Dexter resident Phillip Pham recently told the story of how his father stole a military cargo plane to fly his family and 50 others out of Vietnam before the fall of Saigon to the communist government in 1975.
Phillip, along with his father, 71-year-old Pham Quang Khiem, shared the story with Vietnam veterans and supporters Aug. 23 when an education center and replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, known as the “Wall that Heals,” made a stop at the Spencer J. Hardy Airport in Livingston County.
Phillip began his speech with:
“I want to share a story about my father, Khiem Quang Pham. He was a 1st Lieutenant in the South Vietnamese Air Force and a pilot for the C-130 Hercules. On April 3, 1975, he did the unthinkable. He believed: “If Saigon falls, if we were not the first people to leave, we definitely won’t be the second.” With lots of prayer, my father stole a C-130 cargo plane from the VNAF and flew my family and 50 others out of Saigon to seek freedom that would have been taken away from us.”
It was the time when it seemed certain that the country would fall to the communist North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces. Lt. Pham, age 27 at the time, feared for himself and his relatives serving in the South Vietnamese military – that they would be captured by their enemy and forced into hard labor.
So Lt. Pham and a close friend devised a risky plan that could easily cost them their lives. But would it work?
The United States was allied with South Vietnam in the war but had pulled out of the war two years before. In spite of not being actively engaged in the conflict, the United States continued to provide pilot training and airplanes. One of those pilots was Phillip’s father Lt. Pham Quang Khiem, who goes by “Khiem Pham”. One of those airplanes was the C-130 military cargo plane.
The mission for that fateful day was to fly a food resupply mission to Phan Rang. Lt. Pham talked the co-pilot for that flight out of his mission offering to take his place using the excuse that he wanted to fly with his best friend in a sister squadron. The co-pilot wanted to go out on a date and gladly swapped out with Pham.
During war-time in Vietnam, there was a ration on fuel. Procedure was for planes to be filled with just enough fuel to get to their destination and then refuel with only enough to get back again. But on that day, Lt. Pham was helped by a crewman who “forgot” about the fuel rationing and took an extended smoke break. The plane’s tank was full.
Phillip continues the story:
“My father unplugged the transponders and radio communication to avoid detection and told his crew that headquarters changed their mission to fly southeast to pick up these people instead. They flew at treetop levels to avoid radar detection and made their way to Long Thanh Air Base, which was a U.S. Air base that was abandoned in 1973.”
“When they landed, they unloaded 20,000 lbs of rice and my dad informed the crew that he was commandeering the plane. The loadmaster quickly departed the plane believing defection and went to alert local military authorities.”
While supplies were being unloaded from the rear, about 50 Vietnamese rushed the plane’s side door in order to get on board. The abandoned airstrip was actually a prearranged meeting spot for Lt. Pham’s family and some friends. In the rush, a 2-year-old girl was trampled during the chaos and the mother dropped her infant on the tarmac in an attempt to save her already pale and lifeless daughter.
The situation was urgent. The unloading of cargo and loading of people took about 7 minutes. As the huge plane lumbered again toward the runway, the military police suddenly appeared alongside in a jeep pointing an M-79 grenade launcher at the cockpit ordering them to stop.
“With a lot of gall, my father told his friend that he didn’t think they would shoot,” Phillip told the crowd. “Sure enough, they let up and the plane took off.”
Lt. Pham flew to Singapore where, upon landing, the refugees and Pham were jailed. The South Vietnamese government was notified of the defectors. Troops were deployed to bring the escapees back and try Lt. Pham and his friends as war criminals.
Days passed by and no one came for Pham and the defectors. Soon after, Saigon fell to the communist regime. Nobody would be coming for them. The United States eventually took Lt. Pham and refugees to live in “the land of the free, the United States of America.”
As much as it was Lt. Pham’s courage and grit that saved his family and others, his son Phillip makes it clear who the real heroes of the story are:
“Was it luck that my family made it here to the United States? Perhaps. With all the things that had to happen, I believe there was definitely Divine Intervention. I am not here just to share about my family’s miraculous escape and to honor my father. Those were only pieces of the puzzle to this story. As improbable as what that story may have sounded, there were some pieces of the puzzle that were missing. Truthfully, this escape simply would not be possible if it were not for the United States Armed Forces.”
Surely it was Lt. Pham’s grit and courage to get his family out of Vietnam at the critical moment that saved all those people, but Phillip, his father, and their family direct their gratitude toward the country that provided the means for escape and a better life.
Phillip’s father had attended language school at Lackland Air Force Base in 1969. He was trained as a pilot at Randolph & Keesler AFB. It was the U.S. troops who fought alongside the South Vietnamese military which created the window of opportunity for Lt. Pham to save his family. The abandoned U.S. air strip provided the strategic location for escape. He “borrowed” a U.S. military cargo plane. And finally, it was the U.S. Air Force that took the 50+ defectors from Singapore to Camp Pendleton at San Diego, CA, and freedom.
Referring to the replica Vietnam War Memorial, Phillip told the crowd, “There are the 59,195 names on that wall. Some of the people whose name is on that wall probably didn’t know what they were fighting for. I believe they fought for something great. They fought for freedom, not just for my family, but hundreds of thousands of others who were freed from communist rule. This freedom came at a very steep price – their very own lives.”
Phillip says, “it’s hard not to believe there is a God when you have such a unique family history”, In spite of this, he struggled with faith as a child growing up. He didn’t understand and appreciate the significance of the story and the American lives that played a role. He struggled with the idea of a loving God allowing war, bloodshed, and suffering. But Phillip came to realize that it is through the self-sacrifice and bloodshed of Jesus Christ that many have been saved with the imploration to His followers that they too should lay down their lives for others.
It is this spiritual connection where the significance of those 58,318 names on The Wall answered Phillip’s questions. Those names were the missing puzzle pieces he had been looking for in his family’s story. Realizing that they too had laid down their lives for others that they did not even know gave Phillip and his family overwhelming gratitude for their ultimate sacrifice.
“When I reflect on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall”, Phillip tells the audience, “I see that there are plenty of brave men and women who sacrificed their lives for their brothers and sisters, even if they were strangers in a strange land.”
“This is ‘The Wall That Heals.’ I encourage everyone here to acknowledge the brave sacrifices that were made to defend a purpose greater than any one man or woman. I hope and pray that those of you who have lost a loved one to be comforted, to be at peace, to know that each life was not lost in vain.
“We thank those who have made sacrifices and didn’t return home. We thank those veterans who served side by side other soldiers who were fortunate to come home and we thank the families of those who served for raising outstanding men and women who hold the highest honor – serving and defending freedom.”
Phillip was recently at an event honoring veterans for Veteran’s Day at his children’s school when he saw a man wearing a “Vietnam Vet” cap. Phillip made his way across the auditorium and introduced himself explaining to the elderly gentleman that he was Vietnamese. Phillip thanked him for fighting in their war. Phillip says, “He pulled me towards him and embraced me and whispered into my ear, ‘no, thank you!’”
And that 2-year-old who was trampled on the tarmac that decisive day back in 1975 … thankfully she was only knocked unconscious and survived. She is Phillip’s older sister and is alive and well in the U.S. today. And the infant dropped by the mother of that little girl was Phillip himself who was scooped up on the run by an Aunt to make the plane before it took off.
“It’s hard, when you are born there, you’ve grown there,” Phillip’s father Khiem Pham said in a MLive interview. “Suddenly in a moment you have to leave the country with your family and you are thinking it’s a better future with leaving the county (than if) we stay back there and we don’t know what the future looks like.”
“When we look at freedom, what we escaped from, the communist government … that’s something I feel the need to give back,” says Phillip. “We owe our lives to these soldiers.”