Difficult exit from Vietnam opened door to a new life
by: Jim Clark Huan Luu was one of the first Vietnamese refugees to move to Portland and is retiring from his job as head of fleet maintenance for the city of Gresham after 30 years. Luu is holding an iPad where he keeps a collection of current and old photos, including some from his youth in Vietnam.

The term American dream is thrown around a lot these days, what with it being so elusive because of the dismal economy.

But for Huan Luu, his American dream began to come true more than 35 years ago when his family became the first refugees to come to Oregon from Vietnam.

Now, having married and raised a family since putting down local roots, Luu is saying goodbye to his 30-year career at Gresham City Hall.

After three decades of literally keeping the wheels on our local municipal government, Luu is retiring from his job as fleet maintenance supervisor. His last day in the shop is Wednesday, Nov. 30.

'Time goes by fast,' Luu says while surveying his office, which is tucked in the back of Fire Station 71 and boasts a view of the Dumpsters. 'More than 30 years. I can't believe it.'

Hired on Nov. 9, 1981, Luu has maintained, fixed and overseen every vehicle that's used to run the city, from fire engines to patrol cars.

It will be hard to leave.

'My heart is with the city,' Luu says. 'The city gave me the opportunity to work, opportunity to provide service to customers. To learn a lot of skills, experiences, create friends. It's been half my life. So it is difficult for me to leave sometimes. I still love my job.'

Luu, who just turned 61 last weekend, will miss his co-workers.

'It is like a second family to me,' he says. He is, however, looking forward to spending more time with his grandson, Henry, 2, and his wife of 34 years, Brigitte.

They're planning a trip to Vietnam next year. It will be the first time Luu and his wife, who also fled the country, have been back.

The two met during the most trying of circumstances - at a Guam refugee camp during their separate journeys to the United States. It's one heck of a silver lining from such a harrowing escape made just before their war-torn nation fell to a communist regime.

Time to get out

Luu is the youngest of six children - four boys and two girls - born in Hanoi in what was then called French Indochina. His father worked as a high-ranking government official for the country, which was under French colonial rule.

But in 1950, the same year Luu was born, communist countries led by the People's Republic of China and the former Soviet Union recognized the Viet Minh's Democratic Republic of Vietnam, based in Hanoi, as the government of Vietnam.

Meanwhile, France and other non-communist nations based a military effort out of Saigon to maintain control of the country.

It was during this time that members of the Viet Minh assassinated Luu's father.

Luu was 3. As the Viet Minh battled and beat the French in May 1954, two provisional states were created in the north and south.

One million northerners fled south to avoid persecution by the communists. Luu's mother, brothers and sisters were among them.

The family settled in Saigon, where his mother scraped by on her husband's small pension, raising her children as best she could.

Luu's three older brothers eventually joined the South Vietnamese military. His oldest sister became a teacher while his other sister, Chau, traveled to the United States and studied at Portland State University on a scholarship.

There she met Tim Leatherman - who'd later found the Leatherman Tool Group - and they fell in love. The couple moved to Vietnam, got married and lived there for a few years. Tim worked for Holt Children's Services while Chau worked in the U.S. defense attaché office at the Tan Son Nhut Air Base.

By then, the U.S. had drastically scaled back its military involvement in the country. North Vietnamese troops had moved south, reaching a town just 40 miles from Saigon on April 7, 1975. For two weeks, South Vietnamese soldiers tried to block the advance. Then South Vietnamese soldiers were ordered to withdraw toward Saigon - clearing the way for Northern troops to take the city.

That same day, April 21, Chau's boss at the air base urged her to evacuate with her husband. U.S. military planes were on hand to fly Americans to safety.

'Not without my family,' Luu's sister replied.

North Vietnamese troops would at the very least imprison, if not kill, her three brothers because of their military careers. They'd heard stories about the 're-education camps' for South Vietnamese soldiers. How they were told to pack for a few days or weeks.

'But most spent years, as many as 15, at the forced labor camp,' Luu said. The higher the rank, the longer the imprisonment. 'A lot of people died there.'

Meanwhile, North Vietnamese troops seized property owned by the families of imprisoned soldiers. They booted relatives from confiscated houses, sending them into the woods 'to start their lives again,' Luu said.

'We had to get out of there or be ruled by communists.'

His sister's boss handed her the keys to his car - the implication crystal clear: Use it to smuggle your relatives into the air base.

With most people traveling by bike or motorcycle, cars were rare. And her boss's car - with its license plate indicating the car was that of a high-ranking official's - would be less likely to be stopped by military police, who had set up roadblocks looking for military-aged men.

Goodbye, Vietnam

There was only one problem: Counting Chau's brothers, her sister, two of their spouses, their four children and her mother, the family added up to 12 people.

'I had to hide inside the trunk of the car with my brother to get to the airport,' Luu says. Leatherman made two trips with the car, smuggling the men in the trunk onto the air base. Women and children rode in plain sight in the passenger seats.

Then Leatherman secured a luggage van, similar to today's UPS vans, to smuggle the rest of the men to the base. They hid overnight in the offices where Chau worked because, like at the road blocks, South Vietnamese army guards on the air base turned back military-age men.

The women and children boarded the plane without issue.

'It was pretty scary knowing my mom, sisters, nieces and nephews were on the plane, and we'd never see them again if we were caught,' Luu said.

The next day, on April 22, 1975 - at the very last moment before the plane departed - an American security guard privy to the scheme distracted a Vietnamese sergeant.

It was just long enough for Luu, his three brothers, brother-in-law and another man who was a friend of Leatherman's to board the U.S. military airplane.

All members of the Luu family had fled the country safely with only the clothes on their backs.

It was the last time Luu laid eyes on Vietnam.

Five days later, more than 100,000 North Vietnamese troops surrounded Saigon. They shelled the airport Luu's family flew out of, cutting it off as a means of escape. Civilians had no way out.

American helicopters evacuated South Vietnamese, U.S. and foreign nationals from other parts of the city and the U.S. embassy compound.

North Vietnamese tanks stormed into the city, which officially fell on April 30. During the early morning, the last U.S. Marines evacuated via helicopter, ending what is considered the largest helicopter evacuation in history. Desperate Vietnamese civilians poured onto the embassy grounds as the last helicopter left them behind.

Hello, America

Luu's family flew to airbases in the Philippines and Guam before making their way to Portland, where Leatherman's family lived.

Opening his desk drawer, Luu pulls out a yellowed newspaper clipping. Dated May 9, 1975, the headline reads 'Families Open Hearts to Viets.' Pictured are Tim and Chau Leatherman. Behind them is the whole Luu gang gathered on the front steps of Tim's childhood home in Southwest Portland.

Luu, smiling widely, sits cross-legged in the front row, third from the left. He was 25 but looked like a child.

The article details how Tim's parents, Ken and Arlene, opened their home to the 12 refugees - the first Vietnamese immigrants to come to Oregon. Another Vietnamese family of 13 settled in at the home of a Camas, Wash., family.

Neighbors of the Leathermans and members of nearby St. Luke Lutheran Church donated clothes and toys for Luu's family. He remembers being especially thankful for the warmer articles of clothes: It was a shock coming from a tropical climate to spring in the Northwest, where temperatures hovered between 50 and 60 degrees.

Luu recalls being awed by the scenery: 'So green, so beautiful,' Luu says. 'The fresh air.'

The culture shock didn't end there.

'It was completely different,' Luu recalls. 'There were cars everywhere,' instead of the thick crowds of bikes and motorcycles they were used to. Because of Vietnam's warm weather, people were always outside, talking to neighbors. In cold Oregon, everyone stayed inside.

'We had to learn everything, starting with English,' Luu says. Unlike some immigrants who move to the United States who don't learn the language, his family jumped at the chance to assimilate.

'That's the only way you can go up in society and make your family's life better,' he says.

Luu had just finished four years of law school and was a young lawyer when he fled Vietnam. But practicing law in the United States would require more years of schooling.

'I always liked to tinker, fix things,' Luu says, so he enrolled in Portland Community College's two-year automotive technology program.

He learned English as he studied and finished the program in just one year. All the while, he corresponded with the young lady he met in Guam at the refugee camp. Her family settled in Virginia, so they wrote letters back and forth and talked on the phone.

After two years of courtship, he moved to Virginia and married his sweetie.

For four years, he worked as a mechanic for Arlington County. The couple then moved to Portland in 1980, and Luu got a job at the Gresham Fire Department.

'No. 368,' he says, of his employee number.

With their young son, James, they moved to Gresham's Hollydale area in 1985.

Over the past three decades, Luu has gone from maintaining 56 city vehicles, mostly in the fire and police departments, to overseeing three full-time mechanics who manage a fleet of 250 vehicles.

Now, he marvels at his career, life and profound happiness.

'My family, all are successful, happy.'

Luu's brothers and sisters are retired. His son, James, graduated from Linfield College and has a baby boy of his own.

Ever the proud grandpa, Luu pulls out his iPad and displays a video of his grandson expertly swinging a tennis racket - just how Grandpa taught him.

Once retired, Luu will have more time to hit the courts.

And that means he'll spend more time with his favorite tennis partner: Tim Leatherman.

They often play on the indoor courts at Glendoveer.

The historical information contain in this story was found online at

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