Grace Pyo, The American Legion's second place finisher in the 2011 Oratorical Scholarship Program, and her mother Thuy Pyo. Photo by Gerald Abel

'A very sad and traumatic time'

On April 29, 1975, during the last days of the Vietnam War, President Gerald Ford ordered Operation Frequent Wind - the evacuation of American civilians and at-risk Vietnamese by helicopter from Tan Son Nhut Air Basbase in Saigon. Thousands were evacuated, including Kim Nguyen and her daughter Thuy Pyo, who have resided in Powell, Ohio, for the past 36 years.

Thuy and Kim spoke to The American Legion about their evacuation experience during the 2011 American Legion High School Oratorical Scholarship Program, where their daughter and granddaughter, Grace Pyo, achieved second place for her winning oration titled "Zooming in on the Constitution."

Q: What was it like living in Vietnam during the war?

Kim: Life was very uncertain and full of worries. I did not know what tomorrow would bring, what life would be like. I worried about the bombings since we lived near the airport, and I had to live in a constant state of preparation for leaving with packed bags, food, money, etc.

Thuy: I was pretty much oblivious. I knew about the war and we had packed bags, but I did not understand the full implication of it as I was just 9 years old.

Q: What was the atmosphere like during the evacuation?

Kim: The atmosphere was pretty calm and orderly for us inside the air base, but outside was chaotic with many trying to come in. Guards were posted everywhere with guns to keep order. We were the only Vietnamese aboard our helicopter flight, which took us to the airport where we were transferred to another big helicopter that took us to an American fleet ship. It was a very sad and traumatic time. Many were crying and grieving because they were leaving their country forever.

Q: What was going through your mind during the evacuation process?Kim: I was thinking about my parents and wanting to turn around and go back home, but I was afraid that the communist would kill us if we did.

Thuy: I was thinking about my grandmother, as I was closer to her than my mom since she took care of me while my mom worked as a single parent. I was crying out for her, and I'm sure this did not help my mom.

Q: What was going through your mind during the helicopter ride?

Kim: I don't really remember what I was feeling because it was all so overwhelming, and I couldn't process it. It was like a dream. It happened so fast.

Thuy: I remember hoping our helicopter would not get shot down. I felt vulnerable in the air.

Q: After you were safe on the U.S. ship, where did it take you?

Thuy: We went to the Philippians and then Guam for one to two weeks before coming to the United States.

Q: Grace wrote a speech about freedom for the Legion's Oratorical program. She wouldn't have this freedom living in Vietnam under communist rule. How did it make you feel to listen to her speech?

Thuy: We're very thankful to God to let us come to America. Thankful to the Americans who helped us come in and settle into life in America. Thankful to the soldiers who fought for our freedom and helped in the evacuation process. It's really a privilege and an honor to live in this great country and have freedom every day.

Our family prays regularly for this great country, for our soldiers and their families, and for God's blessing, protection and mercy. We are training our children to be a blessing to society and to be good citizens, to be praying, to be serving, to be voting, etc. It's really an honor to be able to bless the soldiers and vets in this small way through Grace's speech. War is a terrible thing, and we pray healing over our soldiers from the trauma of war. Freedom is a precious gift we never take for granted.