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Mar 2, 2024
Club Member Kim Eng shares her story about her awe-inspiring journey through life; from war refugee to grateful American.
When Landy Eng, President of The American Club donated a frayed American flag to the Club during its 4th of July celebrations, it wasn’t just a gesture of goodwill or largesse; nobody could have anticipated the heartwarming story around it.
Since the beginning of time, mankind has used symbols and signs to convey ideas and messages in a way that would be as universally understood as possible. When no written language was available, it was graphical representations of items, actions, and events that transmitted information and knowledge to others.
Take for instance, the American flag. Its symbolism depicts the original 13 colonies and 50 states of the Union, as well as the attributes of hardiness, valor, purity, justice and perseverance. To most people, especially Americans, the flag is also a motif of freedom, hope, strength, opportunity, and democracy. To Kim Eng, Landy’s wife of over three decades, the flag stands for so much more - a bastion and testament to her awe-inspiring journey through life; from war refugee to grateful American.
Escaping the Vietnam War
Born Kim-Oanh Bui, Kim grew up in Vietnam during the turbulent years of the Vietnam War. Just before the Fall of Saigon on April 30, 1975, young Kim joined thousands of other war refugees fleeing from their homeland via flights to the Philippines, Guam, and finally, the United States of America. She made the daunting trip alone, without her parents or any other family member to care for her.
When Kim arrived in the United States, she was situated at Camp Pendleton in California, where she would remain for the next few months. Helmed initially by a US Army Major, Captain Lon Getlin who served as Commander of the facility, it was the first US military base to provide a safe haven for Vietnamese evacuees in Operation New Arrivals. The mission saw over 50,000 war refugees transported to the base in the largest humanitarian airlift in history.
Settling into Camp Pendleton
Barely a few weeks into her stay at the camp, Kim was robbed of her belongings, leaving her even more destitute than before. However, Kim’s spirit of resolve would not be broken. Being the resourceful young girl that she was, she sought help from a camp leader who brought her to Captain Getlin, who compassionately took her under his wing and brought her to a bank to open a safe deposit box to keep her valuables.
It was the same fatherly friendship between her and the Army Major that Kim became an interpreter for him. She translated Vietnamese to French as he carried out his official duties. At the time, Kim did not speak a word of English.
Kim’s first 4th of July was in Camp Pendleton, a profoundly bittersweet experience for her and her fellow refugees in the US; they were celebrating their freedom from the terrors of war, but in a foreign land so far from home, with so much uncertainty ahead. It was during this emotional festivity that Kim recalls seeing the American flag, unfurled in all its glory and flapping valiantly in the wind, as if it were keeping watch over the camp and its inhabitants. A symbol of safety and enduring hope, the flag became synonymous with a fresh start in the United States.
New Beginnings and a Happy Reunion
Kim’s foray into the realm of her new life began in September 1975 when she was taken in by the Schellerups, the loving family of a war cameraman turned Hollywood film director, who would foster her through the years ahead. Not long after in November, Camp Pendleton closed its doors as a refugee center, the flag she had admired on the 4th of July lowered for the last time, signaling the end of a chapter in Kim’s life.
Keen to assimilate into American society, Kim enrolled in Hollywood High, where she became fluent in English. All this while, she hadn’t forgotten her real family and was doing her utmost to search for their whereabouts.
After four years, she had finally tracked down her birth mother and the rest of her family. The reunion took place on Thanksgiving Day of 1979, an occasion very much befitting of the momentous event. With her house in order and inspired by the impact of Captain Getlin’s kindness on her life, Kim then went on to volunteer at numerous other refugee camps in California and across the United States.
A Present from the Past
On July 23, 1989, Kim’s wedding day, that impact was further compounded when Kim received a wedding gift from Captain Getlin, with whom she had lost contact for 15 years. It was the very flag that had flown over Camp Pendleton and captivated Kim when she was just a child; one that had now taken on the symbolism of love, reconnection, and family - in addition to safety and hope.
Since then, the flag has remained a prized possession in the Eng’s home for 33 years until it was donated to the Club on July 4, 2022. Its display will be graced by Captain Getlin, who has arranged to fly to Singapore next year to visit Kim and Landy in a homecoming of sorts.
And as Kim’s journey comes full circle, we see more clearly than ever how Kim - in her fortitude, resilience, generosity, and determination to thrive - has become the consummate embodiment of the values espoused by the American flag.
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