It was my last Westpac cruise aboard the Durham....."The Lonely Bull". It started in September of 1974.
Sometime towards the end of that year, we took aboard some South Vietnamese officers for training purposes. It was my responsibility to train in navigation. One of those men was named Sau....Sau van Nguyen.
Sau was not a very big man. But his lack of size was easily made up in his spirit. He was very fun to be around with an infectious smile and a great attitude. He was an officer but he asked if he could eat in the mess with the rest of us enlisted men. He said that he just felt more comfortable around us.
Sau was also very bright and articulate. He picked up the art of navigation by the stars in quick order. He equally grasped the electronic items also such as the Loran, Omega, and using the radar. He seemed to absorb everything that I told him like a sponge.
We spent a bit of time in the chart room just talking. We shared our youth experiences and talked of our lives. I don't recall allot of the content of those talks but remember more than anything just feeling comfortable around him.
Sometime in early 1975, the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese Army began attacking. I remember feeling a bit angry that the South did not seem to be fighting back.
I recall asking Sau one day why. After all, we had left them with plenty of weapons. He just smiled his typical Sau smile and he said, "How do you expect us to fight back, Lyle, we have no fuel or ammunition". "You need to buy some.", I returned. "With what?", he said, "Our country is poor. We don't have the money for that.".
At the time and in my youthful mind, that explanation did not carry much weight. I think I honestly did not let my mind turn towards such things as commerce and such. When we needed anything, we just put in a requisition and we got it. In fact, to insure that we kept our budget, we always instructed our supply guy to order enough of whatever before the end of budget time.
So I took his explanation as more of just an excuse and let it go because I liked the man. Years later, I read how our politicians had pulled the plug on their funding leaving them hanging. The Viet Cong were backed by the Russians and the North Vietnamese by China.
Our soldiers did not lose that war....our politicians did!
So, anyway, we were pulled into Subic Bay, Philippines where Sau and the others were taken off of the ship while we prepared to head over and assist in the evacuation of fleeing civilians.
I worried about Sau especially when things went real sour and the country fell. In my mind, I could see him dying in it's defense.
A year later, I was out of the Navy and living in San Diego. Judy and I were renting a small duplex in East San Diego and I got a call from a friend on the Durham. He told me that he wanted to bring by an old friend. Minutes later, he showed up on my doorstep with Sau.
It was so great to see my old friend. We hugged and shared a beer. Finally, I asked him the question that was eating away at me. How and why he got out. I remember even using the word desertion.
Sau just smiled that same Sau smile and said, "What did you expect me to do, Lyle. They would not have put me in prison. They would have killed me.". That made sense.
Sau told me that he got out through Bangkok and was taken in by a family in Los Angeles. He was starting classes at UCLA which was being paid for by the government.
Even though I really liked the man, I was a bit annoyed by that fact. After all, I could not even afford to take classes at San Diego City college without needing some sort of job to go along with the GI Bill.
Last week, I was looking for a picture of one of my old shipmates who is battling cancer. I opened up a chest full of pictures and things. Sitting on top of the heap was a piece of paper. I picked it up and found Sau's name and address in Saigon that he had wrote down when he left the ship. We had plans to keep in touch with one another.
I have always wondered what happened to my old friend. I know that where ever he is, I am sure he is successful. Like maybe a doctor...or a lawyer....or maybe some CEO somewhere.