Who Are Our Fathers?
Journal of American History, 94 (June 2007) 163–71
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Throughout my adult life I have used photography as a way to work through the wounds and scars from the American War in Viet Nam.1 I first took photographs during the war as a way to remember where I was in 1968–1969 and process what was happening to me and to the land. My first return visit to Viet Nam was in February 1989. In Sai Gon I encountered Amerasian children and adults, literally coming face to face with the human legacy of the war. One photograph in particular stuck with me: that of a mother and her two sons, obviously fathered by two different American soldiers. (See figure 1.) Since 1989, I have been traveling and living part time in Viet Nam making photographs of the land, people, and places. In May 2006 I returned to the small village of Lai Khe, the site of my 1968 wartime base camp. By rephotographing images I made in 1968, I unexpectedly finally found the healing I had been seeking. The war will always be an important part of my life, but it no longer dominates my life.
During my last year of high school, my family moved to Johnstown, New York, where my father helped establish a community college. As a result of the move, my senior year was difficult. Without plans after barely graduating, I realized I needed to enroll in the local community college, where my father was the director of admissions, to obtain a student deferment from the draft. Any young man without a deferment was a prime target for the draft, and we all knew the next stop was Viet Nam. My first college semester was a flop. With a high school diploma, I could still avoid the draft by enlisting in the air force for four years, get some training and education, and, I hoped, gain some maturity. On a chilly morning, February 7, 1966, my air force recruiter, Sgt. Albert Vrooman, drove me to the induction center in Albany, New York, where I raised my right hand and enlisted in the U.S. Air Force.
In March 1968, after a year of training and a year at Robins Air Force Base, Georgia, I was assigned as an air force sergeant to a forward air control team at the small village of Lai Khe, about 60 kilometers north of Sai Gon. Lai Khe was the base camp and headquarters of the Third Brigade, First Infantry Division, the Big Red One of World War II fame. My job was to support tactical air strikes. I usually worked in the brigade tactical operations center, but at times I would sit behind the pilot in a two-seater O-1E Bird Dog spotter plane or work out of a specialized jeep that had a pallet of various types of radios (uhf, vhf, hf, fm) instead of a back seat, which allowed me to communicate with the air force, army, and our direct air support center in case we needed more fighter-bombers.
On Friday the thirteenth, in September 1968, while I was getting ready for that day’s air strikes from the tactical operations center, Maj. Gen. Keith Ware, the commanding general of the First Infantry Division, and his flight crew were killed when his command chopper was hit by a Viet Cong rocket-propelled grenade. Because of my connection with the air operations that morning, for many years I felt haunted by his death, and, no matter what month, every Friday thirteenth I would hide. After General Ware’s death, I requested a transfer and was reassigned in October to Advisory Team 55 in the fishing village of Rach Gia, on the west coast of the Mekong Delta. My job was the same, but several things changed. For one, I worked for a short time with a pilot who was more interested in denying weapons to the enemy than in killing people with bombs. We bombed targets close to coordinates given by the Vietnamese, as the delta was operating under the policy of Vietnamization: the Army of the Republic of Viet Nam would run the war; American troops would “advise.”
The Vietnamese soldiers usually inflated numbers of enemy troops and material. They also would target villages or people they did not like. To get a more realistic picture of the real numbers, our running joke was to move the decimal point one place to the left, making fifty Viet Cong really five. Another difficulty arose because the air force made us land our plane on a runway called the “long strip,” near the village of Rach Soi, about 11 kilometers east of Rach Gia. Loaded with battle plans and radios, I had to drive alone to and from the long strip, often in the dark. I always carried a lot of weapons, but I felt, if attacked, I would not have enough rounds to get out alive. My fear and belief was that I would run out of ammunition before the enemy did. Luckily, it never got that close, but my stomach was usually in a knot when I drove that road.
My father was a photojournalist, and his choice of profession was a great influence on me. From early childhood, my thoughts were visual. During 1968–1969, I made about 400 slide images with a half-frame 35 mm Olympus ees-2 range finder camera. A roll of 36 exposures gave me 72 images. It was easy to operate with one hand while flying or driving. The images came out despite my lack of care and attention to environmental conditions. When making pictures during the war, I did not think of blood and guts. I was intrigued by the life around me—my hooch mates, the war machinery, but even more, the culture and land of Viet Nam, as best as I could see it beyond the facade of war.
In March 1969, after my twelve-month tour of duty, I returned to the “world.” I spent nine months on active duty with the air force and was discharged in December 1969. I proceeded to college and continued with my life. For nine years afterward, until 1978, I can honestly say that I was in an angry fog as a result of the war. I could function, but I had little direction or purpose. For several years I was very angry and could not talk to anyone about my feelings. I was hyperalert, slept with a knife under my pillow, had loaded weapons in my house, flew into instant rages, hated just about any bureaucracy, especially the U.S. government, had nightmares, felt emotionally numb, and exhibited other behaviors that are attributable to post–traumatic stress disorder (ptsd).2 In short, I did not belong anywhere, and I have been seeking my place—my identity—for close to forty years.
In 1979, I helped set up the Vietnam Veteran Outreach Program in Denver, Colorado, one of six pilot cities for the program in the United States, funded by the Disabled American Veterans. It was the precursor of the Veterans Administration’s Vet Centers that opened in 1980 after the American Psychiatric Association officially recognized ptsd in the third edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (dsm-iii). Until then, loose terms such as soldier’s heart, shell shock, combat fatigue, and war neurosis were used to refer to the same symptoms in soldiers and veterans from the Civil War, World War I, World War II, and the Korean War, but those symptoms were never given full weight as a medical problem. From what I have seen, the North Vietnamese army did not have many cases of ptsd from the American war except in those soldiers who had direct experience with bombing and tragic death. A sense of defending their homeland and their belief in karma seems to have provided the Vietnamese soldiers with an emotional and cultural support that Americans did not have. Ironically, when Vietnam invaded Cambodia in 1978–1979, Vietnamese soldiers seemed to show more ptsd symptoms.
From personal conversations and several publications, I discovered that tens of thousands of Amerasian children were born during the eleven-year American war. Those children were called by Vietnamese, bui doi (the dust of life), the poorest of the poor. They were shunned by all, expelled from school by sixth grade if they attended at all, and were often harassed and arrested by local police who would extort bribes, send them to jail, or worse. In 1979 the United Nations Commission for Refugees established the Orderly Departure Program (odp), with its base of operations in Bangkok. This program was designed to aid in the immigration of Vietnamese to the United States. In 1988, Congress passed the Amerasian Homecoming Act to assist Amerasians to immigrate to the United States. odp staffers came to Sai Gon and interviewed once a week. The burden of proof was placed on the Amerasians. With often only physical features to support their case, few if any records, possible arrest records from local police, and a host of other problems, it was almost impossible for many of those Amerasian kids to be accepted by the odp. Once the odp started processing Amerasian kids to America, they suddenly became “golden children”: local Vietnamese would get them to declare they were relatives as a means to escape. Once in the United States, the family usually dumped the Amerasian in a bewildering and alien environment. About 27,000 Amerasian children made it to the United States with their extended families by 1994, when the odp was shut down due to fraud.3
At the time of my first return to Viet Nam in February and March 1989, the United States and Viet Nam did not have diplomatic relations. Tourist visas were issued in Bangkok, Thailand. From Bangkok my group traveled first to Ha Noi, then Hue, then Sai Gon where I found these boys and their mother. (See figure 1.) Not many westerners were in Viet Nam at that time, and I was spotted a kilometer away, just as it was not hard to spot Amerasians in Sai Gon. We found each other. I made this photograph of the two Amerasian boys and their Vietnamese street mother sitting in their sidewalk “home” in front of the Palace Hotel in March 1989. It was impossible to miss them. Unfortunately, I did not get their names, as I was too emotionally overwhelmed by the experience to think of that important detail. This is a constant problem of mine: getting too emotional in a situation tends to cause me to forget to do some things, such as get names and take notes. When I am a photographer I usually do not participate. When I am a participant, it is difficult for me to be the photographer.4
Since these three (and many others I met during my stay) were waiting to evacuate Viet Nam through the odp, the woman is showing her identification to be recognized as entitled to leave Viet Nam with the boys. I have always wondered if they made it to the United States and found a new home. Perhaps they, or someone who knows them, will see this photograph, make contact, and explain who they are and how they have lived their lives since 1989.
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Perhaps this photograph was more intuitive than thoughtful, a lucky shot. The three, sitting in a triangle, mom holding their id; one very dark, curly-haired young man in his late teens, with an eager light in his eyes and a ready smile, in spite of his plight in life; the other youth, his half-brother, was white, almost pasty white, with facial features that made me think his father was Euro-American.
The dark-skinned youth took me to see more Amerasians in a nearby park. He led, often holding my arm. Between the Cathedral of Notre Dame and the Reunification Palace, another Amerasian, Charlie Brown, had established a camp for the Amerasian kids to live in the parklike area, and my guide was taking me to meet them. Some were very young, others, such as Brown, considerably older. In the park area, Brown showed me two boxes; in one they kept blankets and sleeping equipment and in the other, cooking gear. They had a very organized system. They had to, since they were often beaten, shaken down, and jailed by the police. When I made a photo of many of their group, a young Amerasian woman held her baby in the front row, the second generation of Amerasians. (See figure 2.)
As we walked to the park, many people quickly moved from their homes to intercept us with letters they hoped I would mail (being with an Amerasian immediately identified me as an American). The black youth took my right elbow in a strong grip and pulled me away from the people saying in broken English, “bullshit, bullshit.” Evidently, he was getting back at those who had made his life miserable. Viet Nam is a xenophobic culture, and his skin and hair, like mine, certainly indicated he was not Vietnamese. Many Amerasians, including Charlie Brown, were regularly arrested by the police, making it even more difficult for them to get past odp screenings, which rejected applicants who had been in jail. Still, the worst denial was from the American fathers of these children, since only about 500 American men have ever claimed their sons or daughters.5
When I look at the photo now, I immediately wonder where they are and how they are doing. Next, I wish I had had the presence of mind to be more proactive on their behalf. I feel bad for not getting more information about them—simple things such as their names, ages, where they came from, and the like. Over the years, I have gotten better about getting information, but I still miss so much when I am personally involved with the situation.
To fulfill President Lyndon B. Johnson’s desire for a coalition of “many flags” fighting in Viet Nam, the South Korean government was paid for more than 300,000 soldiers from 1965 to 1972. Each Korean soldier in Viet Nam meant an American would not have to fight. That war profiteering enabled South Korea to become an economic “Asian Tiger” as a direct result of the war income. As a result of Korean business in Viet Nam, there is a group of Korean-Vietnamese in Sai Gon called lai dai han (mixed blood). My understanding is that they are the children of South Korean businessmen. Being xenophobic, they never allowed their children to move to South Korea. In the past few years several South Korean men have returned to Viet Nam to reunite with their Vietnamese children.6
It has been difficult to continue to make photos in America, Viet Nam, South Korea, and Australia over a number of years. The main challenges have been finding income to live on and travel and dealing with the emotional toll. Many people have helped along the way by being supportive, storing my personal belongings while I travel, helping me move, and letting me stay in their homes free or for little rent. One wealthy American war veteran sponsored my first return trip in February 1989 and overcame his own fears to join the trip. To make money for rent, travel, equipment, film, processing, and the like, I combined income from substitute teaching with my small disability payments from the Veterans Administration. For all practical purposes, I do not read, write, or speak Vietnamese or Korean, a big challenge in those countries, although many young people there are learning English, the international language of business. Getting help in each country is also hard, as I do not have academic grants or financial support to hire locals. People there work hard to make a living, and free time is rare.
Perhaps my own version of ptsd kept me emotionally numb to the kids, families, and individuals who helped over the years, since I have not kept up communications with many. I just kept moving, much as I lived in the military; always on alert, ready to pack and move at a moment’s notice. Ironically, when Vietnamese realize I am a veteran of the American war, I am treated better in Viet Nam than in my own country. The Vietnamese I have met hold Richard M. Nixon and Henry Kissinger, not the U.S. soldiers, responsible for the war. Over the years, memories of the images during the war have called me to return to my base camp at Lai Khe, Rach Gia, and, for ten years, to rephotograph the now-razed U.S. embassy in Sai Gon from atop the Palace Hotel, a project inspired by a photo of the embassy by the photographer Rick Graetz.7
In March 2005, I presented “The American–Viet Nam War: Telling the Story to Our Children,” at the Texas Tech University Vietnam Center’s fifth triennial Vietnam symposium. A later session on some diaries sounded interesting since I was working on my own memoirs. Fred and Robert Whitehurst, both veterans of the war and brothers, gave a presentation about two small diaries of Dang Thuy Tram, a twenty-seven-year-old woman medical doctor from Ha Noi, killed by American soldiers near the city of Quang Ngai in September 1970. Fred had been an intelligence officer and did not burn the diaries as was the standard operating procedure. His translator said, “There is fire in them already.” In an emotional session, Fred turned the two small palm-sized diaries over to the Vietnam Center Archives. After the session, I offered Fred and Rob that I would look for a former house or something of the family in Ha Noi and send them a digital image, since I was going there in three days. Fred gave me a compact disc that contained scans of both diaries. Thinking the family was no longer around, I presented the disc to Do Xuan Anh, a Vietnamese friend who worked in the Quaker (American Friends Service Committee) office in Ha Noi. Anh promptly started trying to find where the family had lived or anything she could about the family.
Leaving the disc, I traveled to Sai Gon to complete my goal of making my last photograph on April 30, 2005, for my long-term project, “Wounds That Bind: Four Countries after the American War in Viet Nam.” The day after I arrived in Sai Gon, I woke with a splitting tension headache to a very early morning and excited phone call from Dang Thi Kim Tram, the youngest sister of Dang Thuy Tram. Kim Tram wanted to know when I could visit the family. Anh had discovered the family was living a few blocks down the street from the Quaker office. I immediately changed my flight to return the next day. Within an hour, my tension headache disappeared.
The family met me at my hotel in Ha Noi, and we went to the home of Kim Tram and her mother, Doan Ngoc Tram. Mother Tram speaks Vietnamese and French, and Kim Tram, her sister Dang Thi Hein Tram, and her husband, Nguyen Ho Nam, and their two sons, Nguyen Ho Anh and Nguyen Dang Viet Anh, all speak English very well. In their modest living room, tv and newspaper reporters and many relatives were standing shoulder-to-shoulder and wall-to-wall. I had anticipated just a couple of family members and was overwhelmed by the immediate focus on me. Because the family had had several stories written about their search for information on Thuy Tram’s last days and because I was a veteran of the American war returning something so special and private to the family, media coverage was intense. As a result, I became something of a national hero by the next morning. We looked at the scanned diaries on my laptop computer, and I gave the disc to the family.
On April 30, 2005, instead of making my last photograph in Sai Gon, as planned, I was with Hein Tram and her family performing a ceremony at the grave of her sister Thuy Tram on the outskirts of Ha Noi. The last photograph of my project was of the sixty- seven-year-old cemetery caretaker, smiling as we sipped tea at his table. On May 1, I woke up feeling like a new human being. I promised myself I was going to end the project on April 30, and I did. I followed what came, not what I tried to control. Fred has suggested that it was Thuy Tram who has been behind this all the time. In August 2005, the family published Nhat ky Dang Thuy Tram (The diaries of Dang Thuy Tram). The book is a best seller, with over 160,000 sold in the first three months and over 400,000 copies sold to date. On November 15, 2006, National Public Radio aired a program by Michael Sullivan on All Things Considered about the book and how the diaries came to Fred and how the family was found.8
I returned to Denver, and, during the summer of 2005, I drove 15,000 miles throughout the United States and Canada looking for a home. Nothing seemed to call my name. Back in Denver, I rented a bungalow for a few months, my eighty-sixth move in thirtyfive years. However, there was something still missing inside of me. When my lease was up in early 2006, I put everything back in storage. In May 2006 I flew to visit my adopted family in Ha Noi.
One evening in Ha Noi, I saw a young woman reporter, Truong Uyen Ly, who knew me and the family quite well. All of a sudden I had an idea. I posed it to her: I would cover all expenses if Uyen Ly would help me make connections at Peace Village II at Tu Du Hospital, which treated babies afflicted with dioxin poisoning from Agent Orange, and help me rephotograph images I made in 1968 of my base camp at Lai Khe. She agreed. My previous attempts had yielded no images and ended in my being hauled into the Lai Khe police station to be interrogated and to write a statement explaining in detail what I was doing there. In order to arrange a meeting with whomever was in charge of the facility, one of Uyen Ly’s friends rode his motorbike from Bien Hoa to Lai Khe to obtain the phone number. Within a few days, calls were made, a meeting was arranged at both Tu Du and Lai Khe, and off we flew to Sai Gon for the weekend. The hospital visit went off without a hitch. The trip to Lai Khe was more eventful as our car broke down about thirty kilometers north of Sai Gon. Standing on the roadside, I was feeling extremely frustrated. The trip was in jeopardy. I noticed long blades of grass growing along the roadside, bouncing up and down in the breeze. They bent. I told myself to relax and go with the flow as well, to bend, so I would not break. Not here. Thanks to cell phones, thirty minutes later another car arrived. We were only a few minutes late for our Lai Khe meeting.
The facility that had housed the base camp is now in the hands of the Rubber Research Institute of Viet Nam, and we met the vice-director and some of his staff, all of whom spoke English. The French built the original structure as a lab and administration building for the rubber plantation in 1941. Although that building was razed as a result of war damage, the new structure was identical except for a new roof that accommodates rooms that are now are air-conditioned, including my old radio room. After a short but pleasant meeting, Uyen Ly and I were escorted by one of the staff, she holding my prints from 1968. We would get in position so I could have exactly the same perspective as the 1968 image. After I made both a digital image for my journal and a film image for my project, I would hand the print to the staff member saying, “This one is done,” and ask Uyen Ly for another, and on we would move to the next location.
After I gave all the prints to the institute staff guide and we left, I felt there was something missing. I had it when I arrived, but as we left, I noticed the absence of a chronic pain, like the relief after an aching tooth is gone. There was a quiet and empty space inside me where there once had been the nagging torment of my own war in Viet Nam. It was with me no more. Like the deafening sound of silence, I could not hear or feel it. When I left Lai Khe that afternoon, I had the feeling I never need to return to Viet Nam as a result of my part in the war. There are plenty of friends and family and exciting places to visit in Viet Nam, but the war is no longer nagging at my soul. I am clean inside, and I can feel it.
My photographs and their stories are a large part of my life. I feel very humble to be invited to join the other contributors in this special section. I am happy that the image I made is in this publication. I saw and felt something very profound in the American faces of those two young Vietnamese men back in March 1989. If others look at my photograph and find a similar depth to the souls of those two young men and their mother, I think that is the best a photographer can hope for.
Ted Engelmann is an independent photographer currently living in Aurora, Colorado. I would like to thank Donald Anderson, editor of War, Literature & the Arts, an International Journal of the Humanities, for publishing my work as a featured artist. It was in the Fall–Winter 2000 issue of WLA that Ed Linenthal noticed my photographs of the two Amerasian boys.
Readers may contact Engelmann at mail [at] tedengelmann [dot] com.
1 Viet Nam has undergone several name changes over the centuries. The name Nam Viet was established by the Trieu Dynasty (207–111 bc), and under Emperor Gia Long, the name was changed to Viet Nam in 1802. The name Viet (people) Nam (of the south) denotes that the Vietnamese were not the people of the north, the Chinese. A plausible reason for the more recent one-word spelling was explained to me by the photojournalist Philip Jones Griffiths. When western journalists filed their stories by telex they were charged by the word: words such as Dien Bien Phu, Ha Noi, Sai Gon, and Viet Nam were expensive. These names were often one word, the style manuals incorporated the short versions, and they stuck. When Vietnamese use the name “Vietnam,” it is for export only. They realize that westerners (mostly Americans) do not understand the proper spelling. I use the term Viet Nam because it is the original and national spelling and because the one-word name is associated with the war. I hope this new spelling will help Americans of the war era develop new emotions and appreciation for the country and slowly leave the war.
2 American Psychiatric Association, Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (Washington, 1980).
3 Amerasian Homecoming Act, 101 Stat. 1329 (1987). There is little agreement about the total number of Amerasian births. Nguyen Dinh Thang of Boat People sos, in Falls Church, Virginia, stated: “There is no agreement on the actual number of Amerasians born in Viet Nam. Our estimate is 30,000, of which 18,000 have resettled in the United States under the Amerasian Homecoming Act. Only a small number of them . . . have been reunited with their American fathers.” Nguyen Dinh Thang to Ted Engelmann, e-mail, Dec. 6, 2006 (in Ted Engelmann’s possession). For a work that estimates that 30,000 Amerasians entered the United States under the Amerasian Homecoming Act, see Trin Yarborough, Surviving Twice: Amerasian Children of the Vietnam War (Washington, 2005), ix, xi. The State Department’s figure for Amerasian immigration from 1980 through September 1989 is 26,555 persons. Irene Sege, “U.S. No Haven to Amerasians,” Boston Globe, Feb. 14, 1990, p. 1; Suzette Parmley, “Lens’ Loving Look: Exhibit’s Focus; Amerasian Youth,” ibid., Aug. 10, 1990, p. 13.
4 Ted Engelmann, “A Photo Essay,” War, Literature, & the Arts, 12 (Fall–Winter 2000), 123–30.
5 There is little agreement about the number of American fathers reunited with their Amerasian children. The Amerasian Child Find Network in Medford, Oregon, claims to have reunited 560 fathers with their Amerasian kids since they started work in 2002. Clint Haines, telephone conversation with Engelmann, Nov. 9, 2006, notes (in Engelmann’s possession). For another estimate of the number of Amerasian children reunited with their fathers, see “People & Events: American GIs, Vietnamese Women and Children,” pbs: American Experience—Daughter from Danang, http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/daughter/peopleevents/p_gis.html. An Ohio State University study estimated that 3% of Amerasian children who have made it to the United States have found their fathers. See Indira A. R. Lakshmanan, “The Children They Left Behind,” Boston Globe Magazine, Oct. 26, 2003, p. 14. For a work that states, “No more than a couple hundred Amerasians out of twenty-five thousand airlifted to the United States have found their fathers,” see Tom Bass, Vietnamerica: The War Comes Home (New York, 1996), 160.
6 Choi Dong-Ju, “The Political Economy of Korea’s Involvement in the Second Indo-China War” (Ph.D. diss., University of London, 1995).
7 Rick Graetz, Vietnam: Opening Doors to the World (Helena, 1988).
8Thuy Tram Dang, Nhat ky Dang Thuy Tram (The diaries of Dang Thuy Tram), ed. Kim Tram Dang, Tri Nhan Vuong, and Kim Dinh Thai (Ha Noi, 2005); Michael Sullivan, “A Wartime Diary Touches Vietnamese,” npr: All Things Considered, Nov. 15, 2006, http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=6492819.