Solemnly, as the plates were cleared from the dinner table in suburban Bethesda, Md., a dozen Vietnamese refugees turned their attention to blond, blue-eyed Dick Swanson. Rising from his chair, 32-year-old Ngo Bernard Thanh Lang presented Swanson with a black cloth bag. “I was the head of the family,” said Bernard. “Now you are.”
In the bag was the shrunken legacy of a once prosperous family—a ring and some jewelry, a gold wafer, a small check from a Utah university—totaling barely $1,400 in value. Far more significant than the transfer of assets, the gathering marked the successful conclusion of a 23,000-mile rescue mission that had taken the 40-year-old Swanson from Washington to Saigon and back again to save the family of his 38-year-old Vietnamese wife. Swanson’s in-laws were among more than 100,000 Vietnamese refugees who fled their country just ahead of the Communist takeover.
Swanson, a Washington photographer (and frequent contributor to PEOPLE), met his wife, Germaine, a reporter, when both worked for Time Inc. in Saigon. Married in 1969, they came to the U.S. in 1971. When this spring’s Vietcong offensive turned into a rout, Swanson hurried back to Vietnam with four credit cards and $200. Arriving on the last commercial flight to Saigon, he found the city under rocket attack. “I thought, ‘Oh God, I’m never going to get them out,’ ” Swanson recalls. “I was sure there would be panic.”
Borrowing a car from a friend, Swanson sped to his wife’s home for an emotional reunion with her family. Among them were his mother-in-law, his wife’s four brothers, her sister Gabrielle and her three children, and the wife and two sons of brother René. “Mama immediately announced she was staying,” says Swanson. “She’s the only one in the family who doesn’t speak English, and she kept saying ‘Dick, Mama Saigon.’ ” Eventually her sons persuaded her to leave with the others. “We’re taking her if we have to tie her up, put her in a bag and throw her in the back of a truck,” vowed one.
Gabrielle’s husband, Col. Nguyen Van Ba, was on duty with the South Vietnamese air force, and because of him Gabrielle had a pass into Tansonnhut Airbase. She also had managed to lay hands on a truck. “The hardest thing was getting onto the base,” said Swanson. “The guards were taking huge bribes and arbitrarily pulling all draft-age men off the trucks.” Germaine’s brothers, however, were allowed past the cordon because they had been released from the military to teach. Two yards inside the base, the battered truck sputtered and died. “There were about 4,000 people in the compound,” Swanson recalls. “Only two people from the U.S. embassy were processing refugees, and they said they didn’t have the official stamp that would allow us to be flown out. I knew we had to get out that day before panic set in.”
Flashing his press card, Swanson slipped through a door marked “No Admittance” and stumbled upon an embassy official. Identifying himself, Swanson went through the motions of an interview with the man, then casually mentioned the need for a signature on his papers. The official okayed them instantly. Thirteen hours after arriving at Tansonnhut, the family was ready to board a U.S. Air Force jet to Guam—one of the last planes to leave Saigon.
“Then my heart fell,” says Swanson. “Six Vietnamese military police were standing at the ramp, yanking draft-age men out of line. We decided the boys should carry the younger children and hide their faces as they walked through.”
They made it. Safely on the plane, the emotion-torn family broke down and wept. “They were elated to be safe,” says Swanson, “but heartsick to be leaving their home.”
Actually, the family’s odyssey had begun in Hanoi in 1954. Germaine’s father, now dead, had been a police chief under the French colonial regime, and during that phase of the Indo-China war the entire family had been lined up to be shot by the nationalist Vietminh. At the last moment, Germaine’s mother was recognized by one of the soldiers, a boy she had helped to bring up. Dispersing the firing squad, the soldier ordered the family to hide in a trench, then hand grenaded their home. Later, in South Vietnam, the family was supported by Germaine, the oldest child, who worked as a nurse parachuting into combat zones, then later, for TIME.
Though the Ngo family’s future is uncertain, they are facing it without apprehension. René, a teacher, has been promised a job in France. Gabrielle was relieved to learn last week that her husband, Colonel Nguyen, had escaped to Guam. Brothers Bernard and Albert are also seeking teaching jobs in the U.S., while Long, another brother, and Mama plan to stay with the Swansons. (As the head of the clan, Swanson has already been given a family name, Ngo Thanh Dick.) Understandably, all find the tree-lined streets of Bethesda an astonishing contrast to chaotic Saigon. “I think,” marvels Albert, “that this must be the most peaceful place in the world.”