All this year, we’ve been marking the 40th anniversary of America exiting Saigon at the end of the Vietnam War.
Images remain vivid of American helicopters taking off with people hanging on to the landing gears, and of Vietnamese clambering onto departing ships and falling off buildings.
It was an unhappy end to an unhappy and divisive time in the U.S., one nobody felt it had won. Least of all, the South Vietnamese people we’d been fighting for the previous decade.
Some tried to escape ahead of the North Vietnamese Army. Some remained and awaited their fate. And some had no choice.
One of those was Ton That Di, a high-profile, much-decorated colonel in the South Vietnamese Army. There would be no assimilating into a newly united Communist Vietnam for him. He was on the North Vietnamese hit list – if captured, he’d be executed.
Those harrowing few days of 1975, as Americans were fleeing the city and North Vietnamese troops were rolling in, Ton was somewhere behind enemy lines, alone, wandering and hiding, trying to get back to his family in Saigon, so he could get everybody out.
And Ton’s “family” was not merely a wife and four children, it was 15 or 16 extended members – parents, siblings, nephews and nieces.
“I just heard the full story over dinner,” said Col. Ton’s son, Louisville restaurateur Steven Ton, who had known some of the sketchier outlines.
The harrowing story has been patched together over the years for Steven, who was just 2 years old at the time. He doesn’t remember much. But he was told how his father spent three days walking to Saigon to find his family and get them out of Vietnam.
He was told how the family sat at home, terrorized, waiting for him to arrive.
His older brother (and now business partner), Michael, was 8 at the time. He does remember seeing Vietnamese falling to their death from swaying, unsteady rope bridges as they tried to make their way to an ocean liner in the harbor, and freedom.
Michael remembers the family filling a suitcase with papers, jewelry, birth certificates and as much cash as they could stuff into it. He remembers struggling with the bulky luggage in a crowd trying to make it to the docks.
“A man said to him, ‘Let me help you with that,’” Steven relates. Little Michael gratefully handed over his burden and the man disappeared into the crowd “with all our papers.”
At the dock, Col. Ton found a man with a small boat, put a gun to the man’s head and told him, “I have jewelry and money I’ll give to you if you get us out.”
Of course, all the jewelry and money had been stolen, but his military bearing and authority were so compelling – as was the gun – that the man took them.
But the boat broke down in the middle of the ocean and sat there, bobbing, until a Japanese ocean liner spotted it and picked them up. However, due to international law, the Japanese couldn’t offer lodging to refugees seeking political asylum. So the Tons spent the entire time outside, on the deck, subject to the weather.
Steven almost died. He contracted a high fever and his father noticed he was turning green and biting his tongue, so she shoved a lemon in his baby’s mouth to keep him from biting his tongue. Otherwise, Steven said, he probably would have died.
The Japanese let them off at a refugee camp on Guam, in U.S. territory, where their fate was still uncertain.
“We could have gone to Australia or Canada or France,” Steven says. “Those are places that were accepting Vietnamese war refugees. We wouldn’t have come to the U.S., though, because we had no family here and nobody to sponsor us.”
But Col. Donald Brown found them in the camp on Guam.
Brown had been Col. Ton’s U.S. military advisor in Vietnam and they had become extremely close. In the last days of Saigon, Brown had told Ton, “I have to evacuate, but I have connections in the Pentagon. If you can get yourself out of the country I’ll find you, I’ll find your family, and I’ll bring you to the U.S.”
Brown flew the entire family to his house in Bowie, Md., where they stayed for a while. But the American dream was somewhat less than what was popularly imagined.
Col. Ton, who in Vietnam had lived in luxury, made a living in Maryland by cleaning kennels for the SPCA and working third shift in the Sears warehouse. His wife cleaned other people’s houses.
They had no car and so the whole family walked everywhere. Steven remembers being harassed and threatened by locals. The wounds from the war were still raw.
Still, after overcoming a death sentence, bobbing in the ocean and a refugee camp in Guam, the Tons were safe and happy to be in America. They were being led, after all, by a strong, disciplined, military-trained man who had the instinct for survival.
“If my father hadn’t done the things that he did, who knows where we’d all have ended up?” Steven says. “My dad’s brother chose to stay in Vietnam and he was arrested as being an ‘intellectual’ – a teacher, and my father’s brother – and was put in prison for 10 years.”
Michael Ton visited Vietnam 15 years later and was sleeping in his hotel room when government officials knocked on the door, woke him up and began asking him questions. “They interrogated him because of his last name,” Steven says. “They hadn’t forgotten my father.”
But his father had refused to die, so perhaps it’s no surprise he’s still alive to this day.
“He’s in his 90s now and living in Atlanta,” Steven told me. “He had a stroke while going to the mailbox. He remained on the ground for a day until someone found him.
“When I visited him in the hospital, he was complaining about the food and why did he have to be there? He had things to do!”
Eventually, in Texas City, Texas, Steven’s parents opened a Vietnamese restaurant, where he and Michael worked.
Michael used the experience to enroll at the Culinary Institute of America. Steven went to the University of Massachusetts to study biology and pre-med before deciding restaurants were in his blood, too. He worked for Drew Nieporent at Myriad Restaurant Group in New York, coming to Louisville to help open Proof on Main.
The brothers began Basa on Frankfort Avenue in 2007. They have gone on to build a small empire, with Doc Crow’s, a barbecue place and raw bar on Whiskey Row; and La Coop, a Southern-inspired French bistro in NuLu.
Basa is a French-Vietnamese restaurant, blending what is the best of both cuisines. It’s also an homage to their Vietnamese heritage, though the brothers left when still very young.
Their parents keep that flame burning for them. So, too, says Steven, does Michael’s memory of people falling off a bridge to their deaths while trying to escape.
He can’t eradicate the memory.