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The Making of a Believer

Sample Chapter - Chapter 12

Table of contents and chapter outline
Sample chapter
Maps of our escape/movement
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Excerpt from Chapter 12

March 20, 1975 – Phước An district, 10 days after the fall of Ban Mê Thuột

It was almost three o’clock in the morning. It was dark and a moonless night. Everyone was sleeping under the tall trees by the edge of the jungle. I was suddenly woken by the sound of loud explosions on the highway and in the jungle. Following the explosions, I could hear the noise of tree branches falling to the ground. Then the dark sky above Phước An began to glisten with flares and artillery fire. I could hear many loud noises coming from tanks and the Communist troops running towards our location. In a panic, many refugees ran in our direction. They were screaming in fear.

"The Communist tanks are advancing. What do we do?" someone shouted.

The noise of the tanks got louder. Everyone was scared because they didn’t know which direction to go. It was clear to me now that we were in real danger.

"We need to leave now," I said. "Tân, you lead the way, then Phương and Sun will follow. Thủy and Sương will walk in the middle and I will walk in the rear to make sure no one is left behind in the dark."

"What about the pictures and valuable belongings we left in the semi?" Thủy urgently asked. "How can we get them?"

"The semi is parked too far, and we don’t have time to go there. We have to leave right away before the Communist troops reach us and capture us."

Thủy reluctantly gave up on retrieving the valuable pictures, and she didn’t mention her lack of strength. Her fear of capture was much stronger than her belief that she could not make it through the jungle.

Our guide led the way into the dark jungle with a compass in his hand. Everyone followed him on the dark and winding trail surrounded by tall trees on both sides. It was so dark that we couldn’t see each other. We kept walking on the dark trail while listening to the sound of artillery behind us. The sounds of artillery explosions became more and more distant as we walked further into the thick jungle. After an hour of walking, we could still hear the explosions behind us. Then finally, I didn’t hear anything. I felt relieved because we had avoided being captured.

It was now more than three hours since our departure from Phước An district. Slowly we were able to see figures and outlines through the darkness. Shortly after it was light enough to see everything. Surprisingly, I realized that we had more people than we could afford to take along. There was a woman with five young children trailing behind us. Her children ranged from the baby in her arms to a twelve-year old boy. She and her children had been following us since three o’clock in the morning. I couldn’t see them walking behind us because of the darkness of the dense jungle.

A serious concern was that she had a small baby and an injured son. Her son needed treatment because shrapnel had hit him, and there was a small fragment in his shoulder. I didn’t have enough milk for her three young children. The well being of my children was my first priority.

"Can you check this boy to see if he is able to walk?" I asked Mrs. Toại.

She checked the deep cut on the boy’s shoulder.

"The boy’s shoulder is wounded, and his temperature seems to be high. He has an infection and needs an operation to get the shrapnel out. He also needs an antibiotic to treat the infection. Sir, I have no antibiotics. We have to send him back or else he will die."

After hearing what my nurse said, the mother of the sick boy began to cry loudly.

"Sir, please let my children and I escape with you! My husband is a soldier in Pleiku, and I don’t know if he is alive or dead…"

It was the most difficult and emotional circumstance, so I let my nurse talk to the crying mother.

"Your son is wounded," said Mrs. Toại. "He cannot survive if he walks with us in the jungle for many days. You need to return to Phước An district for your son’s sake. I know for sure that the Communist troops have a doctor and medicine to treat your son. If you don’t go back he’ll die."

She continued to sob and was reluctant to go back because she was afraid of the Communists.

"Sir," Mrs. Toại said to me, "You need to tell her that she cannot come with us because of her wounded son. She keeps on crying, and she won’t listen to me."

I walked towards the desperate woman who possessed the look that always being remembered. I had a feeling that I was stuck between the rock and the hard place. I kindly attempted to explain it to her.

"You aren’t far from Highway 21. You can walk on this trail back towards Phước An district. I’ll give you some money to buy food for your children and one can of condensed milk for your baby. When you get back to town, you need to take your son to the Communist Army. They will help to treat him. Don’t be afraid to ask for help to save your son’s life."

I didn’t wait for her answer but gave her five thousand piasters and one can of condense milk. She reluctantly agreed to walk back to Phước An district. We could hear her crying as she held her baby and slowly walked away from us. I heard the despaired crying in the distance, and it became fainter and was eventually out of hearing distance. I couldn’t control my emotions because I felt guilty. I began to weep, I knew that this incident would haunt me for the rest of my life. In the past I had never refused to help anyone who needed it. The timing of the journey was critical. I had no other alternative because I only had enough dry and condensed milk for Thy, Thai and the son of my nurse for ten days. If we had taken her five children along, there would not be enough milk for my children. We wouldn’t reach Khánh Dương before the Communist troops if we had taken her wounded son.

We kept on following our guide along the winding trail. I carried Thy on my back, and Sương held Thai in her arms. The longer we walked, the heavier we felt. Phương and Mr. Sun had to drop some of their belongings so they could walk faster. There were fourteen people in our group, and we walked slowly on the winding path. We couldn’t do anything to speed up because most of the group was women and children, and I hoped that we would arrive to Khánh Dương district before the Communist army. With that hope I urged everyone to walk faster.

Ten hours passed since our departure from Phước An district. The tropical heat caused everyone to tire quickly, and I couldn’t walk as fast as I wanted. We reached a small stream with clear water in a deep green valley. It was a good resting location, and we could cook rice soup and warm milk for Thy and Thai. But I was concerned that real danger was yet to come after I saw elephant droppings on the bank of the brook. I had heard that if any place in the jungle has elephant droppings, it would be a gathering place for small animals and deer, wild hogs and dangerous Bengal tigers. However, I kept these thoughts to myself because I knew that everyone, including myself, is afraid of these wild animals.

I took water out of the brook, and Thủy made a fire to boil water. I mixed dry milk into the hot water to make warm milk. Thy and Thai were hungry because they hadn’t eaten since the early morning. They couldn’t wait for the hot milk to cool off.

"We have only one bottle. You need to wait until it cools off, and then I’ll feed your brother first. After that it will be your turn," I said to Thy.

Thy eagerly watched Thai drink the milk with a hungry look in his eyes, but he did not cry while he patiently waited for his turn. After feeding Thy and Thai, Sương, Thủy and I began to eat the rice soup. We needed to preserve our rice supply for the possible long journey ahead, so each of the adults had only one cup of rice soup for lunch.

While resting by the brook surrounded by many green bushes and trees, Thủy was very frightened when seeing a small, green, poisonous snake crawling out of the bushes towards her. I also hated snakes, and was scared to death of them. However, I told her not to worry because the green snake would crawl into the trees if we didn’t bother it. After that, Sương saw a gold-colored turtle that walked slowly towards the stream.

"Thới, our luck is very near," Sương happily said. "We will safely come out of the jungle because seeing a gold turtle is a good sign."

Quickly, our guide, Tân, bent his head near the ground and put his two hands together as an act of worship. Then he spoke to the golden turtle.

"We are in this jungle filled with poisonous snakes and Communists. I hope you will help me to escape from this place."

As Tân prayed to the turtle, I was silent because I needed to respect his religion. But I know there is only one God, and one Savior. The Lord would help my family as He had done in my past.

After a long rest, we continued to walk on the trail eastwards to Khánh Dương district. But I was concerned that we weren’t alone on the trail after seeing many footsteps on the ground.

"Who made this trail?" I asked Tân. "And for what reason?"

"For many years the North Vietnamese Communist troops have used this trail to transport food and weapons to the battlefields. When the sun goes down, they will appear in greater numbers."

After hearing what Tân said, I began to wonder if he was the right man to lead us through the dense jungle. Then I had a bad feeling that, sooner or later, we would encounter the Communist soldiers.

"Do you know if there is any shortcut to Khánh Dương district?" I asked Tân. "I’m very worried that if we keep to this path, we will not reach Khánh Dương district before the Communist Army."

"I worry, too. But we have no other alternative. Most of the people in our group are women and children, and they cannot walk through the thick jungle."

I didn’t ask him anymore questions. The tropical heat began to bother everyone. I could not step up the pace on the winding trail. I was concerned that we would not reach Khánh Dương district before the Communist Army. For hours, throughout the afternoon, we only walked on a zigzag trail through the jungle for almost five kilometers. I urged everyone to drop their unnecessary possessions, keeping only rice, milk, blankets and pots. After leaving these things on the trail, we all walked faster except for Sương and me. I walked with Thy on my back, and Sương walked with Thai tied to her waist by a long shirt given to us by Mr. Sun.

Not much later, it was five o’clock in the afternoon. But the sun sets faster in the jungle. Thy and Thai were hungry again, and Thai was crying loudly. I knew that it was time to stop to cook and rest because we had been walking since three o’clock in the morning. I selected a good location by the brook hidden under a deep and green valley.

"I think we should rest here tonight. Everyone should stay close together for safety. We’ll cook underneath that large tree by the brook," I said to Thủy and Sương, "If one of our pilots sees smoke rising, they may suspect Communists and drop bombs. The smoke should not rise from under that tree."

Thy and Thai were happy after drinking the warm milk, and Thai stopped crying. But Thủy, Sương, and I had only one cup of rice soup because we needed to conserve our food supply for the many hard days ahead.

That night it rained lightly for many hours. I put an army raincoat over Thủy, Thy, and Thai and I took off my jacket to cover my two sons to keep them warm. As I emotionally watched them sleep by my wife’s side, I realized that my family had been forever transformed by the dense fog of war. Just three weeks ago, my children slept in a warm bed in a secure home, but now they were in harms way in this unforgiving jungle.

It was nearly midnight, and everyone was falling fast asleep after the long day. But Thủy and I were still awake because we were seriously worried about getting out of the jungle. We heard the roar of a tiger deep in the jungle, and Thủy was very scared.

"You told me that the Lord always answers your prayers," Thủy asked. "Now we’re hiding in the jungle with snakes and tigers. I’m very scared. Why don’t you pray to the Lord to help us?"

"I’ll pray to the Lord to ask for His help," I comforted her. "God has made this journey seem to be impossible, but I believed that the He is in the process of bringing us out on his time"

I prayed to the Lord to be the strength of my life and asked Him to deliver us from the Communists. It was past midnight, and the sky began to clear. I gazed at the stars in the Heavens and waited for a sign of the Lord’s answer to my prayer. Then I had a bad feeling that much hardship was yet to come.

However, I tried to rest to prepare for another difficult day ahead, but I couldn’t sleep because of all the frightening noises caused by the Communist troops moving on the winding trail. I could hear the sounds of their tanks and trucks, which was only a glimpse of the Communist advance. It seemed to me that the Communists were moving in the same direction as our destination, Khánh Dương district. We were running out of time. Now I seriously worried that the Communists would reach our destination before us. However, I would not surrender my fear. I silently lay down between Thủy and my two sons. The Communists had begun their final offensive to take over my beloved country, and unfortunately, my family had nowhere to go.

Early the next morning, after feeding Thy and Thai warm milk, we walked along the same trail that the Communists used the last night. This was the second day, and we walked much slower than the first day because we didn’t eat much. But the will to escape still dwelled in our hearts. While walking, I found a dried fish ration on the ground. It may have been dropped by a soldier who tried to flee from the Communist troops. I was happy to find the small, dried fish. I broke it into many small pieces for Thủy, Sương, and Phương, but Mr. Sun did not want to eat the dirty fish. However, it was very tasty because there was a lot of salt in the fish. It was the most fortunate day as it was the first time in a week that I had tasted salt.

Now it was nearly two o’clock in the afternoon of the third day since we left Phứơc An Distict. We were now entering a grassland region that was a signal that Khánh Dương district was not far. Thủy was very happy.

"I remember that General Kỳ’s farm is near here," Thủy said. "We need to look for his farm and rest there for a couple days."

"General Kỳ left when the Communists attacked Ban Mê Thuột. He won’t be there."

Now the sun was nearly setting on the horizon and every one was very tired, but we kept walking until we could find a good location with clear brook water for cooking and resting overnight. Suddenly, I saw a man walking towards us from the green valley ahead. He looked like a soldier, but he wore a strange type of gray colored hat.

"Look over there. Someone is approaching from the valley," I whispered to Thủy. "But he doesn’t look like one of our soldiers. I’m guessing he’s a Communist soldier."

"Don’t be afraid," Thủy happily replied, "he is one of ours."

"Look at his hat," I pointed out to Thủy as the soldier approached nearer. "Our soldiers don’t wear that type of hat. Look at the color of his clothes. It’s light gray. He’s a Communist soldier, there may be more out there."

"Tân," I said to my guide, "we are going to have some company. You need to destroy the map and throw the compass away at once."

Tân did as I told him, and I immediately threw all of my identification relating to my job and military background before the Communist soldier reached us. I quickly stopped Thủy from walking towards the strange soldier, and I urged everyone to turn around. It was too late, three North Vietnamese soldiers encircled us with AK-47s. They pointed at Tân and me.

"What brings you out this far?" one soldier asked.

"We’re trying to reach a safe place away from the battle at Ban Mê Thuột," I replied.

"What do you do for living?"

"I am a farmer."

I don’t know if he believed me or not, but he was perplexed when he looked at my guide.

"I saw this man holding something in his hand. What is it?"

I understood right away that he was talking about the military compass.

"He’s my friend. It was a can of food."

The Communist soldier didn’t ask anymore questions but pointed his AK-47 at Mr. Sun, the Taiwanese agronomist. He ordered Mr. Sun to raise his two hands above his head. Reacting quickly at the soldier’s request, Mr. Sun lifted his hands and looked frightened.

"You can have my cameras." Mr. Sun said to the Communist soldier in English.

"Who is this man? What’s he saying?" he asked confused.

"He’s my friend from Taiwan. He doesn’t speak our language."

"Ask your friend to show me his identification."

Mr. Sun gave him his billfold, and after checking his identification, the Communist soldier confirmed what I had told him—that Mr. Sun was from Taiwan. He took one-hundred twenty dollars and a camera from Mr. Sun but did not take any Vietnamese money. I was very scared because I thought the Communist soldier would check my identification, and I didn’t have any identification because I threw it into the bushes.

"What are you doing in this jungle?" the Communist soldier asked again. "Where are you planning on going from here?"

Thủy quickly answered him with tears streaming down her face. I was surprised. "I want to go back to Mỷ Tho to see my parents. Please let me go home." She pleaded with the North Vietnamese Communist soldiers.

After seeing the emotion in her plea, the Communist soldier seemed to forget about asking me anymore questions. Instead, he showed us some compassion.

"Right now you can’t go back to Mỷ Tho because it’s in the puppet government. You need to wait until the People’s Army liberates Mỷ Tho. Then you can go there to see your parents."

Thủy continued to cry and pleaded with the Communist soldier again.

"I want to see my parents now. Please let us go back to Mỷ Tho."

The Communist soldier looked at her silently but gently, but he was not going to yield to Thủy’s plea. Then his gaze fell upon Thy and Thai

"Why have you brought your two young children into the jungle? They could die very easily here. You are placing your children in a very dangerous place. Here is my food ration. You can have it to feed your children."

He gave us the ration for Thy and Thai and also some kind of high-energy cakes made from rice or wheat flour mixed with sugar. This was the first time I’d seen a Communist Army food ration. We were short on food, so we took what he gave us.

Then he asked everyone in our group to sit near a shallow spring that was surrounded by tall trees. Hundreds of Communist soldiers walked by us going towards Khánh Dương. They were all considerate of us. They tried to avoid walking near us because we were sitting right on their trail. I also saw three South Vietnamese soldiers who were captured as prisoners. The North Vietnamese soldiers tied the three prisoners together with two layers of rope around a tall tree by an intersection of the three trails. I looked at the three soldiers, and they gazed back at us with desperate eyes as if to ask for help. But the three soldiers did not know that we were in as much trouble as they were.

"Can I give those soldiers some food?" I asked a Communist soldier after some time.

"Yes" he hesitantly answered.

I gave one can of condensed milk to our captured soldier. The North Vietnamese soldier looked perplexed after seeing me give food to his enemy. He was more puzzled after hearing me speak to Mr. Sun in English, but he didn’t understand what I was saying. He quickly placed two more guards with AK-47s to watch us. Then they took us to a hilltop by a wider trail and surrounded by tall trees.

"It is dark," he said to us. "All of you need to stay here until morning. Then I’ll take you to our Hậu Cần (Rear Headquarters) on the other side of the jungle. My commander will decide what to do with you until our People’s Army liberates the rest of our country from the American Empire."

After hearing that the Communist soldiers were going to take us to their command headquarters, I worried that they already suspected that I belonged to the other side. I was frightened that the Communists would kill me if they discovered that I was a former officer of their enemy’s army. I hoped they would not question me. They might even put me in jail if they found out I was a civil servant. Would my family have to suffer many days of hardship? So I silently prayed. I looked up to Heaven with a question in my mind. Where is God to all of this? Where is God who sees? It was past midnight, and Thủy I couldn’t sleep because we the big problem to deal with, how could we get out of here?

"By tomorrow," Thủy said in tears. "the Communists will take you to their Headquarters and ask you many questions. They might kill you or put you in jail. Why don’t you wait until the two guards fall asleep, and then you and Tân can escape together. Don’t worry about us. My sister and I will return to Ban Mê Thuột and stay with my uncle. You can come back later to look for us."

I feared death by the Communists, so I agreed with Thủy’s proposal. It was nearly one o’clock in the morning, but the two guards still did not sleep. It was very dark everywhere, so I could escape by crawling behind a tree and walking downhill into the dark jungle. I knew for sure that the two guards would not see me. Thủy put two cans of condensed milk into my jacket pocket for food and wept as she said.

"Take care of yourself. It’s time for you to save your life, I will see you at my uncle’s house soon."

Pacing the area while the others slept under a tall tree, the two guards were awake but looked very tired. I looked at Thy and Thai both sleeping. I began to cry. In the dark night, both Thủy and I cried together during the darkest hour of our lives. Freedom just became a fading dream. However, the desperation of the moment changed my mind because I could not leave my family in the hands of my enemies.

"Thới, why do you act like this?" Sương said after seeing my hesitation. "I will help your family get back to Ban Mê Thuột. Don’t worry about us. We’ll be fine. Later you’ll come back us."

I stood up, I agonizing looked at Thy and Thai who slept innocently by my wife’s side and wrapped up in the moment of fear about losing the ones whom I dearly loved. Then I burst into tears as I realized that my family would need me now, more than never. If I had to die to save my wife and children, I was willing to do so

"Right now, I won’t leave here without our family," I told Thủy. "Why don’t you try to sleep? I only have a few hours to think what to do tomorrow. "

"For a moment, I thought you might actually leave us! What about tomorrow?" she said.

"I don’t know yet, but as difficult as it is, there is always hope. Let’s try to sleep."

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