A Father-and-Son Reunion
EL TORO, CALIF.--Hoa Van Pham watched as the U.S. Marine helicopters landed at Tustin air station. "Quang used to come to the squadron," the 58-year-old former South Vietnamese Air Force officer said, over the rotor throb. "He liked the gear we wore, the pistols, our scarves. Maybe flying is in his blood." Minutes later, Capt. Quang Pham walked across the runway and embraced the father he had seen for only a couple of days in the past 17 years.
That recent reunion came as both were beginning new chapters in their lives. The elder Pham, after 13 years in North Vietnamese "re-education camps," rejoined his wife, son and three daughters last November. Last week, Captain Pham, 28, a decorated Persian Gulf war helicopter pilot, learned he was one of approximately 130 regional finalists for a prestigious White House Fellowship. If he advances to the next phase, Pham will go to Washington, D.C., for final interviews in May, when 15 fellows will be chosen for next fall's program.
As the Clinton administration edges closer to restoring diplomatic ties with Hanoi, the Phams' story is a poignant reminder that not all POWs in Indochina were American. Quang was 11 years old when Lieutenant Colonel Pham, a 21-year veteran pilot, bundled his family into the cargo hold of a C-130 in Saigon one week before North Vietnamese tanks overran the capital. The family eventually reached a refugee center in Fort Chaffee, Ark. By then, Pham and many other South Vietnamese officers had been trucked to a jungle camp 200 miles northwest of Hanoi.
He stayed there for four years. In 1979, after China invaded Vietnam, the prisoners were moved to the Mekong Delta. In 1988, after intense U.S. lobbying, Pham and other ex-military men were released, and he was put on a four-year waiting list to leave for America. His family, meanwhile, had moved to Oxnard, Calif. For five years, they didn't know whether Hoa was alive, learning he had survived only after a friend escaped from Vietnam. Quang, who spoke three words of English when he arrived in America, attended public schools and UCLA, and, after graduation, enlisted in the Marines. He went through officer candidate school in Quantico, Va., near Washington. "I didn't want to accept my commission until I visited the Vietnam memorial," he says. "At the wall, I realized the sacrifices of those whose names were inscribed were the reason I was standing there."
Father and son see each other every weekend, but both admit it's sometimes hard to bridge the gulf. Why didn't Colonel Pham leave with his family before Saigon fell? "I told myself I'd probably leave at the last minute," he says. "But I couldn't leave too early--as an officer, you have your pride, your duty." Still, looking at his son in uniform, he says he has no regrets. "You can't change the past," he says. "Besides, if I had left, maybe he wouldn't have turned out the way he did."
This story appears in the March 8, 1993 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.