by John Tedesco
EXPRESS-NEWS COASTAL BEND BUREAU
ROCKPORT – The Viet Cong began firing before dawn at the crowded fishing boat as it eased its way out of the South Vietnamese village of Ben Da.
Explosions ripped through the village, and people screamed as bullets struck near the boat, sending up sprays of water.
“You could see it,” said Ho Nguyen, who was 10 years old when he fled with his family in 1975. “Every time they shot, the water blasted up.”
The Nguyens and hundreds of other South Vietnamese families who fled when Saigon fell to the communists 25 years ago eventually settled along the Texas coast to begin new lives as shrimpers in U.S. waters.
Penniless and knowing little English, the refugees escaped one war only to find themselves in another, this time against angry Anglo shrimpers and the Ku Klux Klan.
Today, nearly 600 residents of the fishing communities of Rockport and Fulton are of Asian ancestry, making up 8 percent of the 7,300 residents, according to the local chamber of commerce. The exodus sparked by South Vietnam’s defeat is rarely discussed among the Vietnamese families, even during the week that marks the 25th anniversary of the end of the war.
For some, the topic is too painful to discuss. But this silent anniversary also reflects a new generation of Vietnamese too young to remember the war. Parting with the past, many don’t see a future in shrimping and are venturing into other professions with their parents’ blessings.
“It’s been too long to talk about Saigon,” said Nguyen, the oldest of six children. Nguyen’s childhood was spent helping his parents harvest shrimp to support his younger brothers and sisters. His siblings – including his baby brother Dat Nguyen, who starred as a football player at Texas A&M and now is a linebacker for the Dallas Cowboys – went to college and abandoned shrimping.
Pho Ba Long, a retired professor at Georgetown University who started a foundation in the 1980s to help Vietnamese refugees, said shrimping was a tool for many impoverished families to establish themselves in the United States. Now the children of those refugees are able to afford school and build new lives.
“Many of our young children do not care very much about Saigon anymore because they are living in a free world,” Long said. “They are busy making a living.”
Roughly 2 million people fled South Vietnam after the fall of Saigon, with about a third settling in the United States, Long said. Often fleeing by boat, many families fell prey to pirates and lost all their possessions – and often their lives.
Those who wound up in the United States settled in communities with American sponsors. Word spread that shrimping on the Texas coast was a profitable industry that didn’t require mastery of the English language or unfamiliar job skills.
Fishing communities such as Rockport, Fulton and Seadrift were forever changed when the quiet but industrious refugees began arriving in 1976.
At first able to afford only old boats, the Vietnamese worked hard and pooled their resources to buy new one s. They angered Anglo shrimpers who claimed the Vietnamese violated local fishing customs and depleted the shrimp population. Welfare agencies were accused of providing too much aid to the refugees, and maritime officials were blamed for overlooking Vietnamese vessels that exceeded tonnage requirements.
“They were mostly mad because it was costing them money,” said Leslie Casterline, 51, one of the few bait shop owners who bought shrimp from the Vietnamese during that time. “There were so many boats, it was hard to make a living.”
At the root of the conflict was a Vietnamese work ethic that focused on the family, not the individual. Family members worked long hours to make their shrimp business profitable, in sharp contrast to the American emphasis of individualism that reigned among the fiercely independent shrimpers.
“Everybody who was still breathing worked,” said Jim Reckner, director of the Vietnam Center at Texas Tech University in Lubbock. “They worked 12, 13, 14 hours a day, it didn’t matter. That was a big problem with the American fishermen. It was almost unfair competition.”
The friction became deadly on Aug. 3, 1979, when Billy Joe Aplin, a 35-year-old crabber, was shot to death in Seadrift, about 30 miles north of Rockport. Two Vietnamese brothers were arrested in connection with Aplin’s death, but they were acquitted later on the grounds the slaying was in self-defense. On the night of Aplin’s death, several Vietnamese boats were burned and a vacant Vietnamese house was firebombed.
A week later, police raided a house and arrested three men who had a blasting cap for an explosive device. Police said the apparent target of the bomb was a crab packing plant staffed by about two dozen Vietnamese employees.
As negotiators between the Vietnamese and Anglo shrimping factions tried to iron out differences, the Ku Klux Klan members held a rally near Houston and burned a boat in effigy. They dubbed the boat “The Viet Cong.”
“Back then there was a lot of racism,” said Niki Nguyen, 28. “It was hard for us to be shrimping and hearing them get on the CB and call us chinks and gooks.”
Most bait shop owners refused to do business with the Vietnamese shrimpers. But as the Casterline family saw it, the nationality of the shrimpers didn’t matter, as long as they could catch shrimp. The family’s refusal to join the boycott angered many Anglo shrimpers.
One morning, Casterline and his father found a card stuck in their door. It read: “You have been paid a friendly visit by the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. The next (visit) might not be the same.”
“We didn’t sleep for a few nights after that,” Casterline said.
Today, several Vietnamese shrimpers and city leaders here said relations are healthy between the Vietnamese and the rest of the community.
“I think they fit well in the community,” Rockport Mayor Glenda Burdick said. “They’re certainly dedicated, hard-working people.”
But racist undercurrents linger in some quarters, some said, stirred in part by declining shrimp catches and proposals by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department to stiffen shrimping regulations.
On a recent afternoon, an Anglo shrimper was hanging his nets and complaining loudly to a bait shop operator about the fishing habits of the Vietnamese.
“You know how those Vietnamese are,” he said, swearing in anger.
About two weeks ago, a friend told Niki Nguyen that someone had called her family “VC” behind their backs. Nguyen thinks it was because some well-known fishing guides chose her bait shop over the others at the harbor.
“Most of the blame isn’t put on the Vietnamese,” Casterline said of the existing attitudes among some shrimpers. “It’s put on the government for putting them here in the first place.”
Despite the trend among young Vietnamese to forsake shrimping, for members of the older generation, it is all they have.
Many have never learned English and have no skills other than fishing, which for some families has been hand ed down generation after generation. Despite the hazardous working conditions and depleted catches, an experienced shrimper can earn a good living, with the most industrious grossing up to $80,000 a year, according to several Vietnamese shrimpers.
“I didn’t learn English very good,” said Giang Ha, a 46-year-old shrimper, as he mended a net on his boat, the Jupiter. “I have a boat. I have no need for English.”
Vietnamese shrimpers are now the majority on the bay. Of the 105 shrimping vessels that dock in Rockport and Fulton, 69 are owned by Vietnamese, said Robbie Andrew, bookkeeper for the Aransas County Navigation District.
jtedesco @ express-news.net