Sonny Lê was born in Vietnam during the war. He and his family had to shelter in place during the fall of the South Vietnamese government at the end of the war, and he later fled the country by taking a dangerous trip on a fishing boat packed with other refugees. (Bert Johnson/KQED)
This story is part of a series called "Faces of the Vietnam War." KQED recently asked our audience to submit their stories about the Vietnam War. We heard from refugees, military veterans, journalists, activists and more. This story comes from Oakland resident Sonny Lê, who was born in South Vietnam during the war.
I grew up in the Mekong Delta. You could say that's the deep, deep south. Back in the days, it would take you about six hours to travel from Saigon, or Ho Chi Minh City, to the Mekong Delta region along the coast bordering Cambodia.
That was the southern hideout area of the National Liberation Front, or Viet Cong. We used to have a saying: “Day and night.” We literally meant who was who. So daytime belonged to the Republicans -- that would be the U.S.-backed regime, South Vietnam.
Nighttime was when it belonged to the National Liberation Front guerrillas. At night, they came home to see their wives, their kids. And then during the day they disappeared again. I mean, you couldn't tell who the enemies were. Basically the American soldier couldn’t, even the Vietnamese couldn't tell.
Throughout my childhood the war was the backdrop, because my father was working for the government. He was a communications officer for the U.S. and for the Vietnamese military. So the war was always part of us.
Up until 1975, Vietnam wasn't at peace for centuries. By the time the U.S. got involved in Vietnam, it was called the Second Indochinese War. The first one was with the French. In Vietnam, at that point, we were so inured to the sounds of war that we simply said, “Yeah, but it's over there.”
For kids, war is a lot of fun. We helped carry these shells for fun because, within these shells, you have these gunpowder pellets. They look just like fish feed pellets and they were fantastic! You take a little bit of aluminum foil, you wrap it around, you light it up and whoosh! It's like the gunpowder pellets were out of firecrackers and fireworks. The soldiers would give them to us, the kids, to play with. That was our reward for helping the soldiers carrying those shells.
April 30 is considered the day that the country was reunified. That night, we heard on the radio that the national radio broadcast was cut off -- radio silence. South Vietnam had lost; the country basically was gone.
The night of April 30, we heard sporadic gunfire. Back in those days, nearly every house had a bomb shelter. It was basically a big earthen pot underneath the ground and we all got in there, under the bed. We were hiding in that pot and we heard footsteps running back and forth on the road and then we heard sounds of tires screeching -- the former South Vietnamese soldiers running away, or being chased.
You thought, “We're going to die,” because the biggest fear at that point was bombings or artillery. The worst thing about artillery is that they land where they land. They don't have names on those shells and so they just could land anywhere.
I don't think my father came home until a week later. We thought he either died or [was] captured during the chaos. The very people who came to relieve my father were his drinking buddies, but they were undercover commies. On May 1, he was their captive.
My dad's brothers-in-law -- two of them were commies, too, and we didn't know until after the war. One of them was a high-ranking member. The other was running guns for the National Liberation Front. The Vietnam War divided families and family members were fighting on both sides, sometimes against each other.
When I left I was going on 17, so I was that close to drafting age. Vietnam was fighting two wars: in the north with China, in the south with Cambodia. At the time Vietnam was broken, economically speaking, and Vietnam was in a panic. So any Vietnamese, even northerners, had to flee for their lives.
My boat left in 1980, with some cousins, and then subsequently there was another boat planned for 1981 that would have been my uncles and possibly my family, but that boat got caught. They got busted, and so they went to jail.
A lot of people went to jail and [got] tortured pretty good, but thankfully some of our family members were part of the communist regime so they rescued their own brothers-in-law. So that's how I ended up here without my family. That wasn't intentional.
Another thing is that most refugees who fled by boat had no idea where we were headed. I mean, if you look on the map, in theory you could see the other side, right? I mean, on a map it looks hella small! If we keep going we're going to hit shore, right?
But you have no idea how vast the ocean is. It's scary vast and when you go out, so far out when there is no land, the depth of the ocean is as far as the eye can see. You’re scared, but you stop being scared because you know death was imminent. When your death [is] imminent, you’re just trying to reconcile with death. We made it by praying to everybody. If Prince was around, I would have prayed to him, too!
Our boat had 302 people on board and it was steaming hot. And we hired a captain who claimed to have traveled the high seas and he had seen the other side -- of course, he fibbed. By the second day we snuck out of the river mouth, heading for the South China Sea. That was on the night of the 19th of May, 1980. That night was pitch black, no moon. It was low tide, but we didn't know we ran into fishing nets.
The fishermen would string these big nets in the river mouth to catch the fish going out. The boat kept going in a circle, because the nets kept drawing us back. So we put the engine pedal to the metal, to the point that we broke the nets. But we also cracked the hull of the boat and broke the engine.
By the morning we were already adrift at sea. The thing about [being] adrift at sea is that you begin to see debris, and that's when we saw the debris of all the boats that may have sunk. And then we saw some bodies floating.
We didn't think we'd make it. It's like 100 degrees -- sun, humidity, stifling heat in the boat. The smell of sweat, urine, vomit and fecal matter together. It smells horrible and I can still smell that in my nostrils. I call it the stench of death.
And then towards the morning of the sixth day, there was this gigantic ship -- turned out to be an oil tanker. That was the George F. Getty II. We're screaming at the top of our lungs. We would strip our clothes down all the way and we burned them in this big old pot on top of the deck of the boat. Hopefully, we [could] raise hell and people [would] see and turn around.
All of a sudden, it stopped and made a U-turn. But that was even scarier, when that little tiny wooden boat [was] next to the ship -- it makes quite an impression. Our boat nearly sank because of the waves in the wake of that ship. About 5 a.m., the ship dropped these ladders down to our boat. That's when we knew that we were safe: when the ladders came down and the deckhands of the oil tanker came down.
It was a Filipino crew and the ship captain was Italian. The next day we had our spaghetti with meatballs on that ship! They turned the tanker around and it dropped us off in Singapore the next morning, on the sixth day after we had left Vietnam.
But some of us didn't make it. A lot of people, when they were adrift at sea for so long, they resorted to cannibalism. A lot of Vietnamese refugees ate each other to survive. And the most harrowing experience was the women were being raped by pirates.
The war not only decimated lives and livelihoods, but also it forced people to come up with different narratives for their own lives. Many of us were farmers, fishers, nobodies. So when we landed in America we had a chance to reinvent who we were. A lot of Vietnamese families have these stories that haven't been told. Whoever they were before the war and during the war -- to their kids, they're different people. The war made them want to forget what it was like. This is understandable, but it's history.
KQED's Bert Johnson and Bianca Taylor produced this report. This piece was taken from an interview with Lê, which has been edited for length and clarity.