FORT HOOD, Texas - “I never looked at my story as amazing; it's just how I grew up. This story isn't about me; this story speaks to the greatness of American men and women, who willingly laid down their life to free complete strangers,” said Chief Master Sgt. Phuoc Phan, the chief enlisted officer for the 3rd Weather Squadron, 3rd Air Support Operations Group.
Phan spoke during Air Force Heritage Day Oct. 3, 2014 at the 9th Air Support Operations Squadron Building at Fort Hood. The event commemorated the living history of the U.S. Air Force with two very different perspectives on the Vietnam War.
“I'm no hero; the real hero is right there,” Phan said, as he pointed to retired Air Force Maj. Rick Bates, a Vietnam prisoner of war. Bates was also a guest speaker at the heritage day. “I owe my freedom to men like Maj. Bates.”
During the Vietnam War, more than 58,000 Americans were killed and more than 700 were held as POWs.
Phan began his story as an 8-year-old boy fleeing to safety with his family in war-torn Vietnam.
Air Force Chief Master Sgt. Phuoc Phan, the chief enlisted officer for the 3rd Weather Squadron, 3rd Air Support Operations Group, left, and retired Air Force Maj. Rick Bates, a Vietnam prisoner of war, pose for pictures after Air Force Heritage Day Oct. 3, 2014 at the 9th Air Support Operations Squadron building on Fort Hood. The event commemorated the living history of both men, who were the guest speakers. Phan was a Vietnam refugee. (Photo by Army Staff Sgt. Tomora Clark, 13th Public Affairs Detachment)
“For me, it all started in Quang Nam, the republic of South Vietnam, in 1975. I remember that my dad was gone a lot and was never home because he was a naval officer. My mother raised all seven of us kids,” Phan said, as he recalled how his life was forever changed.
He continued, “One day, after playing, my mother frantically told me to ‘go find your brothers because the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese Army is on its way.'”
Phan said his mother packed as much as she could into two large trash bags. It was then he realized she was packing one bag full of clothes, and the other with whatever food they could carry with them on their long journey south.
“We just started walking. But no matter how far we walked, we could always hear the gunfire and explosions in the background. When the sun came up, we walked and, when the sun set, we slept. We didn't have hotels, motels or tents ... we slept out in the open,” Phan said.
With a slight smile that suddenly appeared on his face, he mentioned, “Still to this day I'm not really a fan of camping.” The Airmen, for the first time during his speech, broke the silence and erupted in laughter thinking of how much service members have to sleep in a field environment.
Phan kept telling his story to the Airmen as he remembered things as an 8-year-old child.
“Day by day, we continued our journey southward never having more than a bowl of rice a day. I'm not sure how my mother kept us fed during that time, but she did. We walked and walked and walked ... as far as we could go until we got down to Saigon.”
Saigon is currently named Ho Chi Minh City and is the largest city in Vietnam. During the war, Saigon, a capitalist and anti-communist state, was the capital of the French colony of Cochinchina, and fought against communist North Vietnam with the aid of the U.S. and other countries. But, on April 30, 1975, Saigon fell to communist victory of the Viet Cong and North Vietnam.
“I'm not sure of how long it took us to get there,” Phan said, with a quizzical look that caused his forehead to wrinkle and his eyes to squint off into a distance.
The distance between Quang Nam and Saigon is 343.85 miles if traveled in a straight line.
Once in Saigon, his mother told him and his siblings to stay in a certain area, she'd be right back. Upon his mother's return, he noticed his father was with her.
“This was 1975. There was no social media and no cellphones,” Phan paused, to reiterate the difference in time when communication wasn't so easily accessible. “We were back together as a family, but we had no home; we had no country. My parents knew the war was lost and they decided to flee the country.”
If caught by the Viet Cong, Phan's father would have attended a re-education camp as many other former South Vietnamese soldiers did, as this was a common practice of the Viet Cong.
“My dad somehow got us on a landing craft,” Phan revealed.
A landing craft is a boat used for an amphibious assault going from sea to shore. The most common design had a flat front with a ramp. The assault vessels are most famous from landings during World War II to storm the beaches of Normandy.
“I really don't know how long we were out there adrift, but a U.S. naval ship picked us up. We went from one refugee camp to another. We had safety, food, shelter and hope for the future,” said Phan. “Yes, I was a refugee, but it was better than what I had.”
After various refugee camps, Phan and his family boarded a plane heading to the U.S. They were headed for a refugee camp at Fort Chaffee, Arkansas. Fort Chaffee was a primary housing and processing center for southeastern Asian refugees. The fort processed more than 50,800 refugees during the Vietnam War giving them the tools needed to assimilate into the U.S.
“Rows and rows of white barracks is where they housed us refugees,” recalled Phan. “Our barracks had indoor showers, something I wasn't used to growing up in Vietnam and was also next to the chow hall which made life easier.”
Phan took a pregnant pause and said, “When I think back to those days, I remember how I loved Army chow and now ... not so much.” Yet again, the Airmen broke the silence and erupted in laughter.
Phan and his family left Fort Chaffee and were sponsored by an American family to work on their farm for two years. After the two years at the farm was up, they moved to Barling, Arkansas, for a short period of time. They finally settled into Pocola, Oklahoma, where Phan spent the remainder of his childhood and enlisted into the Air Force.
“After graduating from high school, I went to college for a little while. That didn't work out, so I decided I needed to do something. I then joined the Air Force in 1988 to get away from small town America and receive a steady pay check,” Phan said.
Although Phan initially entered the Air Force to receive a steady pay check, he got much, much more out of it after his first enlistment. He gained his citizenship in 1991, which he said was one of the proudest days of his life. Phan has served as an Airman for 26 years.
As Phan ended his speech he made his last remarks about his journey, “This is my story; it's not a story about me. It's a story about the goodness of people who've made the ultimate sacrifice for complete strangers. It's a story about men like Maj. Bates and what he had to endure, so that I can be free. I will never forget their sacrifices. And that is the reason I continue to serve.”
The Airmen in the audience stood and applauded Phan's amazing story.
Capt. Danele Elliott, assistant director of operation for 3rd Weather Squadron, 3rd Air Support Operations Group, said, “I was astonished with Chief Phan's story. I'm amazed with all that he has overcome to be so successful today.”
Elliott has worked with Phan for over a year and never quite heard the intricate details of his journey.
After the applause slowly died down, Phan began to speak again with tear-drenched, redden eyes.
“This is a little off-script,” he said as he looked directly at Bates, who was sitting in the front row next to Phan's wife, Sharri. “Without your story, I have no story.”
“I have one more thing I would like to do,” he said as he left the lectern to a standing ovation and walked toward the retired Air Force major, who spoke only minutes before Phan.
Phan stopped approximately 5 feet before Bates and rendered a hand salute in a gesture of honor to thank him for all that he did and all that he sacrificed. After rendering in a hand salute, the two men from very different perspectives of the Vietnam War embraced in a hug.
“I think this is a heritage day that will always be remembered,” said Elliott.
By U.S. Army Sgt. Tomora Clark
Provided through DVIDS
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