Ngoc Nguyen of New America Media reports on the first National South Vietnamese cemetery for Vietnamese veterans. This story was a collaboration between New America Media and KQED’s California Report. For the radio version of this article, click here.
Drivers on Highway 395 in San Bernardino County might miss the South Vietnamese flags flapping next to a stretch of road as they whiz by.
Doctor Chinh Huynh drives his SUV up to an empty, 55-acre plot of land near the city of Adelanto. It’s an unlikely site for the first National South Vietnamese cemetery, two hour’s drive East of Westminster’s “Little Saigon” in Orange County.
It’s a hot and windy day. The land is flat and dotted with dry shrubs.
Huynh is a family practice physician in Orange County, home to the nation’s largest population of Vietnamese Americans. During the Vietnam War, he was a Vietnamese Marine Corps doctor for the Republic of Vietnam, America’s ally in the fight against the Communist North.
Huynh looks around and reads a wooden sign that bears the name of the cemetery.
“Nghia Trang Bien Hoa Hai Ngoai,” he says. In English, it’s The Overseas Bien Hoa Veterans Cemetery.
It’s named after one that still exists outside Ho Chi Minh City, which is what Saigon was renamed after the war ended in 1975.
“In the 1970s, the Republic of Vietnam had built its own cemetery to mourn its fallen soldiers,” says Viet Nguyen, a professor of ethnic studies at the University of Southern California.
A famous bronze statue of a soldier in mourning stood outside the gates of the Bien Hoa cemetery in Vietnam. For Vietnamese Americans, the Mourning Soldier is as iconic as the Iwo Jima Memorial is for Americans. The statue, however, no longer stands.
“When the South Vietnamese regime fell, the first thing the north Vietnamese communists …did was to tear down the statues that the regime built,” Nguyen says.
And, today the Bien Hoa cemetery in Vietnam is barely recognizable. It lies in ruins, and some graves have been desecrated.
“When we heard that, we were sad. We decided that we have to build something like it overseas. That’s why we formed a group,” says Huynh.
Huynh’s Committee to Build the Overseas Bien Hoa Veterans Cemetery bought the land in San Bernardino for a quarter million dollars. It was cheaper than trying to buy land in Orange County.
Huynh goes over blueprints for what sounds like an elaborate cemetery.
“Here we see six black walls…the names of the fallen soldiers will be written on these walls,” says Huynh, noting that the site will also include two lakes, a camping site, a museum and a King Hung temple.
A sculptor is creating a replica of the Mourning Solider statue. It will stand outside the cemetery gates.
When he dies, Huynh says, he wants to be buried at this Bien Hoa Cemetery, next to his fellow soldiers.
“When we live we fight side by side and when we die we like to die side by side,” Huynh says.
The price tag for the project could be somewhere between $10 and $20 million, and Huynh’s committee has been busy fundraising.
Dr. Huynh often sings at these events. He’s a well-known singer in Vietnamese circles. During the war, he organized USO-style shows to entertain the troops. The group still needs to raise about $50,000 to pay off the loan.
This is an emotional issue for the Vietnamese community in exile. It largely supports the new Bien Hoa Cemetery project, even if some feel it’s a bit far from where they live. At Little Saigon’s annual commemoration of the fall of Saigon on April 30th, fellow South Vietnamese veteran Truat Quang Dinh voiced support:
“The dream of each veteran is to be laid to rest among fellow soldiers,” says 64-year old Truat Quang Dinh, who was a RVN naval officer.
Major Bill Mimiagi, a former U.S. Marine, echoed Dinh’s sentiment as he stood in front of the Vietnam Memorial in Westminster later that day.
“For the Vietnamese, for the American veterans to be buried in a national cemetery, they’ve earned it,” he says. “It’s a right to be buried, and most if not all want to be buried in national cemetery, because they are laid to rest with their brothers and sister that they fought with.”
Kim, Huynh’s wife, walks around the Westminster Memorial Park Mortuary, right off Little Saigon’s main shopping street. She stops in front of two plots — a two-story grave for a husband and wife, where she says, “the one who [passes] away first lies on the bottom and the one who dies later, lays on top.”
Kim says it could be 10 years before any veterans are buried on the land in San Bernardino County. She and her husband, who is 71, have bought two plots in Westminster….Just in case, the Bien Hoa cemetery they envision hasn’t opened before they die.