WESTMINSTER (CBSLA.com) — There are decades and thousands of miles between the fall of Saigon in 1975 and the community enclave of Little Saigon in Orange County, but the memory of those chaotic days is still fresh for Frank Jao and Frank Snepp.
“There wasn’t time to think. I wasn’t allowed to think. The only thing in my mind was the safest route was to get out of here,” Jao said, recalling his escape on one of the last flights out of South Vietnam on April 28, 1975.
Jao had been working in sales for several American businesses and some government interests as a translator. Two days after his escape with just the clothes on his back, the Communists took over.
“My wife was a little bit better prepared. She bring a small bag of her clothing,” Jao said. “For me, I purposely not to prepare because if there were any signs that I am prepared to go, the local police would have picked me up.
“I consider my exit being very fortunate. We didn’t have to go through the route that other people have to do spending their time in the sea to be picked up or as boat people, days and weeks at the sea and landed in a refugee camp,” Jao said.
“If you had a friend in the embassy, and you knew Frank Jao, you made sure he was on somebody’s aircraft,” said Frank Snepp, who was the senior CIA strategy analyst in Saigon and one of the last CIA men to be airlifted off the embassy roof amidst the chaos.
Jao’s American business and government contacts helped him escape, but not everyone was able to cash in on their contacts the way he did. Snepp says he is still haunted by the South Vietnamese, especially one woman in particular.
“The day before the final collapse, a Vietnamese woman I had been seeing for months showed up out of nowhere with a child she said was my own. She had been a girlfriend, she may have been right, I had no idea,” Snepp said. “I said, I’ll get you out, just call me in the next few hours. When she called, missed her call. She had threatened to kill herself and the child if she didn’t get out and that’s what I think happened.”
Snepp has written books and been very vocal on how officials never listened to his warnings that the Communists were determined to take over Saigon by May 1.
“The embassy had become an island in a sea of humanity. There were Vietnamese about 20 to 30 feet deep on all sides, screaming, grappling, trying to get in,” Snepp said. “They knew that we were going to leave and they wanted not to be left behind. During that day, we would grab them, pull them over the walls, separate families. We played God.”
It’s a long way from the final chaotic evacuation of Saigon in 1975 and Orange County’s thriving Little Saigon, where Frank Jao is the founder of Bridge Creek Development and one of the prime developers in the community.
But Jao wasn’t always a community leader – his first job in the United States was selling vacuum cleaners, but was quick to realize real estate would be more lucrative.
“The misfortune of 1975 that brought us here also, on the other hand, a golden opportunity to rebuild our lives, become a citizen of the United States,” Jao said. “The experience of war is a good lesson to learn from.”
Over the past four decades, more than a million Vietnamese have rebuilt their lives in the U.S. and to honor these Americans, a public sculpture is being built at Westminster’s Asian Garden Mall. For more information about this sculpture, click here.