There are few men alive that can honestly say they captured an American fighter pilot, Mr. Chien is one of those men.
It was our second day in Son La Province. Anh and I were making the journey back to Muong Do from Phu Yen where we had spent the night. Simply getting to Phu Yen had been a harrowing enough journey for novice riders like ourselves. The fact that we had made it on a moonless night was a small miracle. With nothing but the dim light of the bike, we had been unable to see where the road ended and the cliffs began. Thankfully, it had been dark enough that we were never really aware how close, or how far, we had come to disappearing off a cliff.
Today, though, we could see the perils we had been fortunate enough to miss the night before. The motorbike’s lack of suspension, tiny tires, and weak breaks did little to ease our anxieties as we forced its little 110cc engine to its limit. For a seasoned rider, this road would have been a piece of cake, as it was in fact a road. It wasn’t paved but it was a somewhat carved and flattened path through the mountains where in theory one and a half small vehicles could pass side by side. I, however, was not a seasoned rider, and the ruts carved by trucks in now dried mud had created deep canyons from which I could not easily dislodge the motorbike.
As this was still part of my first real motorbike trip, it was wildly exciting, but at the same time a bit nerve racking. Especially when we came to a 100m section along a cliff that was nothing but large aggregate stones no smaller than a fist. The villagers had all told us it was a simple 45-minute drive, it took us almost 2 hours.
Eventually we made it back to Muong Do, and its collection of hamlets. With little more than a picture, a story, and a name, we were at a loss for where to go. The only real information we had gathered was that the man we sought, Mr. Chien, was in fact still alive. Beyond that we had learned little else. Like good detectives we decided to pull at the one loose thread we had found and went back to the home of the party leader which we had met the day before. The merriment of the previous day had subsided and most people had found their way to a hammock to doze away the liquor of yesterday, and the heat of today.
As we approached the house we saw that the party leader’s wife was awake and playing with her two young grandchildren. Sheepishly we once again did our best to politely intrude on her quiet morning. She happily welcomed us, and we asked her if she knew where we could find Mr. Chien. She didn’t know but said that her husband would know how to find him. She disappeared for a moment into her large two-storied house to find her husband and when she returned she told us he was making some calls to try and find our precious Mr. Chien. I assumed he was also calling the police to let them know our movements.
The previous day, we hadn’t gotten a chance to hear from her that much. The cadre of uncles had taken center stage. Today, though, there were no uncles and we had a chance to talk. Just as I had discovered on other trips, the women always have the best and most often truer stories unadulterated by male egoism. While it had not been my plan to specifically have a female traveling companion, I was suddenly grateful in moments like these. Anh’s mere presence opened us to a world of stories we wouldn’t have most likely had access to.
As the woman bounced her grandchildren on her lap, she told us that Mr. Chien was somewhat of a local hero and had in fact been a former leader of his hamlet. Beyond that she couldn’t tell us much more. It was a long shot but I decided to ask her if she knew any of the story about my father’s crash and subsequent capture in the war. She said she had been just a young girl when it happened, but remembered people talking about “the man who jumped from the sky.” I don’t know why, but that line has stuck with me. Maybe it’s because it sounded so much more poetic and gentler than “ejected from an exploding aircraft.”
Eventually her husband appeared and gave us a general idea of where to find Mr. Chien. Surprisingly they said he lived near the police station where we had officially stated our visit the day before. We thanked them for being helpful and assisting us on our quest before getting back on the bike and heading further into the mountains.
I was getting excited. I was in the very village that my father had been captured, and I was going to get to meet one of the men that had captured him. Finally, I was going to get to put a face to one of the phantoms from my childhood stories. In some ways it felt like I was searching for a long lost relative. In fact, I knew more about my father’s story as a prisoner of war than I knew about most of my actual relatives.
As we pulled into the village center, we came to the seemingly only shop in town. It was itself an odd place with an assortment of technology tightly packed into what I can only assume was also a home. The establishment appeared to serve a number of essential roles in the community. It sported a hand operated gas pump with a tall glass gauge filled with petrol the color of rancid frying grease, VHS tapes lined along a back wall, and a wireless security camera connected to a laptop. All around us also laid a random assortment of cheep Chinese made plastic household goods. It seemed a perfect analogy for a country in flux.
The shop owner gave us some vague directions but was overall unhelpful. Determined to find our man, we began to drive around the town’s small dirt streets asking every person we could if they knew where Mr. Chien lived. With each person we met, we got a little closer as we triangulated on Mr. Chien's house. Eventually we came to a small wooden home which we believed to be the one we sought. A small dog noisily announced our arrival. Anxiety welled up inside me and I had to fight off all sorts of fears that our unannounced visit would not be welcomed and my entire trip would be in vain.
As Anh got off the bike, a small and frail looking elderly woman came to the door to see what the dog had been barking about. I listened while Anh and the woman briefly talked. My anxiety was making the air inside my helmet so tight and stuffy that I had to take it off. Anh then told me what I had so desperately hoped to hear, we had found the correct house. I instantly let out a deep sigh of relief as the tension eased a little. I was one step closer to meeting Mr. Chien.
Anh and I exchanged a few nervous words as we stripped ourselves of gloves, masks, helmets, and other protective gear. It was apparent that some of my nervous energy had rubbed off on her. This was now no longer just my journey, but a part of hers too. We once again went over what specific information we wanted to know before heading to the house.
As we approached the house, a team of elderly women came to the door to welcome us. Apparently, we weren’t the only ones visiting Mr. Chien that day. His entire family, sisters, daughters, children in law, and grandchildren had all walked eight kilometers to visit him for the second day of Tet. In nothing more than plastic sandals they had hiked over mountains and forded rivers just to get here. Suddenly our little motorbike seemed like a luxury we were very grateful to afford.
Mr. Chien’s family welcomed us into the tiny home which couldn’t have been more than thirty-five square meters. Our unannounced arrival had everyone rearranging furniture and diverting little children. We were ushered to what can best be described as a long, hard, wooden Vietnamese sofa. I desperately tried keep track of everything and everybody, but I was too busy making sure I didn’t knock anything over. It wasn’t until we had finally sat down that I noticed the little man being helped into the chair across from me.
The next few minutes are all a haze to me, but I clearly remember Anh turning to me and saying, “this is Mr. Chien.” For a few moments everyone else in the room just faded away. We had finally found him. For the second time in my life, I sat across from a phantom. I reached over the coffee table to shake his hand. He was real, no longer a childhood story, but flesh and bone.
His small frame made me feel like a giant as he clasped my hand between both of his. He couldn't have been more than 150cm tall. His skin was aged like leather, but at the same time thin as paper. His peppered hair was remarkably dark for someone in his 80's. His eyes had a chipper glint to them and he smiled constantly revealing a mostly full set of teeth. Age had definitely taken its toll on his body as every movement, while deliberate, was shaky and slow like trying to move through water. What I noticed most though was that he seemed happy and content with his life.
We spoke for hours and as time passed as I met the “enemy," I learned that he was kind. Mr. Chien had lived a long and eventful life by any standards. He had been born a colonized subject of Imperial France, lived under Vichi and Japanese rule, witnessed the expulsion of French colonizers, watched as American airplanes flew overhead to drop bombs on Hanoi, seen young boys march south to fight the Khmer Rouge then back north to fight the Chinese in ’79, and now lived to see a rapidly modernizing country moving away from the agrarian-based economy imposed by Le Duan.
His stories seemed to blend together, and I couldn’t help but wondered how much was lost in translation. I wasn’t sure if it was due to the effects of age, or the fact that Vietnamese was his second language and we often had to search for the right words. Nevertheless, we forged on. He told us that during the war with the French, the locals had all burned their homes and hid in caves. Later I was surprised to learn that Muong Do lies in the heart of the Vietnamese French fight for North Western Vietnam. The villagers had lived in an ever-present fear that they would be discovered by the French Paratroopers. During the hard years in the caves they had survived by feeding on rats and other small animals.
When the war ended in ’54, the villagers rebuilt their homes and welcomed the party, who provided a school and a connection to the outside world, something they had never had before. Mr. Chien attended school and obtained a 4th grade education. Years later he would teach the local school there. By the time the war with the Americans came, the fighting was far to the south and there was no need to burn houses and hide in the caves again. Life, for the most part, went on as normal. For some reason, the party never came to enlist the men of the village in the war effort. Instead they were told to keep farming. It was an order that the villagers were more than willing to abide, as they never assumed the war would come crashing into their village.
As the war raged in the south, there was little evidence of it in Muong Do. All they heard were the planes that would fly overhead, and the occasional propaganda. In the entirety of the war, the village had only been threatened twice when American airplanes dropped bombs in the forest nearby. Mr. Chien and the villagers chalked this up to accidents. My own knowledge of bomber pilot habits suspects that it was pilots who had failed to hit or reach their targets and simply ended up dumping their payload on a “possible enemy target” before returning to base.
Eventually I had to ask I wanted to know most. What happened to my father when he was here? Mr. Chien told his version of the story in the humble way people that have experienced war firsthand do. Mr. Chien told us how he had been one of the men to run into the mountains in search of the downed pilot. He told us how they had found my father hidden under leaves in a small hole, and how the local men had marched the bruised and beaten man back to the village. Beyond that he couldn’t remember much about the actual capture. He could, however, remember my father being brought to the village and everyone gathering around to lay eyes on the stranger who jumped from the sky. He clearly remembered serving my father soup that night in a local home as the others discussed what to do. Eventually they settled on a plan and used the only phone line in the village to call the Army. Then, as if in passing, he told me about my father’s escape and subsequent recapture. He also confirmed my father’s story that the villagers would not hand him over to the Army unless the soldiers assured them that he would be treated fairly.
We then moved on to another burning question that I had. One that had crossed the minds of my father and I for years. What happened to the plane? Mr. Chien smiled and chuckled. He said that villagers from a nearby village had become skilled in chopping up planes and repurposing the metal. They had descended upon the plane like a hive of ants and quickly made off with their spoils. The plane, a once multimillion-dollar weapon of advanced warfare, was now most likely pots and pans all across the region in various kitchens.
For hours we spoke and took pictures to commiserate the union of two worlds divided by war. It wasn't till the sun began to set that we became aware of the time. We said our goodbyes and thanked Mr. Chien’s family for their hospitality. We didn’t want to leave, but we feared driving the road back to Phu Yen in the dark again. Almost as an afterthought, we turned to the family once more and asked if they knew of someone simply referred to as “the widow.” They did, and told us she lived in a hamlet even deeper in the mountains. We thanked them again and made the daunting journey back to our lodgings in Phu Yen.
By the time we arrived at our hotel, the sun had dropped behind the great stone curtains mountains and the last rays of daylight faded giving way to night. We ate some instant noodles and then called our parents. I excitedly talked with my dad telling him about my journey, retracing the events of the day. We swapped stories and started piecing together the incomplete fragments to get a better understanding of his time in Muong Do as a prisoner. There were still holes that needed to be filled, but for the first time we had corroborated parts of his story, and filled in parts where he simply couldn't remember or didn't know.
After the call I returned to our spartan but clean room, showered of the layers and layers of dust that had seeped through my clothes, and climbed onto our rock-hard Vietnamese mattress. As I quietly reflected on the day, I stared upwards at the darkness and began to cry. I had finally done it. I had done the thing I moved half way around the world to do. I had met one of the villagers that had captured my father, and tomorrow I was most likely going to meet more.
Wiley H. Jackson
Teacher, Writer, Adventurer
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