For the Cause of Freedom: Remembering the Vietnam War
A Denver monument to the veterans of the Vietnam War is a tucked-away reminder of a time some would rather forget.
A statue of two men stands in a Costco parking lot just south of downtown Denver. They’re soldiers, one an American and the other from South Vietnam. Posing beside their respective flags, they stand as silent memorials to an unpopular conflict that, for many, is synonymous with distrust in the United States government.
Unlike many of Colorado’s public monuments, it’s a community memorial, erected on the fortieth anniversary of the fall of Saigon. Local Vietnamese businesses and residents raised funds, and in 2015, installed the memorial that now stands mere blocks from Denver’s Little Saigon. It’s an almost-hidden reminder of something many Americans would rather forget. But for this community, forgetting is unthinkable as the memory of the war and its consequences remains strong.
The stretch between Alameda and Mississippi avenues on South Federal boulevard, officially designated as the Little Saigon business district of Denver in 2014, hosts a vibrant Vietnamese-American community that has been growing since the late ‘80s. Following the Fall of Saigon in 1975, around 10,000 Vietnamese refugees settled in Denver. In the following decades, those with the means established businesses, including the shops at The Far East Center.
Vi Scheibel, whose family owns Vinh Xuong Bakery, moves between their locations in the Far East Center and Denver’s Athmar Park Neighborhood near the memorial statue. Her family escaped South Vietnam in the early 80s, relocating from Tra Vinh, Vietnam, to the corner of 1st and Mississippi. There they established their first bakery in the United States, the same business they had started in Vietnam.
Scheibel’s father, Hung Huynh, grew up in Chau Doc, a city bordering Cambodia in South Vietnam, until he was seven years old. Most of what Scheibel knows from this time are stories of poverty; there was no food and far too many mouths to feed. As a young boy, his mother sent Huynh to live with his grandparents in Tra Vinh to find work, scrubbing floors and doing manual labor so he could send money home to his family. He continued for years before joining the South Vietnamese army in 1970 to fight the invading communist government from the North.
The Road to War
Until the war in Afghanistan, the Vietnam War was the longest armed conflict in US history. It spanned about two decades, and claimed the lives of over 58,000 American troops. The toll on the local population was far more devastating: An estimated three million Vietnamese people, both military and civilian, were killed. While the majority of Americans initially supported US involvement in Vietnam, as it dragged on, the war grew tremendously unpopular in the United States. It was unclear to many Americans what business their country had in fighting in an ideological war, half-a-world away. Containing communism was not sufficient justification for American anti-war protestors like Colorado’s "Corky" Gonzalez, who preached that “peace is dignity” and for an end to Western imperialism.
Vietnam’s struggle for independence did not begin in the 1950s. The First Indochina War (1946-1954) followed global trends of post-war decolonization. Vietnamese nationalists, led by Ho Chi Minh, ousted French colonial rule and sought to establish a new communist government. After the 1954 Geneva Accords divided the country into communist North Vietnam and non-communist South Vietnam, an estimated 600,000 to 1,000,000 migrants, many of them Catholics, fled from North to South. This migration included the parents of Lyn Tran, an Ignatian Spiritual director based in Denver. Her father, Pham Lac, joined the South Vietnamese army the same year French and local officials signed the peace agreements in Geneva.
Peace was short-lived, and civil war broke out in November 1955. The US supplied economic and military aid to the puppet South Vietnamese government while the Soviets and Chinese financed Ho Chi Minh. However, southern leadership was weak and corrupt, and as fighting continued the communist insurgency grew stronger in the countryside. Fearing a communist victory, in 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson used the Gulf of Tonkin Incident to justify escalating American involvement in Vietnam.
While the draft made enlistment inescapable for many Americans, for others the Vietnam War was a test of manhood and duty. Young American men, like the one depicted in the statue, went into war following the footsteps of their fathers’ generation, who fought in World War Two against Nazi Germany, imperial Japan, and fascist Italy. Colorado native and Vietnam veteran George Autobee reflected that when he enlisted, going to Vietnam felt like the honorable thing to do. “This was our calling,” he said. “This was our time to go serve like in the second World War. Subdue the Germans, the Nazis, and subdue the Japanese. To do the right honorable thing. How could you be against that?”
Worth Dying For
American troops in Vietnam found themselves fighting a brutal war of occupation against a determined resistance of locals. It became impossible for many to justify the toll of combat when soldiers couldn’t articulate the ideals they were fighting for or figure out why they were occupying a foreign country. In the end, it all meant that the US had lost the war before it was over.
“[The North Vietnamese] were ready to die. They knew what they were dying for,” said Autobee. “Okay, and here I am shot in the arm, looking at it and going ‘What the hell am I doing here? Why am I here?’”
After America entered the war, the thick jungle terrain was laid to waste by carpet bombing and napalm—both weapons whose lethal damage was impossible to target solely at enemy troops. With the Viet Cong’s (VC) unparalleled knowledge of the jungle and network of roads on the Ho Chi Minh trail, they were rendered invisible to foreign eyes. As a result, anything that moved was fair game. The US military’s non-discriminatory search and destroy tactics have been called genocidal by scholars and activists past and present. Guenter Lewy, political scientist and author of America in Vietnam, estimates that between thirty and forty-six percent of the total war deaths were civilians.
Although he never witnessed civilian killings during his service, Autobee joined the growing anti-war movement in Colorado upon being discharged. He says the United States' criminal actions were the primary motivation behind his and others’ protests. “Communism was not the issue. It was an illegal war, being perpetuated on a people that were seeking their own independence and their own reality.”
But there was no doubt in the minds of the South Vietnamese what they were fighting for. The fathers of immigrants like Vi Scheibel and Lyn Tran fought against the communists and Chinese in a civil war that began before the US had boots on the ground.
Violence against civilians wasn’t a tactic exclusive to Americans, and was also utilized by the North Vietnamese Army. Lyn Tran recalls playing in the streets of Saigon, jumping over a crater in front of her house left by an unexploded shell. Her family lived by the Tan Son Nhut air base, which was attacked on April 28, 1975 by the North Vietnamese air force to sabotage American airlift evacuations, just two days before the Fall of Saigon and the takeover of South Vietnam.
The shell never went off, but not everyone in her neighborhood was so lucky. A classmate lost his entire family while he was out playing; He was late for dinner, and as a result, was the only survivor when a bomb hit his house, killing his entire family. American political scientist R. J. Rummel estimates that between 106,000 and 227,000 civilians were killed by the Viet Cong between 1954 and 1975 in South Vietnam.
Life After the War
After the war, life under communism was brutal and, in the words of Tran, “hell.” The government commonly weaponized poor infrastructure and the restriction of resources like electricity. In a 1983 article on postwar Vietnam, New York Times correspondent Craig Whitney stated, “[Vietnam’s] leaders seem overwhelmed by problems of feeding fifty-four million people without the war's great infusions of foreign aid and supplies; problems of developing a peacetime economy when the per capita income is only $150 a year[...]”
After the war, Tran’s family lost their life savings and hope of a prosperous future. At one point, Vi Scheibel’s family bakery was forced out of business, and the rolling blackouts proved to be not only dangerous but fatal. One night when the lights were out, Scheibel's grandmother hit her head on a rusted nail and died shortly after contracting tetanus, a tragedy Scheibel’s mother blamed on the communists for many years.
Hundreds of thousands of people like Lyn Tran and her sister were willing to risk death to escape communist Vietnam. Their family lived in abject poverty with no running water, no electricity, and never enough food to eat. They scraped by for nine years before escaping Vietnam. As Tran pointed out, for others it was worse. Not everybody survived starvation after the war, not everybody knew someone with a boat, and not everyone made it across the South China Sea. One had to have connections to board a boat, or in in the case of Scheibel’s family, the means to build one. As a result, it was generally those of relative means immigrating to the US as refugees in the aftermath of the Vietnam War.
Even if one was among the escapees, survival was no guarantee. Officials estimate that somewhere between 200,000 and 500,000 people died en route in their escape from Vietnam, more fatalities than the South Vietnamese army suffered during the war. Boats were crowded and unequipped for the open sea. As Tran put it, “They just slam us in there. ‘How many people can fit in one boat?’ And push it out there with a little water, some dry food, and hope for the best.”
Tran’s family was among eighty-seven people crammed into a small fishing vessel. For six days, they floated at sea, with a daily allowance of two ounces of water and food that ran out after the first few days. Tran passed out on the fifth day, and teetered on the verge of death for over twenty-four hours. A German merchant ship eventually saved them and took them to a refugee camp in Hong Kong, where authorities turned them away until the Germans negotiated a deal. Because Tran’s father fought in the war and she had a brother already in America, they were prioritized in the immigration process, so Tran arrived in the US in 1990.
After years of blackouts, Vi Scheibel’s father Huynh decided to leave Vietnam. He built a small motorboat using whatever materials he could find. On his first escape attempt, communist authorities caught and arrested him, and he spent over a year in prison. While there’s no hard statistic of how many Vietnamese citizens like Huynh were political prisoners after the war, according to historian Jana Lipman, “Conditions in the camps were brutal and arbitrary, and tens of thousands were detained for two years or longer.” These institutions persisted into the late 1980s.
After being released from prison, Huynh risked a second escape attempt. In a homemade boat loaded with barrels of rice, flour, and motor oil, he and his wife’s family left Vietnam. Fifteen people shared a cramped vessel, using a magnet on a string as their compass and praying that storms, the Vietnamese military, and pirates would spare them on their journey across the South China Sea. Scheibel’s mother was pregnant, and her older sister was barely old enough to walk. If they got stopped, Huynh planned on telling authorities that they were selling the goods in the barrels, hoping they didn’t open those filled with motor oil for the engine. In 1980, Huynh and his family successfully landed in Malaysia, and Scheibel was born in a refugee camp near Kuala Lumpur. After eight months in the refugee camp, the family separated, with Scheibel’s extended family migrating to Australia and her parents to the US. After a brief layover in California, they moved in with an aunt in Denver near Alameda and Federal, beginning a new life while caring for two small children.
Rebuilding in Denver
The first post-war Vietnamese refugees in Denver were babies airlifted out of South Vietnam in early 1975. The first wave of adult refugees arrived in Denver on May 10th, 1975, just ten days after the fall of Saigon and seven years before Scheibel’s family arrived. Most refugees in the first wave were welcomed by church-affiliated groups and volunteers, settling into residencies spread across the Denver metro area. The initial dispersion of refugees in Denver was pre-arranged by agencies or sponsors, with primary locations rarely chosen by newcomers.
There was significant pushback against the refugee influx in Colorado and the rest of the United States. A 1975 study showed over half of Americans didn’t think evacuated South Vietnamese should be allowed to live in the US. Anticipating backlash, Colorado’s Indochinese Refugee Resettlement Effort, run under Governor Richard Lamm, kept no official tallies or address lists of refugee families. In early 1976, there was no clear-cut pattern for population redistribution in Colorado aside from natural coalescence. No documented enclaves existed, and no more than six families resided in a single neighborhood.
Although Colorado had been home to very few people with Vietnamese heritage in the early 1970s, by 2000, there were almost 14,000 American citizens and residents of Vietnamese descent in the Denver, Boulder, and Greeley area. The development of Vietnamese enclaves in Denver, like the Sun Valley housing development, was largely the result of voluntary internal migrations to self-selected locations. Vietnamese people migrated in-state from cities like Pueblo and Colorado Springs looking for community, and by March 1980, seventy-six percent of Colorado's South-East Asian population resided in Denver.
Community development happened slowly in Denver, and new immigrants faced many challenges in the decade after the war. According to census data from the American Community Survey, in 1980, nearly forty percent of Vietnamese immigrants spoke little to no English. Growing up in Denver, Scheibel’s experience reflected these national trends. She remembers only one other Asian-American kid in her class at Monroe Elementary and having to translate for her family. “It was difficult because my parents didn’t speak English. They couldn’t be very involved with school. They couldn’t understand.”
In the 1990s at Lincoln High, Scheibel remembers there being more Asian-American peers, but also more racism and bullying. “I didn’t have it so bad because I spoke English,” she says. “But I know it was worse for others.” Meanwhile, Tran recalls struggling to learn English in California and being laughed at when applying for financial aid. Both persevered and have built lives for themselves in Denver.
In the early 2000s, Scheibel visited her parents' old home in Vietnam. She stood in a small room with a dirt floor and a banana leaf roof—decades of monsoons had washed away footprints and indentations left by the table her family would stand on to evade floodwaters. “There was nothing,” she tells me while rolling sesame balls in the back of her family’s bakery in the East Asian Market. “Life is better now. My kids have a future.”
Remembering the war, Lyn Tran recalls standing in the Dayton Memorial Library at Regis University, looking at an exhibition on Vietnam beside a US Military veteran. She describes the pain he felt, all these years later. But having endured so much hardship, Tran now fails to see the need for such heavy emotions. She told the man not to blame himself. “You went to my country with a very good intention to help us, not to destroy us. And, you know, we all are victimized by the lie, the lie by the government, the lie by who or whom. But it’s not time to blame. It's time to heal. It's time to forgive. It's time to move on." She remembers holding his hand as they both stood in tears. “We hugged each other.”
Sitting with me in Dayton Memorial Library, Tran concludes that, regardless of the outcome, nobody wins in war and we need memorials to remind us of what’s been lost. “In every war, we have fallen heroes. We don't know them by name, we don't even know them. And so that memorial is just to remind us about many people who gave up their life for our benefit, for our future, for our peace. And so that's why I am praying so hard for Ukraine and also for the Russians, because nobody wins in the war. Nobody. It's all lose and lose. We’re all victims of the war. If we see it, we know it.”