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National POW and MIA






My POW Story



       I would like to share with you the story of the time I left my homeland empty-handed to seek out new opportunities in the United States of America. When my family and I arrived we brought nothing with us but hope for a new life.
       In 1968, I started my military career as an Interpreter and Translator/ Non Command Officer at the English Language Center. I was selected by the U.S. Army to join the Military Intelligence (Mike Force) at Long Binh Post. After completing training courses at Bearcat Camp, I returned to Long Binh and served as the Staff Sergeant Interpreter for the 18th U.S. Military Police Brigade Headquarter. Long Binh Post was established on a former rubber plantation on the eastside of the Dong Nai River, about 20 miles from Saigon and 10 miles from Bien Hoa Air Force Base. It was the logistics, maintenance, financial, supply, and command headquarters for the U.S. Army in the Vietnam War. With a capacity of about one hundred thousand personnel, Long Binh was the largest base.
       As a Staff Sergeant Interpreter and Translator, I often accessed the Second Gate and the Security Office of Long Binh Post. The first day I came to the unit, I received my combat equipment including: gray and camouflage clothing, helmet and armor, boots, a mattress, blankets and mosquito nets, a Colt 45 pistol, an M16 rifle, grenades and ammunition, etc. When I tried to carry it all, I could barely walk it was so heavy.





 I lived in the NCO barracks with my unit and was assigned two tasks:

1. Civic Action. I was appointed to the 89th Military Police Group Headquarters. After reporting to Commander Colonel McClean, I served in the Civic Action Team of the Section 5 as an interpreter to Colonel McClean and Sergeant Quicley. My team members and I had the responsibility of collaborating with the 93rd Medical Evacuation Group. We conducted health checkups, and distributed medicine and food to the poor in Vietnam.

       Other duties included building schools, bridges, roads and markets for some of the villages around Long Binh Post, such as Long Binh Tan, Long Phuoc Thon, Ben Go, Cho Sat, etc. After each project was finished, the villagers held an inauguration with the full participation of the American-Vietnamese authorities. It was my duty to adequately interpret the information accurately and clearly.

2. Combat Action. When North Vietnamese Communists troops (Vietcong) attacked the Long Binh Post with rockets in 1969, I followed the 720th Military Police Battalion into combat, despite at times having to walk through leeches and clinging mud. During one military operation, we were stationed at a checkpoint on a hill in the Iron Triangle.

       Our platoon led by Captain Johnson was attacked by Vietcong. The disturbance woke me in the middle of the night. I scanned the surrounding area with an infrared scope only to find enemy boats full of Vietcong approaching the hill to attack us. I quickly alerted Captain Johnson who assessed the situation.

       He asked me to contact the radio communications staff of the III Corps, Republic of Vietnam Army to confirm that no operations were underway in the region before he ordered us to open fire on the approaching troops. In fighting against the Vietcong, I was wounded when a B40 shell landed near me and exploded.
       I also served the U.S. Military Police, patrolling in Jeeps, on gunships and helicopters, and in PBR boats on the Dong Nai River. I worked at Bearcat Camp as an interpreter and translator for Commander Captain Gettinger who had previously been a lawyer in New York. Though my interpreter role was hard work, I learned many new things.
       Before the U.S. Army's withdrawal from the Vietnam War, I transferred to the Republic of Vietnam Air Force as a Second Lieutenant, where I graduated from the Thu Duc Officer Training School. I applied and went to the United States of America for my flight training, where I satisfactorily completed the prescribed courses of instruction for the Air Education and Training Command.

       In 1972, I graduated from Sheppard Air Force Base in Texas with my Certificate of Aeronautical Rating. During the more than two years of training in the United States, I learned about airplanes, propellers, jets, aircraft weapons, bombs, rocket missiles, air-to-air and air-to-ground tactics at the England AFB in Louisiana. When I graduated from my military training courses, I returned to Vietnam and entered military service during the war.
       In 1973, U.S. troops went home following The 1973 Paris Peace Agreement. By that time I had a thousand hours of combat flying where I fought against Communism and for our freedom. I flew on bombing missions, anti-communist attacks and supported allied units. Unfortunately, during one mission, my plane was hit by a SAM 7 missile belonging to the enemy. My airplane’s cockpit filled with fire and smoke. I was wounded but managed to parachute from the aircraft in time.




       After being downed, I was captured by Vietcong and became a prisoner of war. I was tortured and suffered many hardships during my seven years as a POW at a camp I considered to be the Gulag of Vietnam (*).
       - (*) The Gulag Archipelago is Solzhenitsyn’s attempt to compile a literary-historical record of the vast system of prisons and labor camps that came into being shortly after the Bolsheviks seized power in Russia in 1917 and that underwent an enormous expansion during the rule of Stalin from 1924 to 1953.
       The Vietcong used Stalinist methods to punish prisoners of war. My thoughts about Communist society were shaped by my experiences during this period: “From ape to man evolution took an eon (one billion years, Karl Marx)… but in Vietnam, from man to ape… only took one day.”
       On April 30, 1975, the Vietcong attacked and invaded South Vietnam to turn the country into Gulag. All officers of the Republic of Vietnam were detained for a long time. The Prison Administration of the Communist Party called the camps “re-education camps,” but in fact they were actually POW camps. Prisoners were required to refer to VC commanding officers in the camp as “Ong Ban: Mister Staff,” and VC soldiers were known as “Anh Đoi: Brother Troop.”
       In the early years I was cuffed by my legs in the camp of U Minh Forest. The cuffs that they used were called “Omega shackles,” referring to the famous brand of Swiss watches, since the two iron rings were shaped like the Omega watch logo. When my foot was cuffed in the cell, I had to sit on a pedestal with my legs straight out in front of me.
       If Ong Ban had no intention of punishing me, he ordered his soldiers to place the shackles around my ankles loosely. Conversely, if he wanted to punish me he could lock my ankles into the two tighter rings and bind my feet down. When my ankles were in the Omega cuffs my skin bruised and bled. A few days later they began to fester and were extremely painful. The soldiers inserted a long iron rod through the round holes of the Omega cuffs. The iron rod was then attached to the pedestal. When they locked my cell door, the put the key outside so I could not free myself.
       The Vietcong also tortured and beat me. They poured water into my nose until my stomach bloated, and then they stepped on my stomach. Sometimes they hit me with the butt of their AK47 rifles, or kicked me in the face, causing me to lose some front teeth. After they beat me, they'd often require me to write and rewrite my biography a hundred times. I always worded it the same way, with no changes or additions of any kind. They suspected I had served in the U.S. Army, but I always denied it.
       I knew that the Vietcong wanted information about the U.S. Army in Vietnam. If I misspoke and hinted at my connections to the U.S. Army, they would have repeatedly exploited me until they had acquired enough information, then they would have killed me. Although I was physically abused and tortured, lacked nutrition, and was ill, my mind stayed sharp, powerful and wise enough to fight the enemy.
       One day, the Vietcong brought me out of the dark room without restraints. They let me see my wife very briefly when she applied for a visit. The Vietcong wanted to use my wife to get more information out of me and offered the false hope of being released and getting home sooner. My wife always cried and would tell me, “You must live." We started praying to St. Vincent (my Holy Saint) to protect me. I promised Him that if I survived the experience, I would rename myself as Vincent in His honor.




       During my imprisonment, I saw the tragic deaths of many of my friends. Some had their veins cut or shot, others were beaten to death. I witnessed society’s many injustices, corruptions and poverty. My captors were brutal people; domineering and murderous. I always prayed to God to protect me and guide me to live in the truth, kindness and peace. After seven years in prison, I was very weak and always coughed up blood whenever the weather changed. The Vietcong didn't want to have my death in prison on their hands, so they released me.
       On May 2, 1982 I escaped from Vietnam, fleeing by boat to a refugee camp in Thailand supervised by the Children Foundation of Indonesia. On August 10, 1984 my family came to the United States and settled in Everett, Washington. I changed my name to Vincent Pham when I became a United States citizen, and worked to earn money for my American education. As the saying goes, after the rain comes the sunshine.
       Thank you for listening. If you have any questions, please feel free to ask.




My Family


Vincent Pham






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