Former refugee describes flight from Vietnam with 6 children

Anchorage Daily NewsJanuary 21, 2012 

On the window of her neon-green Fireweed Lane coffee stand, Bong Dunn advertises flavored mochas, breakfast muffins and her life story.

Dunn is an elfin 71-year-old, dressed for work at Java King as if she's going to a formal luncheon. Since 1995, she and her husband, Bob Dunn, have owned 14 Java Kings around Anchorage.

Beginning in 2009, in stolen moments between lattes and Americanos, Dunn wrote by hand, in her native Vietnamese, a 271-page account of her escape, along with six small children, from the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army.

After a year she finished the book, which she self-published under the title "Escape to Survive."

Now her customers -- not a few of whom have Vietnam stories of their own -- can buy copies of her harrowing story of survival along with their morning coffee for $14. She says she's sold a hundred copies so far.

She said writing was less about selling books than letting a story that had lived inside her for decades finally tumble out.

"This is my true story," she wrote in the book's introduction. "I have kept it in my heart and my mind for 35 years."

"Words on paper will never make you feel the heat and dust and fear and death from that time," she continued. "But they may make you understand a little bit."

EARLY CHAPTERS

The story begins with Dunn's childhood in Saigon, where she was one of three daughters of ethnic Chinese and Japanese traders.

A teenager in the early days of the Vietnam War, Dunn fell in love with a Vietnamese air force pilot. They married and had a child before he was killed on a mission over North Vietnam. She was 18.

She went to work for the American military in the seaside town of Nha Trang in Southern Vietnam. Over time, she had four more children, fathered by two U.S. soldiers.

In 1970, she met Bob Dunn, a soft-spoken American GI stationed in Nha Trang, a place he described as a "vacation resort with uniforms and guns."

In 1971, they married in a Vietnamese civil ceremony, which the U.S. military did not recognize. In 1972, they had a daughter who was stillborn. That same year, Dunn was sent home as the U.S. started to draw down its forces. They hoped in time to reunite as a family.

Though the Vietnam War had raged around them for a decade already, life in Nha Trang had been good to Bong's family. They were protected by the American military and had money for small luxuries like fresh mango or orange soda for the children and a trip to the movies.

The fighting had never felt close to home, but in the spring of 1975 that changed abruptly when North Vietnamese troops pushed south and refugees began to stream into Nha Trang.

By then Dunn was alone with six children, one of whom she had adopted after her daughter's death.

She feared that the children, part-American with unmistakably light skin and hazel eyes, would be targets for the invading army and Viet Cong.

"I knew that when the North Vietnam people come and see the kids, they will kill them," she said.

DECISION TO LEAVE

She worried especially about her beautiful daughters. The oldest was 12. They had no choice but to leave Nha Trang. Dunn decided they would disguise themselves as peasants and walk on the road until they could find a car or plane to take them to safety in Saigon.

"I figure if we walk on the road and we get killed with bomb, hand grenade or something, at least we die with mother and children together," she said.

Dunn cried as she burned family photos and bags of love letters that her husband had written -- too risky to carry. She dressed the children in layers of clothing and their sturdiest sandals. She darkened their faces with charcoal. The youngest was a toddler.

They headed south on a route traveled by others fleeing the Viet Cong. They ate salted balls of rice and drank out of streams. They slept in the forest, where Dunn tried to convince herself that she could shield her children from falling bombs with tree branches. The fighting followed them. The gunpowder smell of bombs mixed with the lingering stench of dead bodies.

Daughter Jaclyn Jackson, now 47 and living in Nevada, was 10 during the trek, in April of 1975. She knew that even a minor mistake could cost their lives.

"I felt like if I screwed up, my entire family would be killed," she said.

The family reached Saigon, thin, dirty and blistered but alive with the help of friends.

REUNITED IN AMERICA

With her husband in Maine as a sponsor, Dunn managed to get the family on a refugee flight to America. Up until the moment an American soldier nudged her onto the plane, she wasn't sure whether she'd be going with the children.

"I thought, even if I don't make it they'll get their freedom and a good life," she said.

She remembers the exact date of their arrival in Maine: May 5, 1975. She and Bob legally married, and moved to Chugiak in 1977 for job opportunities. Their seventh and final child, William, was born in Anchorage.

Dunn's one photo of Vietnam that made it to America is printed on the back cover of her book. It shows six serious-looking children in suits and matching dresses, with freshly combed hair.

Once in America, the children were allowed to choose their own American names.

Huyen, the oldest, became Jacquelynn Towner. She works as an oil industry recruiter. Hong became Jaclyn Jackson. She works at a law office in Nevada. (The Jacquelynn/Jaclyn issue "can be confusing," says Jackson.)

Tuan became Steve Dunn, an Anchorage police traffic officer. Tung became Tony Dunn, a former APD officer and now a painting contractor. Ha became Jennifer Haywood, an APD patrol officer. Hung became Scott Dunn, who works for a distribution service. William Dunn is a hairstylist.

Today Bong Dunn is 4 feet, 10 inches (she says she used to be 4 feet, 11 inches). She wears bright red lipstick and wakes at 3:30 a.m. each day to perform her personal exercise routine before putting in an 11-hour day at the coffee stand. She has no plans to retire.

"I am the only old lady making coffee in Anchorage," she says proudly.

She's trying to write a second book, one about her stillborn daughter and her life in America. She wants to thank the country and Americans for giving her family a chance to live and prosper.

So far, it has been slow going. "I'm too busy!" she says.

But when things at Java King fall quiet, she sometimes turns down the Home Shopping Network on TV and sits down, a solitary figure in a bright-green coffee stand, putting her memories on paper.


Reach Michelle Theriault Boots at mtheriault@adn.com or 257-4344.

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