All photos courtesy of Miki Nguyen
As Saigon was about to fall to communist forces in April, 1975, South Vietnamese Air Force helicopter pilot Ba Nguyen (pronounced Win) commandeered a huge CH-47 Chinook. He loaded aboard his family and friends and then headed out to sea. The daring escape and Ba Nguyen's stunning airmanship in getting his family to safety aboard the USS Kirk is detailed in the Oscar-nominated documentary, Last Days in Vietnam.
But there is more to the Nguyen family story as they were able to make a new life in the Seattle area. IN Close producer Enrique Cerna tells us how the Nguyens found their way here, the Bellevue church that helped them start a new life in this new country, and how Ba Nguyen, shortly before his death, was reunited with crew members of the USS Kirk, receiving an Air Medal, the award the U.S. military gives for heroic feats while flying.
Miki Nguyen: Oh, so yeah, I made this box for my dad when he retired from Boeing.
Enrique Cerna: A shirt, shorts, photos and memories...
Miki Nguyen: Very, very special.
Enrique Cerna: Of a courageous father, husband and helicopter pilot...
Miki Nguyen: Hard for me to put into words sometimes.
Enrique Cerna: Who risked everything for his family's freedom.
Miki Nguyen: That's it. This is how we started: with shorts and a shirt and a big dream.
Enrique Cerna: It's a dream that began in crisis. On April 29th, 1975, Saigon was falling to communist North Vietnamese forces. Ba Nguyen, then a South Vietnamese Air Force major, knew it was time to flee the country. He commandeered a CH-47, a huge twin-rotor Chinook, loaded aboard his wife, their three small children and friends. He then headed out toward the Pacific Ocean, not knowing what to expect.
Miki Nguyen: My dad was afraid for not having enough fuel. He was just flying blind, and then he saw a ship out there.
Enrique Cerna: It was the USS Kirk, a Navy destroyer escort. The ship had already taken on refugees from smaller helicopters. But the Chinook was much too big to land on the ship. The crew waved him off, but determined to save his family, Ba Nguyen manuvered the helicopter over the ship's stern so they could jump to the ship. His oldest son, six-year-old Miki, jumped first.
Miki Nguyen: I jumped out, my brother jumped out. My mom was holding my sister.
Nho Nguyen: I thought, oh please god, help me.
Miki Nguyen: With her right hand, holding on with her left to brace herself, [she] just dropped my baby sister.
Nho Nguyen: That I never forget, lucky whole family, and the sailor [made a] really good catch.
Enrique Cerna: The drama was not over. After his family and other passengers made it on to the ship, Ba Nguyen had to get himself out of the Chinook. He flew away from the ship, kept the aircraft hovering just above the water, then somehow got out of his flight suit and jumped into the ocean as the helicopter crashed.
Miki Nguyen: And he pops up, and he's alive.
Enrique Cerna: Incredibly, Ba survived without any injuries. A rescue boat picked him up and reunited him with his family. All he had left was his shirt, shorts and hope for a chance at a new life without war.
Nho Nguyen: We have peace in the United States of America.
Enrique Cerna: From the Kirk, the Nguyens' life became a whirlwind of refugee camps in Guam, Wake Island and Camp Pendleton in California. Nearly three months after their dramatic escape, they arrived in Bellevue, Washington, where they were sponsored by the Cross of Christ Church, whose congregation wanted to help Vietnamese refugees.
Dick Hanner: We were ready to roll when we got that call saying, 'would you accept a refugee family of six,' and I said sure.
Enrique Cerna: Dick and Darlean Hanner were a part of the church organizing committee. Dick met the Nguyen family at the airport the day they arrived.
Dick Hanner: And all they had was just a couple of boxes with twine wound around it. To come to this country like that, you know, what a scary thing to do, you know?
Miki Nguyen: Very, very scared, not knowing the language. Not knowing the culture, three young kids, there is a lot of stress.
Enrique Cerna: The Nguyens spent their first three weeks living with the Gorman Colling family. They would develop a deep friendship that's still strong today.
Gorman Colling: They just greatly enhanced our life and how we, I think, would be able to interact with different cultures and different people. Really it was a gift to us that we had them in our house.
Enrique Cerna: As church members helped the Nguyens adjust to their new surroundings, it was clear that Ba was willing to work hard to establish his family in this new country.
Gorman Colling: He was bound and determined that his family was going to be integrated and was going to become Americans, and was forever appreciative that he did get the opportunity to come and live here.
Enrique Cerna: The Nguyens became the church custodians. Ba then took on a second job as an assembly worker at an electronics firm. He eventually attended a technical electronics school which helped him land a better paying job.
Just three years after arriving in Bellevue, the family bought their first home. A short time later, Ba and Ngo became American citizens.
Miki Nguyen: I really, really respect what my parents had to go through in the early days here. What I got from my Dad was knowing you have to work hard, whatever you want in life you have to work hard for it, it's not going to fall in your lap. That's deeply ingrained in me.
Enrique Cerna: And in his younger brother Mika and sister Mina, all three graduated from college and found professional careers.
In the 80's, Ba joined the Boeing Company, working in military electronics. Nho went to work there as well. Both retired from the company.
Still, there were challenges. Mika, the middle child who suffered from Hemophilia, passed away in 2003 from a brain hemorrhage. Then in 2006, Ba was diagnosed with dementia.
Miki Nguyen: No matter what difficulties that may come along, you just stick together and you move foward the best way you can.
Enrique Cerna: And it was together in 2010 the Nguyen family celebrated a special reunion of the USS Kirk in Washington D.C. It was a chance to meet the men who saved their lives on that late April day in 1975--from Captain Paul Jacobs to crewman Kent Chapman, who caught the family members including then one-year-old Mina when her mother dropped her from the Chinook helicopter.
Miki Nguyen: My dad was in a wheelchair and he was in the late stages of dementia, Alzheimer's, and so he wasn't able to talk or able to walk.
Enrique Cerna: Still, he knew this was something special. And it became even more so as a Navy Vice Admiral honored Ba with an Air Medal, for his bravery in saving his family and the Kirk crew when he ditched the huge Chinook.
Miki Nguyen: And a few seconds after that, I can see my dad sort of wedging himself from the wheelchair. He stood up and just silently saluted to the captain and the crew to say 'thank you to my American brothers.' But that moment right there, I knew that meant everything to my dad.
Enrique Cerna: Ba Nguyen passed away on June 17th, 2013, leaving a tremendous legacy of strength, love of family and courage.
Miki Nguyen: Everyone has their own story, everyone has their own journey, but this was my family's story.
Enrique Cerna: It's an American story.
Miki Nguyen: Absolutely, absolutely. We all dream for the same thing: a better life, not only for ourserlves but for our kids. And that's what America's all about.
All photos courtesy of Miki Nguyen
The son of Mexican immigrants, Enrique Cerna was born and raised in the Yakima Valley. Enrique joined KCTS 9 in January, 1995. He has anchored current affairs programs, moderated statewide political debates, produced and reported stories for national PBS programs in addition to local documentaries on social and juvenile justice, the environment and Latinos in Washington State.
Enrique has earned nine Northwest Emmy Awards and numerous other honors. In June, 2013, he was inducted into the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences Northwest Chapter’s Silver Circle for his work as a television professional.More stories by Enrique Cerna