Houston ( Andrew Dansby, Houston Chronicle, Sept 15,2017): Having already been shot twice in the leg, Tran Ngoc Toàn played dead outside Bình Giã. Then a Viet Cong soldier kicked him and fired three rounds.
“Pop! Pop! Pop!” Tran says from his home on the west side of Houston. “But just one hit me, right here.”
He points to his left side, along the lower rib cage. Tran, a member of South Vietnam’s army, was then left for dead, again, and crawled three days back to a village where South Vietnamese and American Marines had been ambushed by soldiers with the National Liberation Front in a crucial turning point in the Vietnam War at the end of 1964.
More than 50 years later, Tran’s story is part of Ken Burns’ latest long form documentary, “The Vietnam War,” which began airing on PBS Sunday night with installments nightly through Thursday and again next week. Even now, after recounting his experiences, Tran’s perspective on being wounded shines with a survivor’s optimism.
“I was lucky,” he says, bright-eyed. “They took me to a Korean military hospital. If I’d been taken to Saigon, they’d have cut my leg off. The doctors told me it was a miracle.”
He points to the inside of his right thigh where a bullet from an AK-47 bore into his flesh. “If the bullet had gone one degree this way, it would’ve blown up the bone. One degree that way, it would blow up the artery and I’d have lost too much blood and died in the jungle.”
Instead the bullet passed through, leaving a large gash of an exit wound on the outside of his thigh. Tran spent six months in the hospital.
And then he went back to fight.
The Battle at Bình Giã, plays a prominent role in the third episode of “The Vietnam War,” the latest sprawling documentary by Burns and Lynn Novick.
Lt. Philip Brady, an American Marine there to advise the South Vietnamese troops, told the filmmakers that in late 1964 he, like other American troops, was told America was on the “five-yard line,” the goal of victory just within reach. His arrival in Bình Giã revealed to Brady that “we were losing this war.”
True to the entirety of the film, the segment on Bình Giã is told panoramically, with perspectives offered by an American serviceman in Brady, a South Vietnamese serviceman in Tran and also a Viet Cong soldier in Nguyen Van Tong.
One of more than 100 people interviewed by the filmmakers for the documentary, Tran figures prominently into the film, even beyond the Bình Giã segment.
“If you give us two or three bytes in an episode you’re a big star,” Burns says. “There’s a strange quirky calculus to it. If you’re in five to six bytes, which Toan is, you’re a megastar.”
Tran’s star turn offers some insight into a story not often told in American accounts of the war.
America was slow to discuss the Vietnam War; it was also slow to listen to its veterans’ stories, and continues to neglect their needs. And the experience of Vietnamese soldiers and civilians has been almost entirely out of view in this country.
“When Americans talk about Vietnam, we talk about ourselves,” Novick says. “We haven’t really thought about the Vietnamese as a people with complex needs and agency. But this is a global story. And if you hang your story on personal experiences, as we have, I think you need to present as many Vietnamese perspectives as possible.
“And Toan is just an extraordinarily brave person who has been through unimaginable loss and challenges.”
Tran’s story is full of endurance. His path to Houston began at Đà Lat, his hometown northeast of what used to be Saigon. A black and white poster over Tran’s couch offers a striking overhead view of Đà Lat, nestled in the country’s central highlands.
Đà Lat was home to the Military Academy of Vietnam, which Tran attended. By 22 he had graduated and joined the South Vietnamese Marine Corps, where he was assigned to the 4th Battalion, “The Killer Sharks.”
Tran had spent more than two years fighting the Viet Cong by late 1964 when American troops were dispatched to Bình Giã. Unbeknownst to all, the Viet Cong had been moving about 1,000 soldiers and artillery through paths they’d hacked through the jungle; not just into South Vietnam but perilously close to Saigon.
‘Blood was all over’
Tran says his hearing has diminished, lost to age and the ear-piercing sounds of combat, but his ability to recall times and dates and details is astounding. He can account for just about every minute of the three-day Battle at Bình Giã that began Dec. 28, 1964, starting with an uncomfortable silence broken by artillery shells. Viet Cong forces swiftly seized the town, and fighting continued as American reinforcements arrived.
An American helicopter gunship was firing on Viet Cong soldiers just outside of town. The Viet Cong returned fire and brought the machine down, killing four American soldiers.
The South Vietnamese Marines and American forces were ordered to retrieve the fallen. Twelve South Vietnamese soldiers were killed in the fight. Another helicopter arrived, and the four killed Americans were loaded onto it and flown away. Tran and his fellow South Vietnamese soldiers were left behind and quickly overrun.
He was first shot in the calf muscle of his right leg.
“I didn’t feel anything,” he says. “You’re fighting, you don’t feel anything. But I put my hand down there, and there was blood all over. But I had to keep fighting. It was getting dark.”
‘Life is good’
After playing dead, Tran spent three days crawling back to safety.
“I lost a third of the muscle,” he says of the wound to his thigh. “With physical therapy I was able to walk again. I couldn’t run. But I could walk again. And I was a Marine. So I went back to fight.”
He spent more than a decade fighting in the war, until Saigon fell in 1975.
With the war over, Tran’s life didn’t get any easier. Like many South Vietnamese soldiers, he was imprisoned. The common term used by the victorious North was “reeducation camp,” though Tran never once uses that phrase. He repeatedly refers to his time in Lào Cai – northwest of Hanoi near the Vietnam/China border – as being incarcerated in a “labor camp.”
He was there nearly a decade before finally being released and put on a boat to Indonesia.
Tran then traveled to San Francisco in the mid-1980s, and from there to Washington, D.C., where he worked as a house painter, and later in the printing plant for the Washington Post.
He retired from the paper in August 2005 and moved to Houston.
“It was too cold up there,” Tran says, massaging his right leg. “It just hurts too much to be where it’s cold.”
He and his wife Kim Quy live comfortably in a little home just outside the Beltway.
“The temperature is good and life is good,” he says. “It’s comfortable here, with the second largest Vietnamese population in the country.”
Tran left Vietnam with nothing. Friends kept his United States Marine Corps Staff College certificate, which bears creases from being folded and transported over the years. He’s acquired a few reproduced photographs of his time in the South Vietnamese Marines, though he points out everyone in the photos – with the exception of Brady – is now gone.
Numbers from the Battle at Bình Giã, don’t reflect the entirety of the Vietnam War, though they offer confirmation that heavy casualties extended well beyond American losses. Five American soldiers died in the battle. Thirty-two Viet Cong soldiers died. And an estimated 200 South Vietnamese soldiers were killed.
Just over 58,000 American servicemen were killed in the Vietnam War. Numbers for Vietnamese forces are less clearly defined, but estimates put more than 1 million killed fighting for the North. Estimates for South Vietnamese military casualties are around 250,000, though Tran believes the number exceeds 300,000. More than 2 million Vietnamese civilians, North and South, are believed killed.
Though Bình Giã was early in America’s involvement in the war, it turned out to be a bellwether of bad things to come for all involved.
Tran, 77, hopes some recognition will find its way to some whose sacrifices didn’t make the codified narrative in the States.
“A lot of my classmates and friends died,” Tran says. “I’m glad to have given everything I gave, and I’m lucky to be able to talk about it now. But for the 300,000 fallen, they can’t talk. The 300,000 who died in battle, they don’t have a voice. That’s what I’d like the American people to know. That many men fought and died in that war, too.”