Author recounts Japanese invasion of Saigon

May 24, 2006

By James Coburn
CNHI News Service

EDMOND, Okla.— Laurette Heger had never heard the word “war” until her homeland was invaded by the Japanese.
Heger is author of “Saigon is Burning.” Her personal memoir recounts her childhood years when living in her native Saigon during the Japanese occupation of Vietnam during World War II.
Born in 1937, Heger is a Vietnam native who lived in Saigon until she was 9 years old. “It looked like a little wedding cake,” Heger said with a French accent blending with Vietnamese. “It was called ‘The Pearl of the Orient’ — a beautiful little city.”
Vietnam had been a French colony when she and two brothers and two sisters witnessed the Japanese invasion of then-French Indochina in 1940. Japan already had invaded China in 1937. And the French became crippled to defend its interests after Hitler’s Germany swallowed control of France.
“The heat built up and my mother took us separately and told us we were at war with the Japanese,” Heger said. “And we had to all be careful, and life was going to be hard.”
Her father was a Swiss watchmaker and her mother was half French and half Vietnamese. Her parents took the family to live with Swiss relatives in France in 1946, a year after the Japanese surrendered to the United States.
Heger returned as a teenager to Saigon in 1951. Eight years later, she met a newspaper foreign correspondent, Earnest Hobrect, married him in New Delhi and lived in Japan for six years.
Hobrect’s career as a United Press International vice president brought them to the United States in 1966. Her former husband died more than a decade ago, she said.
She worked as a pastry chef on the West Coast. Now semi-retired in Oklahoma City, Heger works in an Edmond health store. Writing “Saigon is Burning” was a year of effort.
“I had wanted to write for a long time, but I’m a lousy typist,” Heger said.
Her motivation for writing the book was to further reveal a part of history that Americans and French people seem to know little about, she said.
Americans are more familiar with their own war in Vietnam, she added.
“Even the French people — when I talk about it — it’s ‘I did not know there was anything going on in that area of the world,’” she said.
The Japanese surrender left a vacuum for further havoc, Heger said. After 1945, the French started the Vietnamese French War, which lasted from 1946 to 1954. In reality the war is in three sections — the Japanese, the French and the American, Hager explained.
Her book title, “Saigon is Burning” derives from a two-month long, intense battle between the French and Vietnamese.
“At one time, they set fire to the central market,” Heger recalled. “And from our house, you could see fire on the horizon.”
These experiences pressed upon the peace and tranquility that she had known in Saigon.
“Life goes on and you just have to move on with it,” Heger said. “And we cannot oppress people and suppress them and expect the best to come out of it. These people were certainly taken advantage of because their country was — is a rich country — a beautiful country.”
She hasn’t visited Vietnam since 1962.
“I have ambivalent feelings about it because you can never go home,” Heger said. “It is not the country I knew.”

James Coburn writes for The Edmond (Okla.) Sun.

Copyright © 1999-2006 cnhi, inc.


Laurette Heger is shown with her new book of memoirs. JAMES COBURN/The Edmond Sun

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