Sense of Duty: My Father, My American Journey

Sense of Duty: My Father, My American Journey

by Quang Pham

NOOK Book(eBook)

View All Available Formats & Editions

Available on Compatible NOOK Devices and the free NOOK Apps.
WANT A NOOK?  Explore Now


A memoir by a former Vietnamese refugee who became a U.S. Marine, Quang Pham’s A Sense of Duty is an affecting story of fate, hope, and the aftermath of the most divisive war the United States has ever fought. This heartfelt salute to the spirit of America is also the account of the author’s reunion with his long-absent father, Hoa Pham, himself a devoted officer who saw combat firsthand as a South Vietnamese fighter pilot. Hoa’s revelations about his wartime experience leave Quang even more conflicted about his service in the Marines in the first Gulf War, and after years of struggling to reconnect with each other and the homeland they left behind, the two set out on a final, profound quest—to make sense of the war in Vietnam. 

Tracing Quang Pham’s uniquely spirited yet agonizing journey from his experiences as an uprooted refugee to his becoming a combat aviator, A Sense of Duty reveals the turmoil of a family torn apart and reunited by the fortunes of war. It is an American journey like no other.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780307414458
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 12/18/2007
Sold by: Random House
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 288
Sales rank: 898,971
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

QUANG X. PHAM served as a Marine helicopter pilot in the 1991 Gulf War and in Somalia. He has been an executive with QTC Medical Services and CEO of Lathian Systems, a company he founded. He is a popular public speaker and has appeared on numerous radio and television shows offering reflections on Vietnam. He lives in California with his wife, Shannon. Visit the author’s website at

Read an Excerpt


When i was six i took my first airplane ride. My entire immediate family came along, as well as an older cousin. We were so excited we kept talking about the excursion for days in advance, and I could hardly sleep the night before. A white mosquito net covered my small body and blurred my half-asleep vision. Waking and turning, I tried to count the different cricket sounds through the night; their cadence rang in unison like a kinetic, unseen symphony. In the distance, faint explosions occasionally interrupted the cricket chirping but didn’t silence them. Just like the people in my neighborhood, the insects were used to war. On most nights I would sleep right through the detonations. On this night I wished I knew what the crickets were saying.

I wasn’t alone. My mother lay nearby, and my sisters slept in the same room; that’s the way it was in our country. Families lived together and slept together. Our grandparents had lived with us until they passed away in 1969, within a year of each other. But little did we know that one day the Vietnamese diaspora would sprinkle us all over the world; we would all have our own houses.

Summer vacation had begun and we were heading for the low mountains of Da Lat, some 200 miles north of Saigon, to cool off for the day. When I was growing up, we hardly ever had any family vacations, so this would be a rare treat.

Because the countryside was dangerous, especially at night, for us air travel was safer—and we knew the pilot. That day the rain came and went, washing away the red clay on the pothole-filled dirt road leading to the airport. At the airport we moved among airplanes worth millions of dollars, yet we only had to step outside the gate to see a country mired in poverty. Our driver had dropped us off near an old, yellow half-cylindrical aluminum hangar from which we watched dozens of planes taxi-ing for takeoff and landing. We weren’t at the civilian passenger terminal. We stood on the military side of Tan Son Nhut Airport, one of the busiest in the world in 1970.

We boarded a World War II–era C-47, the military version of the DC-3, a reliable, twin-engine transport. On its fuselage was the South Vietnamese national insignia, a white star on a blue disk surrounded by an outer red ring, with red and yellow side bars. A national vertical yellow flag with three red horizontal stripes was painted on its rudder. The other passengers included families of military men, some in uniform. After a quick safety briefing by a crew member, we sat quietly on the red canvas seats usually reserved for airborne troops.

As the plane lumbered down the runway and took to the air, I looked out the window while gripping my mother’s hand. She was also holding my older sister Thi, who sat on her other side. I could barely make out smoggy Saigon receding beneath the wings. Soon green rice fields and grass-roofed villages appeared. We were flying low enough to see tiny farmers and their water buffaloes dragging wooden plows. Growing up in the city, I had only seen buffaloes and fields in newspaper photographs.

After about fifteen minutes, the pilot in the left seat motioned to me to come into the cockpit. I unbuckled my belt and stumbled up the aisle, nearly tripping over the rollers on the floor. He picked me up and placed me on his lap. I could smell his signature Aqua Velva after-shave lotion and sweat. I hesitated to touch the controls even as he assured me that it was all right to steer the plane. He smiled to the copilot as I cautiously reached out and slightly pushed on the steering column.

There in front of me was our beautiful country. Tall, sharp mountains guarded deep green valleys, and the brown Mekong River wound sinuously through its delta to the sea. Large thunderclouds were scattered throughout the skies, ready to strike lightning and dump rain on those below. The plane was buffeted by the stormy air. The hazy countryside appeared so peaceful. But unbeknown to me at that age was that our people, of the north and south, had been at war for almost two decades, the two sides supported by opposing superpowers. They had to choose sides or, unfortunately for many, face the wrath of all.

The pilot was my father. He had become one of the most experienced pilots in the VNAF. He pulled out a cigarette and turned his head to the left to blow the smoke out the small, sliding cockpit window. He hoisted me up by the waist so I could see over the nose of the aircraft. It was dizzying to be staring straight down at the ground as it moved underneath us.

We landed and spent the day in Da Lat. The return trip took nearly two hours, but I could hardly wait for us to land so I could go brag to my friends. I was hooked on flying that day. It would take another twenty years before I would become like my father, soaring over the plains of Texas, serving my country as a military aviator.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See All Customer Reviews

Sense of Duty: My Father, My American Journey 4.4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 9 reviews.
NonfictionReader More than 1 year ago
Quang X. Pham's important book is an extraordinarily well-written story by a man who is still sorting his memories, his feelings and his accomplishments against a backdrop that includes his family's flight from South Vietnam, his father's brutal imprisonment by the communists and his own service in the United States Marine Corps. It is also balanced against this nation's conduct of the war in Vietnam and the resulting attitudes and prejudices-right and wrong-that he has encountered all his life. Pham's early recollections of his father's service as a pilot in the VNAF (Republic of Vietnam Air Force) reveal the rightful pride he felt-and still feels-in the man's dedication to his duty. The description of his father's downing by enemy forces while flying in support of U.S. Marines is riveting, as is the account of his rescue only a short time later by a U.S. Marine helicopter crew. Early in the book Pham recalls the bombing of the Presidential Place by traitorous elements of the VNAF as enemy units ringed Saigon; the blast knocked him away from the desk where he was studying just across the street. Only days later, when the fall of the South Vietnamese government was certain, his father hustled the family aboard an American aircraft in the middle of the night while he stayed behind to do what he could. Pham wouldn't see his father again for nearly 20 years. Pham and his mother and two sisters struggled, with the help of relatives, friends and the American government, to make a life in the United States. That they succeeded beyond what anyone could have predicted is a tribute to their own tenacity; a tenacity that was characterized by hard, hard work. That it was difficult is obvious (they knew no English when they arrived). Pham's story of his ultimately successful efforts to fit into American society as a preadolescent boy is probably the best-and most painful-part of the book. My heart hurt for him when I imagined myself in his position. That the family had little news of his father-even whether he was dead or alive-was that much more pain. The last part of the book deals with Pham's oath of citizenship (to a country he clearly loves), his graduation from UCLA, his service in the Marine Corps as a helicopter pilot during Desert Storm, and finally, his father's homecoming. On the surface, these events would appear to mark what should be an eminently happy and tidy ending. But real life never hands us tidy endings. None of us. Despite his accomplishments-and he has had many-one gets the feeling that Pham may never be totally satisfied with the answers he is looking for; they may be answers to questions he doesn't even know. And that, in the end, is what makes the book so enjoyable. Although few can claim experiences similar to Pham's, his telling of the story is so very human that there is much in it with which we can identify. Like Pham, all of us spend time looking for answers we'll never discover. We're all alike. A more recent memoir, I love yous are for white people by Lac Su, is more compelling and engaging. Less of a rant and more of the real.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Over the years I suppose that I have read hundreds of books on a myriad of topics and more than 60 have been related to the Vietnam War in some form or fashion. They included non-fiction, fiction, fiction loosely based on real events, official accounts and recollections of individuals involved either first-hand or through family or friends. Luckily, or unluckily, depending on how you view the circumstances, I was a first-hand observer of the war there. My background over 22 years of active-duty service in the U.S. Marine Corps included two tours of duty in Vietnam. The first was as a Sergeant with 3rd Battalion, 4th Marines and India Battery, 3rd Battalion. 12th Marines. I ¿rode¿ with HMM-161 in H-34 helicopters while in Hawaii and again in Vietnam in 1964 and 1965, the same squadron that Lt. Quang X, Pham was first assigned to as a prelude to his flight operations in Desert Storm. During my second tour in Vietnam in 1968 I was reacquainted with HMM-161 while they operated out of a base at Quang Tri in northern I Corps. Over a dozen of their ¿nugget¿ pilots had been ¿loaned¿ to my squadron at New River, NC (HMM-365) for flight experience aboard a ship and with jungle training in the Panama Canal area before HMM-161 deployed as a squadron to Vietnam in February of 1968. It is from that perspective that I read this book without any preconceived notions of what it would actually turn out to be. I found myself caught up in the factual and detailed account of a young boy¿s wartime living and fears that was faced in Saigon at the end of a very long and costly conflict for both sides. I could easily recall seeing Vietnamese of all ages struggling to survive during my times there and could understand the background actions of the Marine helicopter squadrons sent in to extract both Americans and Vietnamese before the country collapsed completely. The personalization and almost total recall of significant details allowed me an understanding of yet another part of that war that I had not known. Woven into the story was a very private perspective of a family separated for more than a decade while individuals continued to mature and become ¿Americanized.¿ It includes a great view of an officer candidate¿s introduction to the post-Vietnam era Marine Corps and his subsequent progress through Basic School and flight training, and his assimilation into an operating CH-46 squadron with a Corps-wide reputation dating back to the Korean War in 1950. Truly, it was almost like being there for me seeing events unfold through Quang¿s eyes. I learned from this book and I shared my appreciation with a wide range of friends, both Marines and others, finally with the author personally. I have nodded in understanding of certain points and quoted several to my family such as ¿ No bad day!¿ After reading the accounts of the trials and life-threatening challenges that faced all Vietnamese whether remaining in country or fleeing the Communist takeover, it¿s hard to consider the normalcies of the United States and some of our issues in the same light. The book was a good, solid read for me. I enjoyed it tremendously, and I think many other readers will also. I look forward to Quang Pham¿s next literary effort. Semper Fidelis Joseph F. Featherston, Major, USMC, Retired
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is an excellent look at how war and politics can uproot lives established for families.Families developed by God to have life on this earth.Mr.Pham has done a wonderful job directing his feelings and and external information to this basic human need.Excellent reading from first time Author and highly recomended.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Quang Pham, in his excellent 'A Sense of Duty', weaves a touching and poignant narrative of the classic story of the American Dream. Yet he also unflinchingly brings two very important subjects to light. Firstly, he publicizes the often ignored plight of the South Vietnamese military. These brave warriors were abandoned by their own leadership and by the American government which responded to public opinion shaped by socially irresponsible media and academic elite who failed to see that Vietnamese could be nationalist and not communist at the same time. Not only did this 'Greatest generation' lose their nation, but they had to ensure the survival of their families afterwards. Those that did not languish in concentration camps had to start all over again. How many of our generation could do what they did? Yet American history and popular culture so readily forgets maligns as cowards, if they recognize their existence at all. If there is any comparison to Iraq, than this is it: we cannot abandon our allies again. The second issue, which resonates with me personally as a fellow Vietnamese-American military officer, is the topic of Asian-Americans in the military. American race politics always manages to leave Asian Pacific Americans out of its dicussions. Specifically in the US military, Asian-Americans have made some of the most valiant yet underreported sacrifices--Japanese-American 442 combat regiment, Filipino fighers on Bataan death march, etc. Asian-Americans contribue directly to the Global War on Terrorism because of the language capabilities we offer. We Vietnamese-Americans have lost two of our sons in Iraq. It's time Hollywood and American culture woke up to the courage that's being displayed on a daily basis (like Quang Pham's), rather than perpetuate archaic racist stereotypes. Quang Pham's work and he himself is the embodiment of the American Dream, of redeeming the honor of South Vietnamese veterans, and of the oft-ignored Asian-American face of the US military.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Quang X. Pham's recount of the Vietnam war really made me realize how much my parents had to endure. It was a heartfelt memoir and according to my dad (who was one of the many boat people) it accurately depicts the events that led to the fall of our country. I was born and raised here in the United States and am guilty of taking everything my parents did for me for granted. Mr. Pham's book has opened my eyes to the horrific reality and has helped me to show the appreciation that my parents deserve. Whether you're looking for more insight about the Vietnam War or just looking for a good read, this is a great book to get lost in.
Guest More than 1 year ago
A must-read book for all Vietnam War history students and immigrants who want to 'make it' in America. Quang X. Pham's 'A Sense of Duty: My Father, My American Journey' is a well written work. I praise Quang for being the first to articulate a well-thought defense for our fathers' and uncles' generation, who - contrary to the popular American misconception of being corrupted and cowardly - did their duty, fought and suffered for the noble cause of freedom. I also applaud Mr. Pham for being one of the first Vietnamese-Americans to become a U.S. Marine Corps officer. Thank you Quang for leading the path for young and new American like us. Semper Fi.
TimBazzett on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Quang X. Pham's moving memoir, "A Sense of Duty: My Father, My American Journey," reads like a modern Horation Alger success story. But more than that, it is a rare look into the difficult private lives of one fragmented and frightened family who barely made it out of Saigon during those infamous "last days." Pham's father, a South Vietnamese AF pilot, stayed behind, a victim of his own sense of duty, and paid a heavy price. In cuttingly clear and elegantly simple prose, Pham tells of his life, from the refugee camps of Guam and Arkansas to the working-class "mean streets" of Oxnard, California, and of the ceaseless toil and sacrifices made by his mother in a strange land. "A Sense of Duty" also tells of Pham's hard-won transformation from a ragged refugee boy to UCLA graduate and decorated USMC pilot and Gulf War veteran. But underneath it all is an aching yearning to know a father who was lost and then found again. Pham's story is indeed an "American Journey," one that will be read, and read again. This is more than a memoir; this is personal history at its very best.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I can relate a lot to his family struggle and his motives to join the military.
Guest More than 1 year ago
As a former US Marine myself I was not impressed by this book one bit. The author and the author of Jarhead should get married, there negativity and their disdain for the Corps go hand in hand. Some things are better left this whole book. My father was a Marine during the Viet Nam War and was not too fond of the Vietnames enlisted men that where supposedly on our side. The book was well written and the authors time at UCLA was spent well. But I just don't agree with the author on about 90 percent of his book. It was more of a rant instead of a memoir.