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Old Friends/New Friends: A Veteran Reunites with a Vietnamese Friend

Story By Jo Ann Mathews
Photography Contributed

War veterans seldom reveal their combat experiences, and Ocean Isle Beach resident Jim Milstead was no exception — until recently.

A phone call on December 13, 2011, freed a host of memories sealed in Milstead’s mind since 1971. The caller identified himself as Jack Gang and mentioned someone from Milstead’s past: Soan Ngo (pronounced Sean No).

“He’s been trying to find you for 40 years,” Gang said. “I’m not pulling your leg. He’s a success and owns a Japanese Steakhouse, Shogun, in Venice, Florida.”

Ngo had told Gang how Milstead helped him improve his English and how they shared their hopes and dreams when they patrolled the waters of Vietnam on Tango 1277, River Division 41.

“Soan remembers everything up until he got shot,” Gang told Milstead. “He has no memory of the bombing. He woke up in a hospital.”

After the call, Milstead’s emotions collided.

“I hung up and walked outside,” he says. He remembered the South Vietnamese sailor who spoke some English, loved America and wanted to move to the States.

“We were both 20 at the time,” Milstead says. “He was always smiling, always friendly.”

Milstead had sustained wounds from shrapnel in the January 4, 1971, attack by the Viet Cong, but he believed Ngo and the other five men on board their riverboat were killed.

The memories remained painful, so when Ngo called a half-hour later, “I couldn’t pick it up,” Milstead says. He listened to Ngo’s message and settled his anxiety before he returned the call. The conversation renewed the agonizing sorrow.

When his wife, Cathy, came home, Milstead was sitting on the porch swing.

“He was talking in bits and pieces,” Cathy says. “He was scaring me.”

She thought her husband of 38 years was telling her he had a son in Vietnam. “Soan sounds like son,” she says.

Cathy then heard her husband’s account of his war experiences for the first time.

“I’ve never seen him so emotional,” she says. “It was a closed door. Now it’s open. I think it’s good therapy for him.”

The Milsteads traveled to Florida over Presidents’ Day weekend in February to meet the Ngos. Both 62, each man now has three grown children and grandchildren.

“Both of us were very quiet for a few moments,” Ngo says about their reunion. “Every time I have a pain, I remember what happened in the war, and I remember Jim. He put me on a helicopter. He saved me.”

Milstead, who earned two Purple Hearts, a Bronze Star with V for Valor and several other commendations, downplays his role.

“We were in the Ca Mau Peninsula, as far south as you can go in Vietnam,” he says. He stops and takes a deep breath before going on. “Every time we went out, it was bad. The Viet Cong owned that part of the country.” He stops again. “I knew several rockets hit the boat.” He learned later that 11 rockets hit the boat.

“Soan asked for his glasses,” Milstead remembers. “That was the most important thing to him. I found his glasses and gave them to him.” He shakes his head. “Soan’s face was a bloody pulp. I had to get him on a helicopter.” He pauses and looks down. “I had superficial wounds,” he says. “I was told all the others were dead.”

A helicopter took Milstead to the base to treat his wounds, and within a week he was back on patrol. He dismisses the extreme stress the experience caused. “A tour of duty is a tour of duty,” he says. In April 1971 he was wounded again and sent to Philadelphia Naval Hospital.

In the meantime, Ngo was recovering from his near-fatal wounds. He lost hearing in one ear, was discharged from the South Vietnamese navy and worked for Vietnam’s water company. He was opposed to the new government and wanted to leave the country. After several attempts, time in refugee camps in Thailand and other difficulties, he, his wife, Hanh, and their three children reached New York on September 24, 1981.

The family lived in The Bronx, and Ngo studied English in the morning and worked nights as a dishwasher in a Chinese restaurant in Manhattan. The commute took up to five hours, and he often didn’t return home until 2 a.m.

“It was a lot of headache,” he says in his heavily accented English.

He moved his family to Binghamton, New York, and hoped to get a job in drafting design. Instead the restaurant business beckoned, and he became a cook in a Japanese restaurant. Other doors opened, and he moved his family to Florida. He has owned Shogun since 1990.

“I was reborn in the U.S.,” Ngo says. “It gave me the opportunity to rebuild myself and my family.”

Gang met Ngo about 10 years ago and explains that he volunteered to conduct an Internet search to find Milstead. The first place he checked was the Vietnam Veterans War Memorial Wall. No Jim Milstead was on it. “I knew then we had a good chance of finding Jim,” Gang says, “but a thousand different things could happen over 40 years.”

Many months passed before Gang saw a picture from a VFW publication that showed three veterans preparing for a golf tournament. One was Jim Milstead.

“I didn’t know how Jim was going to react when I called,” he says. “At least he didn’t hang up on me.”

Milstead says it took about 15 minutes for his apprehension and anxiety to fade when he saw Ngo again, but then, he says, “We were back to joking like we did 40 years ago. He was the same guy. He had the same smile I remember.”

Milstead is awed by Ngo’s accomplishments.

“I learned how he survived and how he immigrated to the United States,” Milstead says. “He makes me feel I have underachieved.”

Ngo has his own spin on the subject. “He’s luckier than I am,” he says with a laugh. “He’s semi-retired.”

Milstead works part-time at Farmstead Golf Club in Calabash.

The two friends exchange phone calls often, and Ngo plans to visit the Milsteads this summer.

“I found a very old friend and a very new friend in one man,” Ngo says. n

This picture of Rich Murray (left), Jim Milstead and Ray Ketcham led to a reunion 40 years in the making.

Cathy and Jim Milstead celebrated with Soan and Hanh (Americanized to Hannah) Ngo at the Ngos’ restaurant, Shogun, in Venice, Florida.

Jim Milstead and Soan Ngo hold the picture taken of them and their crewmates in Vietnam.

Jim Milstead was 20 years old when he served in Vietnam from 1970-71.

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