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News / Clark County News

Camas resident’s memoir describes escape from communist Vietnam to successful life in U.S.

By Jack Heffernan, Columbian county government and small cities reporter
Published: January 3, 2021, 6:00am
8 Photos
Tim and Cathy Tran watch a pie-eating contest in 1971 while studying at Pacific University in Forest Grove, Ore.
Tim and Cathy Tran watch a pie-eating contest in 1971 while studying at Pacific University in Forest Grove, Ore. (Courtesy of Pacific University) Photo Gallery

Tim Tran stood, drenched and in shock, near the Saigon River in Vietnam in 1977.

Fearing for his life following the communist takeover of South Vietnam, Tran had just made his fourth attempt to flee the country. Instead, he and his wife Cathy had again been robbed of their possessions, and his father was killed in the process.

“It’s still painful to recall that,” said Tran, who now lives in Camas. “I was blaming myself for my father’s death. I was blaming myself for more poor judgment. On the other hand, I knew that if I stayed in Vietnam, I could end up dead or in jail.”

Now 70 years old, Tran is retired after serving as the chief financial officer of Portland-based Johnstone Supply. He recently published a book, titled “American Dreamer: How I Escaped Communist Vietnam and Built a Successful Life in America,” which is available at Amazon.com.

At 4 years old, Tran left North Vietnam with his parents on a U.S. Navy landing craft and went to South Vietnam. Following the passage of the Geneva Accords that year, which divided the former French Indochina into two zones, historical estimates place the number of people who moved at near 1 million.

“Both sides engaged in propaganda to encourage their supporters or enemies to move,” Tran said.

Sixteen years later, he earned a scholarship through the U.S. Agency for International Development to go to college.

He attended Pacific University in Forest Grove, Ore., for two years before transferring to the University of California, Berkeley. There, he earned a degree in business administration.

As a condition of his scholarship, Tran returned to Vietnam in 1974, where he landed a job as an internal auditor at Shell.

“I had a good pay, I had a good job. It fit with my education and training,” Tran said. “What else could you ask for?”

But the company was taken over by communists six months later after the 1975 Fall of Saigon. He lost his job under suspicion that he was working on behalf of the U.S.

Tran said that, due to his time in the U.S., his position with the foreign oil corporation and his father’s job with the South Vietnam Ministry of Foreign Affairs, he believed that he would be called in by communist authorities for further questioning. He feared for his life.

“I had three strikes against me when the communists took over,” he said.

Escaping the communists

Roughly 800,000 people fled Vietnam during that time, entering the treacherous waters of the South China Sea and Gulf of Thailand. Between 200,000 and 400,000 of them died, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

Several escape attempts by the Trans ended in disappointment when they were cheated by thieves seeking to take advantage of the exodus.

On the fourth attempt, Tran, his wife and father were tricked into believing that a vessel was leaving Saigon in the middle of the night. They paid a fee to board a small boat from the Port of Saigon that was supposed to take them to a larger vessel on its way to Malaysia or Thailand.

After docking at an islet near the middle of the wide river, the men said they would escort each of them, one at a time, on foot to the larger vessel. Tran’s father, Tran Duy Tinh, went first. Roughly 30 minutes later, the men returned — one of them clutching a bloody knife.

The men then bound the couple’s hands behind their backs, took them toward deeper water and pushed them in. For reasons still not entirely known, the men returned later and pulled the couple aboard before taking them back to the landing spot.

Two years later, the Trans finally made their way out. The government allowed people in the country who were Chinese to pay several ounces of gold per person, build a boat and leave.

Disguising themselves as Chinese, the Trans finally made their way out in May 1979.

But the danger was not over.

They were attacked seven times in seven days at sea and robbed of money, wedding rings, jeans and glasses. On the seventh attack, one of the pirate groups destroyed one of their boat’s two engines.

“We thought we’d probably die then in the open sea,” Tran said. “Fortunately we were pretty close to the shore and saw the line of mountains in the distance.”

Safe harbor

The Trans finally arrived at the Pulau Bidong Refugee Camp in Malaysia, on an island all the way across the Gulf of Thailand from Vietnam.

Due to his education, experience and fluency in different languages, Tran soon became the camp’s press secretary for dignitaries, politicians and international media. He also volunteered as an interpreter for English-speaking delegations that were interviewing refugees for resettlement.

“They didn’t treat me as a subordinate,” Tran said. “They treated me as an equal, as a friend.”

That’s how he met Bruce Beardsley, a U.S. diplomat.

“He sort of stood out for his helpfulness, willingness to take on tasks and sense of humor,” said Beardsley, now retired at 78 and living in Florida.

Yearslong refugees at the camp who had been rejected by other countries viewed the U.S. as a last hope. The U.S. took in more than 424,000 Vietnamese refugees between 1975 and 1995, according to the United Nations High Commission on Refugees.

In one scene in his book, Tran describes asking Beardsley why the U.S. was willing to accommodate these refugees. Beardsley replied that the U.S. had “reneged on our promise to help” its South Vietnamese allies.

“It’s sort of like, ‘You break it, you buy it,’ ” Beardsley said. “There had been people who cast their lot with us voluntarily or otherwise, and they were suffering for that.”

By late 1979, the Trans secured resettlement permission and returned to Portland with their belongings in a small sack. Tran began a low-level accounting job at Johnstone. It was the start of a career that lasted more than 20 years at the company, which sells heating, ventilation and air conditioning products to contractors.

Tran became a U.S. citizen in 1986. In 1998, they moved to Camas to be closer to his office near Portland International Airport.

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The Trans in 2017 established an endowment to fund the Pacific University Library, which was renamed for them that year. Tim Tran still serves on the school’s Board of Trustees.

In his retirement, Tran finally found the time to recount his experiences through the book. Earlier this month, he was notified that it had won the 2020 Best Indie Book Award, an international literary award contest that accepts entries from independently published authors.

“I had a very interesting and eventful life,” Tran said. “I also owe it to my fellow Vietnamese Americans and the next and future generations of those who sacrificed to build a better life in America.”

Beardsley said that he hopes those who read the book will appreciate the contributions refugees can make.

“There have been a number that have reached very respectable positions in the United States military and civilian life, as well as a huge number of ordinary folks who are honest, upright, good citizens of our county,” Beardsley said. “They can often be contributors to our country, as so many have been.”

Columbian county government and small cities reporter