under the armpits and lifting me to the point were I was walking on my tiptoes, escorted me to their command post where their team leader awaited me.
From that point, events transpired quickly, though with a haunting vagueness.
The guards’ team leader was a non‑descript sort of fellow ‑‑ average build, ordinary features, claimant to no peculiarities that would set him apart from his Vietnamese brothers any more than would one grain of rice from another. He seemed old and young at the same time, though, where at one moment one might guess him to be 43, but upon closer inspection might change it to 22. It was hard to tell.
I was offered neither chair nor stool. In fact, the guards pushed me from the top of my shoulders so that I was forced to assume the subordinate posture among us. So I sat, yoga‑style, in the middle of the hard‑planked floor, with a guard in back of me and to each side.
“Is this some kind of joke?” asked their team leader, waving my “next of kin” paper in his hand.
“No sir,” I retorted rather sharply, “but from what I’ve learned about Marx and Lenin in our thought‑reform classes, I figured the only way I ever would be released from this prison was in a casket. So it seemed that my promised land was our own military cemetery.”
Belligerence! Sarcasm! Heresy! Of course, Ly Tong would have to pay.
“What kind of crap are you trying to pull?” bellowed the interrogation team leader.
I sat silently in the center of the barracks floor, arms on my thighs, my legs folded sitting in yoga position.
“Speak, you wretched, elitist son‑of‑a‑bitch,” the team leader roared, “or I’ll have your brains scrambled for breakfast.”
I sat like a stone. Then, in time I girded myself imperceptibly, turned my head slightly, looked into the wide, pin‑ ball eyes of my tormentor and, calmly, almost in a whisper, responded.
“Go to hell, you ignorant son‑of‑a‑bitch.”
Almost instantly a clenched fist met with the side of my face, leaving me sprawled on the floor in a gawky, jumbled heap.
The team leader turned to the guards, screaming in red‑faced, high pitched anger.
“Take this arrogant asshole to the interrogation hut and beat the piss out of him. Let the others hear him beg for his life. If the maggot dies, tough shit.”
The guards hauled me to my feet.
Pulling out his pistol, one of the guards pushed it into my neck, hard, so that the first sensation I recognized in my dazed consciousness was that of a steel rod, aggressive and alive, forcing its way through my skin, my cervical vertebrae, my larynx and muscle tissue until came right out the other side.
Too late, I realized that, this time, I had gone too far.
Kien, who saw me as the guards pushed and kicked his friend down the stony pathway, felt the electric shock of adrenalin shoot through his body, wanting to help his comrade, knowing he couldn’t.
Ba took no notice of my plight. He was too intent on trying to find his wife and two sons in the sea of spouse, children and relatives situated on the other side of the barbed wire.
Had I known that Ba was paying no attention to me, I would’ve forgiven him nonetheless.
It was a similar sort of anguish that crossed Ba’s face now, searching the crowd for his family. Ba had lasted longer than I in the fight to remain free from the enemy, and, in fact, Ba, his beloved Thuy Lan and their two toddlers almost escaped on a helicopter from the roof of the American Embassy the day the Communists captured Saigon.
The four of them had watched, two people away from the front of the line, as the last helicopter lifted off for the short flight to the American aircraft carrier sitting in the South China Sea.
Losing themselves among the roiling, chaotic mass of refugees in and around Saigon, Ba hid himself, avoiding turning himself to the concentration camps as others did when the communists ordered all the soldiers and government officials of the South regime to surrender themselves at the assigned locations for re‑education. His family survived as best they could from day‑to‑day, first on a small amount of savings, then by black market and, as the situation grew more and more desperate, Ba himself had to go out to earn his living stealthily, just for a short time, he was arrested by a police patrol group.
Captured, Ba was tossed from jail to jail, never once seeing his young family. He had arrived in Lam Son last week.
“There!” Ba said excitedly to himself. “There she is. There’s Thuy Lan! There are my babies!”
“Thuy Lan!” he yelled aloud in more of a croak than anything else.
Thuy Lan, who, with her two boys, Dung, who was 3, and Tien, who was 1, had traveled many miles by bus and then walked the final day to be with Ba again. She was tired, hungry, and leery of the prison camp, but her whole body came alive when she heard her husband’s voice.
She scanned the line of prisoners, then saw him waving. Thuy Lan waved back, then quickly grabbed Tien and held him high over her head for Ba to see. Her wet eyes, riveted on Ba, blinked rapidly as she turned to Dung to tell him that his father loved him and very, very much and that soon he would see him again.
I, Kien, the prisoners, and the guards all heard Ba’s first transgression. For a moment, it might be construed as a mental lapse, or something imaginary, or something unaccountable. But then Ba yelled again.
“Lan! Thuy Lan!” Over here!” Ba yelled again, waving one arm, then both. Losing sight of her in the crowd, Ba stepped out of the prisoner line, still waving his arms, still looking.
As one, the prisoners lifted their heads and stared at the mistake Ba was making. Nervous guards, including those escorting me, cocked their rifles and pistols and pointed them at Ba, then back at the prisoners, then back at Ba.
I stood transfixed with terror and screamed at my friend, but no noise arose from my throat. My mouth moved, but only silence spewed forth. I, helpless, was no help.
Quickly, then, there was a nearly audible gasp from the prisoners as Ba started trotting toward Thuy Lan, then running. He could see her again, and now he could feel her warmth, her lips, her lovely body against his own. He could feel himself in her. And, all at once, he began to cry and laugh and say her name and try to catch his breath and run faster and faster.
Ba couldn’t hear the warning from the guard. He couldn’t hear the urgent, collective calls of his fellow prisoners for him to come to his senses, to stop, to save himself. He couldn’t hear Dieu scream.
The report from the guard’s rifle ripped through the air, and the line of prisoners recoiled in unison. I flinched. Those on the other side of the fence cried as one, diving to the safety of the cool, muddy earth.
Ba didn’t care. He could do nothing but run toward Thuy Lan, his stride lengthening as he got closer, closer.
Then, the other guards turned, leveled their rifles as if a firing squad, and let go with a long and loud fusillade.
Ba had nearly reached the fence when the first round hit him squarely in the back, staggering him as his spinal column tried to make sense of this rape, this attack. The second, third, fourth, fifth and sixth rounds came almost immediately behind, raking through his body, tearing away pieces of flesh and organs and viscera and life.
The hot, piercing metal exited in small and large gushes of blood, erupting from his chest and legs and neck like small geysers, flailing him about, uncontrollably, and finally forcing him to the ground. There he tried to crawl and claw his way closer to the fence.
Ba never felt the finishing shots, the last of the rounds that nearly severed his upper torso from his waist and hips and legs. His face was the mirror image of shock and surprise. His left hand nearly touched the fence.
I could see Thuy Lan, crouching protectively over her sons, as she reacted to the horror of her husband’s execution mere meters away.
Slowly she had stood, eyes wide, unblinking and unbelieving. Her quivering hands covered her mouth. Then, as her body began to shake out of control, she became hysterical, running to the fence, kicking it, trying to tear it away, and then touching Ba’s motionless hand on the other side.
Dung and Tien stood like two small crying statues, unable to comprehend little more than the gunfire that had led to their father’s sleep and their mother’s grief.
I, still remaining motionless heard the surreal, snapping voice of one of my guards.
“Throw this bastard in a Conex for now! We’ll deal with him later! Get the rest of these prisoners the hell out of here before we have a fucking riot on our hands!”
The makeshift door of the conex container slammed shut on me, leaving me alone with the filth of a former prisoner and the few shafts of light that shot through holes in the ceiling and side walls.
I listened for a long while, until the commotion, and Thuy Lan’s wailing, subsided. Soon, like the coming of the tide, I was overwhelmed with a feeling, a state of mind, that for 20 years had been foreign to me.
Not since the aftermath of my own father’s beheading by French colonialists two decades earlier had I felt myself drowning in such sadness, such self‑pity, such despair.
“I must escape,” thought I. “I must escape from this Conex, from this prison, from this country, from this continent. There is nothing here. Nothing but pain and death.”
Escape. Over and over I repeated the word, again and again and again, until it took on a nebulous life of its own, wrapping me in its comforting and reassuring arms, caressing and warming me with hope.
“Escape,” I murmured. “Escape.”
My mind soothed and ready for sleep, I drifted, drifted back to the Phan Rang air base, back to Ba, back to the last sortie.
Back to the beginning of the end.
The commotion caused by Ba’s murder distracted the guards and camp officials from their attempts to make an example of me.
Without planning it, Ba became their example. Henceforth, no one would step out of line ‑‑ not for food, not for loved ones, not for anything.
The horror of it all was too much for the prisoners to risk again, their minds teetering between the sanity of a real world they once knew, where kindness and manners and courtesy were the unwritten rules by which they had conducted their lives, overshadowed now by the madness of the brutality, the routine and spontaneous snuffing out of life, the grief and despair that creased the lines of their everyday lives every day.
I was left in the Conex for a few hours and then released. As a soldier, I was able to command my emotions to do my bidding, and I bade them stand at attention, staring blankly into a convalescent vacuum until I had time to tend to my physical wounds. The psychological oasis into which I retreated provided a protective period of reflection, where I could allow my emotions a foggy softness that hid them from the harsh, cold relentlessness of prison life.
In all of this, I knew I must not leave myself vulnerable to the blindness of revenge or remorse. If I were to survive, I knew that I must demand patience of myself and expect that time would help my own sense of healing.
But even with such discipline and command of my own mental faculties, my gut told me that preparations must be made for an escape from this inane insane asylum.
As soon as I returned to the road‑building crew, I began to assess my comrades for a possible partner in escape. Ironically, so to was Kien, a lieutenant of an artillery unit captured at about the same time my A‑37 went down.
“Yes,” I replied immediately, without any caution toward stool pigeons, prison plants or co‑prisoners with big ears. “I am now only looking for someone willing to go with me.”
Kien, of course, affirmed his willingness to take his chances on the run, and soon the two were planning their escape.
Little by little the pair sneaked bits of manioc and sugar and other foodstuffs out of camp whenever we went out to work on the roads.
Usually the crew stopped at the same rest spot every day ‑‑ a small grove of palm trees near a water‑filled, algae‑covered ditch ‑‑ that was about half‑way between camp and the work site. It was there that Kien and I buried in small burlap sacks the little scraps of food we had managed to secure from the commissary or from the pails of slop we were ordered to dump.
Over the course of a fortnight, I also hid a fist‑size piece of sharp glass, a mosquito net, and a few coins I had been able to keep from the packrats in my compound.
And, somehow, Kien had managed to get his hands on a compass and a fish hook, and those also were placed with the other items in the treasure trove in the palm grove.
Kien and I never knew for sure when we would be able to make our escape, because we never knew for sure when we would be working together on the road crew. Sometimes one of us was with the sawyers, or the other was clearing mines.
Nonetheless, both of us anxious to make our move, we decided that the first time we again worked the road crew together would be when we escaped.
I was never sure if Kien would leave without me, absconding with the buried goods and making off for parts unknown on his own, leaving me to my own devices.
The uncertainty grew with the items hidden in the treasure trove, and every time my work crew stopped at the rest site, I would excuse myself to urinate, then hurriedly excavate the hidden goods to be sure Kien had not betrayed me.
To leave without Kien had not, in fact, even crossed my mind, for I did not wish to attempt escape into the enemy‑held countryside without a companion. It was a mind‑set I would one day regret.
The day of the escape finally arrived ‑‑ Oct. 7,1975. It was overcast ‑‑ almost drizzly ‑‑ and cooler than most. Odd for that time of year, but then, the days had begun to mesh into one another like scrambled duck eggs, and I paid little attention to the weather or the intensity of the sun or how much daylight was available.
Beginning a day’s work on the roads, the crew stopped at the palm grove for its usual briefing. Kien and I had not spoken to each other since leaving the camp, for fear that any conversation might draw unwanted attention to us. Our paranoia carried through into the palm grove, where each reclined some 20 meters from the other, trying hard to act as if nothing unusual were about to occur.
As the briefing period came to an end, each stood and ambled off into the jungle as if to urinate, meeting instead at the site of our hidden booty and waiting silently and stoically until the rest of the crew resumed its weary trek to the work place.
Then, Kien and I quickly gathered our food, coins, compass, fish hook and other items and, without speaking, stole silently but hastily through the jungle toward Phuong Hoang Pass.
The pass was near where I had crash landed the A‑37, my plane’s belly and wings riddled with holes and its left inlet screen broken and shattered.
As Kien and I made our way through the jungle, Kien began to visibly weaken, and his spirit sank along with it.
For me, who forced myself forward across the swampy forests and fields and muck and monotonous foliage, Kien’s psychological disintegration made the trek all the more disheartening.
Kien’s weak physical condition became more and more evident, and the obstacles along the way made it a much more grueling journey than either of us had imagined.
I eventually took the lead, fighting hard against the thick undergrowth, thorny bushes and steep slopes that allowed only a few meters advancement over many minutes’ time.
It was hard going, and I thought that if our escape had any chance of success, our progress must improve.
“I wonder if they know we’re gone,” I thought to myself.
Trying to gauge the sun, I figured that by now our escape had been realized, that a small investigation and pursuit team had been formed, the nearby villages alerted, and the requisite military units notified.
This was it, I figured, and I and Kien had damn well better get some country behind us before the whole province knew what we looked like, what we wore, where we were expected to turn up, and the honorary members of our North Vietnamese welcoming committee chosen and deployed.
Late in the evening, after struggling with the undergrowth for about four hours and putting about twenty kilometers between ourselves and the work crew, the pair took shelter under the mosquito netting.
Kien collapsed, his sandaled feet scratched and bleeding, face swollen from the strain and the continual flogging of bushes and low‑lying tree limbs. His chest heaved as he lay flat on the ground, unable to lift himself from his earthen sanctuary.
He urinated right there in his pajamas, not moving even to swat the mosquitoes, not speaking even to complain, not showing any embarrassment for the loss of control of this base bodily function.
Myself exhausted, but knowing I must seek sustenance, I squatted beside my comrade, chewing on a piece of manioc and sucking down the saliva it created. Then, using the leech‑baited hook, I straggled off to a nearby stream where I quickly caught a small fish.
I gutted it with the piece of glass, shaving the meat from the skin. We ate it raw, then dipped our fingers in the small sack of sugar and licked them glisteningly clean.
The pair remained silent through the entire endeavor, Kien too tired to speak, I knowing that any sound might alert a peasant or passer‑by to our whereabouts.
With the compass, I knew we were somewhere northwest of Lam Son, but as to our exact location, it was anyone’s guess. We could be only a few meters from a village for all I knew, but I had heard no voices, no dogs barking, no sounds since we left the work crew. The silence reassured me, as did the blackness of night.
Confident we were safe so far, Kien and I shared one of the four cigarettes we had secreted away, and the small red glow of the lit end gave us both a point of reference in the pitch black.
Taking warmth from the nicotine rush and the tiny wavelet of heat emanating from the tobacco end, we braced ourselves against the damp night air and then, lying back‑to‑back in the dense darkness, the two fell asleep.
The next morning we crossed a forest of high, thorny grass, steeply graded hillsides and numerous rice paddies. Spotting a highway, we made our way toward it, reaching our objective at about mid‑day.
Hoping to hitch a ride on a civilian bus, we stood beside the road and tried to melt into the gnarled, congested traffic that was choked by military trucks, motorbikes, bicycles and pedestrians.
We stood silently, watching Communist soldiers suck gasoline from their military cars to sell, to the civilians. The soldiers took money, then took off.
Amid it all, other civilians and peasants and refugees bartered and traded in a cacophony of squabbles, gestures and histrionics.
I saw that life was going on, in spite of my own travails, in spite of the killing and maiming, in spite of the inhumanities, in spite of communism and democracy.
There it was, still, the day‑to‑day encounters and business‑ as‑usual attitudes, as if my countrymen were struggling to return to their routine, their daily way of life, as if accomplishing that would circumvent the new rules, the new government, the new order.
Perhaps the people were right. Perhaps what they did to cope with the change, the new expectations, the abrupt difference in direction was the way to adapt. Chameleons, maybe, but they were alive, surviving, getting along.
Nonetheless, the sight of it all lanced my lingering hopes of encountering any guerrilla movement or resistance forces with which I and Kien might join.
Kien and I tried hitchhiking for a while, but the trucks and buses ignored us, and we eventually tired of the standing and the heat and the dust and the noise and the rejection.
Finally, a long‑haired teen‑ager eased his Honda on up beside us, stopped and, after some brief bargaining, agreed to take us to a truck up the road that had broken down.
With the help of the pilot and gunneryman, the truck soon ran well enough ‑‑ a clogged air filter had been the source of the difficulty ‑‑ and as payment the two were allowed to join some 20 others on a flat‑bed for a free ride to Ban Me Thuot, a highland province.
Through the rugged mountains I espied the green jungle spreading infinitely to the horizon. The scenery reminded me of the day when I crash‑landed an aircraft whose belly and wings were riddled with holes, its left inlet screen broken, and the windshield glass shattered, the Wing Commander only commented laconically that if I brought home too many more damaged planes I’d bankrupt the whole Air Force.
That was in March of 1975, when most of us knew it was nearly over. Motivated by a terrible, fiercely personal anger, come of us were taking greater chances than ever before. I’d come in so low over a long convoy of Viet Cong trucks moving through Phuong Hoang Pass that what nearly brought me down wasn’t artillery fire at all, but rocks and stones and pieces of shrapnel bouncing back up at me from the ground. The beauty was ever‑present and awesome, but beyond that it made me worry even more about the difficulties of traversing such a landscape during an escape.
I sighed, let my head drop until my chin nearly touched my chest, closed my eyes briefly and hoped that I never would need to face such perils.
Kien and I would stand together on the truckbed part of the time, then apart, trying once again not to draw attention to ourselves, working at being inconspicuous. Passing through checkpoints was easier than we had imagined. When the truck approached a checkpoint, it would slow down and the driver’s companion would jump off the running board, run ahead to the gate and the guards, and present them the necessary travel papers ‑‑ and the necessary bribe.
In fact, the procedure occurred so fast, so frequently, and with such ease, the truck never once came to a complete stop.
I smiled at this bit of good fortune ‑‑ until curfew, that is, when even money lost its persuasive powers.
During curfew, all passengers were required to leave the truck ‑‑ it made no difference what the circumstances were or how important the passenger perceived himself to be ‑‑ and find ourselves a place to sleep in any one temporary lean‑to bamboo shelters along the roadside.
Kien and I were tired after our early morning trek through the countryside and then the bouncing, bone‑numbing, jaw‑jarring ride on the truck, and any thoughts of continuing our escape through the jungle ‑‑ at night, no less ‑‑ were impractical, if not downright dangerous and asinine.
Besides, the pair rather enjoyed the company of our countrymen, breathing the heady, anxious air of non‑captivity and conversing with us now and again about the weather, the crops, women, and the annoyances of war.
Security at the checkpoints had been lax, and it gave us comfort, realizing that the entire populace was not out scouring the countryside for us, and that it was unlikely our absence would precipitate any sizable manhunt.
So, without any real discussion on the matter, I and Kien followed the unspoken lead of the other, agreeing with our silence to take our places on the floor of the bamboo hut with the other passengers.
It was an unfortunate decision for both of us.
Shortly after midnight, a patrol team of about five North Vietnamese regulars making their rounds spotted the truck, the bamboo shelter, and the sleeping travelers, and stopped to take stock of the situation.
“Up! Stand up! Everyone stand up and present your papers!” the non‑commissioned officer in charge of the patrol yelled. “Quiet! Just show us your papers and you can go back to sleep!”
Shaken from my slumber, I looked for a way to escape. My eyes shifted from the guarded opening in front of me to Kien behind.
Kien was so groggy with sleep he couldn’t control his thoughts or actions. It was almost as if he had met his breaking point without knowing it, too tired to realize he was beyond himself.
I could see every exit was covered, and worse, these North Viet regulars had me pegged ‑‑ if not as an escapee, then at least as someone who looked damn suspicious and ready to make a break for it. They had their rifles ready.
“I don’t give a shit anymore,” Kien blurted. “Screw the jungle and the mosquitoes and looking over my shoulder every fucking minute. Just send me back to Lam Son. And let me sleep.”
Then, looking straight at me, Kien’s shoulders shook as he sobbed.
“Get me out of here,” he said.
I glanced quickly around him, but it was too late. Every eye was on me, not Kien. Two of the soldiers already had drawn a bead on me, and escape now was a first class ticket to my death.
I held my ground, disgusted with Kien’s performance but knowing full well that my grand escape was now coming to an end.
The two were tied up and thrust into a corner, and made to wait two days for transportation back to Lam Son.
At least it was two days of rest, observation and bellies with a little food in us.
Most of the time, in fact, we were ignored ‑‑ except for the lone guard posted nearby. And even he paid more attention to the lines and lines of people passing by outside the bamboo shelter.
Our food was delivered, our bodily functions attended to within a reasonable time, and sleep was available on demand.
During those two days, though, we learned a few things ‑‑ things that heretofore had passed as the truth were, unfortunately, mere caprice or the whimsical imaginations of fertile and vulnerable minds.
What we had thought might be B‑52 bombing raids actually were seasonal thunderstorms along the coastal areas. Gunshots and explosions in the distance were just training exercises by the Communists.
And, the most crushing blow, was the discovery that the stories about resistance forces were nothing more than the hopeful dreams of a fervent anti‑communist.
By the end of the second day, a jeep arrived at the
roadside shelter and took us back to Lam Son.
Both were thrown into Conex containers some 50 meters apart, and, the next day, two guards opened the small door while a third ordered me to kneel.
It was one word I refused to obey.
It was a word that angered me more than any other. It was an action that disgusted me more than any other. And, though I might voluntarily kneel to help search the sand for a friend’s lost ring, jab the earth for a land mine. or help a woman or child with a loose shoe or floppy sandal, I would never succumb to the order itself.
While it was within my power, I never would kneel to any man or woman, friend or foe. I couldn’t, no more than I could swallow a coconut whole.
So I stood without saying a word, thinking to myself “OK, here we go,” and acting as if I hadn’t heard the order to assume servility.
“Kneel!” the guard shouted.
The echo was mixed with the sounds of guns cocking, and then the murmurs and footsteps of prisoners rushing from their barracks, pushing against the barbed wire to watch whatever new drama this was that was unfolding unexpectedly before them.
Seeing the sudden appearance of so many witnesses, the guards backed off noticeably, whispered to each other for a while, then dragged off their charge.
I was placed in a large assembly hall in the camp’s headquarters and made to wait. After some 90 minutes, the door finally burst open and in filed some 15 or 20 guards and officers.
The officers sat at a long table, while the guards stood in a line to the other side, their rifles held at present arms.
The highest ranking guard approached me, and again shouted “Kneel!”
I could feel my face grow taut. I stared straight ahead, concentrating on keeping my legs from shaking, buckling or letting go altogether.
The guard waved his right hand above my head, then quickly dropped it, and a burst of gunfire thundered over my head and through the wooden wall behind me.
“Shoot, go ahead and shoot me!”
Wooden splinters and toothpicks fell like rain all around me as I recoiled a bit, then quickly straightened myself.
More bullshit, I thought. More of the same intimidation bullshit game, like they don’t know any other way, the stupid assholes.
“Shoot, go ahead and shoot me! For this Ly Tong may fall, but hundreds of other Ly Tongs will always continue to stand.”
My tormentors were stunned. No one spoke. The guards dropped their rifles almost as slowly as they dropped their jaws. The officers merely stood and stared.
Ordering the guards to bring me to him, the “chief justice” of the “people’s court” curtly asked why I had attempted to escape.
“I am a pilot,” I responded, “and a pilot must carry out his mission. If I am captured, it is my mission to escape. Or at least to try. I will always try to escape, and one day I shall succeed.
The officer dismissed the explanation with a shout.
“Silence, you traitor,” he said. “Any subordination or further escape attempts will result in the maximum punishment.”
“The more serious my punishment the better,” I spat back. “It will only increase the value of my sacrifice.”
Glaring angrily, the commanding officer stood for a moment, then turned and stalked out, screaming “Conex!” in a shrill and shaky voice before disappearing out the door.
Six guards cuffed me like the animal they imagined me to be. Then, they dragged me back to the Conex.
Along the way, my co‑prisoners came out of their barracks again to watch the spectacle, some with admiration for this upstart pilot, but most of them thankful they were not in my shoes.
As this pitiful party of guards and prisoner approached the Conex, I ‑‑ a bit dazed and confused from the abuse rained upon my body ‑‑ noticed a muscular, bare‑chested, mustachioed man standing next to the open door of the metal container, his arms crossed, the edges of his mouth turned up slightly, his eyes focused and narrowed.
The man had a scar across his face and a pliers is his hand. From this moment until the day I died, I never would forget either one.
Using scissors, he slowly pulled off five of my toenails. I clenched my teeth but I didn’t scream. You can pull off my toe nails,” I thought, ” but you can never pull out the strong will that has formed in me like an iron block.”
I was left alone in a conex, airtight except for a small bullethole in the side. Once only a name fro a type of freight container, “conex” became one of the most feared words among Vietnamese prisoners. The metal box, eight feet high by four and a half feet wide, was now used as asolitary cinfinement cell.
During the day the cell, exposed to the sun, exceeded 100 degrees Fahrenheit. I drank water but it bartely passed down my throat, and my sweat fell drop after drop making plopping sounds as it hit the floor. I felt like a loaf of bread in an oven, getting drier and drier or, as my organs cooked, an overdone steak.
At night, plummeting temperatures stiffened my limbs. In the cold my body heat became vapor which condensed on the ceiling and fell back down on my clothes. My clothes stayed wet all night. I felt like a slab of meat in a frozen room at a packing house. During the 6months I was in the conex I wasn’t allowed to take a bath or even clean my teeth. But I had plenty of time to call up memories and to examine my present situation.
I observed my enemy. Among the communist soldiers, as in any group, there were both good and bad. Some of the guards stirred up my bowl of rice to make sure there was no meat hidden underneath while others encouraged my fellow prisoners to spare some extra food for me. The bad guards ignored my requests to go to the latrines outside the conexand even forced me to stay in my cell during dinnertime.
Other shifts left the door of the conex open so I coulsd watch the volleyball games and get some fresh air. People are born to be either cruel or kind. The Communist regime in Vietnamencouragfed class struggle and thus hatred. It only aggravated the cruelty of the crueland lessened the kindness of those who would be kind. It emphasized the difference between the good and the bad. The bad people in a society , like garbage in a river, float to the surface. We might think that river dirty, but underneath the water is clear and clean.
Underneath are the good people who can never be brutalized into giving up their sympathy. They may restrict their kindness or disguise it under discreet behavior or mutual understanding but it will not be squeezed out of them by an oppressive regime.
Many of my guards, however, were not kind and quite often they expressed their cruelty in petty spiteful ways. They made their underwear out of the South Vietnamese flag or named their dogs after Nixon or the South Vietnamese President and Vice‑president Thieu and Ky. I was both angered and amused to learn that they had named a newly bought dog after me, Ly Tong.
Every prisoner in solitary confinement had the same worries and the same boredom but different ways of dealing with them. I, like the others, thought about the brightness of my past and the darkness of the future but I also spent much time trying to strengthen my spirit and overcome my weaknesses. I prepared ideas and words to withstand an interrogation or I elaborated plans to make my escape. Many knights i was angry with myself for waking up in a cold frightened sweat. I had been dreaming that I was on a battlefield pursued by my enemy and instead of standing and fighting I ran for my life.
I remembered a Chinese story of a man who was insulted by his foe in a dream. The man woke up, took his sword and lay in ambush for his enemy. Day after day, night after night, he lay in waiting until, from exhaustion and anger, he died.
Well I wouldn’t die either in my dreams or in reality ;nor would I wait for my enemieas to come to me but I would go to them. Every time I woke up while running from my pursuers, I would concentrate my mind so I could revive my dream. After practicing several nights I succeeded in returning to the same dream encountering the same enemies in the same scene. This time I beat my foes and I was happy. For even in my sleep I could direct my energy toward whatever purposes I intended.
During the day besides my mental preparations for interrogation and escape I spent my time watching the ants and mosquitos that had entered through small fissures in the conex. The mosquitos stood on their two feet and walked in and out of the small holes. There were three sorts of ants: black ones, red ones, and smaller dark yellow ones. The yellow ones had a bad smell and moved slowly. The red ones preyed upon them and the black ones tried to take control of the area.
There were fights. I watched one fight between a black ant and a smaller red one. The fight ended when the red ant bit the black on´on the neck and the black one gripped his pincers around his foe’s belly. The red one died, but after staggering a short distance, the black ant also collapsed.
The same sort of mutual killing went on between two black ants. Four black ants were involved in the fight: two as combatants and two as referees. The two referees stood opposite each other with the combatants between them. When the ants didn’t fight by the rules , the referees stepped in and the combatants moved back. After a while, on´of the referees stretched hisd legs and walked away as if to say. “this fighting makes me tired. I’d rather go home and sleep.” The other referee stayed until the two fighters died; then he carried the dead ants to their nest.
Prison life helped me to see clearly the profound meaning of what I’ve heard said about politics and economics. “To command politics, ” it goes “one must command economics.” I learned the value of every grain of rice or even ofevery bone of a fish. My sense of taste became so delicate that I could tell from how sweet a cup of water was which well it came from or how long it had been boiled.
After days of hunger, my body would convulse with delight if I could eat some sugar ør animal fat. All the organs of my digestive system were excited by the smallest morsel of foodand the stimulation lingered on into my sleep where it evoked chains of dreams. Never had I dreamt so much in all my life and never had I been so confused between night and day, dream and reality.
Some nights I dreamt I was flying my old plane over the forest of people gathered for a national festival day waving the three red striped yellow flags of South Vietnam. Suddenly all of them disappeared leaving me alone over an immense jungle. Then I flew without a plane flapping my arms like a bird to hold my body up through mountains and over villages and rice-fields. I flew until I couldn’t, and then I fell and fought like a wildcat to escape numerous branches of emerging trees. I screamed but woke up before the trees ran through my body.
Other nights I dreamt I was driving a car against the oncoming traffic of communist soldiers. Yellow starred red flag stitched to their caps and they were jostling each other trying to get away before it was too late. They kept on running in a panic and I kept on driving against them. The speed of the car and the waves of soldiers coming against me made me dizzy but also happy and excited: I was watching the enemy’s retreat.
Wet dreams in conex were both happiness and misery. When I had fever or my body ached from torture, girls came to me in my dreams. It seems that whenever the body is ill, the mind invents dreams to relieve the pain. In the end, however, the wet dreams just left me weaker and made my wounds more serious.
Usually the sound of stones hitting my cell brought me out of my dreams. It was the revenge of a guard whom I had urinated on one night. I hadn’t known he was sitting underneath the bullet hole when I decided to relieve myself through it. But he thought I had done it deliberately and after that he encouraged everyone who passed by to throw rocks at the conex.
The booming sounded as if the shelling exploded. It rocked me back to reality. The left side of my chest hurt when my heart suddenly beat up violently as if it was about to jump out of it. In the slow stream, day and night, dream and reality, happiness and misery followed one after the other.
My communist captors understood well how to control their prisoners. By withholding food and drink or through forced labor and torture, they made the most mundane commodities and privileges valuable in the eyes of the prisoners. How delicious was the spoonful of plant oil surreptitiously swallowed by a prisoner while he was put to work in the prison store! How good felt the breeze that brushed against a prisoner’s ears as he stealthily leaned on his hoe under the flaming sun in the middle of the dry and cracked ricefield a few minutes rest while the guards distracted their attention.
Any little favor pleased them. The communists knew it. They knew it was this strange happiness that helped the prisoners or the oppressed to tolerate their torture and that could even turn them against each other.
The door of the conex, like my anger, opened with a boom. They were letting out two prisoners at the same time. The noise of the conexes opening caused a rush of curiosity among the communist guards dwelling around my conex. They came out of their houses to see their enemy, a creature that up to recently they had known through propaganda. Kien sat on the ground bent over the container of cooked rice another inmate had just bought to him.
I, on the contrary, was determined to show the crowd, even if it was only in the way I ate my ration, that I was neither submissive nor afraid. I sat on a helmet, leaned back against my conex and ate my meal. Owing to Kien’s pitiful attitude, he was released after 15 days. Committing the same crime of escape, I still remained being under punishment.
During the next six months, the curiosity of these communist soldiers did not wane. They stood at the fence and whispered to each other. Communist soldiers were used to be indoctrinated with heroic idols, but they only knew them through novels and propaganda. Their idols now embodied in a real man, in one of their enemies. That’s why some compared me with Nguyen Van Troi, their hero, who had been caught in an attempt to blow up the Cong Ly bridge in Saigon as General McNamara’s car was driving across.
After six months, I was released from the conex. During the time of my solitary confinement, a lot of change had been made. More POW were caught and Lam Son prison had been divided into five separate camps. Camp 5 was for aspirants and second lieutenants; Camp 4 was for first lieutenants; Camp 3 for captains; Camp 2 for majors; and Camp 1 for colonels and lieutenant colonels. Each camp had its own warden.
Ironically the former chief of that prison was sharing quarters in the colonels’ section. He’d been caught accepting bribes and was now in a barrack with other corrupt officers. The other prisoners were skinnier and paler than before. One of them, a comedian and singer nicknamed “Chau Mexico” for his comic rendition of the song “Mexico,” had gone from 180 lbs to 90 lbs. With his weight loss, he had lost his humor and evergreen smiling. Like others who had been forced to work in a malaria infested area for two week, he was walking with the aid of a stick.
Unlike many of the other prisoners, I was pretty much left to myself. I wasn’t allowed to go out of the camp to work nor was I put to work in the camp thanks to guards’ suspicion of my trying to escape again. I spent most of my time walking around with a slingshot that I had made out of tree branch and inner tube of a tire, and which I used to shoot birds for food. I also was strolling around to enjoy my leisure time, probing the barbed wire to find a way to get away.
One time an old fish seller forwarded some fishes to me and retold to my prison inmates, whose duty was to buy food for our prison, the day I had been shot down and hit myself in her sugar plantation, eating some of her sugar canes. “He’s funny pilot!” She said. “He didn’t care the enemy pursuit, lying down to enjoy the sweetness of my sugar canes!” Other times prisoner herdsmen feed their buffaloes in the nearby village named Duc My and were asked by village girls about the prisoner who refused to kneel down before the enemies. “Is pilot Ly Tong a handsome guy?” They asked. What a human psychology! To some, handsomeness could exalt the heroic bearing. If Napoleon were few inches taller, this great French hero would have attracted million more admirers for his feat.
From some of the camp guards, the ones who sympathized with us, came the word that we were all going to be transferred to another prison. The destination and time of departure were unknown but we knew of the move before the official announcement.
Some of our guards had undergone the same hardships as us. One, a cripple, told us how he and his six brothers had been forced to serve in the army to fight the American imperialists and their puppets in Saigon. All of his brothers had been killed and he himself had become a “liet si,” which paradoxically has two meanings: hero and cripple. On the wall Ho Chi Minh’s portrait angered him and provoked a bitter play on words. “Ho Chi Minh,” he said, “Ho chinh mi” (Ho Chi Minh, Ho it is you ) “da gay bao tham canh” (who has caused uncountable tragedies). (The reverse way of pronouncing — New York-not you, and I did-it dies, for example — is the popular way of playing words and language in Vietnam, and a great name after being inversed became a condemnation).
In the cool, dewy, pre‑dawn hours of Camp Lam Son, everything was quiet. Except for Qui in the corner, who was snoring. He was in the corner precisely for that reason and, each evening before turning in, a sort of ritualized folderol unfolded, as his hootch‑ mates almost fought for night‑ground as far away from him as possible.
It was a fact of Lam Son life that whenever Qui managed to turn on his back while asleep, he snored.
At first this had bothered me, the irritating inconsiderateness of it all, keeping me awake, stealing away precious hours of vital sleep. But after a few weeks of Qui’s one‑man capella choir, I became accustomed to it and, in fact, sometimes would snap awake, in the dead on night, whenever it ceased.
One this morning, though, despite Qui’s florid nasal fanfares, I felt an unusual, almost foreboding presence.
Even though I was asleep, something disturbing set off an unquantifiable distress signal deep within me. I didn’t know it, but the same silent alarm was going off throughout the prisoner barrack.
In spite of an exhausting workload, a debilitating diet and the grinding emotional and psychological treadmill of captivity, most ‑‑ if not all ‑‑ of my co‑prisoners were extremely light sleepers. the slightest unfamiliar noise or unusual movement could awaken the whole barrack. Or, at least make most of us subconsciously aware of whatever intrusion was upon us, no matter what our stage of slumber.
Such was the case now, as guards and camp supervisors slipped surreptitiously into the near‑silent, sleeping prisoner barracks. Strangely, they awoke only the cooks.
Even Qui was aware of the guards, although he had the presence of mind to keep on snoring. The cooks, just as baffled as everyone else, clothed themselves and shuffled out the door into the chalky morning twilight.
I was awake mere moments after the guards first entered. Motionless, I watched through the razor‑thin slits my eyelids allowed, following the guards as they made their predetermined rounds. And, I heard the whispers, the quick, clipped orders issued one curt, quiet breath at a time.
This is odd, thought I. My comrades must have been thinking the same thing too, for they began to rustle, their anxiety building to the point where they had to unleash it with a turn or twist, feigning some kind of natural movement that wouldn’t draw attention or suspicion.
No one spoke.
Minute upon minute passed while sixty minds deliberated the significance of this unorthodox revel, fearful of the worst, hoping that, at best, it meant little.
Then, finally, more guards, only these weren’t as quiet as the first. Their boots issued an earthen, muffled clamping sound on the cement floor as they made their way to the leaders of the labor units. Outside, the drone of voices in the distance became audible, as was the clanking of aluminum woks and pots in the mess tent. Eventually the smell of burning firewood reached the barrack and I knew that the cooks were well into their morning chores ‑‑ much, much earlier than usual.
The leaders of the labor units slid stealthily out of the barrack. I opened my eyes fully for the first time, and listened as a mosquito bounced across the spider’s web‑filled ceiling, looking for food or an exit, only to be swallowed by a hootch lizard waiting patiently at the top of the wall.
Well, thought I, something ‑‑ something big ‑‑ is coming down. Prepare yourself.
The wait seemed endless. Birds and insects were calling out their early salutations. A cock crowed. Water buffalo began braying. And sunlight lifted the barrack from its cocoon of semi‑ darkness. Soon, the sun would begin to cast shadows across the large room.
Then, suddenly, came the answer.
“Shakedown!” someone yelled. “Prison shakedown. Check all prisoners’ belongings.”
Guards rushed into the barrack, prodding the men up off their mats and crowding them into a small area opposite the doorway.
Here we go, thought I. Showtime.
The guards all were shouting, trying to look and sound intimidating and impressive, poking here, kicking there, barking orders all the while.
“Move it, shit‑for‑brains! Shut up, scum! Stand at attention! You’re outta line! Get over there or you’re dead! Move! Now!”
Such vehemence, thought I. Who are we trying to kid? Just tell us what you want and we’ll go along like we always do. No need to be assholes about it.
We stood together for about five minutes ‑‑ at gunpoint ‑‑ while the guards glanced furtively out to the center of the compound, like impatient thoroughbreds at the starting gate.
Eventually I, along with the others, was dispatched back to my sleeping area where I quickly gathered up my clothes, mosquito net, mat and the remainder of my worldly goods. Then I made my way outside.
It was chaos. Camp supervisors and guards were spitting out orders to everyone. Prisoners ran about willy‑nilly. Someone forgot a mat. Another forgot his netting. Some of the prisoners already were being beaten. People were frantic.
A revelation came to me. This, I thought, is truly the origin of the phrase “Oriental cluster‑fuck.”
The sober fact of the matter, however, was that one of the most feared words in the prison vocabulary was “shakedown.”
It meant that anyone could wind up in a disciplinary cell, for real or imagined reasons. Maybe this was when the guards would find the money a frightened wife or uncle or mother had quietly slipped into the palm of a long‑imprisoned loved one. Not only did it mean time in solitary, it also meant the money was gone for good.
“Reactionary” letters ‑‑ those authored by a prisoner or smuggled into camp from family or a friend ‑‑ also guaranteed a long stay in the slammer.
For some prisoners, shakedown meant losing important pieces of clothing ‑‑ clothing that protected its owners from voracious insects, the searing, broiling heat of the mid‑day sun, and the numbing, nearly crackling cold at night; clothing that had been fought over with tenacity and, in some cases, viciousness.
Clothing had value, and, sometimes ‑‑ not always, but sometimes ‑‑ losing it was akin to a death sentence.
Gravely mourned, too, were the loss of books or dictionaries. Others lost cans and boxes and other containers for saving drinking water or storing priceless sugar, salt, spices, drugs, tobacco….
Shakedown meant time in stir. But worse, it meant that anyone and everyone could, probably would, lose something petty or precious. Whatever it was ‑‑ a piece of one’s small empire or a piece of one’s mind ‑‑ it was losing, no matter how you cut it.
Each prisoner carefully placed their meager belongings on his own mat, lining row after row, and stood next to his personal property, on the piece of land in front of his barrack.
Some of the guards nonchalantly inspected thoroughly each item ‑‑ while others searched the barracks. The extra items out of the standardized stuffs were seized.
An old dented and rusting U. S. Army “deuce‑and‑a‑half,” its original olive‑drab camouflage color chipped and painted over, came roaring into the compound, stopping near the seized stuffs. Quickly, the guards gathered up the little piles of goods and deposited them in one large heap in the back of the truck. Every heart that was standing at attention sank as one.
The truck then drove off, and I and my fellow prisoners never saw it, or their belongings again.
What the hell? I wondered.
I don’t like the looks of this. No, not one tiny bit.
Then, I saw military camions ‑‑ fifteen of them, each with a 40 passenger capacity ‑‑ come through the dust cloud left by the truck. They looked like massive motorized phantoms or, maybe, Lam Son’s version of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. They rumbled loudly into the compound and stopped where the prisoners’ belongings had rested only moments before.
“On the camions!” came the order, repeated again and again by the guards, who, with bayonets affixed, began pushing the prisoners toward the idling vehicles.
As each man boarded the camion, he was given a dollop of rice in a tin can the guards had scavenged from the prisoners’ property piles. For this, I thought, they got the cooks up early?
The prisoners, prodded by the bayonets, jostled and pushed one another until the camions were packed up with standing prisoners. Thick cloths covered over the camions, so that once the journey started no one knew where we were, where we had been or where we were going.
Of course, no one on the outside could see the prisoners of Lam Son either.
I elbowed to the place next to the side that had some little holes, figuring correctly that the enclosed, mobile cubicle soon would become stifling, and that any breeze, no matter how slight, might save me from heat exhaustion, or worse, heat stroke.
Next to me stood am man named Viet, who worked in the kitchen and sometimes gave me some left‑overs.
“Where do you think they are taking us,” Viet asked, speaking quietly and looking straight ahead.
“Who knows?” I answered. “Who cares? Maybe to the beach. Maybe to the firing squad. What the hell difference does it make?”
I moved closer to the side, I did not feel like engaging in idle chit‑chat.
The driver popped the clutch, and the big camion jerked forward. Some of the prisoners were talking, albeit quietly and cautiously. I and Viet stood in silence, perspiring. With the morning sun climbing ever higher and the mass of bodies crammed into such a small space, already it was becoming unbearably hot.
I closed my eyes and tried to imagine being inside of a refrigerator. I imagined reaching underneath, to the shelf below, and putting my hand around a cold bottle of beer. So cold that I could hardly hold it. I put the bottle to my forehead, then rolled it over my brow, from one ear to the other. I remembered the story I once read, and I once laughed at. Some queer guys in the countries near the equator where in the summer, it is too hot that they curved themselves in the refrigerators to avoid the heat during daytime. I dreamt of being in such a case.
“What?” said I, shaking my head as I awoke from my trance‑ like torpor.
“I said,” came the voice next to me, “I’m afraid.”
I looked at Viet, rigid and speaking in a nearly inaudible whisper. “I mean to tell you, I’m scared shitless.”
I, now fully awake, could actually feel the fear ‑‑ the near terror ‑‑ in Viet’s voice.
I stared at my inmate who wasn’t afraid to say he was afraid.
Viet was short and slight, about 120 pounds of rail‑thin bones covered with light, smooth skin that was dotted not too infrequently with a scar or pock mark. His hands, though calloused, were almost delicate, with long, narrow fingers and ‑‑ were they not dirty ‑‑ almost handsome fingernails.
Viet was 35 years old, but looked like an old man. His nose was small and narrow ‑‑ so narrow, I thought, there appeared to be no room for nostrils. His mouth held a full complement of straight, off‑white teeth that were beginning to show the effects of years of prison life. He was a journalist and became a second lieutenant in the department of political warfare. And once he was punished by a satirical article “The Mosquito” written in prison, that was commented as mockering the communist’s doctor.
Viet turned his head and, for the first time, looked directly at me. Viet’s black‑brown pupils were almost invisible in the pewter shadows of their eye sockets, recessed far into his creased upper cheekbones.
It was not until we traveled well down one such crease did I see Viet’s tears. These were not crocodile tears because he was not one of the infiltrators and collaborators that were everywhere. And, it was not uncommon to see grown men cry. In prison it happened all the time.
With great affection, I grabbed Viet’s wrist and squeezed it tightly.
“Take it easy, buddy. Everything’s going to be OK,” I said soothingly and sincerely. “No sense getting worked up. There may be nothing to this at all. And, hell, even if there is, the worst thing these bastards can do is torture us to within an inch of our lives ‑‑ and then maybe kill us.”
Maybe it was the abrupt break of the tension, or just the absurd truth of the statement. Maybe it was comic relief, or just ludicrous humor. Whatever it was, it made us start to giggle.
At first it was a gentle, staccato giggle, But then, with each one feeding off the reaction of the other, it grew. Steady chuckles turned into repeated guffaws, followed by rounds of rolling, rollicking belly‑laughs. Thinking about it made us laugh. Repeating it made us laugh even harder. Just looking at each other ‑‑ or at our dumbfounded fellow prisoners ‑‑ made us laugh harder still.
Soon the two of us were nearly hysterical, our heads back, then forward, our sides aching, as we surrendered totally to the peals of laughter we could no more control than, say, the beating of our own hearts.
Only when the guards yanked us from the seat and pounded us with fists and rifle butts did Viet and I become silent. And it was only when we became silent did the blows cease.
Curled fetally into two human balls on the floor of the bus our breathing coming in deep, fast heaves, my eyes met Viet’s.
The friendly, knowing glance brought slight, barely perceptible grins to our faces.
“You lean against the wall of the camion, I whispered.”
The camion jolted abruptly, we collapsed against each other in pain and exhaustion, and dozed off while standing.
Many hours passed.
On we traveled until, finally, the camions left the highway and began a bouncing, jostling journey on a rutted, pot‑holed dirt and gravel road that left everyone feeling like just so many dice in a box.
Then the high‑pitched screech of the brakes sliced through the camion and, as the prisoners braced themselves against the forward pull, the vehicle came to a dead stop.
As the guards quickly exited, tent’s cloth flew open. Air, marvelous air.
Around us were deep green rice fields, rimmed by brown and emerald mountains. There were tall, thin palm trees and the slight. pungent smell of tapioca. Stands of bamboo stretched beyond sight. Except for one thing, it was almost like heaven.
The one thing was right in front of us.
A gate. Then a guard post.