Long Voyage Home – Oklahoma’s Vietnamese Boat People
*Courtesy Koichi Sawada
As stated in Vol. 1 of The Oklahomans, Oklahoma has always been the land of the second, third, and sometimes last chance. So it was for the tens of thousands of Vietnamese refugees who fled the triumphant, mass murdering North Vietnamese Army in the mid-late 1970s. They suffered kidnapping into that army, imprisonment, torture, separation from loved ones, and rape, robbery, terror, and murder on the high seas as “Boat People.”
According to the report of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, one-third of all the boat people—a total of 250,000 of all ages of men, women, and children—died at sea by murder, storms, illness, thirst, and starvation. Thousands of them, however, blessedly found their way to far-away America. Many came to Oklahoma.
Since then, they and their sons and daughters have risen to leadership roles in every facet of life across the Sooner State. Twelve thousand Vietnamese comprised the vibrant Asian District in Oklahoma City alone at the beginning of the 2010s. Once again, the ancient scriptural admonition has come to life in Oklahoma history: “But as for you, you meant evil against me; but God meant it for good, in order to bring it about as it is this day, to save many people alive.”
Brave, gifted Tulsa resident and Vietnam War refugee Xuan Nguyen Pham was a seventeen-year-old freshman in law school in 1975 when the Communists took over (South) Vietnam. She shares her unforgettable story in the “Welcome Home: Oklahomans and the War In Vietnam” exhibit in the Oklahoma History Center (https://www.okhistory.org/historycenter/). You can watch it in a video clip at the end of this story. And you can read it here…
Tulsa banker and Vietnamese refugee Xuan Nguyen Pham tells her epic story of survival and success on this page and on an Oklahoma History Center video.
My parents wanted me to leave Vietnam with my two sisters and their families, because my brothers-in-law were both in the military and one was still in the war, and they were concerned about our safety. The day we left, we had to speed in the car to the ship that was getting us out. We had no idea if we would make it to the ship before it left, nor where it was going if we did. We made it with just minutes to spare before it pulled out.
I was able to get out because my brother-in-law was a captain in the navy and got us out by a Vietnamese navy ship. After that, we were transferred to an American ship. We were in the ocean for a few days. I really didn’t know where I was going or what my future would hold, because I was so sad about leaving my parents.
The American ship finally stopped at Subic Bay (U.S. naval base in the Philippines) and we met an American man. He was so nice. He helped us with the paperwork. Then we got on a helicopter to Guam. Because of my brother’s status, they helped us leave Guam soon, then we went to Fort Chaffee, Arkansas, a large refugee camp for Vietnamese.
My sisters decided to move with their children to Martinique in the West Indies, where our uncle owned a Vietnamese restaurant. I was still in shock and walking around Ft. Chaffee like a robot, but I didn’t go. I assumed I had to give up my dreams for education and get a job. I don’t know why I chose to stay in America. There was no logical reason for it. It was just a feeling I had. I felt that I could make something of myself and find happiness here.
South Vietnamese of all ages faced imprisonment, forced labor, “re-education,” torture, execution, and piracy, robbery, and murder on the high seas at the hands of the Communists. More than 250,000 died just among those “Boat People” who attempted to cross the Pacific to America.
Invited to Oklahoma
Then Claremore Junior College President Richard Mosier showed up at the camp. He interviewed hundreds of people and chose twenty-five to come to the college. I was one of those twenty-five. I received financial aid for school, a work-study job, and sponsors who were like parents to me and helped me learn the culture and English, which I could barely speak at all. So I think it must have been my destiny to stay here, because it was not something I planned.
My second year in Claremore, going to school and working for dentist Richard Perryman, I became very sick. I couldn’t eat, sleep, or concentrate. One night my roommate, Hao Nguyen (no relation) arranged to have me taken to the emergency room at the Claremore hospital. Now I realized I was suffering from a combination of loneliness, exhaustion, depression, and a lingering sense of dislocation.
My roommate thought I was dying and I think she was right. She called Trung Pham, a young man who was a friend of my brother’s back in Vietnam. I had become friends with him at Fort Chaffee before he went to San Antonio for his own financially-aided college studies. Trung knew he had to see me right away. He drove all night and when he got to me, I began to feel better!
Courageous, freedom-loving South Vietnamese refugees risked their lives across half the world to give their children a life of liberty in the America who had stood up for them against the atheistic Communists.
That visit was the beginning of a long-distance romance for us. We eventually married. After I graduated from Claremore Junior College, we decided to move to Northeastern State University in Tahlequah and finish school there. So I graduated with a business administration degree and my husband graduated as a medical technologist. He then earned his medical degree at the OSU College of Osteopathic Medicine, and joined the U.S. Army out of appreciation for America. Such generosity, we and our fellow students learned from Oklahomans.
Since then, I have had a career as a bank executive in Tulsa and Trung has had a successful medical practice there. We have three thriving sons whom we are so proud of.
The Oklahomans’ hospitality is amazing. Without their help, without their believing in us, we would not be who we are today. Our deepest appreciation go to Claremore, to Dr. Mosier who gave us the opportunity to come here to go to school, and to everyone who has helped us so much to be who we are today. Our intention is to pay it forward. Whenever we have the opportunity, we love to help everyone. Just like our medical business. If we know somebody who doesn’t have insurance, or they just came from Vietnam, we try to help them as much as we can. We are very involved with the Vietnamese community (and doing) whatever we can to help everybody.
We always wanted to be contributors to America, not a burden. We were so grateful to be U.S. citizens and couldn’t wait to become part of the fabric of America.
South Vietnamese refugees have risen from heartbreak, poverty, and horror to help build a strong, 21st-Century Oklahoma. They have restored and reinvigorated entire neighborhoods and sections of towns and cities in the state.
What Oklahoma’s Vietnamese-American Immigrants Say
My daughter always wants to go back to Vietnam, where she has never been. I tell her America is our country now, and we give it our whole heart because it has given so much to us.
—Mao, OKC, restaurant services
My four brothers fought for our freedom in the South Vietnamese army. I was too young to go. All four of them died in the war, but the Catholic Church helped me get to America, and a Catholic priest helped me get to Oklahoma. I live now to honor my brothers.
—Martin, Norman, auto industry
I work every day until my hands ache to honor my parents, who were poor people who got me out of Vietnam when the Communists came. Now my daughter is on an engineering scholarship at an Ivy League college. I tell her never to forget her how fortunate she is.
—Luna, OKC, medical massage therapist
My grandparents escaped South Vietnam at the end of the war. They crossed the ocean on some sort of boat. It was a pretty bad experience and they have never spoken of it. But I’m safe and happy and in an American college now preparing for an IT career because of their courage.
—Daniel, Edmond college student
The American and South Vietnamese flags.
A few years ago, at the conclusion of one of the “America In Vietnam” history courses I have taught for many years at Southern Nazarene University in Tulsa and Oklahoma City, a student asked: “So did anything good come from that war for America?”
As I pondered his question, my eyes landed on brilliant and lovely young Vietnamese-American student Phi Ton in the class. Her grandparents had risked their lives and suffered great loss decades before as “Boat People.” They did so in order to get her family away from the colossal post-war massacres that the North Vietnamese army was unleashing on freedom-loving South Vietnamese…in order to get them across an ocean to the America whose boys had shed their blood for them.
“Yes,” I said, my throat tight. “She did.”
A higher proportion of Oklahoma soldiers gave their lives for their country in the Vietnam war than from any other state but one, nearly forty per 100,000 population.