Wednesday, September 09, 2020

Arrival in Busan

A Vietnamese refugee's memories of Korea
Part 1: Yang Bumo [Foster Parents]
Part 2: In Search of Freedom
Part 3: Drama at Phu Quoc Island
Part 4: Storm Near Taiwan
Part 5: Arrival in Busan

Part 5: Arrival in Busan

May 12, 1975 
The Night I Saw Busan

From far away, Busan, with all of its lights, looked like a sparkling gem in the middle of the night. Finally, the land where I was hoping to start my journey to freedom was emerging magically from the dark, and from the top deck of the mighty LST warship, Busan did indeed look like a gem, one that glowed like my hopes for a better life. I had finally made it. There would be no more worrying about communists, no more worrying about some guy approaching me and asking for money to let me stay onboard. I was sure the moment I set foot on land the next day would be one I would cherish for the rest of my life.

May 13, 1975 

After a sleepless night, the day I had been anticipating for more than two weeks had come. Everybody’s faces seemed to be brighter, and there was a lot of talking around us and so many emotions. Many people were asking questions like “What's going to happen? Are we going to stay in Korea? Will we be able to go anywhere besides Korea?” In my head I honestly did not care. “Just give me a place where I can work to provide for my sister, a roof over my head and everything will be okay with me – I will take everything from there one step at a time!” With nothing on me but my sister’s clothes below the thin cotton shirt I had left after the storm near Taiwan, it was hard to keep the cold at bay, and I saw my sister and brothers shivering in the cold weather of Busan. Despite this, I didn’t really care about anything more than just getting on to land and facing whatever lay ahead.

Slowly leaving the mighty LST ship, I looked at it one last time after my first few steps on land, and my god, it was huge, the ship was massive before my eyes. “Thank you LST, thank you for the once-in-a-lifetime ride, your name and all these memories will stay in my memory for a very long time.”

We walked past a lot of Koreans, and I was overwhelmed by the way they greeted us. Though I was not sure what they were saying, I could guess just from their expressions that everyone was giving us a warm welcome, and all I could do was nod my head respectfully back. It was the best feeling. It felt so warm in a way I had never experienced before in my life, and it lifted me above the hardship of the trip, including the storm near Taiwan that terrifies me even now any time I think of the ship.

By that time I felt comfortable because I knew I was on land now. Everyone settled into the long queue for the buses that were waiting for us. When the bus started to move, good lord, I could see so many people gathered on the side of the road to greet us, waving, smiling, and holding many banners. They were written in Korean, which I did not understand, but by the look on the faces of the people holding them, I guessed they had to be a nice greeting to welcome us to Korea. It was quite a sight, and it really made me feel at home.

We got to the refugee camp, which was housed in the former Busan Girls High School, around noon. The rooms were all set up nicely with mattresses and blankets laid out on the floors, and with help from all the Red Cross officers there we all found a place to settle in.

Our first meal on land, which was served by the Red Cross officers, consisted mostly of ramyeon and japchae and sure tasted good after close to two weeks on the LST.

“Nothing could be better than this,” I thought as I settled into bed with a belly full of food. Full of gratitude for the wonderful hospitality of the people and the land that I had never been to before, and appreciating my mattress and the smell of the clean blankets, my eyes start to close and soon I was asleep. Tomorrow would be another day, and I was sure it would be better than I could imagine.


To illustrate the arrival in Busan, here are a few photos I previous published here. This photo is from the Weekly Joongang, May 25, 1975:

The following photos are from the Weekly Kyonghyang, May 25, 1975:

 First breakfast.

A sleeping area.


While this is the end of the memoir that William wrote about his arrival in Korea, the rest of his story is fascinating. Some of it is told in brief here, but at some point I would like to write it out. As it turned out, the family who took care of them in Seoul was that of General Lee Dong-yong, then the commander of the ROK Marines, who hosted parties from time to time at his residence, where William once shook hands with Park Chung-hee. William, though penniless when he arrived in Seoul, had come from a well-off family in Vietnam, which included an uncle who was, if I remember correctly, an ARVN Colonel who had actually met General Lee during the war, when he had commanded the ROK Blue Dragon Division. And William's quest to find the General's family was successful. I visited the General's grave in the national cemetery with William, met his brother and sister and their families, and also met the General's daughters. He went to Busan not sure how to find the family of Mrs. Choi, who had taken care of his family there, but after asking at a police station (her husband had been a police chief in Busan), after several days I was happy to hear he was able to meet her son. 

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