By ADAM ARMOUR | Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal (Tribune News Service) | Published: July 30, 2017
Glenn Parrish slid a photograph, one of those square prints common before the 1980s, across his kitchen table. In it, a young Asian man in uniform, arms crossed and leaning casually against a refrigerator, smiles at the camera. His grin is bright, happy.
More than four decades after and thousands of miles from where that photo was snapped, the subject reached out across a kitchen table and took it in hand.
“I was so skinny,” said Dzuong “John” Nguyen, smiling at the picture of his younger self. These days, he’s a little heavier and quite a bit balder, but time hasn’t touched that earnest smile.
“This picture was in his camera when he left,” Nguyen said, nodding across the table at Parrish. “I’ve never seen it before. Not until now.”
It was mid-morning. Sunlight played across the various bits of homey comforts in Parrish’s Mantachie kitchen. It was an intimate setting for a reunion that had been a long time coming.
In 1971, during the middle chapters of the United States’ involvement in the Vietnam War, Parrish was a strapping 21-year-old member of the U.S. Army military police serving at the Bien Hoa Air Base in South Vietnam.
“I was one of the guys putting the troops on the freedom planes,” Parrish explained.
“That’s what we call, going back to the real world,” Nguyen added.
For his part, Nguyen, 25 at the time, was a lieutenant in the South Vietnamese Air Force. He acted as a liaison of sorts between the U.S. and Vietnamese forces stationed there.
“At the time, I was in charge of the defense force to protect the air base,” Nguyen said.
As such, he frequently found himself on the base, interacting with the soldiers there.
For reasons beyond their own ability to voice, Parrish and Nguyen hit it off. They’d frequently spend their down time together, sight-seeing via military jeep with
Nguyen acting as their guide. They visited a Buddhist temple perched on Buu Long Mountain and helped the monks there acquire supplies.
“I wasn’t in Bigbee, Mississippi, anymore,” Parrish said with a laugh.
There was an easy friendship, one that grew with time. When Parrish returned to America on leave, Nguyen asked him to bring back “American diapers” and other baby supplies, plus some clothing from JCPenney. Parrish said he did just that.
“I carried every bit of it back and then some,” he said.
U.S. involvement in the conflict between North and South Vietnam waned in the early 1970s, and Parrish was eventually withdrawn from the country. Before Parrish left, Nguyen gave him a ceramic horse as a parting gift.
For decades, it sat on the fireplace mantle of Parrish’s Mantachie home.
“I’ve always had a daily reminder of my friend,” Parrish said.
Parrish leaned back in his chair, nodded across the table at his friend.
“Tell him your story,” he told Nguyen.
The smile the Vietnamese native offered belied the story he was about to tell. When South Vietnam surrendered to the north, soldiers in the South Vietnamese army weren’t certain what to expect. Nguyen said many anticipated death.
“We were so frightened,” Nguyen said. “I was prepared to be executed at any time.”
Somewhat unexpectedly, the new regime offered the pretense of a new life for South Vietnamese officers.
According to Nguyen, the North Vietnamese began broadcasting calls for surrender from officers within the opposing army. Those who surrendered and agreed to be taken to what they referred to as “re-education” camps would be shown mercy.
Nguyen, the father of two young children, said he didn’t see any good options. He held onto cautious optimism, cynical hope.
“We figured, maybe we could become civilians and go on with life,” he said.
But in his heart, he knew there was a good chance that wasn’t the case. A dire feeling filled him on the day he was to turn himself in.
“I had a feeling that it would be my last chance to be with my family,” he said.
Heavy-hearted, Nguyen turned himself over to the North Vietnamese forces. He and his fellow South Vietnamese servicemen were taken to large work camps, where they were forced into labor. They worked the fields, harvesting crops, given sparse food, were frequently beaten and tortured, and occasionally subjugated to brainwashing tactics.
They were told, Nguyen said, they had to stay until they became “good citizens.”
“How can you measure a good citizen,” he said, laughing. “That’s when we knew we would be there forever. We were never going home.”
Days turned to weeks, weeks to months. Nguyen and his fellow prisoners would occasionally be transferred to other camps, a tactic, he said, to prevent the prisoners from coalescing into a resistance.
“We never had time to make friends, to plan or protest,” he said. The goal was to break the prisoners down both physically and mentally, to kill them slowly.
For five tortuous years, Nguyen was held captive. He was beaten, he was bent, but he was not broken. A desperate plan began to form in his mind.
“After five years, I figured I didn’t want to live that life anymore,” he said. “I knew that if I escaped their prison, there was a 99 percent chance that I would die.
“I’d live a better life, or I’d die. I didn’t care which,” he said.
His wife, Elizabeth, smuggled in a package filled with supplies to aid her husband’s escape, including civilian clothes and a fake ID. During a Sunday, when the prisoners were only required to work half their usual quota, Nguyen and two other prisoners escaped the camp.
They fled into the jungle, where death awaited them in a thousand different ways. Their inevitable goal was to cross the border into Thailand and seek asylum there.
After three or four days, the men exhausted their food supply.
One day, their paths crossed with those of two armed North Vietnamese soldiers, who asked to see identification. One of the men with whom Nguyen was traveling pulled a grenade; Nguyen said he had no idea how he acquired it. He pulled the pin.
The soldiers fired on the three men. Nguyen fled into a nearby field, scrambling to escape the gunfire. Behind him, the grenade must have dropped from the escapee’s hand.
“When I heard the explosion, I knew I was still alive,” he said.
His friends weren’t as lucky.
Injured, malnourished and exhausted, Nguyen fled back into the jungle. A thick fog of pain and hunger obscure those days in his memory.
“I don’t know how long I traveled like that,” he said. “Four days. Five days.”
He was eventually picked up by a traveler and taken to his family in Saigon. Once reunited, Nguyen and his family paid the captain of a refugee boat to smuggle them into Thailand. They made contact with the U.S. embassy there, and were eventually given sanctuary in the States.
“That was the beginning of our brighter future,” he said, leaning back in his chair.
“The day Saigon fell was the day my son was born,” Parrish said. “I couldn’t forget that day if I wanted to.”
Over the years, Parrish would look at the ceramic horse on his living room mantle, that final gift from his friend, and wonder what happened to Nguyen.
In March 2017, Parrish posted a message to a Facebook page for Vietnam vets seeking information about Nguyen, whom Parrish met while serving in South Vietnam in the early 1970s.
Six states away, Nguyen, teaching at Stanford University, received a message from one of his students. Someone claiming to be an old friend of his was seeking him out.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Nguyen said. “After 45 years, someone remembered me. Someone was still looking for me.”
It didn’t take long for the two to reconnect.
“That first mail from Glenn, I was so emotional,” Nguyen said. “I had to calm myself down. I thought I might pass out.”
They quickly planned to get together. Nguyen and his wife agreed to travel to Mississippi for a visit.
Earlier this month, after more than 40 years separation, the two old friends reunited.
As these kinds of things so often play out, time had done little to erode their friendship.
“We hit it off again right off the bat,” Nguyen said.
Parrish grinned, nodded.
“For the last three days, we’ve been talking nonstop,” he said.
For his part, Parrish was shocked when he heard Nguyen’s story. When he returned home to Mississippi, life went on as it always had. He and his wife started a family, he got a civilian job. The years traipsed by like they tend to do.
When, after decades of not knowing, he learned of Nguyen’s fate after the war, Parrish broke down.
“It broke my heart,” he said. “I couldn’t imagine going through the torture he went through. And I’d think, could I have survived had I gone through what he did? I don’t think I could.”
He choked and cupped his hands over his face. After a few seconds, he sighed deeply, wiped the red from his eyes. The grin returned to his face.
“[My story] was not nearly so exciting,” Parrish said, adding with a relieved sort of laugh, “Thank Jesus.”
A story like Nguyen’s, he said, makes you appreciate all that you have, and all that you take for granted … something as simple as starting a family, buying a house, or sharing an old photograph, and all the memories that accompany it, good and bad, with a once-lost friend on a sunny Monday morning.
©2017 the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal (Tupelo, Miss.)
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