50 years apart: Navy brothers reunite in Portland

Bich Nguyen and Peter Golwas met in South Vietnam in 1966

Peter Golwas and Bich Nguyen reunited in Portland, May 20, 2016 (KOIN)
Peter Golwas and Bich Nguyen reunited in Portland, May 20, 2016 (KOIN)

PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — It was a simple Christmas card, with Santa Claus on the outside. The greeting inside read, “A merry wish for lots of happiness at Christmas.” But it was the handwritten greeting that made it special.

“Hi Peter, Have a wonderful Holiday Season and a Happy New Year 2016. (signed) Bich Nguyen”

The Christmas card Bich Nguyen sent to Peter Golwas in 2015, helping them reconnect after 50 years, May 20, 2016 (KOIN)
The Christmas card Bich Nguyen sent to Peter Golwas in 2015, helping them reconnect after 50 years, May 20, 2016 (KOIN)

Peter was Bich’s best man when he got married in South Vietnam in 1966. They were both in the Navy — Peter in the US Navy, stationed in Vietnam for that year, Bich in the South Vietnamese Navy. They bonded, became best friends, but said goodbye when Peter left in January 1967.

They always wondered about each other and didn’t know if the other man was even alive. But Bich kept looking and in 2015 a mutual friend gave Peter’s address to Bich.

They didn’t see each other again until recently when Peter Golwas, now 76, came from Texas to Portland to visit his 77-year-old friend Bich Nguyen.

The Navy bond

Peter Golwas was Bich Nyguen's best man at his wedding in South Vietnam in 1966 (Courtesy photo)
Peter Golwas was Bich Nyguen’s best man at his wedding in South Vietnam in 1966 (Courtesy photo)

The Vietnam War had already been in progress for years when Peter was sent by the US Navy to Southeast Asia. There he met Bich, which began a friendship so close they considered each other brothers.

“The environment is in the Navy you always have to have a friend or you’re not going to be around for awhile,” Peter told KOIN 6 News. “And this guy did it above and beyond.”

Bich said the US Navy came “to help us to fight against the Communist invasion, so they help us. Our mission is patrolling the coast of Vietnam.”

In their off-time, while gunfire buzzed around them, they volunteered to get doctors and dentists to children who didn’t have access to health care. They were passionate about it, a passion that still showed when they spoke about it with KOIN 6 News.

The war, Peter said, “was intense, of course. But to be able to do something other than fight and kill people, the children especially, that was good to do.”

What Bich and Peter did was help children with dental problems and cleft lips.

“The doctor help them take care of their health and the dentist pull all the diseased teeth for the children and the people in the village,” Bich said in nearly fluent English. “We feel very, very happy to do a job like that to help people. We can change a life of the child…When we see the smile of a child and they have a hope to live their life.”

But it was the Navy, and orders are orders. When Peter shipped out, they said goodbye. He always wondered about Bich.

— North Vietnam launched Tet on Jan. 31, 1968
— 70,000 North Vietnamese forces attacked 100 cities
— Turning point in the war
— In wake of Tet, Walter Cronkite said the war will “end in a stalemate”
— March 31, 1968, LBJ announces:
> he would limit bombing
> wanted peace negotiations
> he would not run for president

“After that Tet offensive there, that was bad for everybody,” Peter said. “I don’t know how he stood it because it was very intense.”

After the fall of Saigon on April 30, 1975, Bich was told to report to a “re-education camp.” But the camps were really prison camps with prisoners used as forced labor and starved.

Bich was at a “re-education camp” for 6 years. Even though it was dangerous to even keep photographs of Americans, Bich hid the pictures he had with his best friend Peter. To this day, he still has pictures of his brother-in-arms.

Somehow he survived and in 1990 Bich came to the United States.

‘Where is my Peter Golwas?’

Moving to America was going “from hell to heaven,” Bich said. “Only one word can describe everything, you know, because the only thing is freedom I need, you know. Freedom when you lost, you appreciate that.”

As soon as he arrived in the US, Bich began looking for Peter.

“I wrote a letter to the Red Cross or all my American friends from the Navy asking, ‘Where is my Peter Golwas?’ but nobody can find it,” Bich told KOIN 6 News.

But after 25 years, “one of my friends met his counterpart, and this counterpart is the same (Naval Academy) class with Peter. And he gave me the address of Peter.”

He sent the Christmas card — “his wife would tell you (it’s) a Christmas miracle” — and one day Peter called.

Peter Golwas reconnected with his friend Bich Nguyen at Nguyen's home in Portland after 50 years, May 20, 2016 (KOIN)
Peter Golwas reconnected with his friend Bich Nguyen at Nguyen’s home in Portland after 50 years, May 20, 2016 (KOIN)

“After 50 years I met him again. I keep searching, searching, asking, and I located him at last,” Bich said. “He came right away to meet me. After 50 years, and every year memories come back.”

The first time they met again was emotional. “Very, very happy, you know. We just like brothers.”

What made them friends, Peter said, is they “have the same makeup.” Hearing from Bich was amazing.

Bich Nguyen reconnected with his friend Peter Golwas at Nguyen's home in Portland after 50 years, May 20, 2016 (KOIN)
Bich Nguyen reconnected with his friend Peter Golwas at Nguyen’s home in Portland after 50 years, May 20, 2016 (KOIN)

“I couldn’t believe it. A Christmas present, a helluva Christmas present,” Peter said.

Though 50 years have passed, their feelings about each other are the same.

Bich, Peter said, is “just the same old, same old. Just the best there is.” A minute later he again said Bich is the “best there is. I can trust him anywhere.”

“We have good, good time,” Bich said. “I feel younger now.”

There will be more times spent together, more trips to see each other and their families.

“Oh, yes, we’re connected together now and it will stay that way,” Bich said. He added, smiling, “After all we did in Vietnam together, now we become movie stars.”

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