Goodbye Southern Utah: One family’s trek back to roots in Saigon

PINE VALLEY — It has been a long time coming, but one Southern Utah family has left the red rocks for their homeland. The Staheli children, born in Vietnam due to their father’s service in the military, recently departed for a weeklong excursion with their mother, Mary Esther Gardner Staheli Putnam.

Frank Staheli with a two-way radio in Vietnam circa 1962 | Photo courtesy of Mary Esther Putnam, St. George News

The family was scheduled to land the day before the anniversary of the death of Mary Esther’s first husband, Frank Staheli, who worked hard on the family farm in Washington City when they first married in 1961. She never imagined they would leave.

Staheli also served in the Utah National Guard 222nd Field Artillery Unit and when a call came through for telecommunications experts, they were soon departing for Vietnam.

“Wendell Motter was the commanding officer at that time,” she said. “And he heard the government was hiring people to counterpart with the Vietnamese to install two-way radio communications through the hamlets and villages in south Vietnam.”

Family and friends were immediately worried that Mary Esther, who was pregnant with little Frank at the time, would not fare well living in mud shacks in the middle of the jungle.

“My mother was concerned we would be living in a thatched roof hut and there wouldn’t be any doctors around,” Mary Esther said. “The doctor was a man named Tran Dihn De and he trained at Johns Hopkins University.”

The Stahelis and Motters in Saigon, Vietnam circa 1963 | Photo courtesy of Mary Esther Staheli Putnam, St. George News

The housing units were built during a time of French-Indonesian occupation several years before the war in Vietnam.

“It was a really nice home we lived in,” she recalled.

Mary Esther spent her time outside of the United States tutoring other children, singing in Church of Jesus Christ Latter-day Saints services, raising two children and sharing scriptures with others.

Tensions between armies in North and South Vietnam increased, including the November 1963 assassination of Ngô Đình Diệm, the president of South Vietnam, three weeks before President John F. Kennedy was killed.

In 1964, newly-named President Lyndon B. Johnson issued an order recalling all non-combat military officers and their families to vacate Vietnam.

“I wasn’t happy when I sent my husband over to the MAC (military airlift command) compound to buy me a bag of flour because I was mixing some bread,” she said. “And he came back and said, ‘You’re not going to need this flour because you’re going home.’”

Not long before the order, a friendly foreigner came stumbling to their door wounded.

“I remember having to clean up his arm and wash out towels,” she said. “Because somebody had shot him in the arm while he was driving through the countryside.”

A street in Ho Chi Minh City, commonly known as Saigon, Vietnam, date and location not specified | Stock image by taniche/Getty Images Plus, St. George News

Daughter Annette Graff said her father died in 1986 before she got the chance to ask about memories of his time in Vietnam.

“He died so young, I just never thought to ask at that point in my life,” she said. “Most of my memories are limited to looking through pictures.”

She and her older brother both agreed that the first question others ask when they find out about their birthplace is whether they are dual citizens.

“It was kind of cool to tell people when growing up,” Graff said. “It is something that makes you unique.”

Graff said during her lifetime she has traveled to many places, such as Israel, Greece and Peru. But her birthplace was always on “the bucket list.”

“We have always wanted to go as a family and somehow it just all worked out,” she said. “One day we decided, it’s now or never.”

Mary Esther’s son Frank Staheli said the group used Google Maps and Google Earth to find some locations from photos his parents took while living in Vietnam. Although the military base is gone and the scenery has likely changed drastically in six decades, he’s hoping he might see something familiar.

Frank and Mary Esther Staheli return from Vietman with their children, Frank Jr. and Annette, in Washington City, Utah, circa 1964 | Photo courtesy of Mary Esther Staheli Putnam, St. George News

“I know I was way too young to remember anything,” he said. “But what I am hoping for is a déjá vu moment.”

The family plans to spend two days in Saigon, one in Ha Long Bay and two days in Hanoi. To reach the area where they were born it will be a 300-mile trek from Ho Chi Minh City, more commonly known as Saigon, to Nha Trang where they lived for two years.

“We have some questions we want to ask around and some sights to see,” Frank said. “But mostly just wanting to go because we have all wanted to for so long.”

As for dual citizenship, Frank doesn’t actually know what to answer all those who ask him.

“I guess we’ll find out when we get there,” he said. “I’m not totally sure, but it does say Vietnam is my birthplace on all my documents.”

According to the United States military, bases in Vietnam were not considered a part of U.S. territory. So while the Staheli children received citizenship from the American government upon returning stateside, they would need to apply and receive such status from Vietnam officials to obtain dual bragging rights.

Graff said the family will be in Vietnam during the anniversary of the elder Frank Staheli’s death. Her father went on to become mayor of Washington City before a tragic accident on the farm ended his life on March 14, 1986.

“It is odd how it all happened the way it did, we weren’t planning the trip for this occasion,” she said. “But maybe it happened for a reason. Hopefully we learn some things while making new memories.”

Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2024, all rights reserved.

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