Long-delayed reunion

Advocate staff photo by DERICK HINGLE -- Soi Nguyen, background, hugs Annette Briggs after meeting for the first time since 1975.
Advocate staff photo by DERICK HINGLE -- Soi Nguyen, background, hugs Annette Briggs after meeting for the first time since 1975.

Vietnamese refugees meet with family who helped with transition

They saw each other for only two or three months in 1975. But Hoan and Len Nguyen and their extended family never stopped thinking about Jack and Annette Briggs.

“Every Thanksgiving, Daddy would not forget to remember those people who helped us at that time,” said Kim Pham, of Baton Rouge.

On Saturday, the Nguyens did more than remember. They reconnected.

When the Briggses, including their son, Mark, pulled into the driveway of the Nguyens’ Algiers home, they were quickly surrounded by about two dozen family members, the youngest of whom knew them only by reputation. And what a reputation.

Having escaped South Vietnam days before its collapse at the end of the Vietnam War, the Nguyens — including Hoan and Len’s mothers, Soi and Lua; Hoan’s brother, Quan; children and other relatives — arrived at a massive refugee tent city at Eglin Air Force Base in Fort Walton Beach, Fla. They left their country on Quan’s fishing boat, sailing out to sea using the direction taken by outbound American helicopters in hopes that U.S. naval vessels would rescue them, which happened.

They arrived in America with the clothes on their backs, worthless currency in their pockets and a few family photos. What they soon gained were friends.

Jack Briggs was a recently minted Air Force captain. When Eglin was chosen as one of four camps for the large influx of Vietnamese refugees, he and a fellow officer, Bob Williams, responded to a call for volunteers to assist. Briggs and Williams were assigned to the Nguyens.

The officers came each weekend, their wives about every other day, and they tried to break through the language barrier to see what help they could provide.

“A lot of hand gestures,” Jack Briggs said.

Even finding an intermediary to translate didn’t always result in communication.

“What they would say at the time was, ‘I will be back,’” said Pham, the oldest daughter, who was 9 at the time. “He would translate it: ‘You are their back.’ What in the world does that mean? We had no idea.”

The helpers started coming back with clothes and toys for the children, cigarettes for the men and baked goods. They took them on picnics, where the Nguyens were perplexed to see the men cooking while the women relaxed. Both American families had young children who played with these new friends.

Mostly, though, they kept showing up, which told the newcomers something that didn’t need a translator. Hoan and Len Nguyen still have a limited English vocabulary, so Lyssa, the youngest of five daughters, helped her dad explain his feelings.

“He said it was important because they were in a new, unfamiliar place, and with the love that the Briggses and the Williamses gave to them, it made them feel at home, made them feel safe,” she said.

With the assistance of the Catholic Church, the Nguyens moved to Louisiana, where Hoan, who had been in the South Vietnamese Army, joined Quan as commercial fishermen. Eventually, both took industrial jobs, Hoan as a welder, Quan (now deceased) as a painter. Hoan’s daughters all married. Kim and Paul Pham (who also came through the Eglin refugee camp), Kim-Yen and Scotty Pham and Mai and Tony Truong all live in the Baton Rouge area. Xuan and Son Nguyen and Lyssa and Jack Nguyen live in New Orleans.

The Briggs and Williams families exchanged some letters, but they lost touch, partly because Hoan Nguyen’s family changed addresses, and the Nguyens only remembered the American friends’ first names.

However, while looking through their photo albums during Mother’s Day last year, they noticed the Briggses’ names were on the back of their portrait. The daughters searched the Internet. They couldn’t locate Jack and Annette, but found Mark in San Francisco, which set in motion the recent reunion. The Briggses live in St. Mary, Ga. The Williamses couldn’t attend because of health issues.

In addition to the joy of reconnecting, Annette Briggs brought a surprise — family photos taken in Vietnam, a rosary and currency that Lua Nguyen had given her.

“I always kept my little envelope with all the stuff,” Annette Briggs said. “That was them thanking us, their gift to us. They kept on saying they had nothing to give us, and they wanted us to have something. They gave us the money, which they said was no good, but we didn’t care. It was very wonderful that they were doing it. The grandmother gave us the rosary beads. They were just wonderful, and they wanted us to have something of them.”

For the younger generation, it was the first time they had ever seen these photos, which brought peals of laughter as they were passed around in the driveway. Then, everyone went inside, where Hoan Nguyen dished out a delicacy utterly foreign to his guests: boiled crawfish.

The guests spent the afternoon enjoying the warmth both of the food and the sentiments.

“Thank God that we met you guys,” Kim Pham said, “and thank God to give us this opportunity in this free land.”