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‘When I look at that? I cry’: Spokane Vietnamese man and vet worry for Afghans as American evacuation brings harrowing memories

Aug. 18, 2021 Updated Wed., Aug. 25, 2021 at 11:07 a.m.

An Air America helicopter crew member helps evacuees up a ladder on the roof of 18 Gia Long Street in Saigon, South Vietnam, on April 29, 1975, shortly before the city fell to advancing North Vietnamese troops.  (HUGH VAN ES)
An Air America helicopter crew member helps evacuees up a ladder on the roof of 18 Gia Long Street in Saigon, South Vietnam, on April 29, 1975, shortly before the city fell to advancing North Vietnamese troops. (HUGH VAN ES)

On Aug. 15, the Taliban took control of Kabul, putting an end to the Afghanistan War as U.S. troops began a more frenzied effort to evacuate Americans and those who aided U.S. efforts.

But many Afghans were being left behind.

Chaos had ensued at the Kabul airport, as video footage captured Afghans dangerously running down the tarmac in hopes of catching a flight to a new world. New York Times reporter Farnaz Fassihi wrote an obituary about Zaki Anwari, the Afghan soccer player who died falling from a departing U.S. plane. He was 17.

What the Afghans experienced, some remembered. The Afghan evacuation is similar to the final evacuation of the Vietnam War, Operation Frequent Wind, in 1975. As the Viet Cong moved into Saigon, over 7,000 American soldiers, Vietnamese citizens and American allies were frantically removed from Vietnam.

Both Michael Nguyen and Bill Pelo, current Spokane residents, were in Saigon the day it fell.

Nguyen, 67, is a Vietnamese native. Pelo, 80, was a medical paramilitary officer during the Vietnam War. While Nguyen and Pelo experienced the day through the different lenses of citizen and soldier, the pair share two sentiments: evacuation out of Afghanistan could’ve been much more organized. And Afghans who are stranded are in danger.

“When I look at that? I cry,” Nguyen said. “Saigon was chaotic, just like Kabul.”

Nguyen knows what it’s like to be left.

He was 21 when American forces were rushing out of Vietnam and the Viet Cong was making its way to Saigon.

“I saw people by the (evacuation) building and it was so crowded that there was no room to run anywhere,” Nguyen said. “I went home and since the war was ending, I thought ‘Maybe we could rebuild everything.’ ”

He stayed in Vietnam for four years after the fall of Saigon. He described himself as a “political refugee,” becoming a worker and laborer to survive after studying to be an architect, then a mechanical engineer in college. Under Communist rule, he could only produce items for the market, yet never own them, nor make a profit. In 1979, he and a few friends decided to quietly escape by boat in a dangerous, two-day voyage. He became a stowaway, hiding his identity by taking his glasses off and not showing his identification.

“We crossed the South China Sea and saw a big ship from England who told us to get to the shore because a big, deadly storm was approaching,” Nguyen said. “We had to get to Malaysia as quickly as possible because it was the closest shore.”

Malaysia was treacherous too. Nguyen remembered the country’s “tight ruling” under Abdul Razak Hussein.

“Luckily, we had the Red Cross International from the United Nations meet us,” Nguyen recalled. “They pointed me to an American delegation, and that’s when they interviewed and accepted me as a political refugee.”

He moved from Malaysia to Oklahoma with assistance from a Christian church. Nguyen then lived in Oregon and California before settling in Spokane in 2000.

Though Nguyen struck gold on his uncertain and dire voyage, he fears for Afghans because America’s abrupt departure leaves them stranded.

“They’re choked up with the fear of (Taliban) revenge,” Nguyen said. “Those people who cooperated with Americans know for sure that the Taliban will seek revenge just like the Communists did.”

Images from Afghanistan send Pelo, a Spokane native, back 46 years into the chaos of the evacuation of Saigon. Pelo, part of the evacuation’s ground branch, remembered the frantic men, women and children, especially “those loyal to U.S. forces.”

“To see the sadness in their eyes? That’s what bothered me so bad when I see what’s going on (in Afghanistan),” Pelo said. “It’s people going through the same thing (like Vietnam).”

The Viet Cong had been marching south and capturing South Vietnam all of April. With the impending takeover, the Secretary of State Henry Kissinger created Operation Frequent Wind to evacuate Saigon on April 29, 1975. Armed Forces radio was to play “White Christmas” as a signal to begin the evacuation process.

“By 4 a.m., Saigon was in chaos; by daylight at 6 a.m., it was panic everywhere,” Pelo said.

Tan Son Nhut Air Field, the United States’ main air base, had been bombed out the day before. Military planes could only carry 15 people at a time. The U.S. Embassy had been vacated, therefore helicopters could only retrieve people from the Pittman Apartments rooftops. Fuel was low. Fresh, drinkable water was a rare commodity. Rockets and artillery had continued to rain upon Saigon, clouding the atmosphere and limiting sight.

“You could hardly breathe with the sulfur and nitrate in the air, and it was really hot,” Pelo said. “Every district was blocked with tanks. All we had was small arms. Ground fire was so intense that all avenues were blocked and evacuation could only be done by rooftop.”

Pelo thinks evacuation opportunities should’ve improved in Afghanistan, calling conditions “100% better with no people shooting heavy weapons or incoming missiles.” Clear landing strips, military presence and bigger aircrafts for larger Afghan refugee populations gave America a chance for a safer evacuation.

“They’ve been pulling people out of Afghanistan since this June, and key (U.S. intelligence) should’ve been kept there, in my opinion,” Pelo said. “(Those left behind) are intelligence committee employees, citizens and people that have been assisting us. (U.S. intelligence) should’ve been there to protect (Afghans) and at least get more people out of there first.”

Both Pelo and Nguyen agreed that Afghans’ fear of the Taliban is a common response to militant forces beginning their rule after war.

“It’s similar on that point, that it’s always civilians,” Nguyen said. “(Afghans) fear revenge of the (Taliban) just like the Vietnamese did with the Viet Cong and Communist rule,” he added.

“That’s what bothered me so bad when I see what’s going on over there,” Pelo said. “It’s people going through the same thing of mothers pleading for their babies to be taken. You don’t want to leave her, it’s pretty difficult.”

One of the main differences between Afghanistan and Vietnam is what happens next for civilians still living in occupied territories. Vietnam citizens like Nguyen experienced a cultural shift of reeducation programs to fit into new rules under the Viet Cong and Communists.

“But today, there are no re-education camps,” Pelo said. “At least in Vietnam, the people could get re-educated. That’s a big difference in what you see today. Those people (in Afghanistan) are going to die.”

The Taliban is already implementing new rule. Many fear what will be next for women and girls, who face harsher treatment under the Taliban.

“Similarities between Kabul and Vietnam are yet to be seen, but in the future, you will see that women will not go to work or school,” Nguyen said. “Girls will not be in school just because they’re female. That’s the way the Taliban treats women.”

While a chaotic evacuation scene lingers, uncertainty of the Taliban is still growing. It reminds Nguyen that, though conflict has ended, Afghans’ lack of protection in a post-war period has just begun.

“Ending conflict is not as simple as calling it off and coming home, but the price for peace? It will be (a generation of darkness) in Vietnam that started with Communists claiming Saigon,” Nguyen said. “People were running, just like you saw in Kabul when the Taliban came.”

Amber D. Dodd's work as the Carl Maxey Racial and Social Inequity reporter for Eastern Washington and North Idaho primarily appears in both The Spokesman-Review and The Black Lens newspapers, and is funded in part by the Michael Conley Charitable Fund, the Smith-Barbieri Progressive Fund, the Innovia Foundation and other local donors from across our community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper's managing editor.

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