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The Last Refugees

This family's roots are in Vietnam, but the next generation is branching out.

The family of eight piled into Sum's military jeep and headed for the dock. The streets were blocked by barbed wire, wrecked vehicles, military tanks, people running aimlessly. As Danh stared at blazing houses and cars, the looters and the dead bodies, his dad told him not to worry. They were going to America.

They were going to Disneyland.

After turning back once because they'd forgotten identification and then pleading for thirty excruciating minutes with a security guard who refused to let them pass, they finally made it to Sum's ship, a landing craft with a large flatbed that was used to bring cargo to shore. He drove the jeep right on board and tied it down. All around the port, people were looking for a way out, begging to get on Sum's ship -- civilians and military, friends and strangers.

Sum's daughters, Chi, Trinh, Lynda and Suong (from 
left), split, then came back together.
Anthony Camera
Sum's daughters, Chi, Trinh, Lynda and Suong (from left), split, then came back together.
Danh thinks the next generation should remember the 
culture of his parents' native country.
Anthony Camera
Danh thinks the next generation should remember the culture of his parents' native country.

Sum took anyone who wanted to come with him.

"Where will we go?" they asked.

He didn't know, he said.

Sum was about to take on the South China Sea with nothing to guide him -- no compass, no map. Over the military radio, voices were saying that his boat would be destroyed if he did not turn back, that his family would die in the ocean. He turned it off and prepared for the possibility of being caught. If anyone identified him as an officer in the South Vietnamese army, he was dead -- or worse. He took off his uniform and showed people his student ID from the law school he'd been attending, then told people what to say if the boat was captured. "Oh, we don't know him," they were to tell the Communists. "He's a student. He's just trying to help us."

There were four bedrooms on the boat; Sum gave them to other families. His family stayed in the jeep, watching the horrific scene unfolding around them.

Imagine, Danh says, canoes built to hold no more than ten people now crammed with forty. Boats were tipping over, people falling into the water. And for those who made it to sea, how much drinking water could they fit on one little boat with that many people? How much food? When the water was gone, men and women drank their own urine. When the food was nearly gone, mothers starved their babies, because babies who outlived adults would soon be dead, anyway. "You have to understand, you're talking about millions and millions of people trying to get out," he explains. "And a lot of them didn't make it…It's terrifying."

Sum let the Saigon River plot the boat's course. By its banks, he saw other boats burning, people crying. He wanted to stop and rescue them, but the people he'd already taken responsibility for pleaded for him to keep going. At a fork in the river, Sum had to guess which way to go. His choice led to the ocean; the other way would have led to the enemy, it turned out.

After drifting through that first night, Sum spotted a fishing boat and bought an anchor and rope from its crew. He asked them to guide him to the U.S. naval fleet some twenty miles out to sea, but the men refused. For the next two days, Sum saw nothing but ocean.

On the third day, a storm whipped the boat like a leaf in the wind. Water gushed on board faster than the men could bail it. Everyone was wet, crying, starving. Only Sum knew the worst of it: One of the boat's twin engines had died. He lied to everyone on board, telling them he'd faced worse weather many times in the military. He said not to worry, that he'd take care of them, but that they needed to pray to God, Buddha, Jesus or whomever they believed in.

Then he crawled into the jeep to kiss his wife and children goodbye. "I don't think we'll ever survive," Sum remembers. "But they don't know. I go up there to talk to people with my tears, and I say I will try my best and I will save your life."

For three days, no one ate. They were sick and vomiting, but alive. Finally the storm passed, and in the calm, they met a boat that gave them food and water. Sum asked this crew, too, if they would guide his ship to safety, but they refused. Singapore was just one day away, they said.

A day and a half later, they finally saw the shore.

When they'd left Vietnam, Sum had ordered everybody to throw away their guns -- but he had hid a Colt .45 for himself. He'd gone for it when he found out that a Vietnamese congressman who'd fled with Sum had been hoarding food for his family, even letting his wife and daughters wash their hair with the drinking water. But a friend had talked him down.

Now, as they reached Singapore, the congressman turned on Sum. "This is a stolen ship!" he yelled.

Sum grabbed him by the front of his shirt and twisted to get a tight grip. "Ladies and gentlemen, I want to talk to you about why he don't want to help me," Sum yelled. "I save you. I bring your family, and you stab me in the back."

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