I was like many little boys living in Saigon dreaming of having a big bike when South Vietnam fell to communist forces in April 1975. Chaos ensued soon after, but this story is for another time. My Vietnamese mother was a longtime employee of the United States, and we children weren’t like other Vietnamese children because of the American blood that ran through our veins. It was a constant reminder that we were on the losing side, which was impossible to hide.
Before that, most of us were shocked at how quickly the end really came and suddenly realized that all was lost and we were trapped.
Until March 1975, when the United States Embassy began quietly closing its offices and evacuating most of its staff, no one believed that the communists could easily take over the city of Saigon. My mom was in the process of getting a visa to fly with a sponsorship, but that didn’t materialize.
A new life began at the beginning hour by hour waiting for the communist troops to come knocking on our door as they did on so many others. All communications were cut off and everyone remained unsure of what was to come, our imaginations running wild with fear.
Hours turned into days awash with new challenges as life as we knew it was no more. Everything became a question of survival, of rumor in whispers; sometimes entire families have disappeared. It was a dark and desperate time when we found ourselves left behind.
Days turned into months, but fear and uncertainty continued to dominate everything we did. It seemed certain that we were completely isolated, and despair began to set in with the feeling that all was truly lost; Lifetime careers, reputations, savings, fortunes and futures didn’t matter if you were on the losing side. Sometimes even friends and neighbors would turn on you, and people would only speak in low voices for fear of an impending raid to wipe you out. And indeed, we were raided, lucky to have lost everything of value except our lives.
Then something remarkable happened.
One night, my mother found a news program broadcast by Voice of America on shortwave radio. She suddenly heard about what was happening in Vietnam, and the vision of the free world opened up to us. We were still desperate, but I can’t overstate the feeling of renewed hope knowing the world was watching and we weren’t forgotten.
We learned that the tens of thousands of missing were not all in the hands of the Communists, as some were able to escape. We were sick with jealousy but also happy for them, although we didn’t know the hardships that these “boat people” endured until much later.
The news sparked so much hope about the possibility of escape that my mother finally hatched a plan of her own – but fate intervened and we failed.
For years, this “illegal” VOA broadcast has been our link to the free world. It was an open secret that everyone knew about but kept quiet as it was the only light we had in the darkness to keep us informed about the world outside Vietnam.
When the news of President Ronald Reagan’s election arrived, we were thrilled. We thought he was going to be a tough president on communists with his outspoken views, emphasizing those of us who were oppressed under the yoke of communism – and he did not disappoint. It was like a breath of fresh air.
Indeed, my family was able to leave Vietnam shortly after his first term.
A few years later, in early 1989, while stationed at Camp Pendleton, California, I watched President Reagan’s farewell speech on the “shining city on the hill” and how it was a beacon for the rest of the world wherever oppression existed.
I was so proud to be in uniform as a US Marine that day because I knew exactly what he meant. I swore right away that I would no longer be an “import”; I wanted to be part of that.
You see, President Reagan was not talking about our economic strength or our military prowess on the world stage. It was about you – the average American who loves individual freedom above all else and who, in JFK’s words, “would bear any burden and pay any price” to preserve it.
We don’t think about the meaning of words like “life, freedom, and the pursuit of happiness” because they’re ingrained in the American DNA, but for someone who earned freedom like me as an immigrant, those words are powerful.
I was sworn in as an American citizen one fine spring day in 1991, and it was one of the proudest moments of my life to become an American.
Barry Burch is a Navy veteran and retired U.S. Air Marshal living in Pine County.