- Ship of Fate: Memoir of a Vietnamese Repatriate by Trần Ðình Trụ
Ship of Fate: Memoir of a Vietnamese Repatriate brings to mind the words of Elie Wiesel, “It is the duty of the survivor to speak of his experience and share it with his friends and contemporaries.” This book is a powerful and compelling litany of loves and losses and of journeys to and from both. Through a powerful and compelling litany of loves and losses and of journeys to and from both, in this memoir, Trần Ðình Trụ recounts in rich detail his childhood, treasured marriage, prestigious naval career, evacuation from Saigon to Guam, repatriation to Vietnam, thirteen-year captivity in reeducation camps, and eventual immigration to the United States.
Swept up in the pandemonium during North Vietnam’s capture of Saigon in April 1975, Trần was separated from his family, who remained in Vietnam while he captained one of the ships in the evacuation fleet that escaped to Subic Bay in the Philippines and then moved on to Guam. He faced immense loss and longing: “I had lost not only my house, my jeep, and my career, I had lost my wife and our children. I felt the absurdity of it, transferring from one ship to another, journeying to where . . . I felt so depressed thinking about my lot—how could my life be so lost, so lonely like this?” (54).
On 13 May, his ship arrived in Guam, which the United States had designated as a way station before presumed settlement in the country. Though he had been there before early in his career, the circumstances of his return colored his view of the island: “Guam’s isolation reminded me of my own separation from my loved ones” (137). His refuge on Guam lasted until 15 October 1975.
The US government brought over one hundred thousand Vietnamese to Guam. There they were detained in a dozen camps prior to relocation to other countries or to the United States, where they would be held in camps before being integrated into American society. According to the common public understanding of what happened to the evacuees, Trần states, “the Vietnamese refugees only needed to know how to accept their new American reality, how to adjust to their new circumstances, and learn to work hard. After that, every difficulty [End Page 601] would vanish, and the future would be bright” (60). However, this is not the whole story. Ship of Fate provides another perspective that most people do not know—a story of forced exile and repatriation, of agency in the face of chaos. While the vast majority of Vietnamese chose to migrate to the United States, over 1,500 evacuees wanted to return to Vietnam. “There were still some people who didn’t want to abandon our homeland and who considered their families, their wives, and children even more precious than America” (61). Some Vietnamese who had been transported to the United States returned to camps on Guam to join the others seeking repatriation.
Their request to return to Vietnam was met with resistance; negotiations with the Vietnamese government on behalf of the refugees were conducted by the United States and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (unhcr) and proceeded very slowly. Undaunted, Vietnamese in several camps organized a leadership committee and carried out peaceful actions to draw attention to their plight. They hung signs on camp fences, held demonstrations, and met with the commander of the Civilian Affairs division and representatives of the unhcr. Frustrated by repeated directives to wait and a lack of diplomatic progress on their behalf, the refugees turned to more extreme actions, including destructive riots and hunger strikes. Media attention raised public awareness to a national level, and committee leaders continued to...