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We left everything behind and ran when it rained rockets on Saigon on April 29, 1975. Mom and Dad said it was the communists, but I didn’t know what that was. In my four-year-old mind, I thought it was monsters.

Mom’s French passport became our golden ticket. Giant helicopters airlifted us from the airport in the dark. Looking out the window, I saw red gashes across the inky sky. Dad said that was gunfire, but I thought it was a monster ripping our city apart. We ended up on a large Navy cargo ship, the U.S.N.S. Sgt. Andrew Miller. Dad smiled for the first time since we left our home when I asked him how a ship could have a first and last name. He didn’t answer, only took my hand and led me and our family to a space on the deck.

As the hours crawled by, more and more people crammed onto the ship. Our spot became only big enough for the five of us to sit.

The hours turned into days on the Miller; nothing mattered any more, not the punishing heat, not my cracked lips, not the hard, oily ship’s surface, and not my parents’ pinched lips and furrowed brows when they looked at my brothers and me.

I used to think how marvelous it would be to ride atop waves on a boat. But that changed when the Miller carried us further away from home and Grandma, and to a place Mom and Dad said would be safe. They kept using the word “freedom,” which I didn’t understand. All I could think about was the constant ache in my stomach.

(Courtesy An Ngo Lang)

“We’ll get food soon,” Mom whispered. My limp body collapsed onto hers; her lap became my pillow. Suddenly, she shifted, and her torso swayed to the movement of her waving arm; my head bounced on her thigh, and my eyes opened.

That’s when I saw him.

He was dressed like the others on board—big, thick boots, green pants, and a white tee shirt. Mom and Dad called them American soldiers. Later, I found out he was a Marine whose job was to take care of us—the people without a country. I learned, too, that there was something far worse than my fear of monsters—having no home, no family, and no place to belong. We weren’t just Vietnamese anymore. We were refugees.

Tall, with dark, curly hair and deep brown skin, he stopped in front of us, blocking out the sun and making me feel really small. “Please help, sir. My daughter has a fever,” Mom pleaded.

His strong, thick fingers reached for his canteen as he knelt and handed it to Mom along with a tiny, white pill. Mom shook her head. In her best English, she said, eying the aspirin, “That will make it worse. She hasn’t eaten in days.”

The Marine nodded and gestured for Mom to follow him. With me in her arms and my brothers trailing close behind, we weaved through dozens of families on the deck and arrived at a room inside the ship. It was cool and calm compared to the blistering temperature and misery outside.

He gave Mom some crackers and cheese, and she divided the food between my brothers and me. He handed us his canteen. I tried my best to raise it to my lips, but my trembling hands caused the water to spill onto my chest. Mom placed her hands over mine and helped me. I couldn’t stop gulping big mouthfuls until Mom eased it out of my hands and gave it to my brothers.

Sweetness lingered on my lips. Mom placed the aspirin deep inside my mouth and urged me to swallow as she gave the canteen back to me. I didn’t mind the medicine as long as I had another chance at the water.

Finding My Marines
Lance Cpl. Mauro Corvasce, left, preparing milk bottles aboard the U.S.N.S. Miller. (Courtesy An Ngo Lang)

The American Marine, the U.S.N.S. Miller, and the dozens of military personnel who helped and cared for us became a part of the story of our escape and ultimate freedom.

Decades later, the identity of the Marine who gave up his ration for us haunted me. Did he ever think about me and my family like I thought of him all these decades? Did he know his selfless act saved my life?

In 2018, as I worked on finishing my memoir, I searched the Internet for information about the ship that rescued us, and found a picture in the U.S. Navy archives of Marine Capt. Palmquist on the Miller, hands cupped around his mouth, addressing a group of refugees on board.

I held my breath, searching all the faces on deck, but I couldn’t find my Marine. Instead, I recognized two faces in the crowd: Dad and me. The world closed in around me; I was transported back to the deck.

A few weeks after finding more information about the Miller, I made another discovery. I stumbled on a naval history blog and found the name of one of the fifty Marines who served on board in 1975. He wasn’t the Marine who gave me the aspirin, but when I contacted him, and because of our shared experience on the Miller, there was an instant bond. It was as if I had known him all my life.

Jeff Trnavsky served as a fire team leader on the Miller. We traded text messages and then talked for hours. As an adult, I questioned whether my memories of my family’s escape were accurate. Perhaps the heat, hunger, and chaos hadn’t really been that bad. Perhaps our family history was more myth than fact. But Lance Cpl. Jeff Trnavsky set me straight.

He recounted helping hundreds on board during Operation Frequent Wind. “I remember my ears picking up the terrified cry of a lost child,” he said, “and I will never forget that sound.” He also told me he gave his rations to several children, but there were thousands of hungry people, and he couldn’t help them all.

He also said that during the first seventy-two hours, as refugees streamed onto the Miller, the Marines didn’t sleep or eat, putting the needs of the evacuees—many of whom were injured, frail, or traumatized—first. There was violence on board, along with hostile artillery fire from a gunboat; a South Vietnamese helicopter crash on a barge tied to the ship; and even an attempted mutiny. After the ship set off for Subic Bay, the crew worked around the clock to provide security and food to the refugees on board. And yet, Trnavsky told me, guilt plagues him to this day, because he felt he should have done more.

Jeff helped me find two other Marines—Lance Cpl. Mauro Corvasce and Pfc. Conrad Ochoa, who served on the Miller. Interviewing them deepened my understanding more than any research ever could.

Mauro also was a fire team leader. After getting his orders for the Miller when he was stationed on Okinawa he said, “they told us we were going to fight. They didn’t tell us it was a rescue mission.” When he wasn’t protecting the refugees on the ship, Corvasce cared for the youngest members on board. His responsibility was mixing countless bottles of milk powder with warm water for the youngest Vietnamese children.

As waves rocked the ship during the initial influx of refugees, Ochoa was put in charge of overseeing the passage of people across the gap between the two barges tied to the Miller. He told me that at night, years after Operation Frequent Wind, when he tried to fall asleep, the faces of terror-stricken refugees plagued him. While he and the other Marines helped many board the vessel, thousands of others aboard tiny sampans, fishing boats, and virtually anything else that could float were turned away and likely perished.

A Member of the family

In 2022, I traveled to Coos Bay, Oregon, and visited Jeff Trnavsky and his wife Julie. In between countryside rides in Julie’s Ford Model A, meeting Jeff’s octogenarian parents, and even a down-home fish fry, Jeff recounted dozens of tales of his childhood. I listened spellbound to his Marine experiences, especially those from April 1975 and his stories of a long quest to reunite with the sweetheart he lost when he went to Vietnam (spoiler: he found her).

An Lang and Jeff Trnavsky. (Courtesy An Ngo Lang)

He also told me that all these years he wondered what happened to the more than 6,000 people on the Miller. He then looked at me and said, “And now you’re here.”

On the morning I left, Jeff Trnavsky told me we were shipmates and then asked me to hold out my hand, and dropped three brass Marine Corps Eagle, Globe and Anchor pins into my palm.

Blood rushed to my face. “For me?” I squeaked in a voice that sounded absurd to my ears, but it was all I could manage. “Yes. For you. You are one of us,” he said.

Early last year, I traveled to New York City to meet Mauro Corvasce and his wife, Liz. After comparing my family’s memories of where we were seated on the ship and his description of where he stood watch, we were certain Mauro’s fire team was in charge of my family on the starboard front.

Before we parted, Corvasce gave me a tiny box. Nestled inside was a black plastic sleeve with the words Law Enforcement Family Member printed on the outside. Inside were two cards. Mauro, a retired police detective, explained that if I was pulled over while driving in New York or New Jersey, they would be my “Get out of Jail cards.” I call them proof this Marine sees me as more than a refugee. Not only am I one of them, I am family.

These three Marines believe their tenacity and courage were not extraordinary. They told me it was their job and they did it to the best of their abilities. That may be true, but I believe these Marines, and many Vietnam War veterans like them who put the needs of others ahead of their own, who showed deep compassion, and who made huge sacrifices are the heroes of our time.

An Ngo Lang, a writer, actor, and model, was born in Saigon. She is working on a memoir of her family’s escape from South Vietnam in 1975 and their resettlement in the American Midwest. She lives in Sydney, Australia, with her family. Her website is anngolang.com




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