FROM WAR TO FREEDOM by Thong Ba Le
The Vietnamese Military Academy
Situated next to a majestic pine forest in Đà Lạt City, the Vietnamese National Military Academy is an institution known for its time-honored traditions.
I was appointed Deputy Commandant of the Military Instruction Directorate, a position that previously was only held by infantry officers. Having spent all of my Navy career as a sailor, working at this institution in the great mountains supplied me with a treasure trove of experiences and memories that will live forever in my heart.
In my first year at the Vietnamese National Military Academy, I worked with young cadets of Classes 25, 26 and 27; I felt a strong connection to their youthful idealism towards our motherland and within months, I was drawn into a patriotic environment that reflected the spirit of our country.
Time passed by like a dream, with tragic changes to my beloved homeland. Like other refugees, I tried to forget the past, but on a trip to the lakeside in my adopted country, the pines there reminded me of Đà Lạt City, and my wonderful time at the VNMA. Each time I meet a former cadet from the famously traditional school, sweet memories come to mind. In 1972, an article was written about the training program at the Vietnamese National Military Academy by Colonel Edward Dorsey Rowe, the former military advisor to the Military Instruction Directorate from 1972-1973. A Major when he wrote and researched the article, Rowe submitted the article to West Point's Association of Graduates' ASSEMBLY Magazine, and it was published in 1973. Colonel Rowe would later become my dear friend and would sponsor my family when we immigrated to the United States in 1975. I decided to translate Major Rowe's article into Vietnamese, as a reminder of wonderful memories and time-honored traditions, as well as a spiritual gift to send to former young cadets and this article in Vietnamese version was published in the website of The Vietnamese National Military Academy Alumni Association:
I also posted the translation in my bilingual website “The Bearing - Định Hướng”
URL as followed:
I wish the former cadets of Đà Lạt 's Military Academy all the best, and encourage them to always remember the glorious traditions of the Vietnamese National Military Academy. We were very fortunate to have the opportunity to become some of the proudest members of one of Vietnam's most famed schools.
Go to The Vietnamese National Military Academy
The C47 aircraft of Hàng Không Việt Nam (The Vietnam Airlines) with a few passengers aboard was circling above the Liên Khương airport in Đà Lạt under a clear blue sky Sunday morning. Light white clouds drifted quickly outside, through the right wing of the airplane.
Lieutenant Commander Lê Bá Thông, SVN Navy was one of the passengers who came the first time to this beautiful natural setting mountainous City. Thông had just been assigned to a position at the Vietnamese National Military Academy (VNMA) in Đà Lạt.
The aircraft landed in front of a small air terminal and passengers started leaving off the airplane by the stairway leading to the airport main building. Thông was greeting by an Army NCO who drove him to the direction of Đà Lạt City in a VNMA jeep.
After getting my luggage at the Hàng Không Việt Nam (The Vietnam Airlines) main officer, the jeep driver proceeded toward the Academy that I was told located about 45 minutes driving through a pines forest in the northern of Đà Lạt City, it called Lâm Viên.
I watched enjoying the beautiful scenery with colorful flowers, cherry blossom trees along the roadside and all around the valley and the sounds of birds flying under the cool morning sky. I almost had forgotten the noisy Saigon City that I left this morning. It was so different environment and so relaxation!
The VNMA famous gate was appeared in the front distance. A yellow three red stripes flag was seen on top o the brick gate. Two VNMA cadets in tradition uniforms on duty were standing attention and saluted me when the jeep stopping by for security check. I saluted back to the young cadets and said “Good morning”.
It was a Sunday in early spring of 1972, the Academy was so quiet that morning. Cadets had permission to go downtown or to rest at their barracks. Therefore only a few cadets were jogging around red brick buildings or walking by the Headquarters. I met the Officer of the Day to let him know of my arrival for duty and got a key for my temporary room in the BOQ.
I called Minh in the afternoon after settling myself in the narrow room. Minh was still unhappy with the moves that we had been doing to my recent assignments. Our seventh child was born a month ago when we had just moved to Saigon. Her name was Thanh Tâm and she was so beautiful and cute.
In just six months since September 1971, we moved from Đà Nẳng to Cam Ranh Bay then to Saigon and now we were ready to move to Đà Lạt. I was assigned to be Deputy Chief of Staff to The Mobile Sea Headquarters in Cam Ranh Bay then the Headquarters moved to Saison after I worked there for 5 months.
The VNMA had undergone tri-service training which was initiated in 1970. The basic concept of tri-service training is that the cadet class is divided into three services: Army, Navy, and Air Force, therefore I was volunteered and selected by the Navy Personnel Department to represent Navy at the Academy.
Next morning, I was preparing to report for duty to the Superintendent, Major General Lâm Quang Thơ, VN Armor at 0900am. I wore my summer white uniform and was sitting for the arrival of the Superintendent in the officer of Capt Đoàn who was the Military Assistant for General Thơ.
Major General Lâm Quang Thơ, graduated from Class 3 of the Vietnamese Military Academy on July 1, 1951. He attended the Armor Officer Advanced Course at Fort Knox in 1956 and graduated from the Command and General Staff Course at Ft. Leavenworth in 1964. He stood at 6 feet two inches and weighed about 180 lbs. He was very fit and healthy. He liked playing tennis on weekends at the Academy two tennis courts and was the best player among the staff officers including the tennis coach of cadets.
General Thơ was sitting behind his broad wooden desk, pleasantly looked at me when I stood and saluted him and said “ Lieutenand Commander Lê Bá Thông reported for duty, sir”. General Thơ stood up and shook my hand then asked me to sit down on the chair in front on the left of his desk.
General Lâm Quang Thơ told me about his relative who was RVN Navy Chief of Staff, Rear Admiral Diệp Quang Thủy, who was the former Commanding officer of Lực Lượng Hải Tuần (the Maritime Patrol Force) in Đà Nẳng where I also the Captain of PT boats that operated undercover missions above Seventeen parallels.
Finally, General Lâm Quang Thơ assigned me to be Deputy Commandant of the Military Directorate and in the mean time Acting the Commandant of the Directory due to the vacancy of that position awaiting the assignment for that position from Bộ Tổng Tham Mưu Cục Quân Huấn (General Staff Headquarters Education Department) in Saigon.
Later of that first day, Captain Đoàn introduced me to Major Toàn, SVN Army who was the chief Logistic to show me my office and to meet two cadet battalion commanders, Major Yết and Captain Diêu. They told me of the tragic event happened last two months when Việt Cọng killed the former Commandant of the Military Instruction Directorate, Colonel Nguyễn Văn Sử was murdered by hand grenade throwing from outside into his room at the VNMA Headquarters when he was sleeping at night. That night, I was on duty and slept on a military cot with my M16 in the same room that still having bullet holds and some blood traces on the wall.
I also knew that my former instructor at VN Naval Academy in Nha Trang, Commander Đặng Đình Hiệp was now teaching cadets at Academic College of VNMA and a Navy company here in VNMA was commanded by Lt Đào and Lt Thạch who also were VN Naval Academy graduates.
The next morning, Sunday, Đà Lạt was still asleep, sunshine and fog covered the pines trees in front of my military quarter unit at Lâm Viên officer housing. I got up early as usual to exercise and to breathe fresh air from the beautiful scenery.
Standing in the front yard overlooking the hillside on opposite of the valley, I was excited for moving into this house after my family arrived from Saigon a week ago..
Below was a hillside growing vegetables garden look like green carpet stretching far away.
Blue sky, white clouds were flying toward the central mountains. I took a deep breath and felt a sensational stream of fresh air penetrated into my body, the smelt of mountains was blended with the pine forest and fragrant from hundreds of variety flowers blooming all over the valley. The harmony of nature and human was perfectly made me being greatÖ
Our children and Minh started to wake up and we all prepared to go downtown to eat Phở (beef noodles soup) and buy foods for lunch at the picnic area, up on the hill over look the Hồ Xuân Hương Lake below.
Early Monday morning, the chief of Advisor to the Military Academy, stopped by my office with an Army Major and introduced him to me:” Commander Lê, I would like you to meet Major Edward D Rowe who will be the Advisor of the Military Instruction Directorate and will begin working today." I cordially shook hand to my "Counterpart" who stood 5 feet 9 inches and weighed about 155 lbs, graduated from West Point Military Academy on nineteen sixty-two.
* * * * *
Previously, in the first tour to Vietnam, Maj Rowe was an advisor for an Infantry Battalion in Quảng Ngãi Province. This was his second tour that he volunteered to serve in Vietnam.
I called down to Logistics office to prepare a desk and a name plate for Major Rowe so he could work in the same room, opposite the desk of mine. Major Dean was a combat officer like me so after exchanging of experiences through war stories on battlefield, all in a short time Major Ed Rowe and Lt Cdr Lê Bá Thông had become getting along very well. I already knew that Ed also liked playing tennis, so I made reservation to use one tennis court for us to play next Saturday and to meet other good tennis players and Brigadier General Lâm Quang Thơ who was also a pro tennis player.
Cadet Regiment stood in formations on the parade field of the VNMA, before guests who came more than the usual parade ceremony on every Saturday afternoon.
Today is the official Change of Command ceremony for the Military Instruction Directorate Lieutenant Colonel Nguyễn Hùng, assumed the position of Commandant to replace Colonel Nguyễn Văn Sử, former Commandant killed by Việt Cọng three months ago. I stood in front of the cadets formations, commanded the cadet Regiment in the ceremony that presided by the VNMA Superintendent, Brigadier General Lâm Quang Thơ.
The ceremony was conducted in accordance with the Vietnamese Military Academy tradition, with the formal military ceremonies and ended with a parade of cadet Regiment. These young people will sacrifice themselves to defend their homeland, against the common enemy of the nation and glorify their school, where physical training and their strong wills endured for the four-year program. These are the valiant Generals, the famed Commanders, the heroic Pilots, the virtuous future leaders of the nation of Vietnamese people. These were the children of her famed school, the Vietnamese National Military Academy....
With the help of Major Rowe, we planned to improve and updated the living quarters of the cadet Regiment and the management of cadet mess hall that we noticed in our inspection those facilities.
After working with each other and exchanged experiences, more and more ideas had come up to make the plan of improving became applicable. Though daily dialogue between us, I recognized that Major Rowe’s character and his experiences in the U.S Army and during his first tour in Quảng Ngãi Province plus his good instinct for capable analyzing in detail of any problem and came up with solution made me so impressive to his capability and his knowledge. He was a man with great personality; with great sense of humor and had a good heart and very quiet too.
In about three months after our initiated inspection tours of cadets barracks and the mess hall. It was time to hold a “Graduation ceremony and party” for class 25 that graduated on July 1972 and presided by the Prime Minister of the Republic of Vietnam and Mrs. Trần Thiện Khiêm.
We recommended that lunch for VIP and guests would be served in the cadet mess hall that had been completely changed its condition, strictly followed health regulations, excellent sanitizing and cleanliness thanked to the outstanding control of a new civilian mess hall person in charge whom we had selected with the approval by the VNMA to replace the last person.
The valedictorian of class 25 was midshipman from Navy company, Nguyễn Anh Dũng who was also the Commander of cadet Regiment.
Three months later, a VNMA traditional “Ring ceremony” of class 26 was held in the cadet mess hall with gests from high school Bùi Thị Xuân, female students from Đà Lạt city were invited to this successful dancing party.
The maintenance of facility of cadets barracks also had been taken care on weekly basic by the personnel of the support battalion to make sure those facilities would be in workable shape and properly used.
To introducing the culture and foods of Vietnam to Major Rowe, I used to invite him and other advisors for The Academic College to my house and have lunches with our family. We enjoyed their company and our children were very please to had opportunity to learn English, to play with the advisors.
We told the advisors about our Vietnamese family tradition and custom such as each member must consider the whole family interest first before his or herself. The happiness of an individual was for all members to enjoy and the sorrow of one member was for everybody to share and comforted one another. The parents set the example by doing well and avoid bad temperament etcÖ Loyalty and honor were the guiding fundamental characters that made a great family.
We also went to the city market place to buy gifts, fruits, to taste Vietnamese famous disk “Pho” ( beef noodle soup) Ö and went to watch “kung – fu” movies together and enjoyed it very much .
The American advisors observed the simple lives of Vietnamese at the market places with daily peaceful ways to earn income for living, to bring up their children and to support their families. Those were innocent people who suffered the cruel war, one after another and the war kept continuing on and destroyed Vietnam and patriots continued to die every day.
On 4th of July, the advisors celebrated the US Independence day at their compound, my family and some of cadets were invited to the cook-out in the back yard.
In once occasion, Major Rowe made arrangement for me to be on the helicopter trip to Nha Trang so I could visit cadets of class 26 who were trained at the VN Ranger Training School in Dong De, Nha Trang.
Some months later I also accompanied General Lâm Quang Thơ on the trip to visit Ist Corp Headquarters in Đà Nẳng to meet Ist Corp Commander General, Lt General Ngô Quang Trưởng to discuss the war situation when the VN Armed forces were deployed to attack NVN Army at Laos territory.
The war become so intent and changed with the decrease of aids from the U.S. Cadet Regiment was limit to stay overnight downtown and in the high alert level. With the number of cadets were in the Academy so high, we must have the activities and schedule to make them occupied.
So the MID Commandant, Lt Colonel Nguyễn Hùng , Major Rowe and I had planned to coordinate with advisors to the Academic College, Major Chuck Collins, USAF, Commander Rich Belser, USN to work
with cadets on Saturday evening through panel debated sections, speakers with selected topics, showing WWII movies Ö like Tora, Tora, Tora that cadets enjoyed very muchÖ
Major Rowe also provided equipment, radios to help cadet clubs to entertainment that also brought the moral of young cadets during the spare time.
Sitting with the panel behind a desk on the stage I was the main speaker to give guidance to over 500 cadets in the main meeting hall of VNMA. Cadets took turn to ask questions related to the leadership from my experiences at sea and on commanding positions on shore duty. I realized more and more that I was drawn into the spirit of enthusiasm, patriotic idealism, love the motherland from my young cadets. Then, the feeling of missing the actual time of my navy career made me sad. I heard the calling voice from the sea to this sailor echoing in my soul. I begin to want coming back to where that I was belonging to.
Days after days, we received sad news from the battle fields, the war escalated and the RVN Armed forces suffered heavy casualties all over the fronts, from Laos to the Mekong River. The list of officers graduated from recent classes of VNMA kept going up. The Memorial services on Saturday nights at the parade field were held to honor the death graduates. It was so emotional with desperate and sad feeling for every members of the institution and for me to bear.
The howling wind blew and gusted from time to time during the memorial ceremony, falling leaves were blown over the field and the flames flickered in the breeze. The names of deceased officers who scarified their lives for the motherland were read loudly and with the drum and the sad music in background that made me feel like hearing the spiritual soul of VNMA patriots presented and was flying around this memorial parade field.
Two weeks later, Major Rowe and Major Collins came to visit my family on weekend and then told me that they got the order with other American to leave Vietnam after the spring of 1973.
I felt so bad about the news and desperate. What had been happening and why it was so early to decide to abandon South Vietnam when we were not fully capable to defend ourselves against the Communist bloc that supported 100% to the North Vietnam Communist to invade the Republic of Vietnam.
Even I heard all sides had met in Paris to discuss the solution for the Vietnam War, also a decision had met, but to leave an ally and cut the military aid to South Vietnam was not the right thing to do.
It was time for me to return to take command of the Navy combat unit to defend our country before the North Vietnamese Communists took over our territory. Then, I discussed with my wife, Minh about my desire to go back to Navy and to volunteer for duty in the northern front below the DMZ at 17th parallels. And again like many times before, she understood the will of her sailor and said “yes” and happy with her role of mother to seven children: Thanh Nhàn, Thanh Trang, Lê Bá Trí, Lê Bá Dũng, Thanh Nhã, Lê Bá Hùng, and Thanh Tâm who was born on early March 1972.
General Lâm Quang Thơ invited American advisors and some VNMA officers including my wife, Minh and me to attend the New Year 1973 celebration at his residence locate not far from VNMA.
Everybody mentioned the future leaving of American advisors team and new plan to cope with the situation after the American troops withdrew from Vietnam. During the discussion and dialogue, I privately requested General Lâm Quang Thơ to see him tomorrow in his office for my person reason. He approved and would see me at 10 am next day.
I met General Lâm Quang Thơ in his office and told him that I would like to request go back to Navy and volunteered for any duty at the northern frontier below the DMZ. My wish was to command combat units to defend our motherland against the Communist aggression to the Southeast Asia.
General Tho understood my wish and promised to call Navy Headquarters and talked to Rear Admiral Diệp Quang Thủy to approve my request.
About two weeks before the Lunar New Year, The year of Water Buffalo, I got the order from SVN Navy Headquarters , Personnel Department assigned me to resume duty of Commanding officer of River Assault Group 32 in Huế and as Commander Task Group 231.1 located at Thuận An. I asked to see General Lâm Quang Thơ to thank and said goodbye to an excellent and great Commanding General whom I was admired and fully respected for all my life. He shook my hand firmly and told me good luck and take good care of myself out there at the battle north frontier.
I told Major Rowe of my order and very sad to say goodbye to my counterpart. He handed me his business card and told me to get in touch. I left Đà Lạt City one month before Major Ed Rowe and other advisors leaving VNMA and went back to U.S.A
The day I left Đà Lạt City is the day blossom flowers were blooming along the roadsides and at the valley. The beautiful mountainous city was still covered by the light foggy and fresh air, birds were flying above the mimosa flower trees. They flirted around and up under blue sky to say goodbye to the sailor and his family who was still tried to keep those moments in their memories and would remember forever.
As a Naval officer, I held a military position normally assigned to Army officers. I always believed that was my destiny because thanks to this miracle, I met Major Rowe, an U.S Armor officer and we worked together only in about one year at VNMA. But then in April 30, 1975 the fall of Saigon had caused the South Vietnamese to escape to sea and on the journey toward Freedom. Millions of South Vietnamese become refugees including me and part of my family.
Task Group 231.1
We were saved at sea by U.S Navy ship USS Barbour County. LST 1195, then we were transported to Subic Bay and were flown to Wake Island located in the middle of Pacific Ocean. I phoned from there to Lt Colonel Ed Rowe and asked for his help. We were helped later under sponsorship of Lt Colonel and his wife, Mrs. Virginia Rowe and their church, The Georgetown Presbyterian Church in Washington D.C, United States of America to settle in Arlington, Virginia U.S.A on August 1975.
After celebration the Lunar New Year “The year of Water Buffalo”, I resumed Command of River Assault Group 32 and Task Group 231.1 responsible for security the rivers and coastal from Quãng Trị Province below the 17th Parallels to Cửa Tư Hiền near Hải Vân Pass.
My Task Group consisted of 8 naval units including:
1. Coastal Group 11 located at the river mouth Thạch Hãn, Quãng Trị
2. Coastal Group 12 located at Port Thuận An, Thừa Thiên Province
3. Coastal Group 13 located at Cửa Tư Hiền, Thừa Thiên Province
4. Thuận An Naval Support Depot
5. River Assault Group 32 located at Huế, Thừa Thiên Province
6. River Patrol Group 60 located at Port Thuận An
7. Riverine Attack and Minesweeping Group 92 located at Port Thuận An
8. Cửa Việt Naval Base
During the time from 1973 to the autumn of 1974, I met many former VNMA grads. The officers were assigned to the VN Marines battalions operated in Hương Điền District, located on the riverside of Ô Lâu River. We were so happy to had met and talked about our time in VNMA.
On August 1974, I got the order to go to school at the Command and General Staff course in Saigon and graduated on January 1975.
I then was assigned as Deputy Commander to Nhà Bè Naval Support base; I went to my hometown and brought my wife, Minh and our 4 young children to Nhà Bè.
We decided to let our 4 older children Thanh Nhàn, Thanh Trang, Lê Bá Trí, Lê Bá Dũng, finished their school year, to stay with my parents then we would bring them to Nhà Bè in summer. But on March1075, North Vietnam Communists attacked and occupied Huế City and Đà Nẳng in a matter of 2 weeks, therefore my parents and our children who already got the air tickets from Hàng Không Việt Nam (The Vietnam Airlines) could not leave Đà Nẳng to join us at Nhà Bè and were left behind when we evacuated on the fall of Saigon on April 30, 1975.