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Mar 1 2009

Dart Award Honorable Mention

Camp Z30-D: The Survivors

Endurance

Four prisoners make a break for freedom and face a decision that changes their lives.

TRACH DUC NGUYEN
Age, city: 58, Anaheim.
Family: Married with two daughters.
Education: Graduated from high school. Had aspired to be like his mother, who was a successful author of children's books.
Jailed: Nine years.
Job when entered prison: Infantryman in the army.
Now: Machine operator at an electronics assembly plant.

Trach Nguyen squints across the dirt courtyard. The voice on the loudspeaker drones on about the merits of communism. The twilight is dwindling.

The tiny library. The primitive kitchen. The poorly equipped clinic.

He fights to stay calm.

He follows the line of prisoners toward the barracks, guards shouting at the stragglers.

His heart pounds.

He passes the meeting hall, another night of political lectures finally coming to an end.

His chest heaves.

He must choose the perfect moment. Suddenly his body is enveloped in the black shadow of a building. He silently slips out of line.

He zigzags from tree to tree, making his way toward the first fence surrounding the prison.

Seconds later, Trach's friend An catches up. Suddenly, two men emerge out of the darkness. Trach's mind spins. Then he realizes they are prisoners, not guards.

The pair overheard their whispered escape plans during dinner the week before. Desperate, they have promised to keep quiet, but only if they can come along.

Trach relents, motioning for silence. He lifts the barbed wire, crawling through one metal snarl, then another. The metal spikes tear his skin. He keeps going, across the small clearing and into the darkness of the jungle.

After two hours, the faint barking of dogs breaks the rustle of leaves and branches.

“Oh no, they're already on to us!” An says.

“Don't panic. We'll elude them,” Trach whispers.

"It's going to be tough," An says. "If we're caught, you know we'll be dead."

"If we come across any strangers, you all know what to do — right?" Trach asks.

"But none of us has ever ..."

"It doesn't matter," Trach cuts in. "Anybody who finds us, we'll have to kill them with our knife."

Trach has fashioned the knife from a piece of scrap metal. He carries little else: a blanket traded for cigarettes, some dried noodles from home and 12 chloroquine pills, 500 mg each. Two can ward off malaria. An overdose can be fatal.

It is the middle of April 1976 — nearly a year since Camp Z30-D came to life in a Southeast Asian jungle.

After almost 11 months behind prison fences, Trach is a free man. The group travels by day and sleeps under a starlit canopy of branches and vines.

"Anything is better than the hell of prison," Trach says. His mind wanders to the comfort he knew as a child, reciting his father's poetry in kindergarten and writing his own stanzas by second grade.

He thinks back to the prison, recalling how guards would grill him for hours. Any allies still in hiding? Which inmate is talking rebellion?

Still, he was lucky. He saw others beaten with thick bougainvillea branches studded with thorns, leather belts, chains from broken bicycles. He saw guards tie up some prisoners so tightly that the rope cut into their hands and ankles until the hemp was wet with blood. Gangrene sometimes set in. Limbs were amputated.

He remembers how prisoners deemed "lazy" saw their food rations slashed, forcing them to subsist on little more than a thumb's length of cassava root. It tore Trach apart to watch defeated generals arguing over a few spilled grains of rice, grown men crying over lost families.

"If we hadn't fled," Trach tells An, "we would have died. We couldn't last long under those conditions."

The men push on through the jungle. They plan to reach a village 20 miles away that they've heard is friendly to South Vietnamese army veterans. There, they hope to get guns and flee to Cambodia.

"Tread lightly and rub away your footprints every so often," he cautions. "When you cross a stream, walk backward so the guards will think we're headed in the opposite direction."

By the fourth day, they are nearing the village and discussing strategy — food and water low, but spirits high. Suddenly, something moves in the foliage.

A boy, about 15, emerges.

"Who are you?" Trach shouts.

"Just a boy out collecting firewood. And who are you?"

The prisoners' grimy faces, matted hair and stained clothes give them away. Camp Z30-D.

Trach pulls his knife. The other inmates hold down the boy.

"Please, please let me go," the boy pleads. He explains that his father is also in prison for serving in the military. He says he is the eldest in his family and must help his mother.

"I promise I won't tell," he cries.

Should they tie him up? Take him with them? Follow the boy home and use him as a hostage?

They look to Trach.

"Desperate as we are, we're still human," Trach says to himself.

They free the boy.

"Remember," Trach yells as the boy runs away, "remember your promise!"

A few hours later, they hear the dogs. By nightfall, they are surrounded. Guards open fire. Two of Trach's companions go down. An shouts he is surrendering.

Trach looks at the 12 pills in his hand. He swallows them and raises his arms.

"I'd rather kill myself," he mutters to the guards, "than live in prison like an animal."

An hour passes. Then a day. Then two. Trach hallucinates, but his dehydrated body prevents the poison from spreading. He's dragged back to Camp Z30-D. Guards strip him naked and shove him into a Conex box, a container the U.S. military used to transport supplies. He can't stand up and can barely lie down. The narrow box is less than 5 feet long.

He's too weak to raise his hands. His legs are shackled. The stench of his own waste is overwhelming. Mites and lice dig into his skin. Temperatures soar under the scorching sun, then plummet during the night. Sometimes, guards beat on the containers with sticks, hour after hour. For six weeks, Trach falls in and out of consciousness.

His mind plays cruel games, seeming to mock him by reminding how he and his buddies once talked of joining the military so they could meet different types of people, bond amid the hardships of fighting and shape their lives through grand adventure. Serve for three years, finish college, teach literature. That was the plan.

Trach wakes to find the warden screaming. Every detail of his escape must be divulged. He is sure he will be executed by firing squad when there are no secrets left.

"I prayed to die," he says. "Yet something in me wouldn't accept defeat. Something in me still wanted to live."

 

Epilogue

After a month in the Conex box, Trach is suddenly moved to another prison, caught up in a mass transfer of inmates to the North. Nine years later, he is released, falls in love with a street merchant and marries. They emigrate to Orange County in 1991.

Trach now works the second shift as a machine operator at an electronics assembly plant in Anaheim. His wife, Van, sews dresses and jackets in the kitchen of their two-bedroom Anaheim apartment. On weekends, they drive their two daughters — Julie, 8, and Quynh Dao, 13 — to Vietnamese language school.

Because of his night job, Trach is unable to follow his parents' example and hum lullabies to his children. But he recites to them every poem their grandparents sang. And Trach still writes his own poetry, telling of his suffering in prison, of dreams vanished or delayed, of aspirations for his girls.

Trach, 58, longs to revisit his grade school, embrace his mother and find old friends such as An. He writes:

"Follow the clouds, sleeping above my hometown

"My town, Saigon, from my age of innocence

"The place I have known, known every rock and crevice

"Known the schoolyard, worn out from play

"Known the lyrics, worn out from song."

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Anh Do

  • Anh Do is a reporter for the Orange County Register.

Tran Phan

  • Tran Phan is a reporter for the Orange County Register.

Eugene Garcia

  • Eugene Garcia is a photographer for the Orange County Register.

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