Trang Thanh Nguyen

Shackles Leaving Permanent Marks


Trang Thanh Nguyen, former President of the Southern California Vietnamese Community and a current employee of the Costa Mesa school district, spent years in a re-education camp as a former Lieutenant in the South Vietnamese Navy. Although he did not suffer any head injuries, the trauma of his captivity has still lingering psychological effects, he says.

Nguyen joined the Navy in 1969. He came to the United States in 1970 to attend the US Navy’s Officer Candidate School in Newport, Rhode Island, and returned to Vietnam to become Navigation Officer on a Vietnamese vessel.

Nguyen reports that when Saigon fell in 1975, he chose to stay in Vietnam. The Communists sent him for the next seven years to re-education camps. He remembers digging large rock slabs every day, watching many people starve to death, and seeing the Communists cut the tendons of his fellow prisoners before killing them.

According to Nguyen, his first attempt to escape with some friends failed. His friends were shot and killed, and he was put in an isolation cell for two months. He reports that the Communists shackled his feet to the wall, forcing him to sit or lie on the ground at all times. Bug bites covered his body. Once a day the guards brought him rice, salt and water. Sometimes, he ate the rats that invaded his cell, Nguyen says.

Being shackled left him with permanent damage in his left leg; he walks with a limp. According to Nguyen, there was no medical attention in his camp, so his leg was left to heal on its own. It was only after his release that he received medical attention.

He was released in 1981, but he was under probation for one year, ordered to check in with the police once a month. He attempted to escape by boat in early 1981, but was captured and put in jail. A few months later, he was successful in escaping to Malaysia. Because of his Navy experience, he was placed in charge of a boat with 75 people on board. His Naval alma mater in Newport assisted him in coming to the United States, according to Nguyen.

Thirsty-five years after the end of the Vietnam War, he still has nightmares of being in camp, waking up in a sweat. When he has not had a day full of work he cannot sleep. His memory is loose; even when he looks at a textbook, he does not remember any of the physics or mathematics he had studied before joining the Navy.

His wife can only sleep with the aid of a sleeping pill. During one of her attempts of leaving the country, a boat beam hit her in the head. The Communists caught her group, and she was taken to the hospital because they thought she would die from blood loss. She has a hard time with her memory, and in cold weather, her head hurts from the impact she suffered years ago.

Nguyen does not speak about his experiences often, but says that he feels better when he does. Sharing his experiences with younger generations is helpful to him because he sees it as his way of telling the true story. -- KELLIE KOTRABA