A Vietnam Odyssey

A tank mired in a Vietnamese jungle.By LeeAnn Kriegh '94

In the midst of the Vietnam War, two of South Vietnam's best young students, Khiem "Tim" Manh Tran and Thuy "Cathy" Trinh Tran, were sent to Pacific University on prestigious academic scholarships. The students stayed at Pacific only two years — just long enough to fall in love, acquire skills that saved their lives, and form friendships that helped them achieve freedom.


Most of the students in Thuy's all-girls high school followed a traditional path, marrying and having children soon after graduation. If not for her oldest brother's support, Thuy probably would have done the same, despite being one of eight girls in the country to win a prestigious leadership scholarship from the U.S. Department of State. After Thuy's father died, Thi, the oldest brother, took his father's place in helping to raise his seven siblings, including Thuy. "He saw that I was a bright young kid," she said, "and he talked me into going to college in the U.S. To him, it didn't matter if I was a boy or a girl."

Growing up in a village just outside Saigon, Khiem was determined to earn an education that would give him the skills to help his nation. As would be true throughout his life, he worked extremely hard, not only earning one of the 30 scholarships, but outranking all of the other recipients with his grades, fluency in English, and leadership skills.

Early in 1970, Khiem and Thuy joined the other 28 South Vietnamese scholarship recipients for a plane trip to Georgetown University, where they began their orientation to a new country.

Pacific Years

Photo: Homecoming celebration for Thuy and Khiem Tran. 1979.After five months in Washington, D.C., the scholars were dispersed to several U.S. colleges. Khiem and Thuy, who did not know each other in South Vietnam, were the only two students not sent to large universities. Instead, they arrived at a private college in Forest Grove, Ore.

Even in the midst of the national turmoil in 1970, Pacific was a quiet campus. George Evans, an English professor at the time and now Distinguished University Professor Emeritus, said he and English Professor Robert Davies were the only faculty members actively protesting the war, organizing peaceful protests such as a candlelight procession through Forest Grove. However, Roberta Nickels '70, now the director of Pacific University Upward Bound, said she remembers it as "an uncomfortable time" on campus. But this did not keep her from befriending Khiem and Thuy.

Despite the national tensions, neither student recalled experiencing any hostility at Pacific because of their nationality. On the contrary, Thuy said she spent one Thanksgiving at a ranch in Klamath Falls, Ore., invited by a friend who knew she would have nowhere else to go for the holiday. She also remembered Associate Professor of Mathematics Emerita Margaret Chou, who made a particularly strong impression. "Chou was my model for being a woman and being very successful in a foreign country. She had a wonderful career and family, and I found that very inspiring."

Photo: Roberta Nikels and Thao Tran when she first arrived in Oregon. 1976.Khiem and Thuy remembered taking an American literature course from Evans. "It was a very difficult class, but there was a casual relationship (with Evans) I appreciated," said Thuy. "It was a very good example of how you can develop skills at a small school. More than just learning the subjects, you learn how to live."

Khiem said he learned something from every professor and student he met at Pacific. "I was like a dry sponge. ... You soak up all you can so you don't waste the time you've been given."

They absorbed all they could for two years, before moving on to complete their degrees elsewhere. It was 1972, and they had no way of knowing that their connections to Pacific were just beginning.

The Journey Home

Everyone understood the dangers of returning to South Vietnam in 1974. Communist forces were threatening to overrun the country just as Khiem and Thuy earned their degrees and prepared to return home.

After graduating with honors from the University of California, Berkeley, Khiem delayed his return so that he could teach math for a third time in Pacific's Upward Bound summer program. Nickels recalled one conversation in which they spoke of Khiem's upcoming return to South Vietnam and the potential that he would come up against an American soldier he had worked with or taught through Upward Bound.

With dark humor, Nickels said they decided that "Khiem would shout, 'Remember Upward Bound!' as a signal so he wouldn't get shot."

Khiem admitted that he considered running to Canada, a possibility supported by many of his American friends. "But I considered it a privilege to receive this scholarship, and I felt it was my obligation to return, a moral and legal obligation," he said. "Every thought, every action we took at the time was geared toward what was best for our country. What else could I do? I needed to repay the favor of the scholarship."

Photo: Paul Hebb toasting Khiem Tran's arrival. 1979.When they returned to South Vietnam, Thuy was hired by Exxon; Khiem was hired as an internal auditor for a subsidiary of Shell Oil, a job that required some travel. To avoid the land mines surrounding Saigon, he traveled by plane. "In the U.S., you look down and see fields and farms and rivers. Everything is peaceful. Over there, you'd look down and see a lot of defoliated jungle and craters, and at night you'd hear bombs and gunfire," he said. "It was more of a shock when I returned to Saigon and saw the barbed wire and checkpoints – the war zone – than when I came to America for the first time."

"It was a very sad time," Thuy agreed. She returned home to find her country and her family in turmoil. Three of Thuy's brothers were eventually sent to communist "re-education camps," where they nearly starved to death. An uncle committed suicide after his release from one camp.

Like everyone else in South Vietnam, Khiem and Thuy heard the horror stories coming from Cambodia, where communist forces overtook the country, killing nearly a third of the population. Khiem and Thuy knew the communists were coming to Saigon, and particularly as American-educated businesspeople, they knew their lives were at stake.

On April 30, 1975, Khiem listened to Armed Forces Radio, waiting to hear Bing Crosby's "White Christmas," the Americans' signal that the evacuation was beginning. Khiem was one of the hundreds of South Vietnamese people who rushed to the American embassy, trying desperately to get himself and his family out before the communists took over the country. But the evacuation they thought would last a week ended that day.

Khiem was left behind; the sponsorship papers he held in his hand suddenly useless. "When the last helicopter took off, all my hope and dreams were gone."

Communist tanks rolled into Saigon, and Thuy, along with thousands of others, could only hope that the city would not become another killing field. "We were so afraid, we had no choice but to wave at them in their tanks," she said. "We stood by the side of the road, hoping they wouldn't shoot us, just waving and forcing ourselves to smile."

Khiem and Thuy were demoted from their positions and watched with suspicion. "I studied in America – that didn't help. I worked for a British company – that didn't help," Khiem said. When officials found a publication in his possession with the initials CIA, he was imprisoned, and the truth of his protests – that the acronym stood for Certified Internal Auditor – was ignored. After his release, Khiem was told to go to the countryside to make his living as a farmer. "There was no future there for me," he said.

Despite the hardships, Khiem and Thuy married in May 1975, just one month after Saigon fell. Together, they plotted their escape, sending coded messages back to their friends at Pacific, who were drawn together in an effort to save them.Photo: Thao Tran's first Thanksgiving. 1976.

Thao's Miracle

Khiem's sister, Xuan-Thao Tran, known as Thao, the only family member able to escape Saigon before it fell, landed in a refugee camp in the Philippines. Her English was much more limited than her brother's, and she didn't have a sponsor in the U.S. to get her out of the camp. Her only connection to America was the memory of her brother's stories about Pacific University and Paul Hebb, the director of Upward Bound at the time.

Thao wrote a letter asking for help, addressing it only to "Paul Hebb, Pacific University, Oregon." Miraculously, without a proper address or zip code, the letter arrived. Thao eventually was brought to Pacific, arriving with nothing but a handful of shells and the clothes on her back.

Soon she was part of an extended family. She spent her first several months living with Nickels, and eventually became a student at Pacific. "My parents adopted her as one of their own," said Nickels. "My mom sewed clothes for her so she'd have something to wear for college."

Thao graduated from Pacific in 1980. But while being welcomed into the University family, Khiem and Thuy were in what was now called Ho Chi Minh City, still trying desperately to escape.

"Everyone knew when they left that it couldn't have a good ending," Nickels said. As the instability grew in South Vietnam, Nickels and Hebb went to the Bureau of Immigration in Portland, trying to sponsor Khiem and Thuy. Nickels and her parents donated money, as did Evans and former Dean of Students Charles Trombley, hoping it could be used to help with an escape or with resettlement in the U.S. "It was an awfully motley crew to have gotten together under any conditions," Nickels said, "but it was a group of people who would drop anything to help others."

To aid with the escape, Nickels traveled to Hong Kong and deposited money in a bank to help pay for a boat trip, but the tragedy befell the first three of Khiem and Thuy's efforts to escape.

The Escape

Back in 1971, Khiem and Thuy took a swimming class at Pacific with Jean Gordon Horner '44, M.S. '52. Khiem knew the basics, but Thuy, who stood five feet tall and weighed less than 80 pounds, did not know how to float, much less swim. "Mrs. Horner was so patient, treating me with love," Thuy said. "Who cares about someone who doesn't have skills and might fail? But she did. She cared for the little girl who needed help."

Thuy learned to swim, and while most of the students paid little heed to the class text covering survival skills, the two scholars from South Vietnam applied their usual scholarly attention, reading the text with care. Years later, Thuy and Khiem made an attempt to escape by boat. The people who took their money and promised to lead them to freedom instead robbed them, tied their legs and hands together, threw them overboard, and shot at them.

The bullets missed, but Khiem and Thuy were left alone to drown in the Mekong Delta. They freed their arms and legs, and followed Horner's and the textbook's lessons, staying calm through the long night waiting for help to arrive. "We did exactly what we were taught in class," Thuy said, recalling how they took their pants off, blew into them, and tied the ends off, using them as flotation devices. "It saved our lives."

Finally, in 1979, Khiem and Thuy succeeded on their fourth attempt at escape. They traveled 800 miles in a rickety boat and survived seven robberies and attacks by Thai pirates, before arriving at a refugee camp in Malaysia. There, for months they made the best of near-starvation conditions. Khiem was the first to leave; Thuy followed five months later.

At Pacific, Evans, Hebb, Nickels, and Trombley used their pool of funds to rent and furnish an apartment, waiting for the day Khiem would finally arrive. Nickels said she was struck by how thin Khiem had become, and was brought to tears by the generosity of a tiny bottle of Chanel No. 5 that Khiem bought on the plane
for her.

Though Khiem couldn't see well because the Thai pirates had stolen his glasses, and he carried nothing but a black plastic bag containing a second set of clothing, his first words to Nickels showed he hadn't lost his sense of humor. "I travel light," he told her.

In front of the apartment, as people gathered to celebrate, Trombley rushed over with the only gifts he could think to buy: milk, TV dinners, and oranges. "He just knew he had to run to Safeway to get something, but what would you buy for people who had been starving for months?" Nickels said.

Later, it turned out Trombley had just the thing for Khiem: new glasses from the College of Optometry.


Photo: Christmas with the Nickels, Khiem, Tran, and family. 1979.Khiem and Thuy made the most of their skills and education once they settled in the U.S. A month after her return, Thuy was hired as a clerk in the credit department at U.S. Bancorp. She stayed 19 years, ending as the manager of financial application systems, before most recently becoming the director of regulatory reporting at Standard Insurance.

Khiem began in an entry-level accounting position at Johnstone Supply Inc., rising through the ranks in just four years to become vice president of finance at the age of 34. "We've been through a lot, and it's amazing we're here now, doing what we do," Thuy said. Khiem, who was featured on the cover of CFO magazine in 1991, recently retired for health

Khiem now enjoys teaching at Marylhurst University and the University of Phoenix, nurturing a passion that emerged at Pacific. "I'm still proud of the fact that I got great reviews from the Upward Bound students years ago," he said. "I still have those reviews, in fact."

Khiem also has kept, in his meticulous fashion, a list of the 100 most influential people in his life. Several members of the Pacific community – a place Khiem and Thuy spent just two years – are on the list, including Evans, Nickels, Nickels' parents, Trombley, and others.