HEARTBEAT AFTER HEARTBEAT
HEARTBEAT AFTER HEARTBEAT is about Ly Tong, who hitchhiked, took trains and buses, pedaled, walked and swam his way to freedom. A South Vietnamese pilot who was shot down just before the war ended, Ly Tong spent five years in “re-education” camps before he escaped. A fugitive, he fled to Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh, where he was captured, tortured and jailed. Again he escaped.
A Vietnamese version of “Papillon,” he easily went over the wall of a refugee stockade on the Thai-Cambodian frontier.
Ly Tong passed through three countries, sidestepping land mines and security patrols. He crawled through the jungle to avoid border posts. He worked as a fisherman and went sightseeing as a tourist.
Ly Tong’s odyssey stretched over 17 months and took him some 2,500 kilometers — without documents.
It ended when he swam the Strait of Johore separating Malaysia and Singapore, caught a taxi to the U.S. Embassy, and eventually was accepted as a refugee.
HEARTBEAT AFTER HEARTBEAT is not just another American’s view of Vietnam.
It is a view of Southeast Asia, from the perspective of a Vietnamese refugee in desperate flight from communist masters. It is a story that is as poignant as it is profound.
It is a unique story. And, it is true.
HEARTBEAT AFTER HEARTBEAT
Page 1. Prologue.
Page 5. About style, structure and major themes.
Page 14. Synopsis.
Page 27. “The Last Sortie” — A portion of Chapter 1.
Page 41. Resume.
Wraithlike, the figure emerges from the cold, churning waters of the Johore Strait. The punch and pull of the five-foot swells breaking across his back make him stumble awkwardly from side to side.
He drops to his hands and knees, his chest heaving with heavy, rapid breaths. Crawling a few feet, his limbs cave in, and he falls face-first into the shallow surf. Slowly he rises, wobbly and unsure, then pulls himself onto Singapore’s northern shore…only to collapse, exhausted, on a narrow strip of sand.
The late winter monsoons have turned the 3-kilometer-wide strait between the island and Malaysia’s Johor Baharu into a dark cauldron of waves, wind and driving rain. Bellbuoys sound in the distance, sending their warnings up and down the bight that tonight weather has cleared of maritime traffic. Even the sharks have retreated to the dispassionate serenity of the deep.
The skinny but wiry Vietnamese man rests on his side momentarily, then stands, taking stock of his whereabouts in the black, bleak night.
The stone and cement causeway crossing the strait still is off to his left, and some distance ahead is the light of a bonfire, which in turn illuminates the house and coconut palms behind it.
The man moves close to the house, then around it to a highway beyond.
Except for a few Mazdas and Hondas and Audis streaking past, the area is deserted. He walks.
His wet T-shirt and jeans offer little protection against the chilly air and mosquitoes, and so, after about four kilometers, he veers off into a park.
He falls into the last of four wooden huts occupying an opening in a woodland garden, then sits silently, listening.
“Are there any policemen on patrol here?” he wonders. “Can I be arrested here?”
No matter. Shivering, he draws his knees to his chest and wraps his arms around his legs. His skin feels taut over aching muscles, and heavy eyelids begin to pull his head down to the cool, hard earth. Soon he surrenders to the soft, soothing ambrosia of sleep.
It is but a brief respite.
Singapore awakes before the sun can lift itself out of the South China Sea.
Foodstall operators near the river in Chinatown, and streethawkers in the Telok Ayer market, begin their daily preparations for the early onslaught of customers. The heavy smells of freshly cooked Indian, Chinese and Ma1ay food settle in, like an aromatic fog.
At Boat Quay, crewmen aboard bumboats make their morning rice, before beginning the day’s toil in the old godown warehouses.
F1eets of freighters stretch and yawn in the roadstead, readying themselves for container terminals, refineries and shipyards. Conference rooms, computer screens, and international currency quotations await the arrival of bankers, brokers and financiers in the skyscrapers of the Golden Shoe.
Jetliners quickly multiply their arrivals and departures at Changi Airport, like huge and heavy hornbills moving in and out of their nests. Highrise housewives chatter their salutations while hanging laundry from bamboo poles that jut out of apartment windows.
The pulse of Singapore quickens.
In the morning rush-hour, streets choking with machines and humanity, a taxi pulls up to the curb at 30 Hill Street. The Vietnamese man, still in his T-shirt and jeans, alights from the vehicle and strides slowly, cautiously closer to the front of the American Embassy.
“Where do you want to go?” asks an American Marine guarding the gate.
“I am looking for political asylum,” the Vietnamese man answers in fluent English.
The Marine makes a quick visual search of the man, leads him inside, through a door marked “Immigration Officer,” and tells him to empty his pockets.
Coins, train tickets, bus passes and faded, streaked pieces of paper soon rest on a broad, heavy teakwood table. The Vietnamese man sits in a straight-backed chair along the wall. He waits.
Another American — tall, moustachioed, balding and bespectacled — enters the room. He is middle-aged, and he is wearing a dark-blue, three-piece suit. He looks first at the Vietnamese visitor — long-haired and ill-clothed — then at the odd assortment of debris covering a small portion of the table.
He moves around a desk and sits in the cushioned captain’s chair behind it, then closes his eyes, sighs, and presses his lips together tightly. He leans forward, folding his hands atop the desk. “Yes?” he asks, finally opening his eyes again. “May I help you?”
The Vietnamese man stands and quickly kens the range of raillery that may come later.
My name is Ly Tong, and I am Vietnamese,” comes the clipped, but measured, reply. “Last night I swam the strait from Malaysia.”
In that godawful weather?” exclaims the American, taking off his glasses and shaking his head. “Impossible.”
“No sir,” says Ly Tong, softly and patiently. “I’ve escaped from prisons and tortures and walked many, many kilometers. I go on bicycles and trains and buses from Vietnam to Singapore. I have no documents, and I face many dangers. I ask you for political asylum.”
Now the American Embassy official, agape, rises slowly to his feet. His head tilted slightly, he returns his glasses to his face, narrows his eyes, and blinks hard. He stares in silence.
“If you have a moment,” says Ly Tong, “let me tell you my story….”
HEARTBEAT AFTER HEARTBEAT
About style, structure and major themes:
HEARTBEAT AFTER HEARTBEAT will open with a somewhat expanded version of the preceding account. From that point there is a brief interrogation scene, a flashback to Ly Tong’s last combat sortie as a South Vietnamese Air Force pilot, his capture by the enemy, and subsequent chapters that tell his story in chronological order.
The opening Singapore scene is a prologue. The exotic setting — in addition to the aquatic feat that has just been performed — should pique reader interest and capture immediate attention. It also provides the reader with a point of reference, informs him of the incredible journey that has just begun to end, and invites him to feast on the specifics that follow.
After the prologue is a short passage introducing Ly Tong’s Singaporean and American inquisitors. His is a tale that tests the limits of belief in human capabilities, and some sort of verification is required — particularly in Singapore, a country that is notorious for its routine rejection of refusees. Interrogation, in fact, is required.
Ly Tong, then, after a l,500-mile journey from hell, must place his fate in a Court of Star Chamber — Singapore style. To Ly ~bng, it borders on the absurd…but then, he has come to expect similar farragoes in life, so he endures.
Though brief, this interrogation passage is critical to the ultimate flow of the book, for between each chapter is a return to the progress of the inquisition in Singapore, with Ly Tong relating to his questioners — and, coincidentally, to the reader — each stage of his journey.
This device should serve two purposes:
A. It makes Ly Tong the teller of his own true story within his own
B. Given the fact that the reader knows Ly Tong has attained some measure of freedom by escaping to Singapore, it maintains an undercurrent of suspense. The reader is absolutely sure if Ly Tong’s adventure is to end merely as an exercise in futility — with his deportation to Vietnam — or if it will culminate with the approval to emigrate to America.
The bOok will be written in six chapters, each of varying length, some of which will be broken into numerous sections.
The chapters are these:
1. THE LAST SORTIE.
“Then, at an altitude of barely 100 feet, my plane was rocked by an explosive force and deafening roar. My body cringed. And, for an instant, all sound died away — as if I had just entered some exquisite state of semi-consciousness.
“I learned later an SA-7 heat-seeking missile had climbed up the tailpipe of my A-37, disintegrating parts of it like a clay pigeon. Fragments of the plane spiraled downward like dead leaves driven to earth by a hard monsoon rain.
Fiery storm of flames was roaring around me, and smoke billowed into my crematorium.
“Sickened and suffocating, precious seconds passed as I fought against the gravity that pinned me to my seat. I strained to reach the D-shaped ejection handle that would hurl me free…suddenly, I was suspended in air…floating in the coolness of the sky.
“It was like I was in the eye of a hurricane, watching, in the distance, the deep, peaceful blue of the sea, glistening all the way to the horizon, while death whirled around me.”
THE LAST SORTIE will tell of Ly Tong’s final flight, his plane crash, capture and imprisonment. Its main purpose will be to put the reader in Vietnam, acquaint him with Ly Tong, and set him up for the journey that followsAn abbreviated portion of this chapter accompanies this treatment.
2. IMPRISONMENT AND ESCAPE.
“After my first month of solitary confinement in the conex container,
creatures and objects of even extremely insignificant size took on great value and consequence. I cherished every tiny fish bone, every grain of rice.
“My senses of taste and smell became extremely acute. I could tell the different degree of sweetness of each drop of water, from which well it was taken, or how long it was boiled.
“After days of hunger, the sweetness of sugar or the fat of animal oil would convulse my body with delight. It seemed that all the organs of my digestive system would become excited even with the slightest provocation.
“And, I discovered, that stimulation often lingered well into slumber.
Eating a piece of meat could bring a dream, a satisfactory wet dream. Wet dreams were the great happiness of the imprisonment days.”
IMPRISONMENT AND ESCAPE will consist of approximately five sections.
It will recount the half-decade Ly Tong languishes in communist prisons; the mind games of “re-education” and propaganda; the emotional torture of routine and monotony, contrasted with the physical torture of ripped-out toenails, digging one’s own grave, and solitary confinement in a cargo container. It will conclude with his eventual escape to Saigon.
3. HIDING IN SAIGON
“In the small room, one of 10 such cubicles in the building for rent, the five of us lived together.
“My sister-in-law, my niece and her small son slept on the only bed. On the little vacant space of the floor, Hung and I slept without a mat. The width of the room was so scant that, at night, if I moved from my back onto my side, I could hit either the wall or the bed’s legs. And when my sister-in-law or niece had to relieve herself, she had to step over us.
“The big problems were food and safety. My niece was seven months pregnant, and her boyfriend was in jail. My sister-in-law had a crippled leg. Both were unemployed and both stayed at home.
“My nephew had a government job, but the salary was enough to pay only for his cigarettes. The biggest part of his income came from smuggling.”
HIDING IN SAIGON will consist of three or four sections that detail the 14 months Ly Tong lives in the netherworld of communist Saigon; black-marketeering, as well as his surreptitous efforts to steal an airplane from Tan Son Nhut Airport and fly to freedom; resignation to failure, and
leaving Saigon afoot.
“The office chief took down two wooden sticks with electrodes attached. He plugged in the wires and touched the two ends together, causing a noisy, bright arc of current to flash and crackle through the air.
“I looked the man straight in the face, trying to take measure of him.
Slowly he applied the electrodes to my chest, one on each nipple.
“A flash of white light seared its way through my mind, and my muscles began to twitch uncontrollably. Rivulets of perspiration streamed from my body in a matter of mere seconds.
“I tried to concentrate, to focus on the pain itself in order to endure it. It took all of my strength just to hang on, just to maintain consciousness. And when I could see myself coming to the end of that reserve of strength, I could think of nothing except…laughing.
“But my mind couldn’t get my body to laugh. In fact, my mind couldn’t get my body to laugh or cry or scream or surrender. Nothing. It was bizarre.”
KAMPUCHEA will consist of four or five sections: illegally crossing the Vietnam-Kampuchea border; the time spent in — and escape from — Phnom Penh’s Vietnamese-run Prison 7708; Ly Tong threading his way through a nation ravaged by famine and where, since 1975, an estimated 1 million to 3 million Cambodians have died of war, disease, starvation and Pol Pot’s hideous
massacres; “job hunting” in order to make money to continue his trek; the trail to Thailand.
5. THE MOVE TO FREEDOM
“During the time I lived in Nong Sawmet, I tried to improve my English by reading books, talking with foreigners who worked in the camp and listening to them chatting.
“Once in the communist prisons in Vietnam, I would read my English book on the way to the field or going back to camp. Because I always had my nose in that book, sometimes I would trip or step on a sharp stones, leaving open, bleeding sores on my feet.
“At night, I would elbow my way into a place next to a lignt, where other prisoners played chess. There I would read, learning new words while chewing — with great relish — the burned termites that fell from the lamp.
“My biggest fear was that my English book would be seized by the guards.
Every time they checked our belongings, I hid my book. I loved that book more than anything. It was, by far, my most precious possession.”
THE MOVE TO FREEDOM relates Ly Tong’s year in a Thai prison; his escape and placement in the infamous Nong Samet refugee Camp; climaxing with the journey through Thailand and Malaysia, and his swim to Singapore.
The final chapter is brief, providing the denouement and resolution of the Singapore interrogations that determine the ultimate fate of Ly Tong.
The Singapore prologue, as well as the Singapore interrogations, will be written in the present tense to create a sense of impact, immediacy, and suspense. Developments that require an omniscient narrative, including any remarks that offer insight to — or reflect upon — the character of Ly Tong or any of the other players, will be dealt with — albeit sparingly — during these interludes. The bulk of the book, however, will be Ly Tong’s first-person account to his interrogators, written in the past tense.
Ly Tong’s story is a gripping one. President Reagan has acknowledged the “daring escape from captivity in Vietnam and Cambodia, “calling it “truly the stuff of legend.” The Wall Street Journal, Reader’s Digest, and the New Orleans Picayune-Times have published articles describing Ly Tong’s ordeal. They all speak of hardship and deprivation. Steadfastness and courage, Determination and daring. Hope and hopelessness. Resourcefulness, pluck, and luck.
The concepts are common, but the events and circumstances that surround them here are unique.
There is much heroism in this story. However, there will be no patriotic preaching, no sappy soliloquies, no attempts to convert the converted.
Doctrinaire lectures will appear only as they relate to the North Vietnamese mind-games and propaganda mentioned earlier.
There also is much pain in this story, and there will be no attempt to avoid presenting it as it occurred. By the same token, there will be no attempt to sensationalize it. Violence or ugliness will be served up only to juxtapose it against Ly Tong’s long, long struggle for freedom, giving testimony to the difficulty and drama of the ordeal. This is, above all, a true adventure, and Ly Tong’s story will speak for itself.
The author’s message focuses on this slice of his life, then, wherein perseverance, ingenuity and belief in oneself — along with an ample supply of luck — can, sometimes, overcome seemingly insurmountable odds.
There are four main themes that weave their way throuqh the book, although some of them may receive only cursory attention in the synopsis that follows this part of the treatment.
The major themes are these:
1. A Slave to Fate.
The vagaries of war deal a cocksure young pilot a bust hand. He doesn’t die. Much worse, he must live — and play his enemy’s game by his enemy’s ever-changing rules.
Sometimes innocent people die. And sometimes despicable people don’t.
Events range from the macho (wearing nothing under his flight-suit) to the madcap (phantom-like, he scares enemy soldiers at night to make his getaway) from making love with a Red Cross worker, to marking time in the squalor cf a refugee camp. In the topsy-turvy world of war-ravaged Indochina, it’s all a crap-shoot.
“Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,” said the poet John Donne. So, too, is Ly Tong.
2. One God, One Satan
Human beings are unpredictable, and from the most unexpected quarter Ly Tong may find a friend or flat-out enemy. Some people, for no discernible reason whatsoever, will risk their lives for him… others take pleasure in his pain.
Ly Tong becomes the guinea pig who bears out Baudelaire’s observation that in every man, at every hour, there are two simultaneous postulations – one towards God, the other towards Satan.
Then, too, there are the victims. If their skulls do not already litter the fields and hillsides like clusters of mushroom caps, they then are little more than living skeletons, whose decimated bodies reveal protruding bones and bulging blood vessels. This black and blessed swath of humanity becomes the stuff of Ly Tong’s life.
3. Between Scylla and Charybdis.
Man’s survival instinct is inveterate, and Ly Tong demonstrates it over and over and over again, maneuvering his life along a very fine line, like a Ulysses, between Scylla and Charybdis.
In spite of the physical pain, the mental anguish; and the spiritual incertitude, Ly Tong continues to come out a survivor.
4. The Way of Lao Tzu.
“He who knows others is wise; he who knows himself is enlightened.” Lao Tzu.
Experiences such as these change a person. From birth Ly Tong has been part of the Vietnanese upper crust and, for a number of reasons, he is a different breed of cat (perhaps it comes with a pilot’s wings). A little crazy here, a little naive braggadocio there.
But then, through the process of the book, a metamorphosis occurs. His bravado becomes bravery, humility overtakes pride, caution and concern conquer blind boldness.
After 15 years, Ly Tong weeps. He recognizes the existence, and desire for, a divine being. He becomes a more complex character, and soon we find ourselves silently cheering him on.
The title of the book, HEARTBEAT AFTER HEARTBEAT, is a synthesis of the four aforementioned main themes — even though Ly Tong’s narration presciently introduces it early in the story:
“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 a breath, into a heartbeat…heartbeat after heartbeat.”
HEARTBEAT AFTER HEARTBEAT
Ly Tonsgs story begins April 5, 1975, just weeks before the communist takeover of Saigon, when his A-37 Dragonfly jetfighter is shot down near Nha Trang. A Soviet missile rips the aircraft in half.
His fellow pilots in the South Vietnamese Air Force think their young comrade has been killed. They hadn’t seen him eject at a low altitude,
parachuting into enemy territory.
Ly Tong isn’t dead, but his problems are just beginning. When he tries to run away, children follow — cheering, as youngsters are wont to do. The commotion draws attention to him, and he is captured.
Ly Tong soon finds himself in prison and, at first, he focuses his energies simply on surviving.
But later, during one visitor’s day, he watches as married prisoners line up to talk with their families, stretched out along the outside of the camp’s barbed wire fence. Excited by the sight of his wife and children, one of Ly Tong’s friends breaks through the line and steps toward the fence.
A guard opens fire, instantly killing the man in front of his terrified family.
It is time, Ly Tong decides, to escape from this madness.
Soon thereafter, he and another prisoner slip away from a lightly guarded wood-chopping detail. But, during the second day of “freedorn,” a guard at a roadblock demands to see their identification.
Ly Tong’s companion panics, blurting out the story of their escape.
“I must go alone,” Ly Tong tells himself as he is returned to the prison camp.
Ly Tong has no responsibilities to anyone — other than to himself. A young bachelor whose parents are dead, he has been on his own for some time. The nation for which he has risked his life, the Republic of Vietnam, no longer exists. The nation that conquered it, the Democratic — now Socialist -Republic of (North) Vietnam, is anathema.
“I will turn these circumstances into strengths,” vows the man without a country.
Taken again before a “people’s court,” he is ordered to kneel as the charges for escaping prison are recited.
With his new-found resolve, Ly Tong refuses to submit to this routine humiliation…and is sentenced to “conex” imprisonment — an inhumane test of physical and mental endurance, infamous throughout the Vietnamese prison system.
Conex imprisonment is solitary confinement in a used U S. “Conex” cargo container, 8-feet high and 4-feet wide, where temperatures during the Southeast Asian summer reach well above a near-suffocating 115 degrees Fahrenheit. At night, the cold is numbing.
For Ly Tong, air, food — mere handfuls of rice and salt — and his own wastes pass through the same shrapnel holes that dot the sides of the conex box. Often, guards throw stones at the metal cell, the earsplitting echoes reverberating unexpectedly off the walls of his solitary world at any time of day or night.
He stays there for six months.
In all, Ly Tong spends five years in one Vietnamese jail or another. Wet dreams and daydreams are his only peace, his only pleasure. All else is pain, but he nonetheless refuses to submit to the whims or dictates of his tormentors.
Why is he not simply summarily executed?
Ascertaining the overall design plotted for Ly Tong by those who had the power over his life and his death is an admittedly evanescent endeavor.
Perhaps his captors saw his resistance as a challenge. Or perhaps he was their toy, offering a macabre sort of entertainment in times of boredom.
Killing Ly Tong also may have been politically unfeasible, an admittance of the shortcomings in Marxist ideology or the failure of communist “re-education” programs.
Perhaps there was no overall design — just dumb luck, or the daily caprice of no one in particular that allowed him to live.
Whatever the case, in trying to break Ly Tong’s spirit, communist cadres knock him down and beat him countless times, guards threaten to disembowel him, the toenails of one foot are ripped out, and he is ordered to dig what he is told is his own grave.
Once, after a particularly severe beating, guards shove his swollen, bloody face into the mud: “How do you feel now?” they ask.
“Do what you want to me, but you will never destroy my dignity,” Ly Tong jeers back. “Six men treat me like an animal. But who is the animal? And who is the man?”
Carrying their bestial sport to a climax, the guards tie Ly Tong in an ox yoke and leave him trussed up for two weeks. An odiously ingenious form of torture, Ly Tong nonetheless remains stoic.
By now Ly Tong realizes his defiance has become a wellspring of his existence. He is feeding from it. It is his emotional oasis in a convoluted, burlesque world that dances around him. He is clinging to it desperately, though he knows full well it can turn against him unexpectedly — like a creature of the jungle — and carry him to doom.
Ly Tong also knows he soon must remove himself from this run on the razor’s edge, and so, after he is released from the yoke, he puts into motion the events that will lead to his next escape.
To toughen himself, he sets aside what meager comforts the prison provides. At night, when it is cold, he sleeps without a blanket. On the hottest day, he toils without head-covering. He prepares himself psychologically by meditating.
Using only a nail, it takes him 10 days to loosen a bar on a toilet-hut window. Finally, on July 12, 1980, Ly Tong escapes from the camp known as A30 in Phu Khanh. He crawls out and inches his way on his stomach across the prison yard. With a small, stolen scissors, he cuts through the strands of two barbed-wire fences, and then walks all night to Tuy Hoa, a coastal town some 350 kilometers northeast of Saigon City.
A friend in Tuy Hoa gives him enough money for a bus to Nha Trang.
“You’re from A30 prison, aren’t you?” asks the bus driver, seeing in Ly Tong the look of a hunted man.
“Then you’ve got trouble. There’s a control post dead ahead. Get off and
walk through with a crowd of local people. They seldom check all the ID cards. I’ll wait for you on the road beyond…”
Sometimes there is little else a person can do but follow the rumblings of one’s own gut, and this time Ly Tong’s gut told him to trust the bus driver.
The ploy works — and the bus driver is as good as his word, waiting for Ly Tong well beyond the control post.
It is but the first of many times Ly Tong places his trust — and, ultimately, his life — in the hands of total strangers.
Once in Nha Trang, Ly Tong contacts an ex-girlfriend who furnishes him with clothes, cash and a train ticket to Ho Chi Minh City. There, he joins the “new Saigon” shadow world of smugglers, black marketeers, and fellow countrymen on the run.
Relatives and friends hide him in their homes. For awhile, Ly Tong supports himself by selling fake identification cards to others in the underbelly of a city creaking with corruption, plots and counterplots. Then, in September of l991, another plan takes shape in Ly Tong’s mind:
“I’m a pilot, why not steal a plane?” he asks himself.
Twice Ly Tong sneaks into what once was Tan Son Nhut air base: first with the intention of bombing communist-controlled airports to perhaps spark an uprising; the second time to fly to a neighboring country and seek asylum.
The efforts fail.
He finds Soviet planes he doesn’t know how to operate, and all familiar aircraft lack either fuel or bombs.
Friends cannot afford to help him leave by sea, even the stories of the “boat people” are bitter — how they often fall prey to pirates who rape them or butcher them or simply toss them to the sharks. Even when some boat people succeed in escaping to another country, officials there merely turn their eyes away — and a very uncertain future.
Ly Tong does like to be a pioneer in planning a new way of escaping for those who are in bad luck. So he sets out with only 150 dong — $60 — and catches a bus heading for the Cambodian border. On Sept. 23, he crosses the Cambodian frontier — on foot and with relative ease — by following a trail used by smugglers.
The country in which Ly Tong would spend the next five months had endured a vicious five-year civil war, ending in 1975; then came widespread famine, followed by some three years of grisly massacres by Communist Pol Pot’s victorious Khmer Rouge — a gruesome genocidal spectacle of vengeance nearly unimaginable in scope.
Between one and three inillion people died.
In 1978, the Vietnamese invaded. And, although these occupation forces pacified major urban areas and the bulk of the nation’s transportation network, guerrilla war still is waged throughout much of the countryside.
Roadblocks constantly halt travelers, but as long as Ly TOng is on foot or in a crowded bus, he is somewhat safe.
It is in a bus that he reaches Phnom Penh. But, he looks suspicious.
Because he is so pale and poorly clothed compared to the other travelers, Ly Tong is detained by authorities. He is questioned, then arrested and tortured.
Electrodes are attached to the nipples of his breasts, and an electric current is shot through his body. He is thrown into a cell of Phnompenh’s notorious – and Vietnamese-run — 7708 prison, and told he will be sent back to Vietnam.
By now, however, Ly Tong has gained a large measure of confidence in his jail-breaking ability. A quick, but thorough, survey of his surroundings reveal a weak spot in his cell window — a wooden frame with iron bars. Before dawn, while playing a hoax on guards, he tests the bars. After three hours of tugging, the last bar comes loose
Ly Tong scampers through.
For the next four months, he moves northwest on foot, following the Mekong River across the heart of Cambodia. At one river village near Kampong Chhanang, he works for three months clearing fish traps. He watches a fellow fisherman drown — and then nearly drowns himself during the rescue attempt. Later, he almost dies when a leg wound becomes infected.
But, eventually, he learns about fishing — and earns about 1,500 riels ($30) as well.
Such wealth, Ly Tong thinks. The bicycle, food and clothing he buys are near-luxuries. The bottle of Hennessy is bliss.
Then, it is time to move on.
He sets out on the bike for the Thai border on Jan. 18, 1982.
The jungle and rice paddies surrounding Sisophon, the last major town in Ly Tong’s trek to Thailand, are the focus of fierce guerrilla fighting. To avoid danger, and suspicion, Ly Tong carries his bicycle into the dense jungle — where he runs smack into an armed Kampuchean soldier.
Ly Tong leaps from the bike and scrambles into the undergrowth, with the crack of the soldier’s rifle behind him and the hum of the rounds closely overhead. Soon, soldiers and villagers in the area form a posse of sorts, and the manhunt commences.
Surrounded, Ly Tong takes refuge under a large, low bush. Unfortunately, he has crashed a colony of ants.
With loudspeakers blaring, and soldiers and villagers moving all around — sometimes searchers are so close, Ly Tong could touch their sandalled feet – he remains silent for six hours, as thousands and thousands of ants swarm over his body, stinging him and stinging him, again and again and again.
Not once did he cry out, for the slightest sound meant certain capture and almost certain execution. When the search party disperses and all is quiet, it takes Ly Tong — weakened and, by now, half-crazed — a solid hour to rid his clothes and swollen body of the tiny tormentors.
A month will pass before he is healed from the ant bites.
Still, his luck has held.
In this area of Cambodia, Ly Tong must cross so many canals, creeks and waterways that it makes sense to take off his clothes to keep them dry, putting them in a bundle tied to the top of his head with a towel.
At night, walking naked along a riverbank while looking for a place to cross, he comes face-to-face with four young, armed Vietnamese soldiers.
In the darkness, this apparition, with two heads atop the body of a man, makes these inexperienced troops cower — giving Ly Tong an idea.
Immediately he jumps at one of the soldiers, screaming like a schoolboy:
“Whooooooo! ! ! ”
Terrified, the entire squad turns tail and runs.
Ly Tong runs in the opposite direction, and soon the riverbank is filled with frantic soldiers searching for “a phantom.”
He travels the last 20 kilometers — a no-man’s-land sown with mines and patrolled by Vietnamese occupation forces, Thai security troops, anti-Vietnarrese resistance units, and bandits — alone, on foot and at night. He is seen once by Thai border guards, but gives them the slip.
Land mines are not unfamiliar to Ly Tong. As a prisoner, he was conscripted for mine-clearing duty many times, using only his hands, a bamboo stick or sickle, probing the ground at just the proper angle for the man-made treasure troves of death and destruction.
Precariously picking his way toward Thailand, Ly Tong figures he hasn’t eaten in two days. There is no potable water, and thirst leaves him in a state of near-delirium. Then he loses all track of time — but is jolted back to reality by an unusual sound.
The barking of dogs.
Elsewhere, or in another time, he may have trembled. But not now. Instead, something clicks.
“Is this Thailand?- Ly Tong wonders. He knew there were few dogs in Vietnam, and almost none in Cambodia. In Vietnam, after Saigon’s fall, they become the greatest food for the communists. In Cambodia, the starving had eaten them all.
Crawling close to a peasant’s hut, Ly Tong hears voices. The language is neither Khmer nor Vietnamese.
“This must be Thailand,” he thinks. “This must be freedom.”
Following the sounds of traffic until he comes upon a highway, he stops a man on a motorcycle and, through sign language and a smattering of Khmer, asks to be taken to the Red Cross.
Ly Tong thought he was safe.
Ly Tong was wrong.
On Jan. 25, 1982, he walked into the office of the International Committee of the Red Cross in the Thai border town of Aranyaprathet.
Thai officials — who don’t believe his story — peg him for a Vietnamese infiltrator, and immediately throw him in jail.
With defectors from the Vietnamese army in Cambodia as his cellmates, Ly Tong is interrogated time and again by a Thai colonel. Deflecting derision,
indignities and countless accusations, he spends, in all, 10 months in confinement.
Finally, a hunger strike, and U.S. officials in Bangkok who confirm his military service, convince the Thais to release him from the Aranyaprathet jail.
The victory is Pyrrhic. He is sent to Nong Samet, a border camp in Cambodia occupied by some 200 Vietnamese and Kampuchean refugees.
Nong samet, one of some 10 ghastly refugee ghettos strung along the Thai-Cambodian frontier, is a place of incredible misery. Many, many of the inhabitants are ill. Many others are dying of starvation. Most are filled with fear. Everyone is desperate.
Nong Samet is the end of the line for practically all of them. They aren’t allowed to leave the camp, nor are they accepted to immigrate in third countries. They wait for a miracle. They wait for invitations to America or some 35 other countries that accept refugees. Except for a very fortunate few, there will be no miracles.
Ly Tog knows that escape is his only option, and, even though American refugee officials tell him he has no chance of making it overland to Singapore, he decides that is where he will go.
On the night of Feb. 1, 1983, he can hear the shelling as Vietnamese forces attack the neighboring refugee camp of Nong Chan. With money from friends and the clothes on his back comprising all his worldly goods, he climbs the bamboo fence that encloses Nong Samet. Ahead of him, once again, is the border minefield, creeks and waterways — and always, always the jungle.
Over the panicky screams of his fellow refugees, through the artillery barrage and firing of machine guns, he looks one last time at this city of sorrow. He anguishes one brief, final moment over the waste of humanity he is leaving behind, then heads for Aranyaprathet, 25 kilometers to the southwest.
Once again in Thailand, he is spotted near a checkpoint and ordered to stop. His instincts tell him to run, and run he does — with Thai soldiers in pursuit, rifles blazing.
Ly Tong hides in a field of tall elephant grass. The soldiers come very close. So close he can hear them talking — and smell the smoke from the fire they had started. This was how they would capture Ly Tong. They would burn him out..
Ly Tong was not the kind of man who cried. For maybe 15 years, and in spite of all the pain and deprivation and hopeless situations, Ly Tong had not wept.
Now, however, he cries. Softly. And, he begins to pray.
“With your help I have come so far,” he sobs. “If I am no longer worthy, kill me now. But don’t let me fall to the enemy.”
When the fire fails to spread, and then finally dies, the soldiers eventually leave.
“I believe in God,” Ly Tong says to himself. Then, aloud, “I believe in God.”
For Ly Tong, it is a revelation. But there is little time to ponder it. He must find refuge — but where?
His only hope is the home of a Filipino Red Cross worker — Esther — whom he met, and who had befriended him, at Nong Samet.
Ly Tong’s unexpected arrival is no pleasant surprise for Esther — she is afraid his presence might put her in danger.
Her cold words of welcome leave Ly Tong tired and desperate. But, later, she smiles, and they talk. Then, spreading a blanket on the floor, she tells Ly Tong to lie down, and she comes close to him. “I am afraid,” she says.
Ly Tong takes her hand, kisses it, and places it on his chest.
Esther moves closer still, and whispers in his ear: “Ly Tong, are you a spy?”
They laugh, and their lovemaking, warm and tender, lasts through the night.
Esther buys new clothes and sandals for Ly Tong, and then, despite the risk to her own life, poses as his wife on a bus to Bangkok. In the teeming Thai capital, Ly Tong and Esther part. Never again will they see one another.
Events now move quickly.
From Bangkok, Ly Tong travels alone, by train, down the Thai peninsula to Hat Yai, near the Malaysian border.
down the Thai
Taking to the jungle at night, he crosses the frontier — sometimes walking, sometimes crawling on his hands and knees or on his stomach — keeping his bearings by staying parallel with a nearby highway.
Soon he is flagging down yet another bus in yet another country he has entered without a proper permit, visa or passport — indeed, without any documentation whatsoever.
A bus carrying Ly Tong arrives in Kuala Lumpur on Feb. 8, 1983. He leisurely takes in the sights around the Malaysian capital, then hops another bus to Seremban, then Segamat.
At 8:00 PM he reaches Johore Bahru, on the southernmost tip of the Malay Peninsula, overlooking the Johore Strait. Another — the last — checkpoint must be passed, so Ly Tong slips away and walks to a deserted stretch of beach.
Three kilometers from shore to shore, the strait — wind-whipped and shark-infested — is his only remaining barrier.
Ly Tong enters the water well after dark, keeping the railroad causeway in sight to the left and the lights of Singapore dead ahead.
He swims. Five-foot waves, an unrelenting wind, coldness, and exhaustion all conspire against him. He swims.
His mind drifts off to another time and another place, when he nearly drowned while showing off for a girlfriend. He made it then, he swims now.
He fights with the small bundle of clothing — his only possessions in all the world — that is tied around his neck. Like a millstone, it becomes heavier and heavier, threatening to pull him straight to the bottom of this bothersome body of water.
Finally, he feels sand beneath his feet. The Singapore shore. Alone, too exhausted to celebrate, he walks a short distance and sleeps that night in a park.
The next morning — Feb. 10, 1983 — Ly Tong exchanges his remaining Malaysian ringgits for Singaporean dollars and catches a bus downtown. Not knowing his way to the American Embassy, he hails a taxi for the final leg of his epic journey.
Bus and train tickets, along with his Nong Samet identification tag, help support the story he tells to stunned embassy officials and members of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
Because he is considered an illegal immigrant, Ly Tong is turned over to Singapore authorities, detained, interrogated and incarcerated for a month, while the Singaporeans — who accept absolutely no refugees — try to figure out what to do with him.
Finally, they send him to a resettlement camp in Indonesia. From there, U.S. officials allow him immigration status.
On the morning of Aug. 31, 1983 — eight years, four months and 23 days after his capture by communists near Nha Trang in Vietnam — Ly Tong steps off a plane in San Francisco, Calif.
He is a free man.
HEARTBEAT AFTER HEARTBEAT
“The Last Sortie”
A portion of Chapter I
The North Vietnamese shelling began at 6 a.m. on April 5, 1975, a heavy barrage of artillery fire from the mountains two miles northwest of Phan Rang Air Force Base.
Only four of us were sleeping in the “alert patch,” a quonset hut within sprinting distance of the runway where our A-37 Dragonfly jet fighters were parked.
With a communist victory imminent, most of our base personnel had been evacuated to Saigon two days earlier. Except for its commander and his immediate staff, the Air Force’s entire Sixth Division also had left, chastened and chased — by a relentless, swarming enemy — from Pleiku to Phan Rang and, now, to Saigon.
On detached 24-hour duty, we flew whenever and wherever we were ordered — the only sure thing being the knowledge that if we were still alive after a day and a night on alert, another crew would replace us.
A day and a night had become the boundaries of our existence. Nothing else seemed to matter, and we watched time pass almost as automatons, reacting to orders, to stimuli. Always reacting.
The phone rang loudly and persistently, and we literally jumped from our bunks to appease its demands for our attention. Combined with the constant drone of the air conditioner and the pounding of the artillery barrage outside, what only moments before was a serene and peaceful point of refuge had quickly become a cacophony of sight and sound.
New orders. We scrambled for our fighters.
Minutes later — boots half-laced, flightsuits only partially zipped and faces hastily splashed with water that had condensed on our plexiglas canopies — we were airborne.
A voice crackled over the radio, and soon we learned 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, and Saigon — the “Pearl of the Orient” — must be protected, our superiors told us, for as long as possible.
For the last few months, though, we often dared to wonder why.
We were short of bombs, ammunition — even fuel for our aircraft. The communists were pressing us hard. Our soldiers and pilots and comrades and friends and families…all were dying during these last few futile and desperate hours of the war.
For morale, for leadership, we had little more than Vietnamese versions of the Roman emperor Nero. We were bitterly aware of the self-indulgence and corruption that was running roughshod throughout the highest echelons of our own government and military.
But as we climbed above the heavy ground fog and thick cloud cover, thrusting 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, pure softness of the reborn sun.
It was a beautiful morning up where I was flying.
Vo Nguyen Ba was my wingman. Tall, gaunt and austere, with a high-cheekboned face, he was believed by some pilots to be unlucky.
Our 548th “Black Eagle” Squadron had lost six men in the past few months, and four of them had been Ba’s wingmen. After the most recent accident, when two aircraft in close formation crashed into a mountain one stormy afternoon, Ba was transferred to a test-flight squadron.
No one wanted to fly with him, and behind his back they called him “the wingman killer.” But now, with the acute need for experienced fighter pilots, he was back — and I’d volunteered to take him as my partner.
He was, actually, a good man and a good pilot. By reading his eyes and seeing the sag of his shoulders, you could almost feel the anguish he’d suffered because of the men 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. 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 — 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 was planning to do made a shred of difference in the ultimate outcome of the war wasn’t as important to me as the gesture of it. With one final burst of defiant, sacrificial flame, I would condemn the South Vietnamese leadership that had betrayed us — along with a very cunning and duplicitous enemy that had cheated the Paris Agreement at every turn — and issue a last call to my countrymen.
It seemed to me that death was preferable to dishonor. If it were my fate — and my choice — to live a short life, at least I felt I had the satisfaction of knowing I had lived it to the fullest.
After all, what else is there when one loves all that is beautiful? What remains after you welcome the hard challenges, experience the exquisite thrill of the razor’s edge, and, conquer the fear of dying?
Not too shabby for a young pilot.
So, during the last few minutes before reaching the bridges of Cam Ranh Bay, I allowed myself to think once more about the next day’s mission. It had to be perfect, because there would be no dry run.
Long ago I had accepted the idea of death in combat. Every pilot does. What I could not envision for myself was uselessness. Giving up. Surrendering.
When the time came — and it would, inevitably and inexorably — to evacuate those of us in greatest danger of immediate and summary execution by the enemy, I had no choice but to allow men with wives and children to precede me. It was the only honorable and noble thing to do. After all, 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.
I had thought of all these things, sometimes hoping that the mere act of thinking of them would preclude their actually occurring. But, in the absence of any drastic reversal in the direction the war was taking, I just went from day to day, waiting for the most opportune moment to implement my plan.
My plan was very simple, and tomorrow was quickly shaping up as the most opportune time. Ba and I and the two other pilots at Phan Rang were due to be rotated back to Tan Son Nhut airport that evening. And my name already was on the next day’s flight roster — no one had questioned it when I had volunteered.
Immediately after takeoff from Tan Son Nhut, I would drop my bombs on the two symbols of those responsible for the tragic downfall and demise of my country and my people.
First, Camp Davis, near the runway, where representatives of North Vietnam and the Provisional Revolutionary Government had been lodged since the signing of the Paris Accords. Two bombs for Camp Davis.
Then, I would bank left, fly along Cong Ly Street, and drop the other two bombs on Independence Palace, home of tne president of Vietnam.
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 repeated to myself, word-for-word, the short speech over which I had long labored. After explaining the bombings, I would issue a call for resistance…to the death.
“Dear compatriots and comrades-in-anms,” I would say.
“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,” I would urge my countrymen, “to fight and 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 Provisional Revolutionary Government, and President Thieu — did not then 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 that was flying reconnaissance over the target reported heavy anti-aircraft fire. I was accustomed to overly cautious recon pilots, so 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 gathering.”
“Son of a bitch,” I screamed into my radio, then ordered Ba to cover me as I dived and made two low passes over the runways of Cam Ranh airport, supposedly the hot spot of the area.
Nothing. No groundfire at all.
Angrily I pushed the throttle forward, gaining maximum airspeed, and shot up from under the belly of the L-19 toward its nose, leaving the powerful exhaust turbulence in front of the recon plane’s cockpit.
Some intelligence, I thought. Take that.
Then I prepared for a minimum altitude bombing run. That meant 1,500 feet.
He never mentioned it, but it was obvious Ba was still apprehensive, beset by the deaths of his last two wingmen, and, consequently, I decided not to ask him to join me in the passes I planned to make over the refugee-clogged bridges.
Simple 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 to 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 50 feet above the heads of those below. They immediately understood and ran toward both ends of the first bridge I had targeted. Only sporadic fire burst from what seemed to be three types of anti-aircraft guns — 12.7 millimeter, 23 millimeter, and 37 millimeter.
I thought how ironic it was that this next-to-the-last mission also would, be one of the easiest and safest I’d ever flown. My thumb inching toward the fire button, I began to climb out of the last dry pass.
Then, at an altitude of barely 1OO feet, my plane was rocked by an explosive force and deafening roar. My body cringed. And, for an instant, all sound died away — as if I had just entered some exquisite state of semi-consciousness.
I learned later an SA-7 heat-seeking missile had climbed up the tailpipe of my A-37, disintegrating parts of it like a clay pigeon. Fragments of the plane spiraled downward like dead leaves driven to the earth by a hard monsoon rain.
A storm of flames was all around me, and smoke filled the cockpit like a miniature crematorium.
Sickened and suffocating, precious seconds passed as I fought against the gravity that pinned me to my seat. I strained to reach the D-shaped ejection handle that would hurl me free.
I have no memory of ever having touched the ejection handle, but, suddenly, I was suspended in air. Maybe I did grab the handle. Or perhaps the heat of the fire activated the electrical impulse that blew me clear.
Whatever, I was now floating in the coolness of the sky. It was like I was in the eye of a hurricane, watching, in the distance, the deep, peaceful blue of the sea, glistening all the way to the horizon, while death whirled around me.
In just a few moments, after only four or five hammock-like swings of the parachute, and with no time to adjust my position in the harness, I hit the ground like a rag doll on a floor.
I unhooked the harness and limped toward the shelter of a nearby canebreak. It was crazy, but my mind flashed to a chase scene in a Charles Bronson movie. The ache in my left side from the parachute drop made my running technique much less photogenic, and much more ludicrous, than Bronson’s, but I smiled at this fantasy and kept on at my own awkward gait, fleeing in the drama of my own escape scene.
Then came the startling sound of two voices, both male, calling softly.
“Hello? Are you there? Come out…can we help?”
“The hell with you,” was my barely audible reply, and I burrowed deeper into the cane, convinced they were Viet Cong.
A helicopter flew toward my refuge, 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 had broken the curse.
But I had run out of the alert hut at Phan Rang 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 signal I could not give.
Anti-aircraft fire drove the chopper back to base after 10 minutes of what I recognized to be a thorough and dangerous search. I saluted the pilots as the aircraft became more distant, then disappeared altogether over the hills.
* * *
It was time I started walking.
I had landed on top of a gently sloping hill not far from the highway choked with refugees. They were heading southward from Nha Trang toward Phan Rang, which I judged to be about 45 kilometers away.
Compounding any escape plan I might be able to devise was one glaring problem: I wore nothing underneath my flight suit.
As any combat pilot will brag, few women can resist the allure of a man in his flight suit, bedecked with all kinds of colorful badges and ribbons and insignia. Why? I don’t know. They just do.
I used to love telling the girls that underneath the uniform of this elite warrior was…nothing at all.
But my uniform, which had elicited from the ladies such sweet sexual ardor and attention, now was a nuisance. I was being made to pay for my braggadocio, and I cursed the carelessness that had brought me to my current sorry situation.
In this uniform, I would be a dead giveaway in the plodding crowd of peasants on the highway. I needed to find some bits of ragged clothing and some sandals.
Beyond the canebreak 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.
Making my way toward the hut, a group of children saw my uniform, and then realized I was the pilot who had crashed only moments earlier. First they called, then they raced over to me, with cheers and applause.
I tried to shush them with hand motions and a forefinger to my lips. It was hopeless. Unable to suppress their excitement, I soon was the center of a circus-like commotion. Their spontaneous paeans of approval were becoming downright dangerous.
Darting into the hut, I spotted an old, drab 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 the voice behind me order, “Hands Up!”
Turning quickly, I hoped to frighten or overpower my unknown challenger, but the butt of his rifle slammed into my chin, bringing a stream of blood pouring from a deep, long gash.
I had slipped into the hut of my captor, a black-pajama clad guerrilla about 55 years old, short and wiry ,with a jaw that looked like broken glass.
His skin was deeply tanned and leathery, and his red-rimmed eyes glared at me like lasers.
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 — no doubt whatsoever — he would pull the trigger if I tried to defy him.
Elbowing through the children, a crowd of spectators gathered outside the hut as the guerrilla motioned with the rifle, silently ordering me to walk before him toward the road.
“If you run, I’ll shoot,” he said simply.
I was absolutely certain he would.
As the crowd parted to let me through, I heard a familiar voice whisper softly, “Didn’t you hear me calling?”
It was one of the men searching for me in the canebreak.
“Why did you hide from me?” he whispered quickly.
I couldn’t risk glancing at the man, for even a flicker of emotion could betray the good will of this peasant I had automatically assumed to be an enemy.
“I could have taken you to safety,” he said in a nearly inaudible hiss.
I could only listen in silence, and in silence suffer. I hadn’t trusted my fellow countryman, and the consequences likely would be severe.
How stupid I was.
As we approached the highway, I quickly scanned the throng of civilian refugees for a fast-moving vehicle, hoping for a chance to hop aboard and escape in the chaos of the crowd. Surely the old man wouldn’t shoot at point-blank range into the closely packed families, the women with infants tied across their breasts, the children struggling to stay together in this long, wretched tear-stained train of exhaustion and/fear.
I spotted bicycles, three-wheeled motor scooters, a few cars, carts used by peasants in the fields — all so heavily laden that they offered no chance of escape.
But later, in the distance, I could heard the roar of a powerful engine. A Lambretta taxi, suitcases strapped to its roof, was speeding along the side of the road, bouncing off debris that littered the shoulder of the macadam thoroughfare. 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 only by inches.
Then, 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.
They wore small, leafy branches over their helmets and uniforms, and the 30-millimeter machine gun mounted on the truck, obviously a prize of war, was almost completely hidden under a canopy of foliage.
As I struggled to get 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 alongside the road and under a stand of coconut palms nearby.
There were eight A-37s, and they had flown from Saigon, I knew, to avenge my death. Bombs rained down all around me.
For a few moments, I stood alone in the bed of the truck. I actually hoped I would be killed by one of my own planes, and I remember thinking it better to die by friendly fire than tortured and broken by the enemy.
But one of the Viet Cong soldiers, braver than the others, ran to the truck, pulled me roughly from it, and tried to hurry 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 even the big guns had outrun their supply lines.
As I watched them firing at the planes now, I saw that almost every gunner was chained to the artillery. And the crew of every battery we passed claimed a kill — as I later learned, their headquarters reported four planes destroyed when mine was the only aircraft they had successfully downed.
I smiled at their boasting.
* * *
Somehow I sensed what was coming, and I tried to prepare myself.
I thought of Nguyen Du, a pilot who had damaged the Viet Cong cause so deeply that he’d earned a $10,000 bounty on his head. Finally shot down, he was condemned by a so-called “people’s court,” and stoned to death.
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.
In a people’s court, the spectators act as judge, jury and executioners.
They 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.
Sometimes their enthusiasm is real, but sometimes they act out of fear for their own lives.
In my case, the agitation and propaganda – “agitprop” — specialists did their best to incite the spectators, but the best they were able to elicit were openly sympathetic comments and smiles.
Finally, in sheer frustration, two of the agitprop people leaped into the 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 accusers. If they intended to execute me, there was no need to provide them with an excuse to get on with it. My only real option was 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 face-saving.
I struggled to my feet, took careful aim, and spat directly in the face of the biggest and most niggardly tormentor.
Then, stepping back, I raised my head challenging and waited for the first stone.
An eternity passed in silence. Irreverently, perhaps, I thought that if the stones don’t kill me soon, the suspense will.
Someone started clapping, and soon he was joined by others. I heard laughter, shouts of approval. Instead of stones, I was pelted with cigarettes and candies.
My people’s court trial was over, and I was sentenced to live. I was marched back to the camouflaged truck and driven away.
Ahead of me lay years and years of interrogations, re-education camps, prisons, jails, solitary confinement rooms, torture cells 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…heartbeat after heartbeat.