'... still vivid in my head': For two Jamestown area residents, Vietnam War still fresh after 41 years
For two Jamestown area residents who were in Vietnam on April 30, 1975, one a schoolgirl and the other a combat medic, April 30, the anniversary of the end of the war and the fall of the Republic of Vietnam, is more than a historical fact for the school books. It is a lasting memory of events that changed their lives and continues to affect them to this day.
The 41st anniversary of the the end of the Vietnam War in 1975 was the end of one nightmare and the start of another for ethnic Chinese living in communist Vietnam.
“Life was not easy during wartime,” said Hong Mawby, who was sponsored as a 23-year-old refugee to Jamestown in 1979 with her brother, Cuong Duong, 24, and sister Thanh Duong, 14.
Mawby, as 9-year-old Hong Duong, said she remembered bombs falling in front of her school in Cholon, a Chinatown community near Saigon — now Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam. Parents were frantic as they searched for their children, she said.
“All of these things are still vivid in my head,” Mawby said. “That is why I think war is so horrible. It ruins families.”
An elder brother serving with the Army of the Republic of (South) Vietnam never returned.
“He was missing in action,” Mawby said.
Mawby is a middle child of seven siblings. Her father was Chinese born, she said.
“Mom had a fish store in the city and when I wasn’t working I stayed with grandpa in the village making T-shirts,” Mawby said.
Life in Vietnam under the communists after the war was not good, she said. The family factory was nationalized and children were ordered to attend nightly communist meetings.
Elder siblings left for Australia and the United States in 1977, she said.
“It was pretty bad and even more difficult for the Chinese,” Mawby said. “My dad said he did not want his children to live like this and put us on the boat.”
Mawby left Vietnam with a brother and sister in 1978. After four days on the South China Sea the boat reached Malaysia, she said.
Mawby tried to join her brothers in Australia but the country had stopped accepting refugees, she said. Trinity Lutheran Church in Jamestown sponsored the three siblings to live in the former parsonage. It was the third refugee family sponsored to Jamestown through a community sponsorship committee.
Hong met Dick Mawby while taking job training and the two eventually married. At the same time her sister and brother wanted to stay with cousins in California.
“I didn’t want to move,” she said. “I was getting married, so I drove with them to California and stayed a few months to help get them settled.”
Her brother now lives in Wahpeton, N.D., and her sister is still in Los Angeles, she said.
Mawby said the war and the breakup of the family caused insomnia and depression. She sought help and continues to meet with a group of friends.
“Talking about it and having friends works,” she said. “Every morning we go have coffee and talk about problems and how to solve them. It helps to reach out to people.”
Mawby’s parents eventually made it to Australia and she visited them before they passed away. She returned to Vietnam to visit cousins in 2001 and said the country has modernized but the Chinese language and culture of her hometown have all but disappeared, she said.
As the years pass by Mawby said it is easier to put perspective on things. When she was younger it was important to hang onto everything and now she has learned to let go.
Her husband passed away, and Mawby recently got engaged.
The forgotten corpsman
Christian Wingire of Woodworth said he was in his first year of college, had a low draft number and expected to be selected soon. The Medina native joined the U.S. Navy but said they made him a corpsman and assigned him as a combat medic with the 1st Battalion, 26th Marines.
Based in Da Nang, Wingire’s units saw fierce fighting at places like the siege of Khe Sanh, Hai Van Pass, Hill 287 and Hill 55.
“We went through a lot,” Wingire said. “I was up at the front taking care of wounded Marines.”
It was typical for a combat medic to serve six months in the field and then rotate back to work at the battalion headquarters hospital unit. A likely administrative error kept him out of rotation, he said, and he ended up serving 18 months in the field.
Wingire was told he served the longest time in the field of any combat medic. He was wounded four times, he said, and other medics told him he was the longest-surviving medic in the Battalion.
“To this day I don’t like camping,” he said.
The memories still come back to him, and Wingire said it is difficult to relate the experience. He still has nightmares where he agonizes over wanting to do more to save some of the casualties.
Wingire wrote a book he titled "Full Circle" about his experiences so that his family would understand what he went through.
“They knew I served in Vietnam, but they thought I sat on a ship,” he said. “I was an infantry corpsman with the Marines for 18 months and have had some experiences.”
Wingire was a driver for the commanding officer of the National Naval Medical Center when he returned to the mainland. They wore civilian clothing to avoid bricks and rocks because the anti-war sentiment was so bad, he said.
“We were the bad guys,” he said. “When we we came home we were told to just meld in.”
When the war ended in 1975, Wingire was completing his bachelor’s degree in accounting in Virginia and planning to apply for the Secret Service. He said he was devastated at the news.
“I went to a bar and got drunk,” Wingire said. “All I could think was that all of those guys died for nothing.”
Wingire went on to get a master’s degree in administration. He became an executive with the Veterans Affairs and headed VA hospitals in Puerto Rico, Virginia, Colorado and Fargo.