In search of a new life

Minnesota man escaped Laos during Vietnam War to avoid being killed … found new life for he and his family in Glencoe.

Bounnorm Thammavongsa, who came to Glencoe from Laos in 1980, fought along side the Americans as a First Lieutenant platoon leader for the Rangers from 1965 to 1968. His final battle was the deadly Khe Sanh battle southwest of Laos and northwest of South Vietnam in the summer of 1968. That was the end and a new beginning for Bounnorm, his wife Chanhsom and their five children, Kim, Pam, Lee, Phouangphet and Vilasack. Lasting 77 days, the “siege” of the Khe Sanh saw American and South Vietnamese forces suffer 703 killed, 2,642 wounded, and several missing. The Communist, People’s Army of North Vietnam (PAVN) lost between 10,000-15,000 dead and wounded. U.S. General Creighton Abrams, believing that retaining Khe Sanh was not necessary, ordered the base destroyed and abandoned. The Khe Sanh battle was the beginning to the end of the Vietnam War and what some people thought was a distraction to General Westmoreland in the weeks before the Tet Offensive. After the Communists took over South Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia in April of 1975, Bounnorm worked for the United States Embassy and then the British Embassy in their motor pool as a shop foreman. He was in the American Embassy from 1969 until 1975 and then from 1975 to 1978 worked at the British Embassy. “I was doing well. Had a decent living, nice job, owned farm property 18 miles from Vientiane, the capitol of Laos, a growing family and many friends and relatives,” Bounnorm said. “I never thought I was going to leave Laos.” In 1978, the Communist called him to their headquarters and questioned him about his loyalty and wondered how he got a job at the British Embassy. He was questioned by a high-ranking PAVN commander and behind him stood two soldiers armed with AK 47s. They wanted to know if he would work for the communist as an inspector and share his harvest from his farm. “I work for my family and I will die for this piece of land”, he told the commander. “I was crazy. My mind was numb. I told them ‘I am sorry. I misunderstood. I will do anything possible to make it right for our country and our people. I will die and live in this country forever. Anything our government needs, I will do if possible,’ Bounnorm told the commander. Then he shook my hand and gave me a cigarette.” The commander said: “Norm, I just want to let you know we (Communists) fought this country for what? For a piece of this land. We won the war. We can have anything we want. Why don’t you share?” Then he smiled at me and said “I knew the CIA is behind you.” From that point on Bounnorm did not trust him. “When I heard these words, I changed my mind right away.” “I walked out and felt very scared. I thought they would kill me. I could barely walk because I was so scared. When I left their headquarters to go to the British Embassy, I passed the Embassy by about five miles. I don’t know why. Then I asked myself ‘Why am I here.’ Then I stopped my car, smoked cigarettes, walked around the car and looked at the sky and asked God to give me a choice. I went back to the Embassy to work. That day I made the decision to leave. I believe they were going to come and kill me. I decided to swim across the Mekong River from Laos to Thailand. I knew some friends along the river and I told them exactly what I planned to do. I had to make sure it was 100 percent safe. After I talked this over with my wife, Chanhsom, I left my family behind because they would not harm them. If I leave, the chance I would see my family again is greater than if I stayed in Laos. Crossing the Mekong River was a dangerous two-mile trip because the Communist had soldiers monitoring the river and were shooting anybody trying to escape Laos. This was the monsoon season and the river was flowing pretty fast. Besides worrying about getting shot by the North Vietnamese, I was also worried about the cold water, big fish and crocodiles. I had to be very careful while swimming and would swim underwater to avoid being seen. I left home about  2 p.m. and got to the river at 8 p.m. It was dark outside when I entered the water so nobody can see me. I had two airbags and backpacks stuffed with my clothes. If I was shot at, my plan was to release one of the bags and use it as a decoy. I figured I had a 50-50 chance of making it across the river to Thailand. I got half ways across the river and looked back at Vientiane and saw all the city lights and wondered if I made the right decision to leave my family, my job, my country. I made it to the shores of Thailand at about 10 p.m. and was scared to death. I had to hide because Thailand was not totally safe either. Then I saw a guy on a motorcycle and stopped him and asked him for help. He was a nice guy, gave me a towel and gave me directions to the immigration office. The next morning this same guy stopped by to see me to make sure I was okay. That was the last time I saw him. I would like to meet him again and thank him for his help. Two months later my wife, my five children, my friends wife, my brother and his girlfriend, came across the river on a canoe boat they had just purchased for $150,000 Laotian kips ($20 US). There were nine children and four adults on the boat. I was shocked when I was told my wife and children were in Thailand. They joined me at the Thailand refugee camp. We had nothing left. I had to work at the camp to pay for the food they served us. We lived at the camp for 16 months before we found out what our next assignment would be. The first assignment was to go to England. But I denied it. On Dec. 11, 1979, my name was on a list to get on a boat to go to Bangkok and then to the U.S.A. We stayed in Bangkok for two days and then flew to the Minneapolis airport and landed on Jan. 17, 1980. We were met at the Minneapolis airport by a group of people from Glencoe including Linda Ranzau, Vana Wolf, Ella Stuedemann and Tom Hauer. We were sponsored by the Lutheran Refugee Resettlement and received additional community support from Jerry Schimelpfenig, Drs. Smyth, Rudy and Close and many others. It was very difficult at first because of the different culture, weather, and language. But thank God for all the good people in Glencoe to help us survive.” Bounnorm started working for the Glencoe NAPA store owned by Ray Skolberg. After other job opportunities, Bounnorm reached out for support to start his own machine shop. With the help of Seneca, other businesses and churches, Bounnorm built a shop on the east side of town. To make ends meet, his wife, Chanhsom, worked two, eight-hour shifts, one at Telex and another at Starkeys. Bounnorm told his kids when they arrived in Glencoe, “no fight. Walk away. Look friendly not enemies. If you do this I will do all I can to get you an education.” All five of his children got college educations. The oldest one, Kim (Khommalian), lives in Milaca and is a nurse. Pam (Thamaly) lives in Brooklyn Park and works for Honeywell as a computer programmer. Lee lives in Paynesville and is busy raising four children. Phouangphet lives in Montrose and works at an office in Minneapolis. And the youngest is their son Vilasack who is a professor for a medical school in Chicago. “Finally, they are all doing very well”, Bounnorm proudly boasted. Bounnorm and Chanhsom also have a dozen grandchildren. The twelfth grandchild, a girl, was born on March 22 of this year. Recently Bounnorm sold his Glencoe machine shop and moved to a house, near Lake Wabedo, on 27 acres in Longville, Minn. “I want to say thank you to all the people that have helped me and my family these past 32 years. I am so happy to be in this country because I can be what I want to be.”

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