by Roger Sislo
He is a small man compared to most of us. I think he stands about 5’ 2” and weighs 120 lbs. He is from what was a well to do South Vietnamese family. I tease him by calling him a city boy because he grew up in Saigon. Due to the war in Vietnam Tri joined the South Vietnamese Navy and was an engineering officer at the rank of Commander. Tri speaks three languages Vietnamese, French and English that he got to practice with American sailors.
Saigon fell on April 30, 1975 Tri and his family were not sure what to do. It’s my understanding that just a few days before, the American government had evacuated his brother but did not have time to evacuate his brother’s wife and children. Tri had to do something to help his mother, wife, daughter and his brother’s family. Tri and a friend from his ship took a moped to the U.S. Embassy looking for help and like many others that day, the U.S. Embassy did not have room for them and could not help them. I’ve seen pictures of the U.S. Embassy that day with lines of people climbing on ladders hoping to leave on helicopters that were landing on the roof of the Embassy.
Tri and his friend left and went down to the Navy piers and found a small ship tied up there. The engine would not start but they found a problem with the battery and were able to get it started. Tri then removed the battery cables so that it would not start and went to get his family.
Tri and his friend loaded their families on the back of a flat bed truck. Tri led the way on the moped and his friend drove the truck. During the trip they had to stop for traffic and Tri’s sister got off the back of the truck and walked away. Tri did not know this until they got to the ship and everyone was getting on board. He asked his mother where his sister was and she told him that she did not want to leave her husband behind and had gotten off the truck hoping she could find him.
As they were getting on board a Vietnamese Navy officer Tri did not know came over and asked him if he and his family and friends could also go with them. Tri told them to hurry and get on board, that he would try and take everyone that was on board when he had the boat ready to go but that he would leave as soon as it was ready.
Tri and his group of refugees got the boat started and under way and soon found out the steering was not working. So they rigged a lever to the rudder and used the sound-powered phone from the bridge to the engine room to tell them which way to steer the ship.
Once they were out of the harbor and under way Tri used the radio to call the captain of a ship that he knew was already under way. The captain met with Tri’s ship and moved everyone over to his ship. He then told Tri to sink his ship so that it would not be found by the North Vietnamese Navy. Once Tri was on board the new ship the captain called for Tri to come see him on the bridge. On the Bridge the captain told Tri, “I just received a call on the radio and I am going to pick up some more people and I want you to sink their boat also once we have them on board.”
I’m not sure of the details but somehow during the trip to the U.S. Navy Base in the Philippines. Tri gave his only pair of shoes away to someone on board the ship. When they arrived at the Philippine base Tri, his wife and 5 year old daughter were lined up on the HOT concrete navy peer and it was burning his feet. Lucky for Tri a U.S. sailor noticed he had no shoes and that his feet were getting burned and got his own Shower shoes (cheap rubber flip-flops) and gave them to Tri to wear so that his feet would not get burned.
Later via Fort Chaffee in Arkansas Tri and his family moved to the U.S. Tri has a great sense of humor and is a lot of fun to know. It surprises me sometimes how much he and I have in common. We both make a living working on computers and enjoy doing our own repairs on our cars, trucks and RV’s.
I’m not surprised he is an enthusiastic, sometimes emotional, always generous, kind and caring person. He’s the kind of person who would give you his last pair of shoes if he felt you needed them more then he did.
One of my favorite quotes from Tri is “We are military, we know we survive”
I’ve told Tri’s story many times to anyone I can trap into letting me tell it to them.