The Story of Chris Taga
By: Anh Vo, Brian Shim, Kim Mendoza
The Vietnam War was one of the longest and most controversial wars in United States. During this period, millions of Americans had served in South Vietnam. Of these, more than 58,000 died or remain missing, and 300,000 others were wounded. The U.S. Government spent more than $140 billion on the war. Despite this enormous military effort, the United States failed to achieve its objective of preserving an independent, noncommunist state in South Vietnam. This failure has led to searching questions about why and how the war was fought and whether a better diplomatic and military outcome was possible for the United States.
The Vietnam War veteran has been depicted in fiction and film of variable quality, but rarely do you see or hear about a story about an Asian American Vietnam War veteran. Asian Americans have struggled for equal rights in this country for a long period of time. These veterans were not recognized as being fully Americans because of their dual heritage or ethnic background. So after the war, the public failed to respect and honor these veterans for all the sacrifices they have made. Furthermore, people do not remember seeing any Asian American war hero in the movies either, which indicates that racial discrimination exists towards Asian Americans when portraying them in the media.
The three of us had the pleasure of interviewing Chris Taga, who is a third generation Japanese American who fought in the Vietnam War. Both of his parents are citizens since they were born here. Conversely, his grandfather immigrated to the United States from Japan in the early 1900’s when there was the great San Francisco fire. During this time, Japanese and other Asians were allowed to become naturalized citizens. His grandfather was a farmer and he worked hard for decades to earn his own farm. However, after the attack on Pearl Harbor, he lost everything. All the Japanese Americans were incarcerated during World War II. Chris Taga’s parents met at the Manzanar internment camp, eventually married and were later transferred to Tule Lake.
In 1947, Chris Taga was born in the greater Los Angeles area. He attended a Catholic elementary school where the population of student body was primarily Japanese American and a Boy’s Catholic high school which was populated primarily by Mexican Americans. Chris had incidents of racial discrimination yet these occurrences were limited due to living in an area there was a large population of minorities. Only when he served in the U.S. Army did he start experiencing an overwhelming amount racial prejudice.
Chris Taga, after graduating from high school in 1965, enlisted in the U.S Army in 1966. Chris started Junior College at Los Angeles City College but academically was not doing so well and decided to head in a different direction. Chris saw a lot of students in school with nice cars after serving a couple years in the military. The idea of serving a few years and having some money interested Chris and decided to enlist in the Army.
The United States were involved in Vietnam but did not send large waves of ground forces until 1965. There was almost 500,000 U.S soldier and personnel in Vietnam by 1968. Chris Taga’s experience as an Asian American in the Vietnam War was mostly a bad experience. War in itself is a horrible experience as there is pain and death. But there are a lot of personal issues within the military that can make soldier’s experience not so pleasant. A lot of the Army officers targeted him because of his ethnicity and said comments like, “This is what a gook looks like.” A lot of the fellow servicemen had never seen an Asian before, especially American soldiers from the South. Some of` his platoon members did not know he was even American and thought he was an interpreter and was not a part of the unit. Some soldiers accepted him as an American and built a close bond together. Issues of race are thrown out the window when multi-ethnic soldiers like the United States are in the battlefield.
During his time serving in Vietnam, Chris had the utmost respect for the Vietnamese people. U.S military is considered one of the best in the world and Vietnamese, at a disadvantage in regards to military technology was holding their own against a world super power. The morale amongst Chris’s platoon was real low. And the Tet Offensive happened and Chris and the rest of the U.S soldiers were shocked.
On January 31, 1968, during the Vietnamese holiday Tết Nguyên Đán, North Vietnamese army launched a coordinated, large scale operation that hit more than 100 towns all across Vietnam. This attack completely caught the U.S and South Vietnamese forces completely off guard. During the Tet offensive, Chris was on an operation in the jungle and was picked up by a helicopter. He had no clue what was going on and was lifted to Tan Son Nhut Air Base.
Tan Son Nhut Air Base was a secure military base when Chris first arrived in Vietnam. During the Tet offensive, when helicoptered into the airfield at Tan Son Nhut, he, as well as his fellow soldiers, were shocked to see mortar rounds raining down on the airfield.
There was a United States Special Force camp in Vietnam, near the Cambodian border. Chris described the camp as an impenetrable, heavily fortified fort. During the Tet offensive, that fort was over-run by the North Vietnamese Army. Hearing this event really amazed Chris because these North Vietnamese soldiers who were not technologically advanced in the military like the United States, were able to not only surprise the Super Power American Army but also completely over-run a heavily fortified Special Force camp.
Being in war, soldiers are constantly in danger of getting killed. Chris Taga served 18 months in Vietnam and was fortunate enough to only suffer a foot infection. Causalities are a part of war and Chris saw firsthand many deaths. Chris was a young adult but his experience in the war made him realize what was really important to him. Chris realized how precious and delicate life can be and understood that how much he valued his family and friends. The concept may be simple, but is often ignored in today’s society.
In Vietnam, Punji Stakes were sharpened bamboo sticks covered with fecal matter and used as booby traps for foot soldiers to step or fall into pits filled with them. The intent of these types of devices was not necessarily to kill a soldier, but to wound him thus delaying their operation and requiring the utilization of more personnel to tend to the wounded soldier. Chris Taga stepped into a small foot pit and was only scratched by one stake. At the time, he ignored the scratch he received. Not feeling well and sweating profusely, Chris discovered that his calf had developed an infection. Upon informing one of the platoon medics of his situation, he was evaluated and immediately airlifted to a field hospital.
Chris’s unit often operated in some of the deepest jungles of Vietnam. He recalled an incident while moving from one location to another at a rapid pace continuing day and night, also known as a “force march.” During this force march, the unit Chris was in was totally exhausted and ordered to set up a perimeter camp to get a couple of hours rest. Due to total exhaustion, everyone immediately fell asleep at the first opportunity to get off of their feet. Although guard assignments were made, no one could stay awake. At first light, a member of Chris’s unit awoke, stood up, and yawned and noticed someone doing the same 10-12 feet away from him. The soldier realized it was a North Vietnamese solider. Both soldiers stood and stared at each other for awhile before realizing they were both looking at their enemy. A few shots and grenades were exchanged when all hell broke loose. The North Vietnamese rapidly retreated and we followed their blood trails.
In his unit, Chris had the position of being one of the point men. During one operation, Chris was ordered to cross a small river in broad daylight. Against his judgment, he started across the river and midway he was targeted along with the other leading elements by a sniper. He felt a splash of bullets hitting the water before him and he leaped to the other bank of the river to take cover. Once he got control of his emotions, he checked his body to see if he was hit. Luckily he was not hit by the sniper but noticed the distance of his jump and thought to himself, “I probably broke the world record for broad jump.”
During his tour of combat duty in Vietnam, his unit was exposed to Agent Orange, which was used to defoliate the jungles. Many veterans, as well as Vietnamese, have attributed many cancers, birth defects, and other health issues to their exposure to this chemical.
When the United States pulled out of Vietnam, Chris felt the pain of the South Vietnamese allies of the U.S. To him, the Vietnam War was a tragic event and a civil war. Chris questioned the U.S. involvement in the war between the North and South Vietnamese.
From Chris’s wartime experiences, Chris felt a lot of guilt and sadness for his participation in the Vietnam War. Chris understood that as a participant, it often comes down to kill or be killed. So called collateral damage and death is all part of war. Although Chris was not directly involved or responsible in the death or wounding of civilians, he realizes it all is an insidious part of war.
Chris Taga’s experience in the war was mostly negative not just because of his ethnicity but because war itself is inhumane. In his experience, being called a gook by other soldiers dehumanizes all people of asian descent. Dehumanizing an enemy inevitably leads to immorality.
After the war
For Chris Taga, life after the military was a period of adjustment, a different outlook, and involvement with his community. As the climate within the United States was filled with the anti-war and youth “peace and love” movement, Taga did not necessarily receive such “peace and love” after his service in the Vietnam War. Having to continue 6 more months of service after completing his time during the Vietnam War, Taga was stationed at Fort Ord near Monterey, California until discharged in 1969. Upon finally completing his military service, Taga was not received with open arms by the general population. Chris stated that many ex-service members did not feel welcome when they returned from Vietnam. Some anti-war protesters sometimes called returning service members derogatory names and Vietnam veterans were often viewed as the “opposite,” or even the enemy. While military service is traditionally accepted and viewed with honor now, Vietnam veterans like Taga did not receive such warmth. Chris remembers being seen in uniform and many people would stare at him in disgust.
The Vietnam War created a strong sense of guilt within Chris Taga. Upon his recognition that many minorities were fighting the war and being used as tools by the government, in a larger context within a structure of corruptness, the war created a sense of “us vs. them” mentality always reinforcing the differences between the enemy, the homeland, and the intruders. Taga feels that when the United States finally pulled out of Vietnam that we had abandoned our allies there. He explains, “when women and children get caught in the crossfire, that’s war.” Though Taga did not necessarily drop a huge bomb on a huge village, as he states in his interview, he felt like he was partially responsible for the killings. Most combat veterans felt that there is a certain amount of guilt associated with their involvement in the war, and, as Taga recognizes, many of them do not have the opportunity to talk about it. Years later, when the Vietnamese refugees started coming to the United States, he felt guilty again. The refugee movement constantly reminded him of the Vietnam War and the guilt that he felt. Taga has always found ways to relieve his guilt and an outlet to express his emotions associated with it.
After years of experience, survival, and discrimination in the U.S. military, Chris Taga sought a new life for himself after his service, as the events around it changed him and his life. As soon as he came back, Taga knew that he wanted to return to school and be successful. He told himself that he wanted to study a subject that he found significant interest in. Immediately, Taga returned to school to become an art major. It was through the medium of art that he wanted to express his feelings and life perspective. Going to school and being a little bit older than the other students, Taga ended up studying at California State University, Long Beach. While he was in the campus library, he picked up a fire science book when researching for a paper for class. While going through the book in detail he found information about the San Francisco Fire Department and their working conditions, even determining that firefighters within the department were only required to work just 11 days out of a month. This sounded very good to Chris Taga. Graduating in art, he knew that there was no money in it. In fact, he wanted to go to photography school, but also realized that he did not have enough money to pursue a professional photography education. In combination with this realization and with a need for a good-paying, stable job, Taga decided to apply to the Los Angeles Fire Department, with absolutely no intention of having a career in firefighting. He simply wanted to work in the department for 3 to 4 years and earn enough money to attend photography school. Eventually, the fire department career grew on him and he found it very satisfying. To his own surprise, Taga became a dedicated firefighter for 30 committed years. According to Taga, a lot of the guilt he felt participating in the Vietnam War was replaced by his desire to help people in their time of need. Chris’s employment by the Fire Department satisfied his desire to help others.
In perspective, Chris Taga considers himself a very lucky individual. After what he describes as surviving near-death experiences, seeing others get killed, and seeing random body parts during the peak parts of the war, Taga is very grateful for survival and coming home. He found that he began to put his life back into perspective. After the war, though he was still young and as he calls himself, “wild,” he truly found the true value in life, what means a lot to him, and how much he values his family and his friends. Though he felt a lot of guilt and pain, he wanted to find a way to express that feeling, while continuing to help others as well. Taga shares that he never confronted his feelings with a Vietnamese person. However, he found great camaraderie and support with other veterans who were also affiliated with the Asian American Vietnam Veterans Organization (AAVVO). He especially found great support when they first got out of the U.S. service, during the late 1960s and early 1970s. All of the members of AAVVO continue to support each other.
Though interviewing Chris Taga was a very humbling experience, it is true that Vietnam War veterans like Taga are themselves humble and do not necessarily see themselves of high rank, honor, or service. We asked Taga, “How would you like us to depict your story?” Taga humorously replied that he did not believe his own experience to be interesting enough for the status of a movie. He adds that he does not consider himself to be any kind of hero. He feels that there are other Vietnam War veterans that are considered to be heroes by the American military. He further adds that there was no great tragedy that happened and believes that his story is not tragic for it to be made into a movie. After his military service, he has experienced discrimination in one form or another as with most people of Asian descent. Being one of the first persons of Asian descent to be accepted into the Los Angeles Fire Department some 36 years ago, there was racism he experienced within the Department.
While Taga does not believe his life to be that deserving of a movie, it is true that his story and the stories of other “militant and humble” Vietnam War veterans need to be told. There are not too many narratives of Vietnam War veterans. While Taga did not necessarily have a launched career in art or photography, it was his life in the Fire Department that brought him satisfaction, a stable career, and a healthy outlet for a continued life of service to society. He shares that he always tries to have a positive outlook because he had so many negative experiences in his life. He learned something positive from each and every experience and took on this attitude on a daily basis. Taga is certainly a man of great humility.
Taga expresses his contentment and happiness that students are interested in studying the Vietnam War and listening to and preserving the stories of many war veterans like him. Chris Taga wants to share many significant messages for the future generations. He believes that people should study what issues are out there and determine their own conclusions, as opposed to those of the majority. In addition, he believes that it is very important for youth to critically think about issues and not to simply accept straight facts and given information. And, as he states, “if you have a belief, fight for it.” And, while there are thousands of ideas floating around, Taga expresses the importance of filtering out the good ones. Though it has been 36 years since the end of the Vietnam War and the Fall of Saigon, the community has yet to be educated about what truly happened during the Vietnam War, and, more importantly, many stories of Vietnam War veterans like Chris Taga have yet to be told.