My first experience of direct combat with the Viet Cong came soon enough. Drafted into the South Vietnam army in 1972 while a senior at Saigon University, I had nine months of boot camp. Then I was put in command of a platoon as a second lieutenant and ordered to search the jungles 43 miles from Saigon for Viet Cong guerrillas.
One day while I was leading a group of soldiers through a dry stream bed, I heard an explosion behind me. The air was filled with smoke and debris. Then came the scream of soldiers crying, “Oh, God! Oh, God!” Two of them fell wounded by a bomb set off by watching Viet Cong.
That night when my soldiers and I were on night duty, my military radio communicator came to me and asked, “Do you have a brother by the name of S. N. Ch’en?”
“Yes,” I replied, wondering why he asked.
“I am sorry to tell you that I got the news on the radio today for you that he died a few days ago during heavy fighting on the front lines.”
My younger brother dead? I found it hard to believe. But as the news finally filtered into my mind, I started to sob like a baby. Then I checked myself. I could not afford to make any noise the guerrillas could hear. My younger brother dead!
Gradually comfort stole into my heart with the thought that he was with Christ in heaven. Both of us had received Jesus Christ as Savior while we were boys in Sunday school in the Chinese church in Saigon’s Cholon quarter. I thought of my godly father and mother and how they would be grieving and also praying for my safety. My father, who was principal of a Chinese high school, had come to Saigon from mainland China in 1949. He had seen to it that his 10 children all had opportunities to hear the gospel.
As a student, I had felt the urge to prepare to preach that wonderful good news of forgiveness, new life, and hope for eternity. But I pushed this thought to one side. I was intent on a successful secular career, and also interested in a lovely girl friend.
Then I was caught up in the war myself, only to find it ending with stunning suddenness in the spring of 1975. So much sacrifice for what purpose? We had lost the war to the Communists. I soon found out what that meant for me.
A newly established “Revolutionary Military Control Committee” ordered all former officers of the Republic of (South) Vietnam to present themselves for a 10-day political and labor course.
“I’ll be back after 10 days of brainwashing,” I assured my girl friend as I said goodbye. But I knew better. My father, who had received military training on mainland China, was well aware of the devious tactics that were practiced by the Communists.
“Son,” he said to me, “I don’t know if I’ll ever see you again if you get into their hands. I think I could help you make your escape by boat. It’s dangerous, I know, but not as dangerous as the Communists.”
But I didn’t want to be separated from my girl friend. Somehow I felt a responsibility for her safety—as if I could do anything for her. I prepared food, clothes, and money for 10 days as ordered, and then surrendered to the Communists.
When I arrived for indoctrination, I found myself with hundreds of other officers. We were packed in, 40 to a truck, with our gear, and we formed a convoy of about 100 trucks. As we rolled along that day, June 27, 1975, we had little thought of the beautiful countryside. We were gasping for air and covered with perspiration.
Camps, and there were many of them, were makeshift. I found myself crowded into a small room where, with others, I slept on boards. The food was awful, the lectures were boring. But what really hurt was when the tenth day passed and we all knew for sure that we had been tricked. We were actually prisoners in concentration camps. The Communists laughed at us or cursed us when we asked when we could go home. “You’ll learn to work for the first time in your lives,” they said.
From that time on it was long hours of work, clearing the jungles for farmland, planting other trees, cutting trees for lumber, planting rice, corn, and vegetables. What made this life hard was the lack of food. The Communists gave us just enough to keep us alive—an average of 15 kilograms of rice per prisoner per month. Prisoners who worked extremely hard were given an extra three kilograms of rice each month, but these bonuses were extracted from the rations of sickly prisoners who could not work.
The constant brutality attacked our minds and spirits; the malnutrition attacked our bodies. Soon we began to see men falling by the wayside, unable to rise in the morning. Dropsy was common, diarrhea was endemic. Tuberculosis showed up, as well as yellow fever.
The constant hunger drove us to eat anything. One of my friends ate more than 200 rats in one year. I wouldn’t have imagined that I could relish eating a toad, but I learned how to pull off the skin, put it in a can, pour boiling water over it, and wait a few minutes. Then I would quickly swallow my prize before a guard could see me. We were punished severely for cooking food out of regular mealtimes.
My diet included rats, locusts, lizards, frogs, toads, woodworms, snakes, insects, and birds—not that I found them in abundance. They were the special treats that helped me survive five years of starvation. Some of my companions were driven insane by the pressure of hunger. I saw one pick up a small potato from the filth of a toilet, rub it on his pants, and devour it.
We were allowed to write one letter a month to our families, and they were allowed to visit us twice a year. What joyful, yet painful meetings these were, trying to exchange all news as quickly as possible, trying to ignore our loss of weight and pallid color. I lost several teeth during my imprisonment, and many other teeth were hollow inside. I would write tiny notes to my girl friend and stuff them between and inside my teeth. Then when family members came, I would pass these notes to them. What a slender thread it was. After two years, she managed to pay me a brief visit, but then she herself gave up hope. She escaped Vietnam, and in my fifth year of imprisonment I received the crushing news that she had married and gone to the United States.
I had seen the despair of others in camp whose wives had deserted them. Some women even married Viet Cong soldiers, much to the delight of the Viet Cong, who thought it quite a feat to steal the wife of an ROV officer. Now I had lost my girl friend, and I felt like the bottom had fallen out of my life. I could understand now why some of the men had been driven to commit suicide. Should I do the same? No, as a Christian I could not bring myself to such an act. But I was in so deep a depression as the days went by, that even the words of such Scriptures as Romans 8:28 did not seem to live.
Could I endure any more of this mental torture? At night, when we returned exhausted from the fields and jungles, we were forced to listen to three-and-a-half hours of political indoctrination over the loudspeaker. And in our minds were thoughts of escape. Yet we also knew how those who tried to escape and were recaptured were tortured. I had seen a guard butchered in front of my eyes by escapees; but they were caught. How long would we be on the chain gang? Could we possibly last out this imprisonment? Sometimes my mind would be a riot of thoughts.
It was hope in the Lord Jesus that kept me alive. I fed this hope by reading the Scriptures, sometimes for hours. I had to do this secretly, but I did have several small Bibles and New Testaments in Chinese, Vietnamese, and English. I still carry two of them with me. Sometimes I dug holes in the ground and buried them. Once I lost a Bible I had lent a friend, and the guards discovered it. But I never lost those I guarded, and I read them early morning and late at night.
I shared the Scriptures with my fellow prisoners, who were eager to hear God’s Word. We took turns reading the Bible and tried to encourage one another. We could only talk when the guards were not around to hear what we said. But even talk with fellow prisoners was dangerous; a number of them acted as informers to gain special favors, and they could relay our conversations and activities to the Communists. For this reason we only felt free to talk to our closest friends.
I remember how shocked I was when one of these spies was responsible for the death of a pastor’s son in our camp. This young man became ill after three-and-a-half years and was allowed in the camp hospital. There, as he began to recover his strength, he made plans with another prisoner to escape. A third prisoner reported that their beds were empty, and they were pursued until they were caught. Both were tortured to death.
Under these circumstances I grasped like a drowning man for the promises in the Word of God. I promised the Lord I would serve him if he would give me the opportunity. “You have opportunities right here,” the Holy Spirit whispered to me. Yes, that was true, for as I shared my testimony and the gospel with other prisoners, at least three of them became Christians. Looking back, I can see that the fact that even one escaped eternity in hell and is enjoying hope of heaven makes my five years of suffering worthwhile.
There in camp I reflected on the sufferings of Jesus Christ. How much better I could understand how heavy the load of sin and suffering was that he bore for us. He had fasted in the wilderness. He had borne the weight of the cross. Yes, he knew what I was going through and could strengthen me. Again and again I found refreshment and exhilaration in the midst of my weakness. It was a strange combination, but I found it summed up in the words of my Lord: in him I would find peace; in the world, tribulation. That is what I had—peace in the midst of tribulation.
I prayed. Oh, how I prayed! And then one day the answer came. I was called to the camp office and notified of my release, effective immediately. It was April 3, 1980. Amazed, incredulous, I went back to pick up a few belongings and to say goodbye to my friends. They rejoiced with me. It gave them hope. Soon I was in a truck, going down mountain roads out of the highlands. Then I had a 700-kilometer train ride back to Saigon, now renamed Ho Chi Minh City. I walked as in a dream, and when I reached my home, it seemed strangely empty. Where was everybody? My father wasn’t there. Oh, after 18 months in prison, he had been able to go to Canada. But how about the rest? Oh, it was Good Friday, and they were at our church.
I hurried to the service. Yes, there were my brothers, my mother, some of my sisters. The church was packed with people. A choir of 40 was singing praises to God. I felt like I had entered the courts of heaven.
The leader of the service saw me and asked me to pray. The congregation and I wept as we thanked God for answering our prayers for my release. I was overjoyed to see the church crowded with people instead of a mere handful as I had feared. I had steadily maintained my Christian witness and identity in camp; but I wondered what had been happening back home. I learned that within the last year one thousand people had been saved in that one church and 200 baptized!
After the service I returned home for my first meal of home cooking in five years. My mother tried her best to fatten me up, but even there food was scarce. I learned that believers were suffering a great deal, but they did not complain. My own family was surviving by means of a small handicraft industry set up in our home. A worker can earn about 25 cents a day (U.S.), and that is barely enough to buy necessary food.
My release from camp had been the result of an appeal made by the International Red Cross. God continued to answer prayer. Others were moved to help in my behalf. Before long God provided me the opportunity to fly out of Vietnam to Thailand, and then in February 1981 up to Taiwan in the Republic of China. What a kind reception I had, and how many friends I have found!
But I had to face the future. What should I do now that I had my freedom?
I could not forget that nothing had separated me from the love of Christ—neither tribulation nor distress nor persecution nor famine nor nakedness nor peril nor sword (Rom. 8:35). And nothing need separate me from the love of Christ in the days ahead. But what of others living lives of emptiness in the midst of material wealth? I wanted to share the gospel with those around me and also prepare myself to be an evangelist on the mainland of China when God opens that door. As I knelt and prayed to know God’s will for my life, it was very clear to me just what he wanted me to do. As a result, I applied and was accepted by China Evangelical Seminary in Taipei to train for the gospel ministry.
Looking back, I can see that I experienced God’s love more when I was in the concentration camp than at any other time in my life. Other believers are still suffering and rejoicing in faith, and we should not forget to pray for them. But I pray that the lessons of faith that I learned may now bear fruit, keeping me humble and trusting, as I continue to walk and learn from my Savior.
Wilson Chen is a student at China Evangelical Seminary in Taipei, Taiwan.
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