• Washington Post

He Rescued a Family from Vietnam in 1975. On Thanksgiving They Thank Him.

Photos courtesy of Steve Greene, Hoang Ly
Top: Steve Greene, left, with Hoang Ly, middle, and an unnamed officer in Vietnam in 1974.
Bottom: Hoang Ly, left, and Steve Greene reunited over lunch last year at a Virginia restaurant.

A few days before Thanksgiving every year, Hoang Ly settles into a chair at his home in Fredericksburg, Va. to write a thank-you email to Stephen Greene, the lanky American who helped his family escape Saigon at the end of the Vietnam War in 1975.

“We wish you a healthy and happy Thanksgiving!” Ly wrote in last year’s note to Greene, who now lives in Annapolis.

“Your help to evacuate my family out of war-torn Vietnam is always in my heart,” Ly added. “I showed the photos of you and I in Phnom Penh to my children. They now know the man who helped bring them into this world.”

Ly always ends his messages the same way: “Thank God and thank my great friend, Steve Greene.”

Ly began his Thanksgiving ritual in 1976, when he’d call Greene and his wife, Kathy Greene, or mail them a handwritten note. He also writes them a note at Christmas, a tradition he has continued for 47 years.

“I look at Steve as my Statue of Liberty,” said Ly, now 77. “Every Thanksgiving and Christmas, my family is reunited together. Without Steve, we might not be here.”

Greene, 80, is a former Marine, wounded in action in Vietnam in 1967. He went on to hold the top position in the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration in Saigon, now known as Ho Chi Minh City. After returning home, he continued his career with the DEA, eventually becoming acting deputy administrator during the George H.W. Bush administration in the early 1990s.

It was during the early 1970s that he became friends with Ly, a Vietnamese police officer who was head of the country’s narcotics bureau in Saigon and often helped DEA agents.

In late March 1975, Greene was told the situation was unraveling in South Vietnam and that Saigon could soon fall to the North Vietnamese Army. He said he immediately thought of Ly, as well as Ly’s pregnant wife, Ngo Giang Tieu, and his 8-year-old daughter, Thanh “Robin” Ly.

Robin’s mother, Ly’s first wife, had died of typhoid fever eight months after Robin was born.

“Hoang had faithfully worked with U.S. officials for a decade, and I knew if the communists took over, he’d be in serious danger,” Greene said. “I told Hoang, ‘This place is over – we need to get you out.'”

Greene helped get an application approved for Ly to fly to Washington, D.C., on March 29, 1975, to attend a four-week international training course with the DEA, he said. He also promised Ly that if the situation in Vietnam worsened, he would do everything he could to get his family out of Saigon.

In mid-April, he realized it was time.

In the days before Saigon fell on April 30, Greene said, he tried twice to get Ly’s wife and daughter out of the country, but he was turned back each time at the airport because they didn’t have proper paperwork.

“The scene at Tan Son Nhut Airport was complete chaos, with everyone desperate to leave,” Greene recalled. “Thousands of people were there. I saw them handing babies over the wall, and I knew we needed another plan.”

Greene went to the U.S. Embassy in Saigon and persuaded an officer to give him a document stating that Ngo was his wife and Robin was his daughter. That did the trick, and on April 21, their third attempt to get on a plane leaving Vietnam was successful.

After stops in the Philippines and Guam, Hoang Ly was reunited with his family in Washington, D.C.

“It was such an emotional relief – I knew I would have been killed if we’d stayed behind because I’d helped the Americans,” he said. “And my family also could have faced punishment. We owed Steve our lives.”

Greene, now retired, said he always assured Ly that if places were reversed, Ly would have done the same thing for him.

“I told him, ‘It wasn’t that big of a deal – you don’t owe me a thing,'” he said. “I guess I’ve never handled compliments well. I made him a promise and I had a job to do. I simply saw it through.”

Both men soon went their separate ways.

Ly got a job as a special agent at DEA headquarters in D.C., and he said employees there raised funds to help him put a down payment on a small home in Dale City, Va.

Since Greene also continued to work for the DEA, he and Ly would occasionally bump into each other at company events in D.C.

In 1976, Greene said he was touched to get a bouquet of flowers and a note from Ly, a few days before Thanksgiving.

“He was so respectful, calling me mister, and I later told him to cut it out,” he recalled with a laugh. “But I know what he said came from his heart.”

“He thanked me for getting him out of Vietnam with dignity,” Greene said. “He said he was able to appreciate the American tradition of Thanksgiving with his family because I got them on a plane to the United States.”

A month later at Christmas, Greene received a similar note from Ly.

“I was just so grateful that he helped to give me democracy and freedom,” Ly said. “When I was a teenager, I always dreamed of a life in America. At night, when an airplane flew over my house, I would listen to the engine sound until it faded away.”

“I thought one day, the airplane would take me to the U.S.,” he added.

After his first two thank-you notes, Ly said it seemed natural to continue the tradition year after year because there was so much to be thankful for.

His son, Tom Ly, was born in November 1975 and now works as a schoolteacher in Seattle, he said, while Robin Truc Ly, the daughter Greene pretended was his own, is now an architect in Houston.

Ly and his second wife divorced in 1993, but he was remarried in 1999 and now has a 24-year-old daughter. Ly became a U.S. citizen in 1984 and now works as an independent contractor and consultant for the U.S. State Department.

“Every Thanksgiving when we gather as a family, we know that Steve Greene is the reason we’re all able to celebrate together,” he said.

Robin Truc Ly followed her dad’s example this year and wrote Greene a letter, telling him that she remembered him driving her and her stepmother through streets filled with chaos to get to the airport in Saigon.

“You were a slim built American with blonde hair and green eyes,” she wrote, recalling the first time she saw Greene. “Thank you for your attempts to bring a friend’s family out of danger. We wish you and your family a healthy, happy and joyful Thanksgiving.”

Last December, Ly and Greene met face to face for the first time in 20 years to catch up over lunch at the Globe and Laurel – a military and law enforcement-themed restaurant in Stafford, Va.

“It was an emotional reunion – I was happy to see Hoang again,” Greene said. “We had a lot to talk about, and we kind of picked up where we left off.”

“I told him I will always remember and appreciate him,” Ly added. “He brought me to this land of free and brave people.”

Ly said he’ll continue to share his gratitude for Greene in his twice-yearly emails.

“One for Thanksgiving, and then again at Christmas,” he said. “I will never be able to thank Steve Greene enough.”