They came from as far away as California, and even Saudi Arabia, to meet this year in a humble American Legion post in Greenbelt. And the hands of nine of the 105 persons gathered there went into the air during one quiet moment Saturday. They were among the last to leave on April 29, 1975--the day the U.S. mission in Saigon fell.
From a time in the Vietnam war that is largely overlooked, when U.S. military operations wound down with the American resolve to discontinue the fighting, special bonds were forged among the few Americans who stayed in Saigon and the South Vietnamese with whom they worked.
Officially, these Americans were in Vietnam at the end as others had been at the beginning: to advise the friendly government's military leaders on operations against the approaching North Vietnamese army.
But it was a home, and they left it in an incredible, unexpected departure: lifted out by helicopter, taking whatever they could fit into a suitcase, looking down on the city, wondering about friends and lovers who weren't going to be coming out. They still wonder.
"Nobody thought the damn thing was going to fall like it did," said Cazwell (Caz) J. Page, of Wexford, Pa., who worked as a military adviser from 1973 until he was evacuated the day before the North Vietnamese army pushed into Saigon. "We had no idea. My desk always vibrated from the rounds."
"Those were two of the most beautiful years of my life," said Margaret T. (Peg) English, who served as an adviser to the Vietnamese Air Force at Bien Hoa air base in the countryside near Saigon and now lives in Forrestville. "We used to go out and watch the rockets flying. The country was beautiful. I left there on my birthday, April 19, and cried the whole way. . . . It was the saddest day of my life."
They landed in Guam, or the Philippines, and met in Hawaii, and swore they would keep the experience alive. At their seventh annual meeting, Saigon Mission Association members listened to a speech by Jan Scruggs, president of the Vietnam Veterans' Memorial Fund, who said he hoped the Washington memorial would "aid the healing process" over the American involvement in the war.
The Americans in the association, who worked for the State Department or military contractors, gathered to reminisce and to exchange progress reports about colleagues. The Vietnamese who left with them as coworkers and spouses, though, were more solemn.
While Americans at the reunion danced and called greetings to old friends, the Vietnamese, many of whom have since become U.S. citizens, pulled out snapshots of families left behind. Their memories were not of romantic times, but of devastating choices, and bonds maintained through infrequent letters and packages.
Phan Nguyen, who worked for the U.S. defense attache's office, left just before the mission fell.
"It's very sad," she said. "Everybody cried. But I couldn't be nervous. I told myself, I have to be ready to help other people."
She works for the postal service now, and has been a U.S. citizen since March. She is finishing courses on shorthand and English.
Nguyen danced at the party, happy to see old friends, dutifully explaining the scene stitched onto her long red ao-dai, the Vietnamese traditional dress: "There's the bride, there's the groom. See? Here's the roast pig, and the firecrackers."
But her mind often seemed elsewhere. Like many members of the Saigon Mission Association, she sends letters and packages to those left behind.
"I have one brother. He walked from Vietnam to Cambodia last June 7. He's the youngest baby, he's 23, and we never heard from him since," Nguyen said.
Keeping the contacts, working to support others, she said, "that's a heavy job for me."
When she left Vietnam, Khuyen Segerson married Hal Segerson, currently the outgoing president of the association. They live in Dayton, Ohio. Together, they send packages back to her five sisters and two brothers. They estimate 10 percent of the articles--ranging from Levi jeans to medicines--make it to the families, but what does get through can be sold on the Vietnamese black market to make enough money to sustain a comfortable existence. Khuyen Segerson said she is still unsettled, and will remain so as long as she is apart from her family.
"I tell myself, 'Be strong, be patient,' " she said. "I'd do anything to get them out, anyway I can, anytime--five years, 10 years, however long it takes. I will do my best."