Americans remember Vietnamese war hero
There is a war hero of great distinction living among us, but few are familiar with the man, or his extraordinary bravery and courage. His actions during the long-ago war in South Vietnam saved the lives of many American soldiers, most special op...
There is a war hero of great distinction living among us, but few are familiar with the man, or his extraordinary bravery and courage.
His actions during the long-ago war in South Vietnam saved the lives of many American soldiers, most special operations teams moving on dangerous ground along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the main infiltration route into South Vietnam.
That Thinh Q. Dinh, now of Fargo, survived the war is truly miraculous. But he paid dearly for his duty as one of the finest helicopter pilots in the South Vietnamese Air Force.
At war's end, he stayed behind to protect his family. He could have saved himself and escaped to a U.S. ship in the South China Sea when Saigon fell in 1975. Instead, he was captured by the North Vietnamese and placed in a hard labor camp.
Col. Thinh, the man who saved the lives of so many Americans, spent 13 years at hard labor, getting barely enough food to sustain life. One bowl of food daily, consisting of 10 percent rice and 90 percent roots, was the ration for men who labored mercilessly six days a week in the jungle, cutting down trees, expending much more energy than that meager food ration could sustain.
"Many of my friends, because they eat like that, they starved to death," recalls Thinh, a graduate of the National Military Academy of Vietnam, South Vietnam's equivalent of the U.S. Air Force Academy. "There was sand in the food. I ate grass and I was always hungry for 13 years.
"I prayed a lot to the Blessed Virgin Mary. My Catholic faith helped me survive the war and the hard labor." (South Vietnam is 65 percent Buddhist).
His wife, Le Nguyen, and their five children survived as best they could, forced to flee to the jungle for two years after Thinh was sent to a prison camp 60 miles northeast of Saigon on June 15, 1975.
Her brother eventually helped the family escape to Saigon, where they hid from authorities for five years.
"There was very little to live on," says Le. "I thought all the time about coming to America."
Meanwhile, Thinh struggled. He shouldn't have survived the war, much less hard labor, but he did. U.S. pilots only had to fly a prescribed number of combat missions before being pulled from the line. Not Thinh. He stared death in the face for eight long years with no respite.
He is so revered by American special operations troops he carried into battle that they sent a private jet to Fargo last September to fly Thinh, his wife, and one of their sons to Las Vegas for the 27th reunion of the Special Operations Association, a group formed by ex-Green Berets who fought in America's secret war from 1964 to 1972. The units made up the top secret Studies and Observations Group, or SOG.
During a formal dinner at the Plaza Hotel on Sept. 27, Thinh was one of eight former South Vietnamese helicopter pilots honored by the clandestine American soldiers who ran top-secret missions in Laos, Cambodia and North Vietnam without ground support or artillery.
Many times Thinh extracted small reconnaissance teams under heavy fire, his helicopter shot full of holes.
"On 7 Oct. 1968, ST (Spike Team) Idaho had been engaged in a firefight with NVA troops for several hours. When the sun set we were all low on ammo and hand grenades, when then-Capt. Thinh Q. Dinh entered into a hover a short distance from our team in elephant grass that was 6- to-12-feet tall...
As Thinh lifted the H-34 away from the LZ, the dark jungle sparkled with muzzle flashes from enemy weapons firing at us. When we landed... I invited Thinh into our club so I could buy him a drink to celebrate surviving the NVA hell in Laos. But he declined, saying he had to return home to his wife and children. Later, we learned his H-34 had 48 holes in it from enemy rounds.
Two months earlier, Thinh pulled ST Louisiana out of an A Shau Valley target after it had been overrun by NVA soldiers. The team leader had called in an airstrike on his team from an A1-E Skyraider to break the NVA attack. The gun-run broke the attack, but it killed one indigenous team member, peppered the team leader with shrapnel while severing radio operator Tom Cunningham's right leg. The medic, John Walton, led the team to an LZ, where Thinh pulled out the team while under extremely heavy gunfire."
Thinh was wounded at Khe Sanh and his helicopter was shot down. And he once picked up the crew of another chopper that was downed, and somehow escaped death, carrying a load far exceeding his aircraft's weight capacity.
"When I went into a landing zone, I always saw a vision of the Blessed Virgin standing below my helicopter with her arms outstretched," says Thinh. "I believe she is the reason that I am alive today."
James, the oldest son, was 16 when he escaped from South Vietnam in 1983, one of the boat people. The refugees in his boat were picked up by the U.S. Navy and taken to a refugee camp on an island. In the lining of his shirt, he carried a history of his father's service to U.S. authorities.
Eventually, a friend of his father's during their days at the South Vietnamese military academy sent money from the United States to get James to California. He was sponsored by David and Connie Price of Fargo and graduated from Fargo North High School. He then received a degree in aerospace engineering from North Dakota State University and today is an aerospace engineer with Boeing Aircraft. He and his wife and four children live in Seattle.
Thinh, his wife, and three of their children - son Thang Dinh, son Yen Dinh, and daughter Hanh Dinh - eventually gained their freedom through the efforts of the U.S. government and came to America on April 15, 1993.
Daughter Txuy Dinh, married with two children, still lives in Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City), but would like to be in America, says her mother. Her parents miss her greatly.
"We got our freedom and I am very happy," says Thinh. "There is no freedom in Vietnam. The future of my children was assured. That is why I am so happy. We are very grateful to be here."
The proud family went to work immediately in Fargo and took assistance for only one month, working any jobs they could find. Thinh has worked at Fargo Assembly for the past seven years and Le works at the Smucker's plant making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. However, she will be out of a job on Sept. 30 because Smucker's is moving its operations to another state.
Both Thinh and Le work six days a week. The family became U.S. citizens in 1998 and Thinh and Le now own a home in south Fargo.
Col. Thinh is an extraordinary man - a genuine hero.
Readers can reach Terry DeVine at (701) 241-5515 or firstname.lastname@example.org