Khuong Le Interview: May 24, 2018
Interviewers: E.J. Carter and Hannah Crummé
Khuong Le: [ … ] Lieutenant Colonel in the [army of the Viet Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN). I had been serving in the Vietnamese military since the first days of its formation in 1948, when it was known as Viet Binh Doan.] I was kept prisoner by the communists [for over nine years,] after they had taken over the south of Vietnam.
E.J. Carter: Before you continue [ … ] I want to introduce the interview. Today is May 24, 2018, I’m E.J. Carter with Hannah Crummé and we’re interviewing Khuong Le. Please continue.
KL: I came to the United States in . Under the Humanitarian Program of the United States, with regard to my status as a high rank officer kept prisoner by the communists for over three years[ … ]
EC: We’ll talk more about the war and your life in Vietnam in a minute, but could you just briefly tell us about your life here in Portland?
KL: I came here at the age of 65 [. To make a living, I worked] with IRCO as an interpreter [for around one year]. After that, because of my age, I retired. I have four children [who came] with me here. I have seven in all, [but] only four came with me at that time.
EC: In Portland?
KL: Yes, in Portland. All of them [went] to college [and then] to university... They [have] their bachelor degree and are working.
EC: The other three stayed in Portland?
KL: [After I had settled my family, I sponsored them to come to live with us in Portland. Right now all my children are living with their families in Portland.]
Hannah Crummé: That’s great.
EC: So maybe now we’ll go back and talk about your early years in Vietnam. Could you talk about your childhood and your early life?
KL: My early life [ … ] [I have seven siblings. I got my high school diploma in 1945. In 1947, the Vietnamese communists started their guerilla warfare mostly at the countryside. I had to move to Hue city for safety reasons.] I [started] working with a French company in Hue until [August] 1948, [when] I engaged into the armed forces of Vietnam[, which were newly formed under the denomination of Viet Binh Doan.]
EC: What made you join the French side?
KL: [Although the French denomination in Vietnam was over after being overrun by the Japanese forces on March 9, 1945, the French did not give up their ambition in Vietnam. After WWII, they succeeded in coming back to Vietnam under the cover of allied forces to disarm the Japanese forces. Taking advantage of their superiority in military power, they imposed once again their domination over Vietnam. The Vietnamese Army was formed in 1947 thanks to the assistance and supervision of the French administration. All military correspondences were then written in French. At that time, to find a young person who could speak French and communicate with the French was really hard. Thanks to my French background, I was recruited by the military as a secretary. I worked first as a secretary, then engaged into the Viet Ninh Doan. After a military course, I was promoted to second Lieutenant in 1956. After five years serving in the combat units, I was transferred to the First Logistics Command to take charge of providing supplies to the military units in operation in the First Area Tactical Command in Central Vietnam.]
EC: Were you a pilot?
KL: No I was in the infantry, army.
EC: So could you describe anymore of the fighting that you saw during the war, either during the French period or the [ … ]
KL: I didn’t go fighting [much, just participated in small operations at company level when I was a subaltern officer. When I was transferred to the First Logistics Command, I mostly worked in staff.]
EC: How would you describe the strategy that your unit developed [ … ] during the American part of the war?
KL: [As a logistical support unit, the First Area Logistics Command did not have its own strategy, that is the responsibility of the tactical command.]
EC: [Was there any conflict between South Vietnamese and US officers on the battlefield? ]
KL: [There was really no conflict, but there was a different concept between the US and Vietnamese command on how to deal with the way the Vietnamese communists conducted the war.] The Vietnam War is something specific. It is not the war [people often saw] in Germany or in Korea, [or anywhere else in the world. Given the low potency of their forces, Vietnamese communists often avoided direct confrontations with the ARVN or US forces, they rather used guerilla war. That means, they found ways to infiltrate into our ranks and tried to cause damages to our forces through sabotage, violence and terrorism and affect the spirit of the locals through propoganda. To deal with such a strategy, the Vietnamese government had a counterinsurgency program by using well-trained police recruited locally, who could live in the rural communities and secure an intimate understanding of the local population would evolve, and the police could secure the locals’ trust. Such a strategy had been used successfully by the British in Burma (Myanmar). It proved to be successful also in Vietnam. However, these measures seemed to be militarily unacceptable by the American doctrine which considered them too passive while our offensive should have been taken aggressively against the guerillas through overwhelming firepower. Such a difference in a concept did cause some difficulties to the Vietnamese officers in the battlefields.]
EC: The ambassador to Vietnam?
KL: [Laos is a neighboring country of Vietnam, the two countries have a common border of around 250 miles. During war time between the North and South Vietnam, Laos was known as a conduit for North Vietnamese troops and supplies. Thus, Laos played a very important role for the Communists in the war between the North and South Vietnam. President Eisenhower, with his great military experience, as a general, used to say that Laos was the key to the entire area of Southeast Asia, and that the communists must not be allowed to insert themselves into the Laotian government, otherwise they would take over power by that means as they had done in China. President Diem of Vietnam was also well aware of the situation and did speak out his disagreement to the President Kennedy’s ambassador-at-large W. Averell Harriman when the latter brought up for discussion the issue of neutralization of Laos. Unfortunately, when President Kennedu took the reins of power, there was a change in the policy, and on July 23, 1962, the Declaration of Latian Neutrality was announced. Since then, the North Vietnam seems to have free reign with its troops in Laos while the South Vietnam and its allies were not allowed to come to Laos to defend themselves against the communists.]
EC: So you think it was a misguided strategy from the beginning?
KL: [Not from the beginning but only after July 1962, when Laos became a neutral country, giving way to the North Vietnamese communists to infiltrate freely into South Vietnam.]
EC: Could you describe your time or your experiences in the, what is a so-called “reeducation camp” that you were in?
KL: The word “reeducation” is a term used by the communists [for a deceptive purpose]. The truth is that there [was] no education at all [in those camps, only forced labor instead]. I [was] in the reeducation camp for over nine years, but [only about three months of political education during which they tried to insert into our mind some background about communism, and make propaganda for the party. [Laughs]. All the time, [they sent us to the field where we had to endure forced labor. [They did] everything they can do exploit our labor. That’s all. The problem [is] that [they forced us to work very hard, but didn’t give us enough for eating]. After only two or three years in jail I could not walk [anymore]. [I was detained in May 1975. In April 1978, my wife came to see me, but she could not recognize me anymore because I have lost at least twenty out of my sixty kilograms of my weight.
EC: For the first time?
KL: [Yes, for the first time.] She couldn’t recognize me. [ … ] My wife stood in front of me, she kept looking [for me while I was standing in front of her. It was when I called her by her name that she could recognize me.]
EC: Did you have enough food while you were there?
KL: Food? [That’s a very big problem for all of us in the detention camp.] In [a] year, [we usually have four opportunities] to eat rice. New Year’s Day, Labor Day, The Birthday of Ho Chi Minh (the 19th of May), and the 30th of April, the victory day for them. But for each meal, [we could be given] only one small bowl of rice [with some tiny pieces of buffalo meat or fish. Out of those four days, we had to eat sweet potatoes, corn, manioc, etc… If there was not enough food, they fed us with grain, kind of cereals they bought from India to feed animals.]
EC: Did you learn English in school or in the army?
KL: [Laughs] I studied [English] by myself. [As] I grew up in the French time, [I] studied French and [got] my high school in French, not English. Until 1965, when the Americans came [to Vietnam], I began to study by myself. [ When I was allowed to attend a military course in the US in 1959, I was allowed to improve my English for three months at a Vietnamese military English School in Saigon.] When I came here I went to Portland Community College, PCC, and I studied for two [more] years.
EC: I see. That’s impressive. So how long after you were released from the so-called reeducation camp, did you come to America?
KL: I was released from the reeducation camp in [July 1984 after nine years and two months of detention, but it was only in June 1992 hat I could leave Vietnam for the US. I took me over eight years before I could be able to leave Vietnam for the US. Only eight years but it seems to be eighty years. During this time I was in prison,] my children had to drop school. My wife didn’t have the [financial resources] to send them to school. [When I was out of jail, even with my frail health, I had to try to help my family to make ends meet. Out of my seven children, three were married and had to take care of themselves. I had to take charge of my wife and four younger children, the eldest was then twenty-two years old and the youngest only nine years. But the problem is that although I was no more a prisoner,] . I was [still] under [permanent] surveillance [by the Vietnamese police, thus causing many problems for us to look for ways to survive.]
EC: And your family was in Hue during this period?
KL: Nope. [Before I was in prison, I lived in Danang.] But, after [April 30, ‘75, all my family] moved to Saigon and when I was imprisoned, my wife and my children were [not allowed to stay in Saigon but had to move to Long Khanh,] sixty kilometers out of Saigon.
EC: So you applied for the Humanitarian Operation program at that time? To come to the United States for ex-prisoner of war inmates?
KL: No [I was released from prison in 1984 but applied for the Humanitarian Program only in late 1980.]
EC: What year did you decide to leave Vietnam to come here? To come to Portland. When did you make the decision?
KL: [Although I was released from prison, I was not free at all. Always I was surveyed by the communist police. I couldn’t go anywhere without their permission.] At night, they sent police around my house to follow all of my activities. I couldn’t stand [such a suffocating] situation. I [did try] to flee the country, but impossible. Fortunately, [in early 1989,] a friend of mine coming from Saigon let me know that there was an agreement between the US and the Vietnamese government allowing those prisoners and officials who had been kept prisoner for over three years by the communists go to the United States. [I was very happy with the news.] I found out a way to go to Saigon [to apply for the program, but not officially. I had come to the post office abroad secretly.] Fortunately, one year later I received the approval notice from the US Consular from Saigon.
EC: So were you flown directly to Portland then?
KL: Yes. When [I applied to go abroad, I could] have a sponsor from the States. Fortunately, my wife has a niece who was married to an American in 1968. They live[d] Portland. So when we [let her know that we need her to sponsor us to come to live in the United States, she made necessary procedures to sponsor us.] When we came [to Portland,] she took care of everything for us; our housing, our immigration paper…
EC: Did you stay with your wife’s niece then at first or did she find you a place to live?
KL: When we first came here, [we lived in a house that my wife’s niece had rented for us on] Willow Street. [We] lived there for three years.
EC: And the four children came as well at that time?
KL: Yes. All my four children came here with me and lived here with me until they graduated from [the University.]
EC: What were your first impressions of Portland?
KL: It’s a very nice city! In Vietnam, Saigon is a very [big] city. But the atmosphere in Saigon is not like here. I was very surprised by the organization of the city here in Portland. The second thing [I like most in Portland] is that the neighborhood I lived in at Willow Street[.] There is no restaurant, no shopping center, no movies, nothing. But the people [ … ] the American people are very, very friendly.
EC: So there weren’t a lot of other people from Vietnam in that neighborhood?
KL: No. At that time, only two Vietnamese families. [The neighborhood was] mostly [white American.
EC: Were there places you would go? Restaurants or shops or religious institutions?
KL: [Yes. We did go to church, a Vietnamese Catholic church with a Vietnamese Pastor who helped us a lot. We rarely went shopping because, as refugees, we could not afford to go shopping much.]
EC: But were there other places you would go to meet other Vietnamese Americans in Portland, either church or restaurants?
KL: [As we came here for the first time, we would like to go out to see people and meet with other Vietnamese families, but as refugees with limited financial resources, we had to limit traveling. The place where we usually came to meet with other Vietnamese people was the church.]
EC: Which church is that? Was that before Our Lady of Lavang was built?
KL: Yeah, [the Our] Lady of Lavang [Church.]
EC: Ok, it is that. Are there other places, other organizations that you would participate in?
KL: Yes. [I have] the Vietnamese Committee of Oregon. The representatives from [that organization] came to see me and gave me [necessary] guidance [related to the new way of life.] [Their assistance was very helpful, we were] very impressed with [what they did for us.] That’s why after [I had settled my family, I did volunteer to work with the Vietnamese Committee of Oregon] for six consecutive years. [ … ] The young people, they have [been away from Vietnam] for a long, long time. They don’t [have the opportunity to learn about Vietnamese culture and tradition.] So when I came here, I communicated with them. [About the issue] They were very impressed.
EC: You were mostly doing translating work for them?
EC: Helping people find housing and get connected to government programs, is that the kind of work that you would do? You would help translate for people as they interacted with IRCO or other organizations, is that right?
KL: Yes. [Not all Vietnamese coming here can speak and understand English. Helping them by translating for them is very necessary. Another thing we should think about is how to help Vietnamese people from young generations understand old people. While young Vietnamese generations growing up here speak English, people from old generations don’t. That accounts for why] the Vietnamese Committee has organized a [Vietnamese] School [here in Portland] on Sunday to teach [Vietnamese to] the [young] Vietnamese children. [The school did help Vietnamese people a lot.]
EC: Did your children go to that Sunday school?
KL: No. When they came here the youngest [of my children] was 24 years. They needed English more than Vietnamese.
EC: Do you see other differences between the generations of different Vietnamese Americans here in Portland? Besides language, are there other cultural differences that you see?
KL: Yes. [Besides language, there is also a difference in the way of life. Old Vietnamese would like to maintain their tradition while young people are affected by the new way of life often seen on TV.]
EC: Sometimes people have suggested that in a family oriented culture, like Vietnamese, there is a tension between that and the American emphasis on individualism. Have you seen signs of that as well in the Vietnamese community? This tension between a focus on the family versus a focus on the individual?
KL: Yes. [ … ] [Yes, such a tension between a focus on the family versus a focus on the individual do exist in the Vietnamese community but for the time being, that tension seems not so serious to the extent to be able to break up the Vietnamese traditional family.]
EC: Did you face any other challenges or obstacles when you first came to Portland?
KL: No. [ … ] Before I came here, I heard some people complain about the way of life here being very, very challenging. But [for me,] I did not see any challenges. Maybe, [thanks to] the time I was in prison, I was accustomed to hardship. Even [when] eating, I couldn’t have a full stomach[,] I had no choice. I have suffered [a lot] in life. So when I came here I didn’t see any problems, any challenges. [Moreover, during] the first six months I came here, the government provided us with a supply. That’s enough [for me.] After six months, we had to use our head [and] our hand[s] to find some way to mak[ing a living.] The hardest challenges would be first, financial [problems.] But the government [have provided us enough to live.] The second one is language. But when I was [in Vietnam] [ … ] we knew the problem in advance. So one year before I received the letter from the consulate letting me know that [my application to the States was approved,] I [have prepared for my children to be ready for their new life; all of them were given a solid English background. That accounts for why when they came here they did no spend much time for their English background.] They went to college for two years and after that to university [ … ] If you have a plan [ahead,] you can solve [any] problems.
EC: Do you spend time with other former officers of the South Vietnamese army?
KL: [ Yes, but those working within the Vietnamese Community of Oregon… ]
EC: Here in Portland do you ever meet former army officers? Are there organizations that you belong that involve former members?
KL: [Most of the former officers of the ARVN in Portland are now working in the Vietnamese Community of Oregon. That’s why I meet them any time the Vietnamese community has a meeting. I also have the opportunity to meet with my former US advisor, who] is a colonel too, Colonel Robert Donnelly, but [unfortunately,] he passed away last year. He was around 80, 82 years. He came here to see me every year. Every year [ … ] he and his wife. He liked me very much. Every year around Christmas day, they called me and let me know, “I’m coming to see you!” I say, “Yeah.” They stayed with us.
EC: Where did he live?
KL: New York.
EC: But otherwise you don’t have any groups that you belong to where you talk about the war?
KL: [No, I don’t like to talk about the war anymore.] I have a group in the Lavang Church, [that is the] Sacred Heart Association. And right now I’m working with [the Knights of] Columbus Association, [both groups are religious ones.]
EC: What kinds of things do they do? What kind of projects do they do?
KL: [ … ] First, [advocating religious faith, second, making charity, third, protecting families.]
EC: And how do you do that?
KL: [I have been experiencing almost thirty years of war, and witnessing a lot of misery in my country. Besides, due to the war, a lot of families were broken up causing misery to many children. What I am expecting now is to try to alleviate the misery of the poor and unfortunate.]
EC: So do you spend a lot of time at the church?
KL: [Not much because we have a team working together, mostly on Sundays.]
EC: Do you think there are any big political issues that face the Vietnamese community?
KL: I would say, no. But the political issues that are haunting us are [the misery of the Vietnamese] people [and the inhumane ruling of the Vietnamese government.] The Vietnamese government right now [is ruling] their country in the communist way. They deprive the people of all kinds of freedom. No more human rights, no more freedom. The people have to do what the government says to do. And that’s all. The people don’t have the right to do [anything without government authorization.] If you say something in contrast to the government policy, you [will] go to prison. We try our best to protect our people. But how can [we]? [We would like to make the issue known at] a higher level, [f]or example [at] the international level, [or] the United Nations for example so that [sanctions would be imposed in order to have] the Vietnamese government to change [their ruling] policies [and grant freedom and civil rights to its people.]
EC: But what about here in Portland, do you think the Vietnamese community is well organized politically? Does it speak with one voice?
KL: Although it is not perfect in terms of organisation but I may say] it is well organized. You know, they are all volunteers, [they have to spend their time and even financial resources for public interest; we cannot ask much from them.]
EC: Would you say the VNCO is the key organization that represents the community here in Portland? The Vietnamese Community of Oregon. Are there other organizations that help represent the interests of Vietnamese people here in Portland?
KL: No. Only the VNCO. [ … ] [All other organizations are subordinate to the VNCO.]
EC: Are there any other ways in which you think the war continues to affect the Vietnamese community here in Portland?
KL: The war does not have any effect right now. But the effect is that we can’t forget all the crimes and the violence that the communists have caused [to] us. How can you forgive the communists [for] their actions? I’ll cite one example; the  Tet Offensive. While the people were enjoying their lunar day, they sent their forces [to Hue City, kidnapped thousands of people and brought them] to the mountainous region [to kill] them. How can you forgive them? [ … ] Young people try to forgive them, try to forget [the past]. But it is very hard for us to forget. [Even] now, they advise us to [forget] the past [to] think of the future. That is very nice advice. But if they would like us to forget the past, they have to make something good so that you can forget it. But [the problem is that] they don’t [make anything good for the country and the people.] They still [keep inflicting] many crimes among the people of Vietnam. How can you forgive them?
EC: Well thank you.
HC: It was lovely to hear your stories, is there anything else that you want to tell us before we finish?
KL: No, thank you very much. [ … ]
[ … ]