Ha Van Nguyen smiled as he looked at model airplanes and authentic uniforms from the Vietnam War.
That was what some consider the Vietnam War, the one being fought between North Vietnam and the government of South Vietnam.
Years before the United States and other nations allied with the South in its unsuccessful fight against communist North, the people of South Vietnam were striving to remain free from communist intrusion in their part of the then-partitioned country. Meanwhile, the North Vietnamese government and the Viet Cong — a South Vietnamese communist front aided by the North — were fighting for reunification.
The now-75-year-old Garden Grove resident was in the South Vietnamese army. In April 1975, he was captured by the communists.
“It was a nightmare,” said Nguyen, through a translator.
He left behind a wife and three children, who had little information about his whereabouts, and was not released until May 1983.
During his time in the reeducation camp — the official name of the prison camps operated by the communist government after the war — Nguyen had to fend for himself, scrounging for food as enemies surrounded him with guns.
When the captives were on boats en route to the camps, they were chained to a single spot, where they ate the little bit of rice and water they were given, slept and defecated.
Nguyen said he saw hundreds of friends die of starvation and old age.
Nguyen and his family, which grew by three more children after he was released, migrated to the United States in 1993 as part of a humanitarian operation that allowed South Vietnamese soldiers who were in reeducation camps for more than three years a chance at a new life in America.
The story is similar to those of other South Vietnamese immigrants and veterans, who stood up for their own, although the communists ultimately took over.
As he looked at the artifacts, Nguyen — dressed in his original military uniform — was teary though seemingly joyful to be looking at the items, part of the Museum of History of the Republic of Vietnam Armed Forces in Westminster.
More than 200,000 South Vietnamese soldiers died in the struggle compared with 58,000 Americans, yet the stories of the people of the South often seem to get overshadowed by the other fight: the communists versus the Americans.
Here, Nguyen was looking at remnants of the piece of history to which he is so inextricably linked. And he was emotional.
“The American soldiers coming back were mistreated and called baby killers,” said Quan Nguyen, one of the people behind the museum, no relation to Ha Van.
“For the South Vietnamese, it was much worse than that. They were traitors, losers and a lot of them were imprisoned and lost their families. Some would escape as boat people and die. It’s a very tragic story.”
For many the battle goes on, only now it has taken the shape of ensuring that the stories of the South Vietnamese don’t vanish as the veterans age and die.
With this goal in mind, seven Vietnamese physicians from Orange County, including Quan Nguyen, a Fountain Valley dermatologist, opened the museum in April.
“A lot of my younger patients have come from Vietnam, but they don’t know anything about the Republic of Vietnam or what it was,” said Thomas Quach, an obstetrician and gynecologist at Fountain Valley Regional Hospital and Medical Center and Orange Coast Memorial Medical Center, also in Fountain Valley.
The doctors pay the rent each month — about $1,000 — out of their own pockets for the 1,000-square-foot space, and several other people volunteer five days a week to man it.
Admission is donation-only.
The doctors are hoping to eventually move the museum to a building four times larger than the current space, at 9842 Bolsa Ave., and are looking to raise $100,000 to offset the costs.
A separate Vietnamese museum had been proposed in Garden Grove in 2008, but that project was abandoned last year when it hit construction snags, including a burst water pipe in 2012, according to The Voice of OC, a local nonprofit investigative news agency.
For the Westminster museum, the doctors teamed with historian and collector Darwin Hall, who had gathered uniforms, papers, patches and other historic artifacts from the war over the last 15 years.
The items, he noted, which he found largely at flea markets, are rare.
“They were destroyed by so many different angles by so many different groups,” Hall said. “On one hand, you had the communists coming in, and they destroyed everything. On the other hand, you had the soldiers themselves who, of course if they got captured, had to take off the uniform, and those were destroyed.”
The memorabilia is expected to be switched out every few months to offer fresh experiences at the museum, which is open year-round Tuesdays through Saturdays.
The doctors, who are each in their 50s and were children during the war, feel an emotional connection to the items.
Quan Nguyen was a child when he lived in Saigon, and he still recalls the sounds of gunfire, people screaming and heavy machinery rumbling by.
“I remember the Tet Offensive in 1968, and I was probably 3 or 4,” said Nguyen, whose father was in the military. “I remember having to hide in the kitchen because there were people running around outside shooting. My dad took me into his base and his hospital, and I could see these helicopters coming in riddled with bullets. And I see these guys being carried out, and they’re all over the hospital, in the hall. There were just too many wounded to even carry in.”
He considers the museum a “closure place” for the South Vietnamese people, where the older generation can pass on their memories — and perhaps find some peace.
Museum volunteer Bach Nguyen (no relation to Ha Van or Quan), who served in the Republic of Vietnam navy and created replica planes and boats for the museum, was captured by the communists because they thought he was a spy.
The 69-year-old Westminster man enlisted in 1970 and was able to travel to the United States for a year to learn English as part of his training.
But his new skills, he said, were a problem once he returned to his country in 1971, and by 1975 he was imprisoned.
“If I spoke English in Vietnam, I was guilty,” said Nguyen, who seemed to retain a strong English vocabulary even though he wasn’t allowed to use the language for the five years he was in jail.
“The communist leaders thought I was a spy for the United States. They wanted to kill me because they thought I was CIA. They said, ‘You lie, I’ll kill you. I don’t trust you, I’ll kill you.’”
Unlike Ha Van Nguyen, Bach Nguyen was given food while in jail, though it was only a small bowl of rice with some salt each day. Also, Bach was jailed in South Vietnam.
Ha Van, because he had an intelligence background, was taken to the North, where his treatment was harsher and his captors could better keep an eye on him.
Not that Bach had it easy. Each morning, he had to wake up at 5 a.m., and an hour later he would be chopping wood in the forest. He saw about 75 fellow South Vietnamese soldiers die.
Once, he attempted to escape by boat but was quickly caught by the communists, who threatened to kill him if he didn’t return.
“They wanted us to suffer,” he said.
South Vietnam flourished before the communist takeover, Bach Nguyen and Ha Van Nguyen recall.
Afterward, it was much different. Ha Van Nguyen said his wife had to support his family because the communists would not allow him to work, even after he was released from jail.
“It’s evil,” he said through the translator. “You become useless and you die if you don’t have any family to support you.”
Bach Nguyen, who came to the United States in 1993, has only returned to his home country once — for his mother’s funeral. He refuses to go back again.
Francis Pittington, who retired from the U.S. Navy in 1981, remembered the mix of exhaustion, sadness and hope he saw on the faces of the Vietnamese people who came through Guam in 1975 as part of Operation New Life, which processed some refugees to go to the United States.
Many arrived with only the clothes on their backs. Some dressed well, while most wore tattered garments.
“We had lines of people as more aircraft came in,” said the 92-year-old Anaheim resident. “There were more than 100,000 refugees on Guam. I think they were quite anxious as to what was going to happen to them. They were confused and rather quiet.”
Bach Nguyen left Vietnam nearly two decades later as part of a different military operation.
As scary as life was in a new country, it was a place he had been to before and so it was familiar. And nothing could be as bad as the way the enemies treated him.
“When the airplane took off, I told my wife, ‘You remember, you’re being born again.’”
The museum, he said, is a nice reminder for what South Vietnam once was.
Quan Nguyen said the museum is for veterans like Bach Nguyen and Ha Van Nguyen.
“We want to tell the stories for these soldiers because a lot of them are getting old or have passed away already,” he said. “No one is going to be able to tell the story. No one is going to know about South Vietnam and how the democracy was working in a country like that. We don’t want South Vietnam to be remembered as losers. They fought hard and their story needs to live on.”
IF YOU GO
What: Museum of History of the Republic of Vietnam Armed Forces
Where: 9842 Bolsa Ave., Suite B106, Westminster
Hours: noon to 4 p.m. Wednesdays through Fridays, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Closed Mondays