DULUTH — When Chinh Pham went online in mid-July to purchase a commemorative brick to be laid at the USS Duluth anchor monument in Duluth, he thought that was the end of it.
But when Donald Rowe saw the order, including the request that the brick be inscribed “Evacuated Refugee,” it turned out to be only the beginning.
Rowe, who lives in Mentor, Ohio, and is president of the USS Duluth Crewmembers Association, saw an opportunity that, in his view, couldn’t be missed.
“We never in a million years thought that we would be able to tell that part of the story from the refugees’ perspective,” Rowe said on Tuesday during a ceremony at Duluth City Hall. “I got in touch with Mayor (Emily) Larson, and said, ‘This is a story we have to tell.’”
So it was that Pham, 10 years old when he was evacuated from Saigon on May 2, 1975, as the city was falling to North Vietnamese troops, was in Duluth on Tuesday, Oct. 15. He was joined by his parents and a sister, several former USS Duluth crew members and the man who sponsored their family when they initially resettled in Des Moines, Iowa.
Larson honored the family, proclaiming Tuesday to be “Pham Family Day” in Duluth. They viewed the USS Duluth display at the St. Louis County Historical Society museum. In the chilly October drizzle, they visited the anchor monument and laid a wreath at the Northland Vietnam Veterans Memorial on the Lakewalk.
As Rowe had envisioned, they told their story.
“I was only 10 years old at the time, but even at that age the gravity of the mass evacuation of Saigon was not lost on me,” said Pham, now a lawyer in Boston. “I realized the risk that our family was taking and that our lives, as well as those of my fellow South Vietnamese citizens, would be forever changed.”
The Pham family were picked up on the last day of the mass evacuation known as Operation Frequent Wind. The USS Duluth was one of 18 U.S. ships participating in what crew member Norm Malkowski called probably the largest humanitarian operation in human history.
Pham told of circling the fleet in a small boat for a day or two, and seeing a ship with a large “6” on it.
“I remember saying to my brother, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if we were picked up by the ship with the number 6?’”
They were picked up by that ship, which was the USS Duluth.
Malkowski came to Duluth from his home in Pennsylvania to participate in the ceremony.
“During Operation Frequent Wind, one of the ship’s missions was the use of its four lifeboats … to investigate the hundreds of boats that were fleeing South Vietnam looking for sanctuary,” Malkowski told the group gathered at City Hall. Malkowski volunteered for the mission, which was harrowing, he said, because they didn’t know if all of the boats were friendly.
He also helped refugees board the ship and in that role encountered the Pham family — although he wouldn’t know that until almost 45 years later.
“In talking to them, his mother said, ‘I remember you,’” Malkowski said later, still marveling about the moment.
Mike May, 72, made the trip up from Des Moines to reunite with the family he helped resettle in 1975. The Phams relocated to Michigan three years later and May lost touch with them. He and Chinh Pham reconnected 12 years ago, when May’s father died. Now they see each other from time to time because of their common interest in running marathons.
In a conversation following the ceremony, May recalled the early days, when the USS Duluth would be mentioned in the presence of the Phams.
“Every time it was mentioned, there would be a smile and a pause in the conversation … and you could tell something wonderful had happened,” May said. “And that’s one reason that I’m happy to be here, is that we never knew the story. And now I get it.”