Here is a story that, for complicated reasons, was killed some years ago

Dennis Rockstroh with Qui Nhon committee officials

Dennis Rockstroh with Qui Nhon committee officials

Back to the enemy’s lair: warning — long story ahead

Amerasians: San Jose attorney returns to Vietnam in search of America’s lost children

By Dennis Rockstroh

Hanoi, Vietnam, June 1988 — The night air in Hanoi was hot and muggy when the electricity at 202 Restaurant, the diplomatic community’s favorite eatery, suddenly snapped off.
As the neighborhood plunged into darkness, no one stirred, knowing that restaurant owner Vu Van Khai, onetime chief cook at the French embassy, was prepared for such common, temporary unpleasantness as stilled fans and suddenly darkened rooms.
“There they go,” announced Bruce Burns, the attorney from San Jose, California to his dinner companions as Khai’s generators roared to life. The long fluorescent light tubes glowed again, and the green ceiling fans began slowly to slice through the tropical air again, much like those green blades of the Huey gunships in that vicious war so long ago. The rest of Hanoi would suffer a blackout, but not 202 and its packed house of foreigners.
French Ambassador Louis Amigues pushed on his food and resumed conversation with a companion. A film crew from West German television, working on a documentary on Burns, picked up their animated conversation and ordered more beer. A group of diplomats from the Australian Embassy chatted at a table on the other side of the room to the tune of clicking beer bottles.
“French, Americans, West German, Australians — they were all your enemies during the war,” Burns told his guide, Nguyen The Dang, consular for the North American desk of the Foreign Ministry. “Yes,” Dang replied with a puzzled look on his face. “Yes.”
It was Dang’s first dinner at 202 and he was clearly awed by the surroundings. He savored every morsel. The cost of his dinner amounted to about one-third of his monthly salary. But Dang wanted to hear no more of war. His instructions were to help Burns, the Pied Piper of San Jose, a private diplomat in khaki, solve unresolved humanitarian issues between the United States and communist Vietnam. So far Burns had rescued a dozen people from Vietnam — a mother rushed to her dying son’s side in San Jose; a child, now grown, left behind in the confusion of 1975 brought to
her San Jose family; and 10 Amerasians, love children born amid the hatred of war. Burns, who has gained a worldwide reputation — but little money — for his efforts to bring Amerasians to their fathers in America, was in Hanoi plowing new ground. Tonight, he was celebrating some victories. The tenth Amerasian he has rescued and
reunited with a father was in Bangkok, beginning the long journey
to a new life in California. But even more important, Burns has won agreement from the Vietnamese to consider some of the 45 new cases documented in the brown boxes tied with rope that he hauled to Hanoi. Burns had spent two years beginning in 1987 working to pull out the Amerasians, the forgotten generation of Americans left behind in the dust of defeat. Now he wanted to help smooth the flow of reeducation camp prisoners and special medical cases to their families in California. This was the stuff of history. Thirteen
years after the fall of the Saigon’s armed forces and government,
those the U.S. left behind to languish more than a decade in brutal reeducation camps, will be allowed to leave the country.
Generals, ministers, legislators, businessmen, clerics – the old
leadership of the defeated south — will be allowed to follow their
families and the more than one million Vietnamese who left
communist Vietnam to plant new roots in such far-off places as
Washington, D.C., Paris, Frankfurt, London, Santa Ana, Los Angeles
and San Jose.
“This will really change the leadership of the San Jose
Vietnamese community,” Burns told me a number of times. “They’re tough people.” These are the people who stayed at their posts when communist forces swept across South Vietnam to victory 13
years before. Many of them kept fighting for years, striking the
victorious Communists from the old Viet Cong lairs in the mountains
and jungles. When he first learned that the Vietnamese would
consider his political prisoner cases, Burns was excited but
fearful of unknown reactions back home in California. “I don’t
know it this is my biggest victory or the greatest mistake I’ve
ever made,” he said. Officials in Hanoi said both the U.S. and
Vietnam had agreed in principle to release the aging South Vietnamese leaders and allow them to move to the U.S. The details still needed to be worked out. But tonight, as much of grimy, moldy Hanoi struggled through he night in the dim light of kerosene lamps, Burns was still at work under the glare of the bright lights, hoping to shed light on the kind of detail necessary for his specialized work in Vietnam.
Even though he had managed to do it 10 times, Burns wanted to
know the exact steps to get an Amerasian child out of the country.
It was the kind of detail that had eluded him for months. Burns’
two legal assistants, Hung Lu and Que Huong, my wife of 18 years,
questioned Dang in Vietnamese. “Give me a piece of paper,”
Burns asked me. I ripped a page from my notebook and handed it to him. The San Jose attorney, admitted workaholic, a man driven to pluck people from Vietnam, smiled the kind of smile a cat would
have just before lunching on a parakeet. For a lawyer, knowing the
procedure is key to victory. Burns pushed the plates and silverware aside. From what Dang, Hung and Que Huong told him, he drew a flow chart. I plunged a spoon into my baked, stuffed crab and eyed his. Suddenly there was disagreement, and Burns began remaking the chart. He put his head in his arms on the table, looked up at me and said, “This is why no one ever gets out of
this country. You’ve got two people here with graduate degrees,”
motioning to Hung and Que Huong, “And we don’t understand it.”
Burns, who often works through meals and through the night, got
this one solved in half an hour, well before dessert, and proudly
displayed the flow chart showing how an Amerasian first applies for
immigration to the U.S. at the local people’s committee and eventually wins approval from the Ministry for Internal Affairs and Foreign Ministry. “We’ve got 120 years of education at this table and it took us half an hour to figure out the departments involved,” Burns declared as he picked on his French fries and listened to the comfortable hum of Khai’s generator. “Mr. Dang, don’t feel bad. It took us two years to figure out how the U.S. side works. We did this in half an hour.”
The road to Burns’ latest triumphs in Hanoi this muggy June night began two weeks earlier in Bangkok as his party of 17 — his staff, three fathers, one mother and a hoard of journalists eager for a trip to Vietnam clamored into town for a round of talks with American and
Vietnamese officials. There was Joseph Crotty of Redding, a retired California Highway Patrol officer, meeting his 18-year-old son, Khuc Thua Si; Wes Anderson of Poulsbo, Washington, to meet his daughter, Nguyen Thi Lang, 16; Verdun Andrus of San Diego meeting his son, Hoang Son, 14, for the first time in 13 years; Nam Small of Westbrook, Maine, whose husband John could not make the trip. She was going to Vietnam hoping to get their son Linh, 16, and take him home to America.
The Bangkok atmosphere was electric. Radio Hanoi had
announced the collapse of the Vietnamese economy. The Socialist
government had run the country into the ground. It had long ago
become a cliche to say that the Vietnamese Communists won the war
and lost the peace. “We have made many mistakes,” a government official told me in Hanoi 10 months earlier. “When we attempt to correct the mistakes, we make new ones. We need friends.” He predicted that proud Hanoi would soon bend to the West’s will in a bid to survive. The people who beat the Americans and the French, Japanese and Chinese before them were good warriors, but they were incompetent administrators. The Vietnamese competent in these matters left Vietnam and live today in far off places like Falls Church, Virginia, Houston Texas, Seattle, Washington, San Francisco and Los Angeles. “Vietnam has become a beggar nation,” said Newsweek’s Ron Moreau, an old friend and veteran Vietnam watcher. From my vantage point on the 10th floor of the New Imperial Hotel, I looked down into the compound of the Vietnamese embassy. High atop its red-tiled roof fluttered the red flag with the big gold star. Even now, long after the war, the flag sent shivers down my spine. My stomach was queasy as I recalled my country’s ignominious defeat by the army that carried that flag victoriously through the streets of Saigon in 1975. As Burns briefed his staff on the day’s work, discussing cases with the Vietnamese and Americans, briefing the parents and the press, I put a long lens on my camera and peered into the compound. Four dark Mercedes’ moved around the Vietnamese compound. Foreign Minister Nguyen Co Thatch was in town mending fences with his Thai counterpart, Siddhi Savetsila. The Bangkok press was in a tizzy. Old enemies were suddenly getting very cozy. History was on the march. The Vietnamese agreed to stem the flow of boat people and even agreed to take some back. More agreements are in the offing, both sides said. Vietnam was pulling in its horns and
holding out its hand, both seeking friends and pleading for help. Just weeks before, Vietnam sent out a plea for rice to make up
for shortages caused by typhoons, drought, insects and
mismanagement. They were pulling soldiers out of Laos and Cambodia and announced the retirement of 90 generals. I turned on my short-wave and listened in. Radio Moscow clicked
its tongue at the collapsing Vietnamese economy and boasted of its
outer space accomplishments in its Vietnamese language broadcasts.
The Voice of America was lecturing the Vietnamese on the
relationship between freedom and a successful economy. The VOA
rubbed it in, telling the Vietnamese of Ronald Reagan’s new, warm
relationship with Moscow, Vietnam’s mentor and chief financial
supporter at $2-$3 million a day. It was into this environment
of change that Bruce Burns entered. The 38-year-old Jesuit-trained
lawyer from Santa Clara University, Boy Scout leader, soccer coach
felt the electricity and knew the Vietnamese were primed to move. But already the feedback from the U.S. troubled him. Burns was
told that one newspaper account of his trip so far pictured him as
an uncaring zealot. One of the three fathers was pictured, mostly
by himself, as a womanizer who used to keep track of his conquests.
More disturbing, an unnamed American diplomat in Bangkok called
Burns an “egomaniac.” “Well, they got the maniac part right,” I told him. He smiled, but the hurt in his eyes lingered on. “I don’t know what people expect. I’m a lawyer. Lawyers are supposed to help people. I’m trying to help people,” he said. But Burns is not your stereotypical lawyer. To the horror of some fellow lawyers, he often – too often — works for free. His two-year Amerasian odyssey has seen him remortgage his home twice, pull back from the brink of foreclosure two times. His Visa card was recalled after his March trip with three fathers. He used it to pay the bills, skyrocketing over his limit. “He’s crazy,” his assistant Hung explained. “This man is
crazy. We tell him he has to charge people money. He makes me
collect fees for his other work in San Jose. They hate me. I go
up to them and say, `You owe Mr. Burns this money.’ and they say,
`Mr. Burns didn’t say anything about money.’ They think he works
for free.” Burns said he plans to change all that and begin charging fees in the future. “He always says that, but he never does it,” Hung said. “What do you want me to do? Tell a father he has to come up with $5,000 or he can’t get his kid out of Vietnam. I won’t do it,”
Burns said as he ambled down Wireless Road in search of some
street food. Burns found some deep-fried bread, bananas and
muddy Thai coffee before heading back to the New Imperial Hotel and gathering his group for a trip to the U.S. Embassy’s office for
immigration from Vietnam. It is called the Orderly Departure Program and has been in operation since 1979 as an alternate to the dangerous flight of Vietnamese by boat. So far, 60,000 people have left Vietnam through the program. But there is a horrible backlog. The U.S. holds more than 650,000 files of eligible people. But under
present U.S. quotas, it will be well through the middle of the next
century before the pipeline is empty. Bruce Beardsley oversees
the Vietnamese immigration program from his office overlooking the
Bangkok skyline. His relationship with Burns has been rocky.
After going over some cases with Burns and his assistants,
Beardsley agreed to talk with journalists accompanying Burns.
Beardsley was dressed in a open collar blue shirt, white slacks and
black shoes. He appeared slightly nervous and spoke cautiously,
occasionally eying the cluster of tape recorders on a coffee
table. His office has the touch of a man whosememories of old
Vietnam are strong. There was the old gold flag with three red
stripes in a corner, a Montagnard crossbow in another. On his desk
was a plaque that read, “Giam Doc,” Vietnamese for “director.”
On the wall was a tourist map of Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnamese,
English and Russian. Beardsley stroked his short beard and
quietly discussed the Amerasian issue. He said he would not talk
about specific cases nor would he discuss Burns. Beardsley
rattled off an endless stream of statistics. Then the
conversation turned to the widespread criticism of the way ODP
works. Fathers seeking their children and Vietnamese immigrants
pleading for departure of their relatives from Vietnam complain of
an uncaring bureaucracy that regularly hangs up on callers and
tells applicants not to write anymore. “The ODP is sort of like
a dog walking on its hind legs,” Beardsley begins, staring off
into monsoon clouds beginning to sweep over the city. He said that
there are no formal relations between the Vietnamese and American
governments. “That it was done at all was sort of amazing. It
could be done but could not be done well.” Now, he said, the
program has been streamlined and expanded and he thinks more people should be leaving Vietnam under the program in future weeks. Beardsley said that some private initiatives, like that of the
Burns mission, have been useful in getting stalled cases moving.
“But some people who have been indulging in these sort of things
are trying to cut special deals either with the Vietnamese or
others and want me to jump through hoops. I’m not very good at
jumping through hoops. But I have jumped through a few.”
Beardsley said that no one knows how many Amerasians are in
Vietnam. The working figure is between 10,000 and 15,000. He said that he hopes to get them and their families out within two years. As Beardsley talked, the sounds of the city wafted into the
room. Drills, jackhammers and the constant roar of traffic were
testimony to a burgeoning economy. The monsoon rains washed over the city as we made our way back to the hotel. Burns was in the cavernous, teak-wood-lined lobby talking with
the three fathers and one mother, Nam Small. These were the four
parents he was bringing to Vietnam for reunions with their children
after more than a decade separation. Then he talked to a reporter
from the Bangkok Post. Just as the interview concluded, that string of dark Mercedes’ swung into the driveway in front. The
Vietnamese foreign minister and his party were having lunch at the
hotel. After the party swept through and sat down to lunch, the
plotting began. Burns decided that they should get Small to
present a bouquet of orchids to Pham Thi Phuc, Thach’s wife, after
lunch and remind her of the Amerasian mission to Vietnam. The
move is pure Burns. High visibility. Quick. To the top. “I
don’t plan these things,” Burns insisted. “They just happen.’
But Burns has done his homework. Letters, dozens of them, and
telegrams have flowed into the offices of the Vietnamese foreign
ministry. He has been on the phone to the Vietnamese mission at the
U.N. “This trip was approved by Thach himself when he was at
the U.N., ” Burns said. There was a flurry of action, a
swishing of bodies as the Thach party, finished with lunch, flowed
through the hotel. Nam stood ready in the lobby that seemed as
big as a football field. “Go,” Burns, the onetime artillery
spotter said as he saw the target. The party stopped. Security
men tensed. Nam handed the flowers to Phuc. Thach leaned over to
hear what she said. “Oh yes, the Small case. I know it,” he
said. Burns has another notch on his brief case. “Maybe it will
help,” he said. “This is what appeals to me. It is the little
guy fighting the system that sort of appeals to me. That’s the
kind of theme I find interesting in movies and books.” “It all started two years ago when this girl walked up to me
and said, `I want to find my daddy.’ I told her, OK, I will find
your daddy. At that time I wasn’t even aware of an Amerasian
issue. Later I read an article in a veteran’s magazine and
realized it was a problem. Burns then was a lawyer with a prestigious law firm, one of the oldest in California. Soon he was spending half his time working on Amerasian cases
for free. “I was working 16 hours a day, eight for the firm, eight on
Amerasians. They called me in and said if you want to continue
here and become a partner you have to give this up. “I said I
think I want to leave. There was no hostility with them. I
understood their position. They are in the business of making
money. If you work for a business they have a certain thing they
want you to do. They should’t be painted as bad guys because I
don’t think they did anything wrong. “I didn’t make any money
last year. I didn’t make anything. “I have a wife who works
and she is able to pay the bills at home. “What I hope to do is
to get organized enough to get us incorporated and to try to get
some foundation to pay for some of the expenses and to pay salaries
for some of the people who are doing a lot of things for free.” Later Burns dropped by the Vietnamese embassy next door and
came back with our visas. We were ready to go to Vietnam. The next day, a gleaming white Air France 747 delivered Burns
and his entourage to Ho Chi Minh City’s Tan Son Nhut airport.
The remnants of old U.S. warplanes rusted away near the terminal.
We moved through customs, then some of the parents met their
children for the first time in years. The scene was
emotion-charged as the parents and their children groped at each
other and wept, spilling the sorrow of many years. TV cameramen moved in for close-in shots of the drama. This was a regular part of a
Burns trip. The tearful reunions made good stories, good pictures
and focused on the joy his work brings. Everyone loved these
stories and even the reporters and photographers were caught wiping
tears from their eyes. Outside of Tan Son Nhut, Vietnam was much as I had left it 10 months earlier. Despite all the talk of impending starvation and a collapsed economy, the streets were bristling with motorcycles and bicycles, shops were open and brimming with goods. We moved down the broad boulevard lined with tamarind and flaming jacaranda trees and I felt good to be back. Amid the old French villas were sprinkled people’s committee offices every mile or so, the only overt evidence that the Communists ruled. Before going on to the Cuu Long Hotel on the banks the Saigon River, Burns stopped to see government officials. Over tea and in the wash of a bank of fans, Luu Van Tanh, deputy chief of the Consular Bureau, told us that Vietnam was prepared to move all those Amerasians who wanted to go to the U.S. Their families would accompany them. Like all the other government officials he hammered at the same
theme. “I want to talk ofrumors that the Amerasians are suffering
from prejudice. Our government does not advocate such a
discrimination policy. There is no discrimination. They are
considered Vietnamese children. We don’t deny that some people
have a harsh attitude toward the Amerasian children, but most of
them have been unthinking children. We teach our children not to
discriminate against the Amerasians.” Tanh said that the Vietnamese government wanted to move quickly
on the Amerasian issue because the children are already in their
late teens. “If it is not solved, it will grow,” he explained. “The
Amerasians will grow up and have children of their own.” Over at
the Cuu Long Hotel, the old Majestic, the Vietnamese were quick to
complain of conditions under the Communists. “If they could,
all Vietnamese would leave Vietnam,” said the bartender as he got
me a frosty can of Saigon brand beer. “I’m 69 and they’re making
me retire. I will have no job. I will have nothing.”
“Vietnam kho qua. Vietnam is miserable,” said a cyclo driver who
said his name was Tao. On his hat he wore a “Vietnam veteran”
pin. “I am a veteran. I was an ARVN officer (Army of the
Republic of Vietnam). I spent six years in a reeducation camp and
now I peddle a cyclo. After the reeducation camp I was sent to a
new economic zone. I left and came here.” Tao kept a close eye on me, helped me with my shopping and
delivered purchases to the hotel. “Don’t trust any of the other
cyclo drivers. They are all spies,” Tao whispered. As he
peddled down the familiar streets of Saigon past the old opera
house, down old Le Loi Street and the Ben Thanh market, he
announced to everyone, “This is an American. He is not a Russian.
I have an American.” The older people looked up. Some smiled.
Some held their thumbs up. The younger people only stared. The
stay in Saigon was to be brief, but the Burns team worked all day
and into the night on their 45 cases. The next morning, at 6
a.m., it was time for the long trip by road to Qui Nhon, a coastal
city 600 miles north of Saigon, where Anderson would meet the
family who raised his daughter. Le Hong Nguyen, from the protocol section of the Ho Chi Minh City external relations service, was one of our guides to Qui Nhon. I lived in Qui Nhon three of my five years in Vietnam, working as a teacher during the war. There, 18 years before, I married Que and took her eventually to America. Now I was bringing her home for the first time. “Don’t worry,” said Nguyen, who was a student leader and Viet Cong supporter at Cuong De High School in Qui Nhon during the war. “The war is over. We’re going to be friends.” As we passed over the American-built Bien Hoa Bridge, I spotted the first and last AK-47 I would see on the trip. The assault rifle was the workhorse of Communist forces during the war. It was generally considered superior to the American’s M-16. It dangled quietly from the shoulder of a soldier of the People’s Army of Vietnam leaning against the bridge. He was far too young to have fought in the war. North of the city we passed through rubber plantations. The sight was eerie to me. Twenty-three years ago the first man to fire at me in my life did so in a rubber plantation north of Saigon. I stared deep down the rows of trees and for just a second I thought I saw heads bobbing. Minutes later, we approached the outskirts of Xuan Loc, the
site of the last great battle of the Vietnam War. Here the bravest
and toughest of the South Vietnamese Army stood up to five North
Vietnamese divisions blasting their way down Highway 1 in a
war-ending Blitzkrieg. Here, the commanding general, Le Van Hung, killed himself rather than surrender to North Vietnamese forces. His widow lives in California today. There were few signs of that final battle. Only one building, a house, was unchanged. A
large hole has been blown in the side and the wall was splattered
with machine gun fire. No one lived there now. I remember
the scenes of helicopters chopping through smoke and flames
as the South Vietnamese made a desperate last stand, throwing
everything they had at the enemy. They were grossly outnumbered.
Thousands died in that battle and I could feel their spirits as we
drove by. Then it was on to the beach cities of Phan Thiet, Phan
Rang, Cam Ranh, Nha Trang and Qui Nhon via Vietnam’s picturesque Highway 1. The driver pushed a cassette into the stereo and the voices of the Beach Boys blared. Once again, Vietnam was hearing things like Surfin’ Safari, California Girls and I Get Around. The Vietnamese countryside whizzed by. Boys on water buffaloes, rice paddies, clusters of bamboo hiding small villages. Seaside villages with boats and nets drying in the sun. Seeing all the water
buffalo reminded me of a rarely-mentioned gauge of the viciousness
of the war — more than one million of them died in the war. In my mind there were helicopters again, their blades slapping
the humid air in a continuous whackety-whack. They are carrying
young Americans into battle, the Beach Boys singing in their ears.
In my mind I saw young American men moving on those peaceful
villages, fearful that this was their last day on earth. For more
than 58,000 it was. I hoped no one could see the tears through
my dark glasses. We passed villages of all kinds. Wealthy ones surrounded by rice fields and poor ones surrounded by dry, gray dirt. There were villages of blue and white concrete houses, thatch homes and mud huts, all gauges of the different economic conditions. They had one thing in common — the villages bristled with television
Lunch was Coke and sandwiches as we slipped through
the city of Phan Thiet. It is known for its fish sauce factories,
and we could smell the city miles before we got there. We reached Qui Nhon in late evening. There was dust on
everything. It was like a desert town. Most of the people were
still in front of their homes, seeking relief from the heat.
Kerosene lamps cast a dull glow over most of the city, but Du Lich
Hotel, our destination, was lighted with electricity. It is the
old MACV (Military Assistance Command Vietnam) compound. The armed guards, sandbagged bunkers and barbed wire were gone. So was the gunfire, the thud of artillery and bursts of machine gun fire that once characterized Qui Nhon nights. During the war, the allies held the city and the Viet Cong ruled most of the countryside. Now they ran the city, too. In the morning Que and I rose before 5 a.m. Before the trip to visit Anderson’s family in District 6, we wanted to get a look at our old stomping grounds in District 2’s village of Hoa Ninh. We were surprised to find the rest of Qui Nhon was also up — and at the beach.
During the war, the beautiful beaches of Qui Nhon
were just other places to die. That day thousands of people frolicked in the surf. Kids brought inner tubes. People were body
surfing. It could have been Manhattan Beachor Stinson Beach or
Santa Cruz. An hour later, they were all gone. We grabbed a
couple of cyclo cabs and negotiated a ride to the other side of
town. We passed the Girls’ High School, where I used to teach.
There was a giant picture of Ho Chi Minh on the front.
Eventually, we arrived in Hoa Ninh. We got down and slowly, very
slowly moved down the old dusty street where we met two decades ago in wartime Vietnam. There was my house on the right and hers on the left. I had married the girl next door. Within minutes Que
Huong was surrounded by children. There were tears in her eyes.
“It was so sad,” she said. “Here I am in the village I grew
up in — and I don’t know anyone.” But soon the word got around
and down the palm-tree lines roads came old friends. They
screeched as they recognized each other. I stayed long enough to
take some pictures of the reunions. But this was Communist Vietnam and I knew I, the foreigner, had to leave. Even so, hours after I left, security men paid visits to some of the houses. “They
asked what we talked about,” a friend reported later. “I told
them we said, `Hello, how are you.’ Nothing more.” So much for Ho
Chi Minh’s promise of freedom of association. The man was a
scholar. Even now the walls on one side of his home were lined
with books. The other was lined with wood he collected on the hills
to supplement his meager teacher’s salary. He tried to escape
twice. He is now resigned to stay and live in Vietnam. But his
eyes haunted me for the rest of my visit. They had that deep,
saddened look that said, “Why did you leave me here?” Down the
street I visit an old church. Outside it looked as it always did.
Inside, the statues, the altar, the pews — all gone. Later
friends told me that after 1975, the churches were closed for a
year in Qui Nhon. Now they open occasionally. So much for Ho Chi
Minh’s promise of freedom of religion. Before the trip to visit Anderson’sfamily, we stopped by the headquarters of the city’s people’s committee. The committee secretary is Khong Minh Tam and part of his left hand is missing. “A war injury,” the former Viet Cong soldier told me. “Over there when we met the Americans.” He motioned toward the hill near my old house. “I was a soldier and I fought against the French and the Americans,” Tam said. “Now I am an economic engineer.” I looked for a smile and saw none. Throughout our visit, I, the former American soldier, sat next to Tam, the former Viet Cong soldier. I felt a bond and a deep sadness and watched his every move. If we had met two decades before, he probably would have killed me. Or I him. Tam said there were 281
Amerasians in the city of Qui Nhon. He said 199 had applied for
migrations to the land of their fathers. Tam said there were no
food shortages here. “There is a food shortage in the north. We
send food to other regions. We can take care of ourselves,” he
insisted. Later at Anderson’s house the entire neighborhood turned out to greet the big American, but it is out of curiosity more than
anything else. Inside, Anderson held the hands of family members.
He tried to assure them that Lang will be well cared for in America
at home finally with her mother, Du. After the visit, which
attracted well over 100 onlookers, many of them getting their first glimpse at an American, Burns decided to leave for Nha Trang that afternoon rather than waiting until the next day. We spent the night in Nha Trang, one of Vietnam’s principal beach resort cities. There we ran across an Australian arranging for shrimp shipments to Haiphong in the north to help ease the food shortage and a Swede working to develop Vietnam’s tourist and hotel industry. Back on Ho Chi Minh City, Burns and his staff continued to work on cases, gathering documents, meeting people, taking pictures and
making voice recordings for relatives back home. Dozens of
Vietnamese gathered across the street from our hotel. Some watched
out of curiosity. Some watched because it was their job. Others
waited until just the right moment then dashed across the street
with letters for family members in refugee camps or in the U.S. Soon it was time to fly to Hanoi to meet with officials and
assess the trip. One child, Si, would leave with his father, Joe Crotty. Vietnamese officials took the rest to the airport and asked U.S. officials to interview them, one of the last steps before leaving.
The U.S. officials refused, saying they were not on the schedule.
They would have to wait.
In Hanoi, a city badly in need of a paint job, Burns and his
assistants met with officials in the Foreign Ministry. Later
that night we dined with a high official in the Foreign Ministry.
The dinner, in opulent surroundings — high paneled ceiling, velvet
drapes, teak walls, carved rosewood furniture — in the government
guest house behind the old French governor’s house17Yes, said a Vietnamese official, Vietnam was suffering a food shortage but only in some isolated northern provinces. Some 27 people have died from
starvation so far. He did not think there will be more because the
harvest, just in, was bigger than expected. The official said that Vietnam is moving on the Amerasian issue
and all others of interest to the U.S. because it is seeking to end
its economic isolation and move toward resumption of relations, cut
in 1975. Later Deputy Foreign Minister Tran Quang Co met the press on the record in a large hall in the old governor’s house. “We
want to resolve all the issues — Amerasians, MIA/POW, but it is
not easy to solve all at the same time,” Co said. “We are
lacking so many facilities and we need so many things for our
investigation.’’ Co said he expects the U.S. to come up with some money for an Amerasian center in Saigon to process papers and coordinate the airlift to the U.S. The U.S. wants all of the Amerasians and their families out of Vietnam within two years. “It is an American problem,” he said. Co was frail and his hair white. He wore a striped open-collar shirt, khaki pants and loafers. “He is in yuppie uniform,” I thought. “In the end we would like to warm up relations with the U.S. We want normal relations with all nations. “We are willing to cooperate with private American organizations, like that of Mr. Burns, concerning humanitarian issues. We hope to create more good understanding. This is an organization from the American people. The more Americans who realize the realities of Vietnam, the better off we are.” Co sipped Russian mineral water. He sat in a carved wood chair in front of a giant, red lacquer ware
river valley scene. Large air conditioners aided by fans fought
unsuccessfully to make the room comfortable. Co said Vietnam is
willing to take back refugees who have fled the country “on a
case-by-case basis.” “It’s sad for us to acknowledge that the
main cause for their illegal departure is to seek a happier life
abroad,” he said. Co said that the Vietnamese were willing to
move on issues raised by Burns medical emergencies and
immigration of former long-term political prisoners. “These are
people with no advocate,” Burns said. “Neither the U.S. nor the
Vietnamese government are interested in them. I am their advocate.
“Maybe I’m doing this because of the profound feeling I have for
this country after having served here. Maybe it’s because of what
we did here — the bombing, the Agent Orange, then abandoning them.
“The soul of America has a black mark on it and, maybe, I can
help erase part of it.”
Later, at 202 Restaurant, 202 Hue Street, Burns finished his
dessert. As the group was leaving the restaurant, the cyclo
drivers in front had some news. “Your waitress is going to America. She going to marry someone in San Francisco just as soon as her papers are ready,” one said. Burns’ face came alive. He ran back into the restaurant.
“I think I have another client,” he laughed. Que and
Hung threw their hands into the air.
Then they, too, laughed.

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Here’s the Redwood City story

Basically, a Soviet submarine sank somewhere near Hawaii in very deep water in the 70s. The CIA got the job of hauling it up for the code books and nuclear weapons. Oh, and the submarine. While they were pulling it up, it fell apart. The CIA established a base at Redwood City’s port to handle whatever was pulled up. At one point they had to work picking up pieces of rotting meat, standins for the remains of Soviet sailers. Other Soviet sailors were buried at sea. The ceremonies were taped and later handed over to Soviet authorities.

More at

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More secrets from the archives

I was looking for some more information on the old CIA base in Redwood City when, OMG, I learned that crusty, secretive cousin USAF Col. Ward Rockstroh was listed as a CIA source for a book. He always said he was a genealogist and did prepare an impressive family history back to the 1700s. See

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San Jose secret — until now

From the archives
City of San Jose was planned in secret — in smoke-filled back rooms
Millions, perhaps billions, were made by a select few as California’s first city grew into the largest city in the San Francisco Bay Area in an octopus-like spurt during the 50’s and 60’s
The names at the end of this story, pulled from the San Jose library archives, will tell you all you need to know about this race for absolute power, ill-planned growth and vast wealth
When I was a young reporter in 1973, I noticed something strange about San Jose.
When I arrived, fresh from Southern California and Vietnam journalism adventures, there were numerous reports in the news about a moratorium of construction in one of America’s fastest-growing cities.
Of course, as a curious reporter and new to this territory, I wondered what this was all about.
When I was assigned to cover the city of Cupertino on the west side of San Jose, I learned that the city – and others — were formed as San Jose was expanding aggressively and was looking to make Cupertino part of San Jose.
Reporters are trained to look for anomalies because when things seem out of order, there is usually a story behind it.
I wanted to tell the story. The editors – now long gone — did not. Now the story can be told (sorry – couldn’t help myself).

One thing I noticed was that San Jose streets often change names abruptly and do not continue on as the same street — a small but curious item.

Also, I noticed that San Jose had approved construction on top of a landslide on the east side of town. Not only that but San Jose was building on known earthquake rupture zones. Today they are still doing it

In those days, 40 years ago, the only “market” in Evergreen, my part of town, was a 7-Eleven on the corner of a Aborn and San Felipe roads. What was strange about this was there was no sidewalk or no curb and gutter, instead only an asphalt berm. It was owned by a top city official.

When I had a chance, I gathered information on these anomalies. I continued to collect information over the years and from time to time would approach an editor about the story.
But I could not tell the story. On all occasions I was rebuffed and one editor just laughed at me.

There was a reason for all of this I learned later and that is the subject of this report.
While I was still working on this, I learned that a student at San Jose State University was working on the same information. His name was Mitchell Mandich and his thesis was entitled “The growth and development of San Jose, California – social, political, and economic considerations.”

Mr. Mandich’s thesis runs more than 200 pages and reveals what happened to make this city’s growth beyond its ability to provide some basic services one of the oddest in the San Francisco Bay Area.

This is what the introduction to his 1975 thesis says:
“Santa Clara Valley, once one of the most beautiful valleys in the world, now lies beneath concrete, asphalt, and smog. A dominant sprawling metropolis covers much of the valley floor, and the beauty that initially attracted migrants to the area no longer exists. Dominant economic forces in the public and private sector pushed the Valley toward development and the pervasiveness of these interests exert strong, and perhaps nonnegotiable pressures for development. However the policies and practices of the San Jose city government also did much to ensure the destruction of the natural environment. At the onset of the spectacular growth during the 1950s, municipal government embraced the belief that growth was beneficial to the community.”
Much can be said on this subject.
But the telling details can be told in the membership of the so called “Book of the Month Club.”  Its members:
Steve Dorsa: Operated major gravel business
Ray Blackmore: San Jose Chief of Police
Roy M. Butcher: electric utilities contractor (also on planning commission)
Arch McDonald: Savings and Loan
William Elbert: pipeline construction president
Dan Caputo: Land Developer (also on planning commission)
Leo Piazza: owner paving company
Patrick Regan: paving company executive
Bo Raisch: paving company owner
Al Raisch: paving company owner
Leo Ruth: civil engineer and zoning consultant
Jack Going: Owner of Ruth and Going, civil engineers
Earl Freitas: Bank of America
George Siegfried: subdivider
George Myren: Title company
Paul Potts: Title company
George Honore: President of San Jose Steel
Clifford Swenson: road and building contractor
Charles Quinn: Realtor and developer
Victor J. Lo Bue: speculator, developer and subdeveloper
Al Ruffo: Zoning attorney, city councilman
Howard Campen: county planning
Anthony P. Hamann, city manager
And (drum roll, please) Joe Ridder, publisher San Jose Mercury-News
(Source: Mayfair, 1/25/64)

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Blast from the past


By Dennis Rockstroh

NOW THAT I am almost recovered from last week’s heatstroke — and I hope you are, too — it is apropos to tell you about a cool place I found to hide when the sun starts to buckle the roads.
Please note on this second day of summer that fellow columnist Jan Null reports that heat is the No. 1 weather killer ahead of flooding, lightning, tornadoes, cold and hurricanes.

So, this is a matter of life and death.

Last week, when the thermometer started to creep above the 100-degree mark, I happened to be on a field trip looking into the planned earthquake retrofitting of this cool building complex — the old Mission San Jose.

Earlier I had noted how cool it was inside so I returned with a thermometer.

My findings in early afternoon:

The temperature on the porch of the convento, or former padres’ quarters — now the museum — was 100 degrees.

Just inside the adobe walls, which are three to five feet thick, my thermometer — after about 15 minutes — dipped into the 70-degree range.

Inside there is no air conditioning, not even a fan.

I wandered around the relics of the past waiting for the thermometer to get used to its various locations.

In the old padres’ room, the temperature was 78 degrees.

Same for the other 12 rooms in the museum where visitors can learn about the pre-mission Ohlone, Indian life at the mission, the Rancho era and the history of the mission’s restoration.

Then I moved across the square to the restored adobe church, which I was told is an even cooler place.

I sat for about half an hour right in front of Robert Livermore’s tomb in the back of the church: 77 degrees.

Then I moved closer to the altar, keeping my thermometer cupped in my hands hoping that God didn’t mind my profane use of his place.

This is not easy because as I slowly approached the reredos, I could see the painting of Christ and the statues of St. Joseph and Mary — all staring at me.

I took a quick look at the thermometer: 76 degrees.

”Wow!” I exclaimed to myself. ”What a cool place.”

Then I glanced at the cute faces of the six angels just above the altar.

I moved closer so I could see their secret told to me by the Vietnamese artist who had helped restore the art in the mission church.

My eyes started at the left and moved to the right across the pink facesand brown and blond hair.

Then I smiled to myself and wanted to turn and tell the woman kneeling in the first pew, ”See the angel on the far right? He has black hair and a golden face?”

But she was deep in prayer.

I didn’t say anything even though I hoped she knew.

She looked to be of Asian descent.

I stood there in front of the altar staring at the Asian angel.

I thought of the day back in 1984 at the Carmel Mission workshop when artist Nguyen Van Huu showed me his secret.

”That’s me,” he said, pointing to the golden cherub.

Huu and curator Richard Menn explained that in the tradition of Michelangelo, Raphael, Renoir and Picasso, Huu had literally put himself into his work.

”It’s something I can leave for my children and grandchildren,” he said.

Huu told me that right about now, ”at the turn of the century,” he planned to visit the church with his kids and grandkids in tow, march them right up to the front of the church, point out the angel and tell them, ”That’s me.”

Now that is cool.

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Action Line: Goodbye; Thanks for the memories

By Dennis Rockstroh

So long. This is my last column for the San Jose Mercury News and another dozen dailies in the San Francisco Bay Area.

It’s been a long time since 1973 when I walked into the Mercury News newsroom after reporting from places like Vietnam, Okinawa, Barstow, Thousand Oaks, Beverly Hills and Santa Paula.

One of the assistant editors asked the city editor, “What should we do with him?”

So I wrote my first obit.

From obits, they sent me to cover Cupertino, mental health, and then later Alameda County. In 1990 I was convinced to write a three-dot column for the Alameda County edition. A three-dotter is a bunch of small, newsy items connected by three dots that look like this … When I mumbled to my wife that I was going to be doing a daily three-dotter, she shot me a puzzled look and asked, “You have three daughters?” To her relief, I explained what a three-dotter was.

From the three-dotter, the column grew into a regular, and sometimes irregular, news column with a sometimes whimsical touch. I wrote about the things that popped into my head such as a list of the 10 best places Osama bin Laden could be hiding locally. Some readers learned for the first time about the Berkeley volcano crater. The column ran three or four times a week until the late 1990s when the editors decided it would run two times a week and my territory was expanded to cover Santa Cruz County. Then, in 2003, I was assigned the Action Line column which ran seven days a week.

So there had to be a favorite column, right? There was.

One day, my editor walked over and asked, “Whatever happened to the Carol Doda sign?” That famous or infamous sign of the legendary beauty hung larger than life in front of the Condor Club in San Francisco’s North Beach. Most noteworthy were the two blinking red lights on her chest. So I headed for San Francisco’s striptease neighborhood and carefully began my investigation.

It turned out that the sign had been removed in two parts. A man from Sausalito bought the blinking top part. But Carol Doda’s bottom was missing. I called her up and told her what I was doing. “I can’t find your bottom,” I informed her. And she replied without hesitation, “Well honey, I’ve been working out.”

So I’m done here, 70 years old and time to fade away.


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I retired from the Mercury News today

I hope to add to this blog in the months ahead

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