THE GREATEST MAN I NEVER KNEW DEDICATED TO MY FATHER & THE HMONG PILOTS

THE GREATEST MAN I NEVER KNEW

DEDICATED TO MY FATHER & THE HMONG PILOTS

Nock XiongPerhaps it was because I was young and selfish, thinking that the world revolved around me and that the drama during my teenage years were the only things that existed in my world.   Not only that, but I was a Hmong girl, the oldest of four girls.   My sisters and I always wondered if that’s why he never talked to us about the Vietnam Was. I know that my parents have always been chastised from other family members because they never had any sons, but my father never complained and he never showed any disappointment in us.    I don’t believe that my father ever intentionally meant to neglect telling us about his role in the war, maybe there were just some aspects of the war he just did not want to talk about.  Perhaps it brought back bittersweet memories for him.

I think that it had a lot to do with the fact that we, Hmongs, have never been ones to really “talk” and convey our emotions properly.   Every lesson taught was a riddle to be solved.   At least that was the case in my upbringing.  With the older generations, children were still meant to be seen not heard, and that is how many of those of my generation had grown up.  We sat and listened like well behave children, we were not to question anything, we were not to speak unless spoken to.  We never held hands, never hugged our parents, and never uttered the words, “I love you”.  It’s not that we didn’t love each other, nor longed to be held, to be acknowledged.  It was just that Hmong kids were taught to became adults a lot younger than our counterparts, and being adult meant being strong and holding your emotions inside.    Yet, it was that mentality that also raised us to be passive about our past which leads to our regrets when we lose the opportunities to reap all the memories, all the knowledge of our elders.

Tou VangTou Vang (My Dad Nock Xiong) -ThenI just never stopped to take the time to ask my parents what it was really like during that time.  I know that my father is a great man, but I really didn’t know just how great he really was, until this past summer.  My father is a Hmong veteran, a Hmong T-28 pilot to be exact and my mother, a Thai woman from the town of Nakom Panom.   Their youth spent trying to survive during the height of the Vietnam War in Laos.    We grew up knowing that we were Hmong, and we knew of the circumstances as to why we had to come to the United States.  I even heard tidbits here and there from my mother about my dad flying and crashing and breaking his nose, but that was the extent of it.   It was only this past summer in a muggy banquet hall in Maplewood, Minnesota that I was to truly “meet” my father.

Here we were in a hotel with a small banquet room packed full guests ranging from high ranking officials from the U.S. Air Force to family, friends, and invited guests of the pilots to see them being given their first acknowledgement of their role in the Vietnam War.  Many of the men left behind all of their belongings, photos, training certificates, uniforms, anything that would identify them as pilots of the CIA’s Water Pump program.  They feared for  the safety of their family if they were to be caught with any of the above in their possession.  So when they came here to the U.S. they all had quietly been forgotten and had no proof as to their involvement in the war.   It was only recently that these men began to reconnect with each other, and with the technology we have today, it was possible for them to start sharing lost photos, documents, and information that would eventually lead to the recognition of these men.   It was long overdue to a group of humble men, all of whom I can gladly call my “father” as well.   It was the first time in 37 years that these men were to see each other again.  For some, it had been since their departures from Laos back in the early 70’s.   Watching these once young men, now older, a little sadder, some of whom are not in the best of health… well,  let’s just say it brings tears to my eyes.  As the video tribute was playing you could see the longing of younger days,  the soft chuckles and teasing of the styles of youth, but you could see the tears, some trying to be held back at the thoughts of all their brothers who had died fighting for what they believed would let their children lead better lives.  The widows and children of the fallen pilots coming forth to receive their recognition on behalf of their fathers…for some it brought closure to the hurt of never knowing their husbands/fathers, for the resentment of being forgotten.  For many of us children in attendance that day, the memories shared by fellow pilots and their wives  was like finding a key to a treasure chest and I know for that, just like me, they are grateful.  In being there that day, I believe many of us, even those who no longer had a biological father, found that they still indeed had “fathers” and a connection to a group of extended family they never knew as well.  We all discovered how difficult it was for our fathers to learn how to fly.  They flew on outdated equipment, they flew in terrain that was treacherous to take off and land in, and not to mention in all weather conditions and even at night.  They flew endless missions knowing that they may never return home to their loved ones.  We learned how wives and mothers had to become fathers as well and care for the home and well-being of the children while the fathers were away, or for the fathers that never returned.  We learned that being Hmong meant being brave and smiling on the outside, even if you were dying on the inside.  It meant living for the next day, living for your children and the future of your children no matter what obstacles were thrown in your way.   Even if it meant sacrificing everything you owned materialistically.  I learned a lot about my father that day, but all unspoken by him of course, as it was always his way to be a quiet man, but a man whose actions mean even more to this day.

All my life, he has tried to give us the best of a western life as well as trying to make sure we would remember and respect the ways of the Hmong .    He came to the U.S. with a little English speaking skills and learned to adapt quickly.  He worked quietly day in and day out to provide for our every need and wants, but he never neglected our family.  There were weekend picnics at the beach, fishing trips, and family vacations to even Disney World.  Even though he wanted us to have an “all American” life, he also taught us to remember and respect the Hmong ways of life because no matter “what color you dye your hair, speak English, and act like you are not Hmong” you will always be Hmong and one day you will come back to love who you are.   As others may squirrel away money for a rainy day, I collect memories for the days when my children are grown and I am alone so that I may withdraw these precious moments to keep me company and bring a smile to my old wrinkled face.   I believe that that time has come for me and I am sure for many others like me to acknowledge this…I do love the fact that I am Hmong, and I cherish everything I can learn about my heritage, and I wear it as my badge of honor for the greatest man I never knew.  I may not have ever hugged him, I may never have held his hand, and I have never so much as whispered the words “I love you dad”, but it is never too late to start, and I encourage all of you to take the time and do the same today.

Nock Xiong

My organization and Congressman providing a certificate of Appreciation from both of us to Nock for her father who wasn't able to attend our Annual Vietnam Veterans Day event this year.
My organization and Congressman providing a certificate of Appreciation from both of us to Nock for her father who wasn’t able to attend our Annual Vietnam Veterans Day event this year. I was also honored to be a part of the first Hmong T-28 Pilot reunion. It was very moving and inspiring.

 

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My Father’s Notebook: Christmas in Vietnam

Me & DadMy Father’s Notebook:  Christmas in Vietnam

The holiday season has always been my favorite time of year.  Growing up in a Christian family, I have such fond memories of Sunday school programs, family gatherings with lots of food and treats, candlelight service on Christmas Eve, and a long vacation from school to play with all those new toys.  Some of my best memories of the holidays are the ones that took place in our home:  putting up the tree, helping my Mom, Sally, to bake cookies and other traditional Norwegian goodies like krumkakes and rosettes, wrapping presents, and watching Christmas specials together.  My parents, Glen and Sally Johnson, worked so hard to make these holiday memories and traditions for us.

On some of those cherished days off from school, Dad would come home from work and with a twinkle in his eye call us “school skippers” and ask why we weren’t in school.  Because it was winter, and Dad’s off-season, he wasn’t working nearly as much.  So the holidays also meant more time with Dad.  Mom, my sisters, and I would spend entire days baking up Christmas goodies.  Mom had to remind us all from time to time to keep our “snitching” to a minimum, as we needed to save the cookies for later.   Dad was wise and could get around this rule by milling around the kitchen, watching and waiting for one to turn out not-quite-right.  “Let me get this one out of the way, for you,” he’d say.

But like all aspects of life, the burden of his service in Vietnam was ever-present.  We loved the twinkling of the Christmas lights, and Mom would pack as many sets onto the tree as it would hold.    Dad was a very easy-going person, and could tolerate more than any other person I know.  But one thing he could not tolerate was blinking lights.  In fact, he preferred they be off altogether, and if he was in the room alone, he’d unplug the tree.

I had always assumed he simply found the lights distracting or perhaps wanted to conserve energy.  Mom knew the truth, though.  Flashing lights triggered memories of the war.   The vast majority of fighting at Tay Ninh Base Camp and at Buell Fire Support Base occurred under cover of darkness.  Both sides of the fight utilized tracer rounds, colored rounds interspersed with the regular rounds to help determine if the rounds were hitting their intended targets and to adjust their aim if they were not.  The night sky was streaked with red and green lights as the bombs fell around them.  So the flashing lights of 4th of July fireworks and even simple Christmas lights can be unbearable.

Christmas in Vietnam, 1968

It was early December of 1968 that 19-year-old Glen Johnson arrived in Vietnam.  Within a couple of weeks, Dad was settling in to Tay Ninh Base Camp in Southeast Vietnam.  It was his first Christmas away from his family.  The memories of that Christmas was so vivid that three decades later, as he recorded his memories of Vietnam in his simple notebook, his account of that Christmas.  It reads as if he had written it while he was in Vietnam.  This is what he wrote:

“Well, maybe cause of lack of snow and 1 day no different than the next, Christmas has gone by.  Repairs during the day and watch for Charlie at night.  They do have a chapel type building in camp here but we forget its even Sunday and a little busy to get there anyway.  So every once in a while the Chaplin gets to this end of the base camp and we have church on whatever day it is when he gets here.  Being that it’s still close to Christmas he wants to sing Christmas songs.  I have seen before on TV, Bob Hope shows and the guys crying.  Now I know why.  I can’t sing anyway, but when they sang Silent Night, no words come out and I see the guys here in church have tears in their eyes “too.”  It’s good to hear from home and the brownies and cookies from Sal.”

Right now, servicemen and women are stationed away from their families this holiday season.  Please remember them and all veterans.  For information on ways to let them know you care during the holidays, you can go to the Red Cross website to learn more about the Holiday Mail for Heroes program at http://www.redcross.org/ca/los-angeles/ways-to-donate/individual-gifts/holiday-mail-for-heroes.

And a great resource for finding ways to help military personnel and their families any time of year is the White House’s Joining Forces program:   http://www.whitehouse.gov/joiningforces/get-involved.  It provides information on how to send messages to servicemen and women, a directory of organizations that help military personnel and their families on both national and local levels, and information and guidance to help citizens to start their own volunteer project.

Whether you celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah, New Year’s, or any other holiday, I wish you all great joy, peace, and love this season.

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My Father’s Notebook: One Name on The Wall

My Father’s Notebook:  One Name on The Wall

Eau Claire recently welcomed the Moving Wall, a smaller scale version of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial—the Wall.  Held in conjunction with a local organization’s Field of Honor, the Wall stood amongst trees next to a field of hundreds of flags each dedicated to the memory of soldiers who had died since 2001.  Small dog tags attached to each flag bore the names of lost loved ones; three different flags bore the inscription “Glen Johnson, Army”—my Dad.

The day was beautiful, with plenty of sunshine and a light breeze fluttering the hundreds of flags dotting the field.  We walked together as a family towards the large slabs of black, just as we had done nine years ago.  Only this time we did so without Dad.  And this time I knew one of those names etched in the stone.

Taking a rubbing of William H. Clevenger from the Moving Wall in September 2012.  Sgt. Major Clevenger was one of Dad’s superiors, and as Dad said, “He was like a father to us.”

Finding Clevenger

We first visited the Moving Wall when it last stopped in Eau Claire in 2003.  I was so surprised that Dad agreed to go with us—my Mom tells me it took much encouraging.  Dad avoided any discussion of Vietnam, avoided anything that could remind him of his time there.  But somehow he was there with us, and I felt honored to be able to show my respect to him, to other veterans, and to all those whose names appeared on the Wall.

Dad was there, but he stood as far back as he could.  He never touched the Wall, nor got any close than ten yards from it, the anxiety and sadness painfully evident.  But he pulled from his wallet a piece of paper with a name written on it and handed it to us.  With Dad far off waiting, we searched for the name but couldn’t find it.  All these years later, I don’t remember now why we were unable to find it, maybe a misspelling, but we were unable to find the name that day.  I was horribly disappointed, as I so wanted to be able to be able to take an etching to give to Dad.  I know now that it wasn’t meant to be that day; this was just a rehearsal.

In 2007, my sister Melissa and her husband, Shawn, took my parents to Washington, D.C.  With much patience, Dad was able to visit the Wall, the full Memorial.  Though Dad still couldn’t get close enough to touch the Wall, this time they were able to find the name he was looking for:  William H. Clevenger.

Dad arrived in Vietnam at the age of 19 having lost his father from cancer mere months before. So it was understandable that Dad looked up to his superior, Sergeant Major William Clevenger.  Dad was first stationed at Tay Ninh Base Camp with Clevenger, a seasoned soldier who had served in World War II, was Dad’s superior at Tay Ninh Base Camp where Dad was first assigned.  Dad looked up to this man, saying “He was like a father to us.”

In the early morning hours of June 6, 1969, another attack on Tay Ninh Base took place.  Warrant Officer Albert Major of the 187th Aviation Company described it as “a night to remember in Tay Ninh.”  The camp was hit with over 200 rounds of rockets and mortars.  The base suffered shrapnel damage and some buildings started on fire.  It would prove to be a sad day for Dad and his unit.

Decades later, Dad would write about what happened to Sergeant Major Clevenger:

“In the middle of the morning when we didn’t normally get mortar and rockets in base camp, they shot some in and one exploded by our battalion Sgt. Major and killed him.  He was so cut up from shrapnel that they had nothing they could do to save him.”

After Dad’s passing, Mom shared with us that it was Dad who found SGM Clevenger’s body outside the bunker.  William Clevenger was 48 and would have been eligible to return home two months later, in August of 1969.  He left behind a wife, Lois.  His name now appears on Panel 23W Line 084 of The Wall.  You can find out more about him and others who gave their lives at http://www.virtualwall.org.

Many More Than 58,261

A picture may be worth a thousand words, but a black wall with 58,261 names is worth a million pictures.  Each of these names brings to my mind pictures of the man or woman represented there, of what their lives were and could have been.  No memorial or statue I have ever seen can compare to the power of the images the Wall brings to my mind.

In his iconic painting “Reflections,” Lee Teter shows an aged veteran touching the Wall while in the reflection lost comrades reach to touch his hand.  And I feel that, too.  Standing before it and resting my hand against the smooth black stone, it feels a thin veil separating the living on this side to all those lost on the other.  I like to imagine Dad standing among the other soldiers behind the Wall.  They had been separated for a few decades, but now they are together sharing a cup of coffee.  And this time, there are no wounds, visible or otherwise.

The Wall represents those 58,261 precious lives lost, but please remember that one name on the Wall represents so very many more lives touched by the war.  For each name on that Wall, countless lives have felt the impact of that life and its loss.  There are the fellow soldiers who served alongside.  There are perhaps medics, nurses, doctors who tried to save this life, even if all that could be done was to say a prayer.    There are the millions who served with them, some who came home with disabilities and illnesses, some with the wounds that cannot be seen, but all who came home changed.

And back home, each name on that Wall represents generations of friends and family that will never be the same.  They were sons, daughters, siblings torn away from their families.  Some were husbands and wives and parents, whose loss leaves a terrible hole.  There are the families left without a husband or wife, son or daughter.   They are the children left without a parent.

When I see the Wall, I am also very thankful.  In Washington, D.C., my brother-in-law Shawn pulled my Dad aside and said, “We’re sure glad your name isn’t up on that wall.”  We are so blessed that Dad came home, so blessed to have had all those years with him.   I am deeply grateful to the fellow soldiers whose friendship, or bravery, or simply commitment to duty, made it possible for Dad to come home.

As the daughter of a Vietnam veteran, I can’t look at the Wall and not imagine in some way how life would have been different if Dad’s name had been etched on the Wall.  You see, had my Dad not come home from Vietnam, I would never have been born.  Four of us—Melissa, Eric, Scott, and I—were all born after Dad came home.  Mom and my sister Shelley, who was born while Dad was in Vietnam, would have been left alone.  So you see, I not only owe these men and women my gratitude for my time with my Dad, but for the very chance at life.

The Wall is a moving tribute to the 58,261 precious lives whose names are etched in the stone, but it is also a tribute to the web of people whose lives are forever linked to them.  They are the fellow soldiers, the families, the friends, the spouses, the children.  They are the lives that could have been.   The least that we can do is remember them—all of them.

Related Post- My Unknown Soldier (Reflections from the woman whose grandfather served with Tracey, and who recently discovered this post about her Grandfather)

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[i] Major, Albert A.  1969 Annual Supplement: History of the 187th Aviation Companyhttp://www.187thahc.net/incidents/inident_69.htm (last accessed December 2011).

[ii] U.S. Army Data Survey Center.  Personnel Roster, Active Army Personnel as of 30 April 1969, 0011 FA BN 7th 105T.  1969.  San Francisco, CA.  Page 2.

 

My Father’s Notebook: The Man Behind the Words

My Father’s Notebook: The Man Behind the Words

My Dad is a difficult person to describe. Not because he’s complicated, but because in words he just seems too good to be true. Who would believe anyone is so amazing as he? Granted I’m very biased. But as we heard many times in the days and weeks after his passing, so many people share our thoughts of his character and kindness and the impact he has made on this world. So before we delve into Dad’s experiences in Vietnam, let me tell you more about this man I’m blessed to call my Dad.
Glen Johnson was born July 3, 1949, on a very hot day in a maternity home in Colfax, Wisconsin. He was the 8th of 9 children. Grandma would take a couple of months to decide on the name “Glen” for him, but by then his siblings had already dubbed him “Pete.” From then on, everyone knew him as Pete. Only Grandma called him Glen, with the exception of Mom on those occasions when she was particularly upset with him.
Dad’s humor was legendary. The kind of wit my teenage self was mortified by, my young adult self found goofy, but my middle-aged self now finds endearing. He took great joy in sharing the latest jokes he had heard. He was partial to a good blonde joke, and being the grandson of Norwegian immigrants, spread the best of the Sven & Oley jokes throughout the family. My sisters and I all married men with Dad’s sense of humor, and when we were together there was much laughter. After one of their zingers, Dad would often look at me and say, “Oh, he’s gooood!”
Dad was an excavator at heart and owned his own business for many years. From the time the ground thawed in the spring until it froze again in the winter, he was at work. Seven days a week he would be at work as the sun rose and not return until after it had set once again. And even then, it wasn’t time to rest yet, as paperwork and phone calls would need his attention.
Even in the winter, the off-season, Dad would be working. Early on he would plow snow and drive oil truck. Later, as his business got busy, he spent most of the winters working on his equipment. Dad would never get rich for all his hard work, but he provided for his family, saw that his children could go to college, and took time to make the life of those around him a little better.
Like generations before him, Dad worked very hard for everything he had. But he gave of him-self and his time as though he were born of great privilege. If one of his customers was having a hard time, he wouldn’t charge them. Dad served as a volunteer firefighter and EMT for the Colfax Fire Department and Rescue Squad, also serving as President of the organization for several years.
After Dad passed away last summer, people from the community came forward with some of the most precious stories. One man, a customer of Dad’s, had lost his young son in a farm accident. Every day after work, Dad would stop in to see if there was anything he could do for them. Sometimes it was just to talk, other times he would help milk cows. Upon their son’s passing, they were given a tree, which the family couldn’t bring themselves to plant even when Dad offered to dig the hole for them. Every night for about two weeks, Dad would ask if it was time yet to plant the tree. But they would always respond, “No, not today.”
Then, early one evening, as Dad was heading home, he saw a beautiful rainbow. He turned his truck around and went right back to the farm. He told them the rainbow was a perfect sign: this was the time to plant the tree. And so the tree found it’s permanent home, and it still thrives there today.
Another lovely story came in a card of sympathy from another former customer of Dad’s. More than a decade earlier, Dad had been working on their farm moving dirt to prepare the site for a new shed. Many years before, this same area had been the site of an old farmhouse and barn. The homeowner had often found bits of glass and even unbroken old bottles around the site.
She wrote, “I jokingly told Pete to try not to run over any of the bottles he might dig up when he was working. When I got home from work that night, there were two unbroken old bottles on my steps. I was so surprised! Pete must have stopped his bulldozer, jumped down and retrieved the bottles for me, if not once, two times. I was so impressed by that little act of kind-ness.”
This one-act of kindness would prove, about five years later, to touch another person. As the homeowner explained, “An 82-year-old woman who lived in that old farmhouse came up here to see what the area looked like since her childhood. Right before she left, I gave her the two bottles that Pete had rescued. Pete’s small act of kindness from years before put a smile on her face as she recognized an old perfume bottle and an old cough syrup bottle from when she was a little girl. Pete was a kind man.”
And so, that was my Dad. He touched so many lives. Mother Teresa once said, “We can do no great things—only small things with great love.” And indeed, that was what Dad spent his life doing for anyone in need, one little tree and one unbroken bottle at a time

Read Tracey’s Other Posts:

My father’s Notebook- The Enlistment Question

My Father’s Notebook- Christmas in Vietnam

My Father’s Notebook- One Name on the Wall

My Father’s Notebook- My Unknown Soldier