By Mike Hixenbaugh
John Donovan stepped out of a taxi in the Vietnamese city of My Tho in 2008, dropped his bags on the street and squinted through midday sun as he scanned a bustling crowd.
He was searching for a ghost.
More than 40 years had passed since he had seen the local interpreter who guided his American riverboat crew as it navigated the winding and murky waters of South Vietnam during the war. For years, Donovan assumed his old friend was dead.
The retired Navy officer had spent part of an earlier trip to Vietnam searching for the translator, known simply as “Minh” by most of the men who served with him. But with no details about what happened to him after the war – and only his memories to guide him – Donovan didn’t know where to begin.
Then, about six years ago, he came across Minh’s name in a book. That led him to an author who put him in touch with a Vietnamese refugee in Dallas who gave him a phone number. The war buddies recognized each other’s voices almost immediately.
A few months later, Nguyen Hoang Minh emerged from the crowd in downtown My Tho, waved to Donovan and wrapped him in a hug. They recalled a few hairy moments during their tour aboard the river patrol boats and laughed as they reminisced about a few wild nights spent drinking together so long ago.
Minh’s English had grown rusty, but he still knew enough to tell a decent story. He explained how, after Donovan left the country in 1967, he’d been recruited to work as an interpreter for what was then a little-known group of specially trained commandos – the U.S. Navy SEALs.
For five years, Minh had participated in several missions that helped earn the SEALs a reputation as some of the world’s fiercest fighters. Minh had attained a near-mythical status in early SEAL lore, helping establish their unique ability to blend with local cultures in faraway lands.
But the slight man with crooked yellow teeth has hardly lived a hero’s life.
Donovan visited Minh’s home that trip: a tiny hut with no windows, a leaky roof and a mud floor where he and his wife had been raising two grandchildren.
Now, decades later, the old man is fulfilling a life dream: He’s walking on American soil. And he’s finally claiming his place among the nation’s most celebrated warriors.
Minh cried last week after stepping off an airplane in South Florida. Some of the men he fought alongside were there to meet him, including Rick Woolard, a retired SEAL captain who worked with Minh during the early days of SEAL Team 2.
Woolard was a driving force behind the effort to bring the former interpreter to America for a two-week visit, which has included stops at the National Navy UDT-SEAL Museum in Florida and tours this week of the East Coast SEAL headquarters at Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek in Virginia Beach.
The museum, which recorded Minh’s stories last week for an oral history project, split the bill for his travel with the Navy SEAL Foundation. The visit will be capped off this weekend when the 74-year-old is recognized as a guest of honor at the annual SEAL reunion at Little Creek.
On Monday, Minh toured the headquarters of SEAL Team 2, where he received a plaque designating him as an honorary SEAL. He walked the halls and examined framed photos of the team’s early days in Vietnam. He paused at a black-and-white photograph showing the silhouettes of four armed men walking toward an enemy-occupied house.
“That could be me,” Minh said, pointing to the photo.
He stared at the picture for several seconds. His mind drifted back to 1966.
Minh studied English in high school, but never set out to work for the U.S. military.
As the story goes, an American river patrol boat captain approached a commander in the South Vietnamese navy and asked whether he had anyone who could work as an interpreter. The Vietnamese officer pointed to a cage in the middle of the compound and said, “You can have him.”
Minh, who by then had served four years in his country’s navy, swears he doesn’t remember what he did to be locked in the brig that day. All he knows is that he was released, and soon he was steaming through brown water on one of the small patrol boats that had been tasked with stopping and searching river traffic in an effort to disrupt Viet Cong weapon and supply shipments.
Minh had been on the job for several months by the time John Donovan arrived. The young lieutenant junior grade learned quickly that the 26-year-old interpreter was a valuable asset. He not only served as a translator, but also as a cultural liaison who could identify enemy fighters and defuse dangerous situations.
During a patrol on the Ham Luong River, Minh boarded a crowded water taxi and spotted a Viet Cong tax collector who, with a long white beard and flowing robes, had disguised himself as a Buddhist monk. After studying his papers, Minh grabbed the old man by the arm and led him onto the patrol boat. He tied the man’s wrists as Donovan radioed ahead to tell the South Vietnamese operations center they were bringing in a detainee.
Turning to examine their prisoner, Donovan said, he saw a flash of steel. One of his gunner’s mates – perhaps harboring thoughts of revenge for an ambush that had claimed the lives of several sailors – pressed his 8-inch Bowie knife to the throat of the old tax collector. With a clenched jaw, the sailor asked Donovan whether he could kill him.
Before he could respond, Minh flashed his notorious grin, ran to the old man’s side and put his hand on the sailor’s flexed arm.
“Hey man, he too old to bleed,” Minh remembers saying. “Why make a big mess here?”
The sailor slowly lowered the knife, appearing embarrassed, and backed away. Minh sat down with the prisoner and offered him a piece of candy.
It wasn’t long before Minh was asked to help with more covert operations. He could spend hours telling stories from the years he served with the SEALs. One of his favorites came on a dark night in March of 1968.
His platoon, led by Bob Gallagher, was on a combat mission and had penetrated 5,000 yards into a Viet Cong camp, locating a barracks occupied by about 30 well-armed fighters.
An enemy sentry discovered the commandos. Nearly everyone in the unit was wounded as the outnumbered team engaged in a firefight. As they returned fire, a grenade blast knocked Minh and four SEALs to the ground. Minh looked down: His left leg was full of shrapnel.
A grin crept across Minh’s face as he explained what happened next. He said “a big, big guy” named Mikey Boynton scooped him off the ground.
Boynton, a beloved figure in the SEAL community who died in a car accident in Norfolk in 1998, was a tree-trunk of a man. He sprinted away from the compound with the injured Minh riding on his shoulders like a child. Minh said he complained that Boynton’s arm was squeezing the shrapnel wound, so Boynton lowered the interpreter into his arms and cradled him as he fled enemy fire.
Boynton was shot three times in the back, but he kept running. When he reached a narrow canal, knowing that he couldn’t clear it with Minh in his arms, he tossed him over the ditch and picked him back up on the other side.
A helicopter was waiting nearby to lift the men out of danger. At the base of the chopper, Boynton again tossed Minh, but this time he threw too hard. Minh slid across the bloody floor of the helicopter and out the other side.
“It’s true! It’s true!” Minh said as he recalled the scene while reminiscing this week with a few of his SEAL buddies. “I’m lucky.”
“Damn right, you’re lucky,” Woolard said. “You’re a very lucky guy.”
Minh smiled and nodded his head. Surviving the war was one thing. Surviving what came next proved nearly as challenging.
After the fall of Saigon in 1975, Minh was captured by North Vietnamese soldiers and taken to a communist re-education camp.
Minh said he spent 28 months in the camp, where his captors schooled him in the horrors of American imperialism and the value of hard labor. But he didn’t wish to talk in detail about his time there or the desperate living conditions that awaited him and his wife once they were free. For the next 45 years, Minh scraped by, laboring in rice fields and fixing shoes and working other odd jobs to provide for his family.
He could count himself among the lucky ones. More than 165,000 others – many who fought alongside U.S. forces – didn’t survive the re-education camps, mostly dying from starvation and disease.
After Donovan found Minh in 2008, he told Woolard about the conditions the former interpreter was living in, about his life after the war and his desire to reconnect with the men he served with. Woolard put out the word, and within a few months his SEAL buddies had raised more than $15,000 to help Minh and his family move to the United States.
The State Department denied Minh’s immigration request, however, so the money instead was placed in a fund to help Minh modernize his home and care for his adult children and grandchildren.
Donovan returned to Vietnam to see Minh this past April. This time, Minh was wearing a Navy SEAL hat, holding a Navy SEAL Zippo lighter and carrying a copy of “Lone Survivor,” a popular Navy SEAL memoir.
He told Donovan he was grateful for all the gifts and donations. But there was one thing he wanted more than anything – to see America before he died.
Three months later, Minh was sitting in Woolard’s backyard in Virginia Beach, shooting the breeze with a few of the old-timers he fought and bled with. Minh said he never dreamed he would see their faces again – certainly not on U.S. soil. Telling stories seemed to be a form of therapy for him. Reminiscing, Donovan noted, is part of the way people come to terms with the horrors of war. Minh never got that chance.
Minh stepped away from the patio after a few hours of talking and strolled through Woolard’s garden overlooking Lake Smith. The old man pulled out a pack of Marlboros, flicked his Navy SEAL lighter and took a long drag on a cigarette as he stared out over the water.
A wife of one of the former SEALs laughed.
“After everything he’s been through,” she said, “I doubt smoking is going to hurt him.”