Eric Quitugua 2018-02-27 18:47:17
An Irving attorney’s path in law began with escape during the fall of Saigon. On April 30, 1975, the city of Saigon, now known as Ho Chi Minh City, fell to the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong, effectively ending the Vietnam War and beginning the reunion of the formerly split north and south into one socialist republic. In the hours before, the city was frenzied with rooftop rescues via helicopter and the final cracks of artillery fire on the Saigon Bridge as thousands of Vietnamese evacuated onto ships offshore. Operation Frequent Wind, a large-scale rescue from the South Vietnamese capital, brought thousands to safety—and their new lives in foreign countries. Alexandria McCombs, a health law attorney based in Irving, was 2 years old when she and her family fled the crumbling country aboard HQ-503, one of the last ships out of Saigon. “One of the things she was thinking about was—and I know a lot of people experienced this—Where are we going? What’s going to happen to us?” McCombs said of her mother, Thu, who now lives in Allen. “I think the most painful moment was on April 30 with the announcement that Saigon had fallen and had surrendered. She recalls almost everyone on the ship crying and realizing we had lost our country.” McCombs’ family originally came from the north but moved south after Vietnam split at the 17th parallel as a result of the 1954 Geneva Conference. There was her father, Nguyen van Chuyen, a commander in the Republic of Vietnam navy; mother, Thu; older sisters, Diana, Cathy, and Nathalie; and older brother, Dzung. For much of her siblings’ childhood, airstrikes, bombings, and shootings were an everyday fact of life. But the family always did the best they could to lead normal lives, McCombs said. But after two decades of war, and with more towns on the outskirts falling, Saigon’s capture was certain. McCombs’ family stayed in a navy compound just until it was safe to head for rescue ships. On April 29, her father and uncle took turns staying up to wait for the signal to evacuate. The famous signal was the broadcast by the American Radio Service of the message “the temperature is 105 degrees and rising” followed by Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas.” They didn’t hear it—instead leaving in the early morning hours of the 30th after seeing neighbors, including a high-ranking official in President Nguyen Van Thieu’s administration, head for Hai Quan Cong Xuong, a navy shipyard and dock. McCombs’ family headed there too, where ships were taking refugees to Con Son Island, the former site of an infamous prison about 50 miles off the mainland. “My dad actually smuggled a picture of him dressed in his navy uniform because my mom was afraid that if we were captured, we would suffer immediate execution for his affiliation with the South Vietnamese navy,” McCombs said. Their ship, HQ-503, had a faulty engine that, only after hours of repairs, was able to make it to Con Son Island. Upon arrival, the engine struggled again, this time causing the vessel to sink. McCombs, her family, and the other passengers had to be transferred to another while rescue crews sank HQ-503 with gunfire to ensure that the vessel and certain technologies didn’t get into the wrong hands. Once they were on their new ship, they joined a flotilla led by the USS Kirk. The South Vietnamese flag onboard was lowered and the American one was raised before their next stops: Subic Bay in the Philippines and then Guam for resettlement processing. McCombs’ family ended up being sponsored by an Episcopal church and a Lutheran church in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania. Her father worked in a shoe factory and a steel company on the assembly line while McCombs and her siblings went to school. He later moved the family to Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, where he became the director of the Vietnamese American Association, helping to resettle refugees in the United States. For McCombs, revisiting the fall of Saigon mostly came through stories from her family. But in 2000 and 2002, she visited her birthplace with her mother and witnessed reminders of the impacts of the war. Amputees—casualties of airstrikes and bombings— begged on the streets, and people still suffered the effects of Agent Orange, she said. The one silver lining was her mother’s reunion with her older sister after 50 years apart. “It was really an incredible moment for them because they remembered each other really as a child and as a teenager,” McCombs said of her mother, who made it to the south as a young girl while her then 19-year-old sister stayed behind with her husband. “When we showed up at the doorstep, there was a couple of minutes of pure silence and tears rolling down their faces. They were holding each other and touching each other’s hands to make sure what they were seeing was real.” At a health law conference in 2017, McCombs, who is now assistant general counsel to Humana, got to meet and personally thank former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, who served three combat tours in Vietnam and was only 30 when he served as the architect of the Con Son Island rescue. The gratitude she feels for his help, along with the crew of the USS Kirk and the others involved in the rescue, is overwhelming, she said. “What amazes me is that when I think of a hero, a common thread through all of them is that what they thought they were doing wasn’t heroic but the right thing to do,” McCombs said. “We owe it to them and we owe it to so many unsung heroes out there that are forgotten.”
Published by State Bar of Texas. View All Articles.
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