He was a little man with a big smile. A few teeth were missing, but that only made him more genuine and likable. He was commander of a small group of soldiers who were working with us to protect the nearby villages. We called him Thieu Uy Ngu, which means “Second Lieutenant Ngu.” He helped us learn how to pronounce his name, “Tee Wee Noo.” He never gave us his first name, and we never asked for it. Units like his had been given the mission of defending smaller hamlets across the country; they were known as the “Popular Forces.”
He and his platoon were fighting for their homeland; we were thousands of miles from the hills, plains, mountains, and cities of our own nation. But we were united in our effort to stop the spread of global Communism. I think most Americans have forgotten how dangerous the world was in those days; the Soviets and the Chinese both had nuclear capability. They were working toward hegemony in Southeast Asia and beyond, testing the mettle of the free world to see if we could stop their advances. And we rose to the challenge for a decade, shoulder to shoulder with our allies in South Vietnam.
Thieu Uy Ngu was drawn to me for some reason. I didn’t feel all that approachable on those dark days and darker nights. My mood was often sullen and dour, especially after a firefight with casualties. The burden of leadership weighed heavy on my body and mind. But because I spoke his language, this diminutive man often would come and sit with me when there was a lull in the action. I sensed a camaraderie from the outset.
I recall two occasions that haunt and bless me, often simultaneously. The memories always bring a lump to my throat. The first occurred on a partly overcast night in September of 1969. He and I were sharing information about the “night acts,” the ways we planned to deploy our troops in the coming hours. Suddenly a cloud cleared the sky and a bright moon bathed us in light. He gazed at the orb and said to me in his native tongue, “Americans just walked up there. I am so glad.” It had been a couple of months since Apollo 11 had made that historic journey to Earth’s primal satellite, and my newfound friend was overjoyed. His broken smile seemed to illuminate the shell-scarred landscape surrounding us. I silently thanked God for enabling and ennobling our nation to accomplish such a miracle, as I wiped a tear from my eye.
A few weeks later, we learned that Lt. Ngu and I would be parting ways. My company of Marines was under orders to move north into the mighty Que Son Mountains, and his unit would remain to guard the homes of his family and countrymen. There have been thousands of times over the last fifty years when I’ve wondered what happened to him after we departed. And after the Republic of Vietnam fell to the communist onslaught from the north. I shudder as I assume that he and his men were unable to survive the carnage.
On the last night we spent together, we were sitting on a large boulder. I was trying to find words to convey my gratitude for his courage and his leadership; it was obvious that he was loved and respected by his toughened troops. But before I could muster up the message I wanted to convey, he beat me to the draw. I’ll never forget that instant when our eyes met and he said in his own language, “I have seen many Americans come and go. You are number ten!” (I learned later that he didn’t mean tenth in sequence; “ten” represented the highest accolade possible.) He went on to say, “I have tried to thank your people for coming over here to help us, but no one has been able to understand what I am saying. But you speak my language, and so I tell you. Please take my message to all the Marines and the Army and to people in your country.”
I wept openly, and we embraced. We went on our separate journeys toward unknown destinies. I hope to see him again, in a place where there is final freedom and abundance. Where his Buddhism and my Christianity are bound together with the strands of common humanity. Where we all will speak one language: the dialect and discourse of love.
In the meantime, Thieu Uy Ngu, I am sharing your story with my fellow Americans. We were grateful to be able to help, we only wish we could have finished the mission. Thank you for making us proud to be a nation that has sacrificed throughout our history to light the torch of liberty in countries and on continents around the globe.