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Couple recalls terrifying flight from Vietnam, and the kind hearts in a Kansas town

Southwest Kansas Register

The child’s father stood behind her on a large fishing boat as the 12-year-old desperately maneuvered herself up a ladder to the nearby giant U.S. aircraft carrier. Crashing waves tossed the smaller vessel up and down as the girl struggled hand over hand, her feet trying to take hold of each step.
This was 1975 in the Gulf of Thailand. Enemy forces had the carrier in their sites. The U.S. Navy sailors had to move fast to get the refugees onboard. Family and friends of the Vietnamese girl struggled up the ladder behind her.  The sailors quickly helped the frantic refugees onboard.
The enemy ship was closing in. Several civilians, including the girl’s father, were left behind on the fishing boat as the Navy vessel pulled away, lurching toward the open sea.           
High above the fishing craft on the deck of the massive aircraft carrier, the child, her mother and siblings looked on helplessly as her father, a brother and his wife, and a sister stood on the fishing boat, watching their beloved family sail off into the distance.
It was the last time the 12-year-old would ever see her father.
“My dad was a fisherman,” Melissa Luong said from her home in Garden City. “He owned the fishing boat. There were probably 100 refugees on his boat that day.” Melissa still can recall how her parents packed up her and her siblings in the dark of the early morning before the long journey, making sure they each carried money strapped in a pouch across their waist, in case they became lost. They walked them to the beach where his boat awaited.
“I didn’t know where we were going,” Melissa said. “I later learned it was to the Pacific, toward an American ship. It was a scary ride from shore. It was raining; the waves were very high. The boat was going up and down, and we all prayed the rosary.”
Back in 1975, Melissa and her family became the first Vietnamese refugees to take up residence in Garden City. They were sponsored by St. Mary Parish, and resettled with the invaluable help of the then only weeks-old Catholic Social Service satellite office.
“When I was a little girl in Vietnam and saw pictures of America in magazines, I imagined it was heaven,” she said with a broad smile. “And I was right.”
Sitting next to Melissa in their Garden City home was her husband, John. The two met when John befriended Melissa’s brother while attending Kansas State University in Manhattan. There’s a chance – small though it may be – that their paths crossed several years earlier, in the most tumultuous of times.
In 1975, John, then 14, was among those taking that last mad dash into a helicopter to escape the fall of Saigon. As smoke plumes rose in the distance, John and his family were whisked away to a waiting aircraft carrier in the Gulf of Thailand.
“My dad was a chauffeur for an American company,” John said. “He used the car to drive us all to the helicopter.”
The couple can’t say with certainty that they were on the same carrier, but their stories take very similar paths. The refugees were delivered to Guam, then, weeks later, they were flown to the United States.
While Ellis Island once was the site of refugees and immigrants pouring into the United States, Fort Chaffee, Ark., became the processing center for thousands of Indochinese refugees escaping the war in Vietnam in 1975.   
While John and his family found sponsorship through a Lutheran church in Salina, Melissa’s family were sponsored by St. Mary Parish in Garden City. They also received the invaluable help of Catholic Social Service, which lent them moral and financial support, even placing the family into a rental home.
“I still remember Levita [Rohlman Rupp, see sidebar] and many others from St. Mary Church when they met us at the airport. They hugged us; they were all such nice people. We thanked God we were all safe.”
Safe, but very far from the home Melissa and her family knew on the Island of Phu Quoc on the southern tip of Vietnam, where she was reared.
“I remember the flight from Fort Chaffee,” Melissa said, smiling. “I said, ‘It looks like cows down there!’ We had come from an island, and all we could see below us was land.”
Consulting a map, the family realized that Garden City was near the very center of the United States.  That fact gave them all a feeling of security -- being tucked away in the heartland of America, far from the horrors of war.
The family would soon enjoy a reunion born of a miracle, when Melissa learned that her sister, as well as her brother and his wife, had survived after the U.S. carrier left them behind.
Her brother, Son, who all those years ago stood helplessly on the small fishing boat as the aircraft carrier sailed away, told them that he, his father, wife and sister had tried to get to another carrier in the days to follow, but were captured by the Khmer Rouge.  
“They demanded the men to get on one boat, and the women on another,” Melissa explained. “My sister-in-law was pregnant, so they allowed my brother to get on the boat with the women. That’s how they escaped.”
Her father was not so lucky. They would never learn of his fate. To this day, they honor their father on May 13, the day they were separated for the last time.
Once in Kansas, Son worked to support the family.
“He is our hero,” Melissa said. “He supported my mother, and all four of us, who were still young and at home. We lived with his family until we left for college and got married.  He has been a father figure to all of us.”
Today, Son and his wife live in the house next door to Melissa and John, where they raised seven children. Melissa’s  mother lived with Son until her death two years ago. In Vietnam, either the oldest or the youngest sibling take in the aging parents. Father Rene Labrador visited Melissa’s mother when she was bedridden, and fondly recalled her love for the Church.
“Before she was bedridden, she would never miss a Sunday Mass or a holy day,” Melissa recalled, “and she made sure we did the same.”
Melissa and John have three adult children: Drs. Bruce and Jessica are both optometrists in Dallas, while the youngest, Jennifer, is an executive with Nordstrom Retail Company. All three are graduates from the University of Kansas.
Melissa smiled as she proudly displayed pictures of her family, including one of a couple who look impossibly young on the day of their marriage.
“We will never forget the kindness of the people of St. Mary Parish, and the help of Catholic Social Service,” Melissa said.
“We feel very fortunate, thankful and blessed,” John added. “With God, everything is possible.”

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