Face of Defense: Commander Returns to Vietnam
By Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Matthew R. White
Special to American Forces Press Service
DA NANG, Vietnam, Nov. 17, 2009 Nearly 35 years ago, Navy Cmdr. H.B. Le left Vietnam aboard a fishing trawler. He returned at the helm of a U.S. Navy warship when the guided-missile destroyer USS Lassen arrived here Nov. 7 for a scheduled port visit.
Navy Cmdr. H.B. Le, commanding officer of the guided-missile destroyer USS Lassen, speaks to reporters in front of the U.S. 7th Fleet command ship USS Blue Ridge in Da Nang, Vietnam, Nov. 7, 2009. It was Le's first visit to Vietnam after leaving the country with his family in 1975. U.S. Navy photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Cynthia Griggs
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
"My crew and I are proud to be able to represent our country to the people of Vietnam," said Le, Lassen’s commanding officer. "This visit is a symbol of the friendship between our two nations, and we are deeply honored to be a part of it. I'm very humbled by the amazing opportunity to get to Vietnam after more than 34 years. I feel so fortunate to bring Lassen and my crew to Vietnam."
Le's story of escape followed by prosperity in the United States reads like a Hollywood script.
"My father was a commander in the South Vietnamese Navy and was serving as the deputy commanding officer of Nha Be Naval Support Base when we left Vietnam," he said. "The evening of the 29th of April, 1975, his commanding officer left the country with his family without telling my dad, and when his officers told him about that, he assumed command.
"The next day, only after realizing Saigon had fallen, did my dad tell his remaining men to go home to their families and to make sure to take care of them," he continued. "My dad navigated a fishing trawler with 400 passengers out to sea, where we were picked up by USS Barbour County on May 2, 1975."
Leaving Vietnam had a profound impact on his family, Le said. "My parents had to start all over again with no money in their pockets. Thanks to some truly generous and wonderful Americans who sponsored us, my dad was able to forge a new beginning," he said.
The Le family settled in Virginia. As his father had many years before him, Le heard the call of the seas as he grew older. He became a U.S. citizen in 1985, and graduated with merit from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1992 and received his commission a U.S. Navy officer.
"Growing up, my father never pushed me to join the Navy or anything like that," Le said. "He said, ‘Do what you want to do, but whatever you do, do your best at it.’ So when I did decide to go to the Naval Academy, he was proud of me for that."
The crew Le leads is one of few in the Navy who have had the opportunity to visit the Asia-Pacific nation since the end of hostilities in 1975.
"I never thought I'd have a chance to visit Vietnam," said Navy Seaman Michael McLean, a logistics specialist from Gahanna, Ohio. "All that history that happened in Vietnam, and now I get to see it first-hand," he said.
The port visit gives McLean and his fellow sailors the opportunity to interact with the people of Da Nang and experience their customs and culture, and to compete in soccer and basketball games against students from the University of Da Nang. But the visit is not just about fun and games; Lassen's crew will take part in two community service projects in the Da Nang area.
Le assumed command of Lassen and its crew of nearly 300 in April. The ship is one of seven destroyers assigned to Destroyer Squadron 15, forward-deployed to Yokosuka, Japan, as part of the U.S. 7th Fleet.
(Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Matthew R. White serves with Navy Public Affairs Support Element West, Detachment Japan.)