The "boat people," as they came to be known, are an oft-forgotten footnote at the end of the Vietnam War. In the years following the U.S. withdrawal and the subsequent fall of South Vietnam to the Communist north, refugees packed ships leaving the southern half, bound for anywhere but there.
Between 1975 and 1995 some 800,000 people faced pirates, traffickers, and storms to escape the grip of Communism and make it to a new life in places like Singapore, Hong Kong, Indonesia, or elsewhere. Images of boat people adrift on any kind of ship routinely made the nightly news. Rescued refugees would be resettled anywhere they would be accepted, many of them ending up in the Western United States. One of those people was Air Force Reserve Lt. Col. Asan Bui.
Vietnamese "Boat People" being rescued while adrift at sea.
Asan Bui was born on one of those vessels, adrift in the ocean, bound for nowhere, some 44 years ago. He was a citizen of no country. His father took his then-pregnant mother out of Vietnam because he had served in South Vietnam's army as an artilleryman. Against all odds, he, his wife, and five children all escaped the iron curtain as it came crashing down.
Bui, like many who fought for anti-Communist South Vietnam, faced persecution and execution at the hands of the oncoming Communists in 1975. The fall of the southern capital at Saigon was imminent, and many were looking for a way to flee. Asan Bui's father took his family by boat.
Air Force Reserve, Lt. Col. Asan Bui was born at sea 44 years ago while adrift in the ocean aboard a wooden boat.
(U.S. Air Force Reserve photo by Senior Airman Brandon Kalloo Sanes)
Bui's family was just the tip of the iceberg. The fall of Saigon caused 1.6 million Vietnamese people to flee South Vietnam. The elder Bui was not happy to leave and wanted to fight the Communists every inch of the way. His sense soon got the better of him, though. If he were captured, he would likely have been tortured and killed.
"Anyone that fought alongside the United States would be killed or imprisoned in re-education camps," Bui told the Air Force Reserve. "I have personally spoken with individuals that have gone through this brutal ordeal and survived. Some were not released for over a decade and still carry the traumatic scars."
Lt. Col. Bui's father, Chien Van Bui, calls in artillery fire during the Vietnam War.
(Photo provided by Lt. Col. Asan Bui)
If they did survive the capture and torture, Southern fighters could look forward to hard time in Communist labor camps, re-education centers, or worse. Instead of all that, Chien Van Bui fled with his family. When the family was rescued, they were taken to Camp Asan in Guam, naming their newborn child after the camp they called home.
Asan Bui joined the United States Air Force in his mid-twenties, now serving his 19th year for the country that took him in and allowed him to start a family of his own. Lt. Col. Asan Bui is the commander of the 920th Rescue Wing at Patrick AFB, Fla. He is dedicated to continued service.
"I want to honor those (military and sponsors) that have sacrificed so much for my family and the Vietnamese refugees," said Bui. "Especially the Vietnam veterans."