This is the second story in a series.
Kim Tran remembers her father standing on their boat with a grenade in his hand.
Phat Minh Tran had a plan to get his family out of war-ravaged Vietnam. If all went well, a tugboat would take his family to the freedom they lost when South Vietnam fell to the North on April 30, 1975. If not, the grenade was an option.
The Trans were among the hundreds of thousands of people who fled from Communist rule in Vietnam. An estimated quarter of those people died. The Trans were lucky ones, although the five years between the war ending and the family arriving in Saskatoon were harrowing on both land and sea.
Phat Minh Tran owned a shipyard in Saigon. His family of 10 children lived on a beautiful acreage. When Saigon fell, Tran moved to a small city named My Tho, where he worked salvaging ships. His family remained in their Saigon home and would for another six months.
Kim Tran, one of Phat Minh Tran’s daughters, says her father’s escape plan started to take shape when he befriended a North Vietnamese general.
“He’s Communist, but he was a very kind soul,” she said of the general. “In his position, he had the power to give you permission to go outside of the country.
“My father had business outside of the borders of his area. Paperwork was needed to move around the country freely in order to do his work. Sometimes his work was on land or out on the ocean when he would have to salvage ships or go out to a ship.”
The Communist general provided documentation that allowed Phat Minh Tran to come and go as required.
Phat Minh Tran saw the document as an opportunity.
“He took the document to a person who was able to create a ‘stamp’ out of the document. This way my dad could create false paperwork for an ocean-going vessel with seemingly genuine paperwork.”
The stamp was given to Kim Tran, who was just eight at the time, for safekeeping.
“He said, ‘when I need it, you have to have it for me.’ I’m like, ‘what am I going to do with it?’
“I didn’t know what his masterplan was, so I put it in a plastic bag and I went to the backyard between the house and the shelter that we were hiding. We had lots of coconut trees back there and one guava tree.”
She paced off a number of steps and buried the document under the guava tree.
The document remained buried at the Saigon home even after the Tran family joined Phat Minh Tran in My Tho.
Late one night, Phat Minh Tran said it was time to go. Those fleeing went into the lower level of a barge which was docked on the water near a ship Tran was salvaging.
Phat Minh Tran asked Kim for the stamp. She didn’t have it. It was still buried under that guava tree on the acreage where they once lived.
It was a two-hour drive to Saigon. An uncle, who wasn’t part of the escape, drove her to her former home.
“I was very sad because I grew up in this house and now it was so empty. It was like a ghost house. I went outside – by then it was 2 or 3 in the morning – and took a shovel and was hoping the stamp was still down there. My uncle dug and we found it and he drove me back to My Tho. We got back there at 4 or 5 in the morning. “And it was raining.
Some of her dad’s workers took her to the barge. There were approximately 70 people on board. “This is how we had to travel until we got into international waters,” she said.
There was a time when they had to pass a checkpoint. Kim Tran said it was surreal.
“We are Buddhists so everyone was chanting and praying in the lotus position. I remember all of this because I thought, ‘that’s kind of cool.’ It looked like you were at a temple with everybody in their lotus position and doing their chanting because we were going to a check station.”
They had to stay quiet at the checkpoint. It was going to be difficult with many restless and fussing children on board.
“We could hear authorities walking on top of this barge. If we get caught, we’re done. They will shoot you or send you to prison right away. It was very risky. Of course my dad had the stamped document and he was talking up there.”
The forged document passed the test and the Trans breathed a collective sigh of relief and were on their way.
It wasn’t long before the family’s absence was noticed. Because of the time it took to retrieve the document, their head start was shorter than it might have been.
“They had a few navy ships going after us,” Kim Tran said. “My dad was pulling this barge to the point where the tide went down and the barge got stuck on a sand island.
“Now we had to transfer all the people from the barge onto the tugboat. We were at the edge of the ocean now and stuck on the sand. . . . We abandoned the barge and away we went.”
After transferring to the tugboat, the Trans continued their escape for almost 24 hours. Any optimism they had of making it to a friendly country was dashed when a North Vietnamese navy ship came into view. With rockets being fired in their direction, they knew they wouldn’t make it to freedom – at least not this time.
As the navy ship approached, Phat Minh Tran stood on the deck of the boat with that grenade. It was time to surrender or die as a family. The decision was in his hand.
One of Kim Tran’s cousins spoke up.
“Uncle, look at all your children, look at all your grandkids,” he said.
Kim Tran remembers her three-year-old brother being held against her mother’s hip. Them Thi Tran was crying.
“She also begged my dad not to blow us up. She said, ‘you have had a longer life and it’s not fair that you blow up the kids.’”
Phat Minh Tran was holding the grenade out of love. The children didn’t blame their father.
“That was the plan from the beginning. Everybody agreed, but when it comes to it, nobody wants to die. Only Dad had the courage to hold it and he was supposed to do it.”
Phat Minh Tran decided to surrender.
Kim remembers a big blue navy ship pulling up beside them.
“They told us to jump in the water and swim over. We looked down and there were sharks. My dad said ‘they can’t jump down there; they’re going to eat us.’ So they sent a rope ladder down and we all climbed up. They put all the men down in the shelter and kept the children and women on top.”
The shelter was where fish were kept. The men were the catch of the day.
“I saw them beat my dad with a stingray tail. They beat him up because he was the captain. I was calm about it. Inside I was hurt, but my brother Vinney, he lost it.
“He started cursing at these soldiers. He went crazy. They came and put a gun to his head and my mother was on her knees so fast and said, ‘My son, he’s crazy.’ He’s not really. She was like, ‘Please forgive him.’ They told her if he doesn’t shut up they are going to shoot him and throw him into the water. So my mom took him aside and gave him a talking to and said, ‘if you want to live, you have to shut up.’”
Vinney went quiet.
“We were on that boat for about a day and they got us to this island called Con Dao.”
On the island was a prison that French colonists built in 1861. It was a horrific place.
Next week: Life in prison