Still Fighting After 40 Years
April 27th, 2015
This week marks the 40th anniversary of the fall of Saigon. An Omaha man and former South Vietnamese officer has continued fighting for his country long after the North Vietnamese communist forces took control.
Omaha, NE – On a crowded stovetop, a batch of the noodle soup pho is cooking in one pot. In another, egg rolls fry in oil. Liem Ha and his wife Vuong Thu are preparing a traditional homemade Vietnamese meal for guests.[audio:https://kvnonews.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/vietnamesesoldier4_27_15KVNO01.mp3]
Vietnam is everywhere in Liem’s west Omaha home. From the smells of food in the kitchen to the decorations in every room. But talk to Liem for just a couple minutes, and you realize the passion for his homeland burns strongest inside this 64-year-old factory supervisor, where you can’t see or smell it.
In the late 1960s, during the height of the war in Vietnam, Liem was a college student in Saigon. After graduating in 1972 he was called to serve in the South Vietnamese Army and went through officer training. He was then assigned to teach high school in a city north of Saigon by day and patrol the streets at night, and never saw combat. His life changed when North Vietnamese communist forces overran his city, then Saigon, in 1975. Liem said once the cities fell, he was on the run.
“I take some students with me (and) go into the jungle,” Liem said. “They control all the roads, we cannot go by road. We (were) hiding and just moving from city to city.”
Liem explained they were always on the run, but at the same time getting food and medicine to others who were hiding. All the time they were avoiding capture, which would have led to jail, time in a North Vietnamese re-education camp, or worse.
“Yeah, we (were) scared,” Liem said. “We (were) scared but we (were) thinking we have to fight back. We strongly believed we (were) fighting back because (there was) no way we can lose the war with the north.”
Liem lived this way for four years before escaping by boat in 1979, eventually settling as a refugee in Nebraska. He married Vuong, also a Vietnamese refugee, and got a good job. But the pull of doing something more for his home country was strong.
In his office, Liem pulls out a document titled “New Approach to Indochina: From Periphery to Center.” Stamped “top secret,” it’s the master plan for a camp on the border of Thailand and communist-controlled Cambodia. Liem helped build the secret jungle camp in 1985, then was one of its leaders. He spent five years there, training other Nationalist Party fighters for dangerous missions taking information and sometimes supplies to comrades still in Vietnam.
When asked what would have happened had he been caught, Liem replied “executed, I think so,” and recounted the story of another group doing the same thing that was caught, and its members executed.
So why risk his life? Liem said he and his political party, the Nationalist Party, wanted to keep fighting against communism. “Our goal, our party is independent freedom and happiness for the people,” Liem said.
After five years in the camp Liem Ha returned to Nebraska in 1990. Although there has been some easing of how the country is ruled, and re-establishment of diplomatic relations with the United States in 1995, Liem continues working for the Vietnam he hopes to see, by educating others and through political activism.
“Are you still fighting? I say, yeah, I’m still fighting. But a different way,” Liem said.
Liem keeps a reminder of what he’s fighting for in his office, a bright yellow flag with three red stripes. “That’s the South Vietnam flag,” Liem explained. “This flag now is the symbol of the Vietnamese community. You could say that’s symbol of freedom. Because we (are) against the communists, because they don’t have freedom, they don’t have human rights.”
This story going to include David Spry, a close friend of Liem Ha. Spry was a U.S. Marine Vietnam veteran. Brutal battles left him with a lifetime of physical and mental wounds. “The experience, it changes you. When I came home my mother didn’t recognize me,” Spry recounted for NET’s “Generations of Nebraska Warriors” project.
Spry spent a lot of time helping Liem’s family and other Vietnamese refugees in the Omaha area, and even made a trip back to Vietnam. Before he died in April 2015, Spry blamed his cancer on Agent Orange exposure during the war. But he was clear that he didn’t blame the country of Vietnam, or it’s people. “I embraced the Vietnamese people,” Spry said in an e-mail message. “Although many Vietnam veterans blame the people of the south for everything, the South Vietnamese were fighting for their way of life.”
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