Old flag stirs hearts of Vietnamese-Americans

December 3, 2006

John Schultz/QUAD-CITY TIMES Khanh Nguyen sips tea while talking Friday with his father, Sanh Nguyen. They are seated under the flag of the former Republic of South Vietnam at their home in Rock Island.

By Tory Brecht | Saturday, December 02, 2006(1) Comments | Rate this article | Default | Large

To some, the flag of a nation that no longer exists is little more than a historical relic or trivia — a meaningless piece of cloth.

But when a bright yellow banner with red bars — the old symbol of the Republic of South Vietnam — flies Sunday morning in front of Davenport City Hall, tears will well up in more than a few Quad-City eyes.

“When the communists took over the country, we were a free nation,” said Tuyen Nguyen, a former South Vietnamese Air Force veteran who fled his homeland after the fall of Saigon in 1975. “We had to run from them. This flag is carried by people as a symbol of freedom in their hearts. It’s the image of a former free nation.”

Nguyen and a handful of other Vietnamese-Americans formed the Free Vietnamese Mutual Association of the Quad-Cities with the intention of having the former nation’s flag officially recognized.

On Sunday, they get their wish.

The Davenport City Council recently passed a proclamation noting that “the Vietnamese-Americans who escaped the tyranny of their native land wish to maintain the memory of their Vietnamese heritage through recognition of the flag of the Republic of Vietnam, whose design is a symbol of hope and freedom.”

At 11:45 a.m. Sunday, a color guard of U.S. Vietnam War-era veterans and former South Vietnamese armed forces members will run the flag up the City Hall pole.

Thus far, 11 states and 113 cities have passed proclamations recognizing the flag.

“We want to remind people how expensive freedom is and the price you have to pay to fight for it,” Nguyen said. “It represents not just us, but 58,000 American soldiers who died for this flag as well. The flag no longer stands for the country, but it stands for the freedom of the Vietnamese people.”

The symbolic gesture comes on the heels of President George Bush’s visit to Hanoi, which was the capital of the nation formerly known as North Vietnam, for the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit.

The trip worried many exiled activists who accuse the communist Vietnamese regime of embracing economic reform while not budging on human rights and oppression issues.

“In his second term, President Bush told countries if they stood up for democracy, he’d be behind it,” said Khan Nguyen, a 54-year-old South Vietnamese Navy veteran who lives in Rock Island.

Khan Nguyen went in October to Washington, D.C., with other activists who asked Bush to demand that the communist government of Vietnam end human rights violations and oppression of democracy.

“But he did not listen at all,” Nguyen said.

Uan Nguyen, 60, said he supports the normalizing of some relations with Vietnam, but is skeptical of the communist government’s motives.

“If they didn’t need the money from the Vietnamese overseas, they would never have opened up,” he said. “They are doing it just so their party survives, not for the nation.”

Davenport Mayor Ed Winborn said the proclamation and flag-raising ceremony are not intended as a political statement.

“It’s a fact that we have about 3,000 Vietnamese in Davenport and they’re really very good citizens,” he said. “They asked us to do this, so I think it’s kind of an act of friendship.”

Winborn, who served two tours of duty in Vietnam, where he flew C-130 aircraft, expects his emotions to be stirred.

“I’m not sure we were correct to get in the Vietnam War, but a lot of my friends died over there, so I feel strongly about it,” he said.

Tuyen Nguyen said it sometimes is hard for his children and his friends’ children to understand why their elders still fight symbolically against communism. They wonder why, with the freedom they enjoy in the United States, their parents still think about those left behind.

That’s why the flag-raising is more than mere symbolism, he says.

“As long as our children see the flag, they know they are among the Vietnamese who choose to be free,” he said. “Those who support the red flag with the gold star choose communism and not freedom.”

THEIR STORIES

Tuyen Nguyen, Khan Nguyen and Uan Nguyen (none of them related) are all members of the Free Vietnamese Mutual Association of the Quad-Cities.

Each man fled his homeland shortly after the fall of Saigon in 1975. Here are their stories:

Tuyen Nguyen served in the South Vietnamese Air Force. On the day military leaders surrendered to North Vietnamese forces, he fled to the sea and got on a broken boat.

“We floated on the ocean until we were picked up by a Danish commercial boat,” he recalled.

That boat dropped him and other refugees off in Hong Kong. He eventually found passage to the United States in October 1975. Because he was in the Air Force, he qualified to attend an aeronautics school in Oklahoma to study engineering.

He came to the Quad-Cities to see a friend who told him of the many factory jobs here at the time. He took classes at Black Hawk College and then got a job with Deere & Co., where he works today.

Khan Nguyen was serving on a South Vietnamese Navy destroyer when the war ended. Rather than give the boat over to the communists, his commanding officer took it to the Philippines.

He eventually made his way to the United States and a refugee camp. He found a sponsor family in Des Moines and lived in that city for eight years. In 1985, he moved to the Quad-Cities and worked for IBP. He  currently is looking for a job.

Uan Nguyen was a technical school teacher in Vietnam and a member of the Army reserve.

One of his former students was the captain of a small navy ship and agreed to pick up Nguyen when he came to get his own family. The ship traveled to the Philippines. Like others, Nguyen found a sponsor through a church in the United States that relocated him to the Quad-Cities.

He originally took a job in the small town of Andover as the caretaker of a retreat center. He is now employed at the Deere & Co. Davenport Works.

Tory Brecht can be contacted at (563) 383-2329 or tbrecht@qctimes.com.

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