A HARD TIME
In the final days of South Vietnam, The city of Saigon was defended by at least three Rangers groups, the last and the largest fighting force of the Republic of South Vietnam. As Maj. Gen. Do-Ke-Giai, commander of the Rangers was still in his office, the Rangers fought gallantly side by side and held their positions until received the order to lay down their arms. It was around noon April 30th 1975.The Rangers had done their duty for the country, and as the result they ended up in the re-education camps (called by the communists, actually those camps were forced labor camps) as the largest group and they served longer internment time compared with other internees from other branches of the RVN Arms Forces.
A ranger used his skill as a barber wandering into other sections to find other rangers. When he found major Tran-Thanh-Thuan, an ex-ranger who later became a commander of a Regional Forces battalion.
- Are there any ‘Our Rangers’ here?
- I’m checking for who is absent! Present... too many, countless! Major General Do-Ke-Giai is probably placed in the area for generals. The colonels are all here, Kiet, Truong, Lieu, etc... and Lt. Col. I’m still checking,… very few escaped.
One day, while walked pass by the section for colonels, he saw an old man in black uniform, gray hair with a trash container in one hand, the other hold a broom and the old man was sweeping the floor. He recognized the old man immediately, Brig. Gen. Phan-Xuan-Nhuan, ex-commander of the Rangers and the 1st Infantry division.
- General! This is Sy, Sy security officer of the Ranger high command.
- Ah, Ah! I remember! You are still in good shape.
- Why general is here? Where are ‘Our Generals’?
- You don’t remember! I was de-graded and forced into retirement, no longer a general therefore i reported with the colonels. Anything hard they take care, let me do this sweeping floor.
- Where are ‘Our Generals’? Who are here? Who died?
- Some are here, some committed suicide. About colonel Ho-Ngoc-Can the provincial chief of Chuong-Thien, he was an ex battalion commander of ‘Our Rangers’. Can was a brave and heroic man, he fought until last minutes in his provincial compound. Captured, executed and ‘they’ tied a rope around his neck then used a jeep pulling his body around the town. Finally, i heard that his wife was approved to bury him.One Ranger from the 5th Recon Rangers company (of the 5th group) recalled his memory while serving his time in the camp. I felt pain in my heart to think of major Tran-Dinh-Tu (CO of the 38th Rangers, he refused to lay down arms, fought until ran out of ammunition then executed by the enemy using his own bayonet) and other rangers who died on the last fighting day, even i knew that ... every wars must end ! Surprised to see one another in the concentration camp, but this time ... they are not in the woodland uniforms and without the maroon berets. Meeting old comrades, looking at each others to feel pain in the chests ... and the future looked cloudy and seemed doom. At first, meeting comrades in the same group then in the same Military Region (Corps), later rangers came from everywhere, even from the high command, training center and border ranger battalions.
As of before April 30th 1975, the Rangers in the re-education camps leaned on one another for survival. Their comradeness, cohesiveness tighten, they shared everything, a banana, a hand full of cooked rice, a tea spool of sugar, and even cigarette butts... The Rangers looked after each other as brothers, one would give a part of his ration for another ranger who was so weak and could not go to work in the field. The hunger played a vital part in the camp but we didn’t bow our heads in front of the victors or collaborating, selling comrades or other people for foods. I never forget my group commander (Lt. Col. Le-Bao-Toan) hid a pineapple inside his shirt, he bought it from the underground market and gave it to me when we served in the Nam-Ha camp (North Viet-Nam). The value of a gift was as small as a fist, but the heart was as big as a mountain.
Not much the Rangers could do while in the hands of the enemy, but continued to fight with their spirit. Lt. Col. Tong-Viet-Lac ex-commander of the 6th group planned an un-success escape. One night about 11pm , suddenly some gun shots fired on the barb wires. In the camp, everyone held their breaths and wait... all the hearts were beating heavily. The guards with flash lights searched for thirty minutes then blew whistle for everyone to report. They searched everyone and stopped at Lt. Col. Lac, they found out that he lost one sandal and his shirt was rifted off a piece on the back, also a cut by barbwires was still bleeding. The guards pulled him out of the line, hand cuffed then put him in a connex. No-one ever saw Lt.Col. Lac again until the day the guards moved all internees to another camp in North Vietnam ... The ex Lt. Col. still carried a hand-cuff. Thanked God! Everyone thought that they already executed him. On the 26th of June 1976, Lt. Col. Tong-Viet-Lac was hand-cuffed and transported with other internees to North Vietnam by ship.
On the trip to North Vietnam, the internees were compressed 500 men in one compartment 35x20 meters at the bottom of the ship. They had to sit in rows, back to back for three nights and two full days. One day, a voice screamed out
- Emergency! Emergency!
- Call whom!
One ex army doctor checked on the victim then shook his head. The dead man was a Lt. Col. Dinh of the Marines and no more information about him.
- Punch the ship’s wall… Use a wooden stick to strike the compartment’s hood quickly or we all die.
- F…k! Let me do it! (A big man said loudly, he was Lt. Col. Ho-Van-Hoa an ex Ranger)
He punched, hit the compartment’s hood… then one guard opened the hood.
- Do you men want violence? F…k, I throw down a hand grenade then you all die! Shut up…!
- Not violence! Someone down here was suffocated… Someone died!
Then another gave an order loudly, probably an officer from North Vietnamese Navy.
- Comrades! Open all the hoods! Quickly!… A fresh air blew in saving other lives.
Another well known ranger, Lt. Col. Nguyen-Van-Hiep an ex-commander of the famous 52nd battalion. In 1967, the 35th of Capt. Hoa and the 52nd of Capt. Hiep scored a big victory in the battle of Suoi-Long. Capt. Hiep was promoted to a major and the 52nd received the U.S. Presidential Citation Unit for its role in the battle. Lt. Col. Hiep for his out-spoken temper was kicked out of the ranger twice but always had been a true ranger. After 1975, while was imprisoned in Chi-Hoa prison, the Lt. Col. was killed by an informant and he died in the arm of his comrade Lt. Col. Ho-Van-Hoa.
Some rangers in the re-education camps tried to escape. One succeeded was captain Nguyen-Ngoc-Cuong company commander of the 51st ranger battalion. Capt. Cuong magically made it again and arrived at a refu gee camp in Malaysia. Unfortunately, most of them were re-captured. Lt. Col. Hoa tried with three others but failed. When the guards brought those men back to the camp, they beat up Hoa badly, worse than the ot her threes probably because he is a big Vietnamese man. Major Vuong-Mong-Long, ex commander of the 82nd battalion, a well known commander of the Rangers tried four times unsuccessfully, each time he got beat up severely and his rip bones were broken. First Lieutenant Mai-Van-Tong was recaptured, beat up and placed in an underground isolation. His comrades from the same 22nd Rangers group, Dai and Kiet sneaked in to bring Tong foods and medicines several times. One time, 2nd Lt. Kiet got caught and also beaten up badly.
The Rangers spirit was paid off, most of them survived after the miserable time, serving in those Forced Labor Camps. Again they met in America and continued the ranger spirit, always stick together, support each other. The Rangers formed associations for reunification and to support newly arrived ranger families. They also collected money to help disable rangers and whom still live in Vietnam. Those Rangers Associations contribute great part in all activities in the Vietnamese communities across America.
From the books:
Dallas, Texas 10/19/96
Hieu D. Vu