Elk Grove / Southeast Asia Stories
In 2019 the Linda Mae Mahon Lema Foundation had conversations with several Elk Grove High School graduates about their experiences, at home and abroad, concerning the Vietnam War. The Foundation also had conversations with several families who live in and around Elk Grove who fled from all parts of Southeast Asia from the 1970s through the early 2000’s.
While the stories shared are just a very few of the hundreds, if not thousands, of similar Elk Grove area stories, they are representative of the conditions and consequences of the era which began in Southeast Asia after World War II, particularly the Vietnam War.
The collective impact on Elk Grove of these events, as represented by these stories, has been as significant and defining as the Gold Rush, if not more so.
In 2019 the Foundation had a conversation with Vietnam Veteran Steve Bingen, a 1965 graduate of Elk Grove High School and who served in Vietnam in the 1960s. In our conversation Steve shared what life was like before his service, and how the war has affected his life. Steve also shares of his incredible chance encounter with Kathy Ruhl, a classmate from Florin Elementary and Elk Grove High School, who was performing at a base in Vietnam in 1968.
In 2019 the Foundation had a conversation with Lynn Countryman, a mixed race-orphan whose father was a U.S. serviceman and whose mother was Vietnamese. In the spring of 1975, as the U.S. moved forward with withdrawal from Vietnam, Lynn was one of over 3,300 mixed-race children who were in acute peril if left behind. In an effort dubbed ‘Operation Babylift’, on April 4, 1975 two-year old Lynn and the others were airlifted out of the country. This is the incredible story of Lynn’s journey from an orphanage in Vietnam to raising camels in the Elk Grove area.
In 2019 the Foundation had a conversation with Vietnam Veteran Phillip Courtney, a 1963 graduate of Elk Grove High School who served in Vietnam in the 1960’s. Phillip shares what life was like growing up and living in Elk Grove before his service in Vietnam, how the war affected his life, what it was like upon his return from Vietnam and what life has been like since.
In 2019 the Foundation had a conversation with Hoang ‘Billy’ Do who was born in 1972 in Vietnam and who escaped Communist Vietnam at the age of 19. This is the story of his three attempts to escape and of his long and difficult journey to the U.S. and eventually Elk Grove.
In 2019 the Foundation had a conversation with Vietnam Veteran Manuel Galvez. Manuel not only shared his own story but those of his two brothers, Fred and Joe, who also served in Vietnam in the 1960’s
IN 2020 the Foundation developed the story of Wayne D. Heintz, a graduate of Elk Grove High School, Class of 1964, who was killed in the Vietnam War in 1968. Wayne’s story is the result of a combination of researching archival and military records and numerous conversations with those who knew Wayne, including elementary and high school friends Richard Gage, Carl Carlson, Ernie Boone and Terry Burke, and, most importantly, his sister Karen Heintz Castelli and his best friend Bob Lent, both also graduates of Elk Grove High School.
In 2019 the Foundation had a conversation with Luna Hoang who in 1975 at the age 0f 14 escaped Vietnam with her two younger sisters aged 4 and 6. This is the story of her harrowing rescue at sea, her heartwarming reuniting with an older brother in a refugee camp, of being sponsored by a most benevolent man in Oakland and of her eventual settling in Elk Grove.
In 2019 the Foundation had a conversation with Steve Ly where he shared with us the story of his Hmong family fleeing from Laos shortly after the U.S. pullout from Vietnam. Escape was imperative for the family because his of father’s military service supporting the U.S. presence in Southeast Asia before, and during, the Vietnam War.
In 2019 the Foundation had a conversation with Thuy Nguyen who was born in Vietnam just before the U.S pullout. Thuy lived under the Communist regime until her late 20s when she married a U.S. citizen and oil engineer doing business with the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. This is the story of her family during and after the Vietnam War and of her struggles to adapt in the United States.
In 2019 the Foundation had a conversation with Vietnam Veteran who is a 1965 graduate of Elk Grove High School and who served in Vietnam in the1960’s. In our discussion, Mel shares how through the years he has dealt with the impact of the war on his life, and, just as importantly, how his views of the Vietnam War and the people of Southeast Asia have been tempered.
In 2019 the Foundation had a conversation with Vietnam Veteran Gaudencio ‘Butch’ Rivera, a graduate of Elk Grove High School who served in Vietnam in the 1960s. Butch shares how the war affected his life, and what it has been like since returning. Butch also shares how, as he was departing from Cam Rahn Bay, Vietnam to go on leave to visit relatives in the Philippines, he recognized the just-arriving Wayne Heintz, a classmate from Florin Elementary and Elk Grove High School.
In 2019 the Foundation developed the story of Kathy Ruhl, a 1965 graduate of Elk Grove High School and who passed away in 2008.Kathy’s dramatic story of her intense and deep dedication to those who served in the Vietnam War is told by George Kepley, Historian for the Elk Grove High School Class of 1965.
In 2019 the Foundation had a conversation with Christine Truong, whose father, Buu Dien Truong, was South Vietnam’s Minister of Information. And, in 1975 when the country fell, he was the Chargés d'affaires to Singapore. Christine’s insights, memories and reflections on these years are yet another important account which emerges from the complexities, dangers and outcomes of the post-World War II / Southeast Asia story.
In 2019 the Foundation had a conversation with Henry Ung as he shared stories of his mother-in-law, himself and his wife, who were all born in Vietnam. Each story is filled with the gut-wrenching challenges of families living in a war zone, fleeing uncertainty and life-threatening circumstances after the war, and of their settlement in the U.S. and eventually Elk Grove.