Published on February 23, 2021
The View from my Seat
Coincidences reveal what happend to Miss Mai
By Ernie Williamson / The Bulletin
I didn’t really know Nguyên Thi Mai that well, but during the past 50 years I have often wondered whether she survived the Vietnam War.
Miss Mai, as she was called, was a clerk and receptionist for our public information office at Army headquarters in Long Binh during the Vietnam War.
But she was more than that to those in our office. She was a bright spot in the drab, olive-green world of an Army headquarters. Although only in her 20s, she acted as every one’s mother, making homesick soldiers feel at home in a strange and war-torn land.
She would invite soldiers to dinner with her family or cook traditional Vietnamese meals in the office for soldiers on holidays. If you needed help understanding Vietnamese traditions, Miss Mai relished explaining everything.
When my tour of duty as a combat correspondent ended in 1972, I left Vietnam and Miss Mai behind.
I barely gave her another thought until three years later when Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese.
Did the U.S. make good on its promise to evacuate those South Vietnamese who had worked for the U.S. military? Many South Vietnamese were evacuated but, in the chaos, some were forgotten. The State Department, for instance, reported that only 22,294 employees out of 90,000 past and present employees were evacuated.
Was she forced to flee by boat? It is estimated that 800,000 “boat people” arrived in foreign countries, and at least 200,000 died at sea.
Was she captured and sent to a North Vietnamese re-education camp where 300,000 South Vietnamese endured torture, starvation and disease while being forced into hard labor?
Was she among the 30,000 South Vietnamese systematically killed because of lists left behind by the U.S. embassy?
The mystery was solved this month when I received an out-of-the-blue email from a former colleague.
Dave Berry and I were both Army combat correspondents working out of Army headquarters with Miss Mai. Coincidentally, we both ended up at Texas newspapers after the war. You may remember him. He worked for a time as managing editor of the Brazosport Facts.
We had lost touch with one another, but then he noticed I was writing a column in The Bulletin.
In April 1975, with South Vietnamese troops crumbling and enemy troops advancing, Miss Mai and others who worked for the Army were given “top secret” briefings about American evacuation plans.
Miss Mai knew she was at risk, but her commanding officer promised initially that she would be able to evacuate her entire family.
But this was the Army. It had regulations. A snag developed.
Miss Mai was a single mom who had recently adopted her cousin’s two-year-old daughter. The Army now said that since she had no husband Miss Mai could evacuate with only her child.
Angry and sad, Miss Mai summoned the courage to confront her commanding officer at the next top secret” meeting, saying it was unfair to treat single moms differently. She wanted to take her parents and nine brothers and sisters with her.
The Army relented. On April 22, 1975, just eight days before the North Vietnamese flag was raised in Saigon, Miss Mai was flown out of Vietnam with three younger brothers, two younger sisters and her adopted daughter. Her parents and other siblings decided to risk remaining in Saigon.
On May 1, 1975, after short stops in the Philippines and Guam, Miss Mai arrived at Camp Pendleton in California. The family lived in a crowded tent camp with hundreds of other refugees. They had neither money nor hope.
One morning after breakfast, Miss Mai heard her name called over the camp loudspeaker. It was former soldiers she had helped in Vietnam. They had arranged a sponsor so she could stay in the United States.
Now retired, she is trying to repay this country. She has made over 4,000 masks and gives them away to veterans’ groups, nursing homes and hospital workers.
“It is the least I could do during the pandemic,” she says.
She has gone back to Vietnam to visit relatives, but wants there to be no mistake: America is her home.
“I have sincere gratitude to the United States government and American people who have opened their arms to my family,” she says. “Thanks, United States, again and again.”
And thank you, Miss Mai.
(Ernie Williamson welcomes reader input. Please contact Ernie at firstname.lastname@example.org. Or, send letters in care of The Bulletin, PO Box 2426, Angleton, TX. 77516)