July 4, 1996 in Nation/World

Freedom Came On Independence Day Fireworks Greeted Vietnamese Refugees Who Found Liberty On July 4, 1975

Putsata Reang Staff writer

They left a crumbling Saigon, fleeing bombs, gunfire and screaming people. Frantic men and women floundered in the muddy waters of the Saigon River, trying to get to the nearest evacuation ships.

“My father said, ‘Go to freedom, or die together,”’ recounts Hoan Pham, sitting comfortably on a plush sofa in his Liberty Lake home. “We just go to sea and go to freedom country.”

On July 4, 1975, Pham and his family’s thirst for freedom was quenched when their evacuation boat bobbed its way onto Guam.

Pham remembers seeing firecrackers burst from the island and hearing music from an American band. He thought it was a greeting for the refugees.

Twenty-one years later, memories of the Vietnam War and the family’s struggle in America remain vivid. The Fourth of July is the biggest reminder.

For them, the day is a melding of sadness and joy - a reminder of the price all immigrants must pay, in one form or another, for freedom.

“When you live the communist life, you know how precious freedom is,” Pham says.

Pham, a former lieutenant in the South Vietnamese army, his wife, Bich, and their two children, Viet and Bich Ha, fled Vietnam on April 30, 1975, about an hour before the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong Communists toppled the American-backed South Vietnam government.

Hardship did not stop Pham and his wife from building a successful life in Spokane.

The couple worked odd jobs here to save up for their children’s education. Their son, 29-year-old Viet, is a marketing communications manager for a graphic design company in San Jose, Calif. Their daughter, 27-year-old Bich Ha, is a lawyer in Spokane at Columbia Legal Services.

And the family’s dry cleaning business, Crestline Cleaners at Crestline Street and Wellesley Avenue, continues to thrive. A few months ago, Hoan Pham bought a new $30,000 washer.

The couple works six days a week, often 10- to 16-hour days. They can’t afford long vacations because customers’ laundry pours in daily.

But today, they’ll close their doors to remember their flight to this country and to celebrate Independence Day.

As Americans fire up their grills and children wave flags in an explosion of patriotism, the Phams will light incense sticks and pray for the dead.

Tears begin to form in Hoan Pham’s eyes as he talks about the history of his country and family.

The former civil engineer lived under Communist rule in North Vietnam for a few months before fleeing to South Vietnam in 1954. He watched neighbors disappear after being dragged away by soldiers. He read leaflets posted by the army about curfews and other new laws. He would rather have died than live under communism, Pham explains.

That’s why he wasted no time evacuating his family in 1975 as the advancing Communists shattered South Vietnamese resistance.

The Phams were hiding in bunkers when the rumble of Communist tanks shook the city. Many South Vietnamese soldiers pulled off their uniforms to hide in the crush of panicking civilians and refugees. Hoan Pham saw soldiers shoot themselves before the Communists could.

Large plumes of smoke broke up the darkness as the boat jerked out to sea.

“I remember looking back on shore and seeing all these lights fly up into the sky,” says Bich Ha Pham. She was 6 years old then - too young to realize they were artillery shells bursting.

That day, her mother grabbed a small suitcase, inside of which she tossed a few clothes and family photographs. The faded black-and-white pictures are the only souvenirs she has from her Vietnam life.

“I left everything,” Bich Pham says, shaking her head.

Even as the boat pulled away from Saigon, many other people clung to the sides of the vessel like crabs, only to be pried off by other passengers who feared the boat would sink under their added weight.

North Vietnamese soldiers on the shore gunned down some of the evacuees. Bich Pham watched as people dropped like dominoes from the gunfire. One of two boats that followed behind the Phams sank as its passengers spilled out into the bloody river.

“People died all around me,” Bich Pham says. “A lot of innocent people.”

She and her husband didn’t know if other family members escaped also, or if they were already among the dead.

The 60 refugees drifted at sea for nearly a month. They had only 55 gallons of water and about 100 pounds of rice. Hoan Pham used his army helmet to make rice soup as another woman offered her only food - a package of dried shrimp she parceled out to as many hungry heads as she could reach.

The tugboat reached Subic Bay in the Philippines, where the evacuees stayed in a refugee camp for two months before heading to Guam. They stayed on the island for a few weeks, then made a final trek across the Pacific to California’s Camp Pendleton, a clearinghouse for refugees.

The Phams immediately took an offer from a group of Spokane churches to settle in the Inland Northwest.

In August 1975, church sponsors gave each family member $10 when they arrived in Spokane.

“I got $40 to start my life again,” Hoan Pham said.

He used that money to buy food.

Two weeks later, Pham landed his first job at St. Vincent de Paul on Trent Avenue repairing small appliances for $3 an hour. The family was on welfare for a month, but quickly got off because Hoan Pham didn’t want “to beg American money.”

For several years, Pham and his wife worked two jobs each to raise their family and save money. They bought their dry cleaning business in 1983.

News of surviving family members started trickling in about six months after the Phams came to Spokane. Many of them escaped the day the Phams fled and settled in Florida, Oklahoma and California. The couple also helped other relatives immigrate to America in the 1980s.

Despite their gains, life in the United States has not been easy. Bich Pham constantly thinks about all that she left behind two decades ago.

“The first year (here), we cry a lot,” she says, holding back tears. “We miss everything.”

Including fiery Saigon sunsets. Afternoon chats with neighbors. Fresh mangoes from the yard.

Family members fear that if they go back, the Communists will put them in jail because Hoan Pham fought in the South Vietnamese army.

Bich Ha Pham is the only family member to return. She visited a few years ago for three months to research the country’s public policy while in law school.

The Phams are happy with life in America. And they won’t soon forget what brought them here.

“My dream is a better life for my children,” Hoan Pham says, holding his right hand to his heart. “And (to) live and die in freedom.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo

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