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Searching for Nguyen Tan Hung : For the Daughter of a South Vietnamese Army Captain Missing in Action, the Hardest Part Is Never Knowing. Or Is It?

August 28, 1994|Lily Dizon | Lily Dizon is a staff writer for The Times' Orange County edition. She leaves this week for six months to study the Vietnamese language and culture at the University of Ho Chi Minh City

The military cemetery here in Bien Hoa was once known for the two rows of graceful willows that swayed gently in the breeze. During the Vietnam War, when this small town was the headquarters of the South Vietnamese army, sentimental visitors would wax poetic about the willows crying in tribute to the heroic soldiers who sacrificed their lives in the name of democracy.

In those days, the graves marched in precise white lines through carefully tended grass. Flowers and incense sticks decorated the grave sites. A shrine--an imposing slate monument depicting a tired soldier whose M-16 automatic rifle rests on his lap--greeted visitors at the entrance.

In the early '70s, my mother came often to this cemetery, a half-hour's drive north of Saigon. She walked among the headstones, reading their inscriptions, looking for the name of her husband, my father--Nguyen Tan Hung, a captain in the Army of the Republic of Vietnam--who had been reported missing in action in 1972 in the Central Highlands. She came here just in case the army had made a mistake and somehow buried him without informing her.

Once a monument to patriotism and to the fallen heroes who had fought against the Communists of North Vietnam, the Military Cemetery of the Republic of Vietnam is a wasteland today. Most of the willows are gone, the slate shrine destroyed. The endless rows of tombstones are overrun with wild grass and tangled, thorny shrubs. The gray and white headstones have been defaced, overturned, some urinated upon.

Like my mother, I, too, have come here, tracing the rows of graves, trying to find out what happened to my father. Like her, I find no answers, and the one clue the ruins yield about my father's fate is hardly bearable: Here, in the land that he fought for, Father is not simply missing and presumed dead, he is despised, and even worse, forgotten.

MY NAME IS NGUYEN TAN BANG PHUONG. I AM THE eldest daughter of Le Xuan Hao and Capt. Hung. But I am also Lily Dizon, adopted daughter of Alejandro Dizon, a former American civil service employee who married my mom and raised her four children as his own. In April, 1975, as Saigon fell, my mother, my two brothers and my sister and I were airlifted out of the chaos to a refugee camp in Guam and finally to a new life in Louisiana.

We left behind a crumbling nation, scores of relatives and my mother's long, frustrating search for information regarding my father. At the end of that year, she put the past behind her and remarried so that her children could grow up in a stable family. Nineteen years later, prompted by a reporter's curiosity and a daughter's duty and fortified with my second father's encouragement and my mother's blessing, I decided to take up the search again.

I began where my memories ended. I knew my father's face from photographs and a little girl's blurry memories. I remembered a man dressed always in fatigues, who was often away from our home in Qui Nhon, on South Vietnam's central coast, off fighting the Communists, the "red devils" trying to take over our country.

I remembered being carried on his shoulders; I remembered the life-sized doll he brought me when he returned from training in America; I remembered him, not the maid, sweeping the floor--"No one can sweep it as well as I can," he would explain to me as he went about the task. Most vividly, I remembered a seemingly forgettable scene: It was in the evening. Father was carrying me in his arms when he suddenly asked me how old I was. I proudly held up six fingers. "No, my daughter," he laughed, mussing my hair. "You're 5."

Years later, I asked Mom why this bit of banter would stick in my mind. It was March 8, 1972, she told me, and I had turned 5 that day: "We went out for dinner to celebrate. Your father left the next day to report to duty, and he never came back." She didn't have to remind me what happened next. The morning he left, Father insisted on taking family photographs. "I want to engrave your faces on my heart and mind," Mom remembers him saying, "just in case." He had gone to combat many times before, she says, but never with such foreboding words.

A month later, Father called from Fire Base Tan Canh, near the Laos and Cambodia border, to say that he would be delayed. A bridge had been blown up and reinforcements were late. He said he'd be home by April 22.

On the 24th, there were six or seven military Jeeps parked in front of our house when Mom came home from her job at an American supply base. She rushed into the house, where a number of officers were sitting or pacing. When she didn't see Father, she brushed by them. He was playing hide-and-seek, she thought, as he had done so many times before.

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