Escape from Vietnam
After a harrowing rescue on the eve of the fall of Saigon, a family started over in Bethesda
PRESIDENT GERALD FORD'S CHIEF of staff, Donald Rumsfeld, offered his Bethesda basement. CIA Director William Colby’s wife called to say that she had two spare bedrooms. Friends from all over the Mohican Hills neighborhood rallied around friends Dick and Germaine Swanson after their family members narrowly escaped South Vietnam and were brought to Bethesda at the end of one of the longest wars in American history.
“Food and other supplies kept appearing on our doorstep,” 80-year-old Germaine remembers today as she cooks her famous spring rolls and pho for lunch in her Gaithersburg home. Germaine grew up in South Vietnam and came to America after marrying Dick in 1969.
The family of Germaine Swanson arriving in California from Guam after fleeing Saigon in 1975. Photo by Dick Swanson
Officially, the Vietnam War ended for America with the signing of the Paris Peace Accords on Jan. 27, 1973. Emotionally, the war ended when Saigon fell to North Vietnam on April 30, 1975. TV images were horrific: a panicked U.S. evacuation leaving behind desperate South Vietnamese on the roof of the U.S. Embassy, terrified refugees reaching for the struts of the final helicopters leaving the country.
In Bethesda, Dick and Germaine and 12 of their family members gathered together to watch the coverage on TV. Just three days before, Dick and his wife’s relatives had been in South Vietnam. “I would have been killed, I’m sure of that,” Germaine’s brother Rene says now from his home in California. “I would have been put in a camp and worked and starved to death. I owe my life to Dick and Germaine.”
But they escaped. They reached America, where Dick and Germaine helped them build new lives. Along the way, several worked for Germaine, who became one of the Washington area’s most celebrated chefs and restaurateurs. Her four brothers would eventually adjust to life in America, forging successful careers at such companies as United Airlines and Lockheed Martin. But none of it would have been possible if a young American photojournalist named Dick had not met a South Vietnamese stringer named Germaine at the Saigon bureau of Time Life in 1966.
Germaine and Dick Swanson (far right), surrounded by family members during their civil wedding ceremony in 1969. Photo by ©Nik Wheeler from The Dick and Germaine Swanson Collection
IT WAS DEFINITELY NOT love at first sight. “I mostly ignored her,” Dick, now 81, says, recalling the hot, muggy morning when he first saw his future wife. Watching her in the Time Life bureau, he thought she seemed aloof and too busy for a relationship.
“I thought he looked like a hippie,” Germaine says in the unmistakable musical cadence of a Vietnamese accent. “Long hair, marijuana joints rolled up in his shirt sleeves. I was not interested. I was a straight girl.”
Dick was an imposing figure with a mop of shaggy blond hair and cameras swinging around his neck. His work had already been published in The New York Times, Life, Time and Newsweek.
Germaine, a beautiful, black-haired woman, worked to support her entire family and volunteered for the South Vietnamese army. Fluent in French and Vietnamese, with a working knowledge of English, Germaine was a translator and liaison for reporters and photographers.
Back in the fall of 1963, she received a midnight call from a high-level source in the South Vietnamese army. He told her to come over right away. Dubious of his motives, she suggested that they meet the next morning. He warned that it would be too late by then. Reluctantly, she went to see him.
“Tomorrow we will have a coup d’etat,” he said. Germaine rushed from his apartment and found a Reuters reporter with whom she frequently worked. “I told him the story and he wrote it in good English,” she says.
The next morning, Nov. 1, 1963, a cabal in the South Vietnamese military captured and later executed President Ngo Dinh Diem and his brother. It was one of the biggest stories of the year, overshadowed only by the assassination of President John F. Kennedy a few weeks later. Germaine shared a byline with the Reuters reporter and became a local celebrity.
For three years after Dick and Germaine first met in 1966, each went about their business in the Saigon bureau. “I was about the only one not trying to seduce her,” Dick says.
Left: Germaine and Dick Swanson met in 1966. Dick was working in Saigon as a photojournalist and Germaine was a translator and liaison for the press corps. This photo was taken on the couple’s wedding day. Photo by ©Nik Wheeler from The Dick and Germaine Swanson Collection Right: Germaine’s mother got her first glimpse of the United States as the plane flew over the California coast. Photo by Dick Swanson
In the summer of 1969, Germaine agreed to accompany Dick on a trip to Bangkok. “I wanted to see the first man walk on the moon,” she says now about why she decided to go with him. “The satellites in Vietnam didn’t work well, but I knew in Bangkok I could see it.”
The pair became more than friends during the trip. “We got closer. We had the same hotel room,” Dick says with a smile.
Married in South Vietnam in November 1969, they left Saigon for Bethesda in 1971 so Dick could resume his career in Time Life’s Washington, D.C., bureau, bringing along Germaine’s 8-year-old son, Philip, who Dick subsequently adopted. In 1972, Germaine and Dick welcomed another son, Justin.
NOT LONG AFTER they became a couple in 1969, Germaine introduced Dick to her extended local family—her mother, Dang Thi Tuyet; brothers Bernard, Albert, Rene and Leonard; her sister, Gabrielle; and all of her siblings’ spouses and children. She knew, perhaps years before many, that South Vietnam would fall one day and that her family would be extremely vulnerable when it happened. She asked Dick if he would help rescue her family when that day came. “I said of course I would,” Dick says.
In early 1975, it became clear that time was running out for South Vietnam and Germaine’s family. The country’s president resigned April 21, and reports of evacuations soon began to pour out. It was time for the Swansons to conduct their own rescue mission. Though Germaine wanted to accompany Dick back to her homeland, he convinced her that it was safer if he traveled alone.
On April 26, 1975, Dick arrived on the final civilian plane entering Saigon after a 26-hour flight from Dulles International Airport that made stops in Los Angeles, Honolulu, Guam and Hong Kong.
Running on adrenaline and a few cocktails, Dick met up with Germaine’s extended family in her mother’s Saigon home. North Vietnamese mortar rounds were exploding in the distance.
“I didn’t have much of a plan,” Dick says today, “but the situation was so chaotic, a plan wouldn’t have done much good.” The group knew that the biggest hurdle would be getting into the U.S. air base. Security guards had been unpredictable and reluctant to admit Vietnamese.
Germaine’s sister, Gabrielle, was married to Nguyen Van Ba, a colonel in the South Vietnamese air force. She had an idea: She would call the base as the colonel’s wife and demand an official army truck to pick them up at home at 5 the next morning before the curfew lifted. The truck, with its military markings, would have no problem getting into the base.