DULUTH – Chinh Pham first knew Duluth not as a city, but as the name of a ship.
It was a massive naval ship that, years ago, hulked over a 10-year-old Pham and his family, who for days had been waiting in one of the many refugee boats floating in the South China Sea.
It was May 2, 1975, and the USS Duluth was participating in Operation Frequent Wind, the evacuation of Saigon ahead of the city’s fall in the final stages of the Vietnam War. The Pham family was one of many in South Vietnam forced to choose between staying — which meant the risk of execution or a re-education camp — and fleeing their country in hopes of finding asylum in the United States.
Pham remembers climbing the ladder to board the ship, where his family was given cookies and candy. They managed to carve out space on the overcrowded ship in the corner of the top deck’s port side.
He also remembers feeling welcome and so lucky to be rescued, Pham said in Duluth City Hall on Tuesday.
Pham, his parents and his younger sister visited the city to meet with Vietnam War veterans who served on the USS Duluth and see the city whose namesake was his introduction to the United States.
“We carried this city’s name all around the world,” said Don Rowe, president of the USS Duluth Crewmembers Association. “It represented so much — in this case, freedom.”
Over the summer, while researching his family’s journey, Pham came across a website where he could buy a brick on the patio of the city’s USS Duluth Anchor Monument on the lakewalk. He purchased one to be engraved with his name and the title “evacuated refugee.”
Rowe received the order and immediately reached out to Pham. He’d been working on compiling the stories of men who served aboard the USS Duluth, but he’d never met anyone who was rescued by it.
Pham sent along the story he’d written describing his family’s journey. And the two men finally met Tuesday, along with a handful of other crew members who served aboard the ship during the operation.
“I was only 10 years old at the time, but even at that age, the gravity of the mass evacuation of Saigon was not lost on me,” Pham said. “I realize the immense risk my family was taking and that our lives, along with those of my fellow South Vietnamese citizens, would be forever changed.”
The Pham family visited the USS Duluth exhibit at the Duluth Depot, as well as the USS Duluth Anchor Monument and the Northland Vietnam Veterans Memorial on the lakewalk.
Pham laid a wreath next to the memorial as his family watched, smiling, standing alongside some of the men who also remember those days in the South China Sea so long ago.
As they looked on, Pham’s sister, Minh Chau Pham, stood next to Norm Malkowski, who served as an electronics technician on the USS Duluth and was aboard the smaller vessels that picked up Vietnamese refugees and brought them to the naval ship.
Earlier in the day, and though 44 years had passed, her mother had pointed to Malkowski and said: “I remember that man.”