Memories of Vietnam: Missionary recalls life amid war in new book

By on November 22, 2016
Luke and Mary Martin may live in Lititz, but their hearts will always be in Vietnam, where they worked as missionaries during the war. Luke recently wrote a book about it, and a signing is planned at Landis Homes Dec. 12. (Photo by Laura Knowles)

Luke and Mary Martin may live in Lititz, but their hearts will always be in Vietnam, where they worked as missionaries during the war. Luke recently wrote a book about it, and a signing is planned at Landis Homes Dec. 12. (Photo by Laura Knowles)

There is a line in the musical “Miss Saigon” that touched a chord with Luke Martin.

“But now I know I’m caught, I’ll never leave Vietnam.”

Martin, 83, understands this well. He has been living in the United States for nearly 40 years. Deep down, however, he and his wife Mary, 80, are still in Vietnam. It’s the place where Martin served as a Mennonite missionary during the war. It’s the place where the Lititz couple raised their three children.

Even today, they remove their shoes inside the house and serve tea and biscuits to guests in the Vietnamese tradition.

“We do feel sometimes that we are still there. We have such memories of the country and its wonderful people,” says Mary.

So many people have asked the Martins what life was like during the Vietnam War as missionaries that Luke decided to write about the family’s experiences. His newly published book, “A Vietnam Presence: American Mennonites in Vietnam During the American War,” is filled with recollections of life before and during the war, up to their evacuation when the city of Saigon fell. There are nearly 600 pages of memories and photographs.

Mary Martin taught English to women and children at the town school during their time in Vietnam. The local couple lived there from 1962 to the fall of Saigon in 1975. (Photos provided by Luke and Mary Martin)

Mary Martin taught English to women and children at the town school during their time in Vietnam. The local couple lived there from 1962 to the fall of Saigon in 1975. (Photos provided by Luke and Mary Martin)

“It began for me when I was drafted during the Korean War,” says Luke. “As a conscientious objector because of my Mennonite faith, I would not go into battle. But I would serve my country in other ways.”

He served as a relief worker in Germany, Poland and the Ukraine, where he worked with refugees. He had graduated from Eastern Mennonite College, where he studied sociology and Bible. Mary also went to Eastern Mennonite, earning her degree in elementary education.

The Martins met at a Bible study at Mary’s church in Atglen. Luke was from New Holland, where he attended New Holland Mennonite Church. They married in 1961, and not long after they were invited to go to Vietnam as missionaries. The young couple arrived in Vietnam in fall of 1962.

“At that time the war had not begun in earnest,” recalls Luke, noting that the U.S. had about 5,000 military advisors in the effort to unite North and South Vietnam.

While Luke worked for the Eastern Mennonite Board of Missions and Charities, Mary taught English to women and children in the town school. They rode bicycles to and from work, and they went to the market for fresh fruits, vegetables, and seafood.

Mary and Luke Martin raised their family in Vietnam, where they have fond memories despite the war.

Mary and Luke Martin raised their family in Vietnam, where they have fond memories despite the war.

“I grew to love the Vietnamese people and their culture,” says Mary, adding that the language had its unique etiquette. “If you asked someone if they were married, they would say, ‘not yet.’ It was the same with asking if they had children, ‘not yet.’ There was a hopefulness in that response.”

As the war progressed, people fled the city to seek refuge with relatives in the country. There were refugee areas, and the marketplaces were no longer as vibrant and thriving. Despite the growing fears, the people tried to carry on and be hopeful.

All three of the Martin children were born in Vietnam. They learned to embrace the Vietnamese culture as a family.

“People do not always understand when I say they were the best years of our lives, despite the war, because of the wonderful people,” says Mary.

She looks back on the friendships she forged with the women and children she taught with great fondness. She still cherishes the people, their language, foods like spring rolls and stir fried vegetables, and the mystique of Vietnam.

In 1975, with the fall of Saigon, the Martins were forced to evacuate their beloved city. It was devastating to see the war-torn country. It was even harder to leave. They went to Thailand, then returned home to the United States, where Luke worked as a case worker in Allentown. Eventually, they moved to Lititz to be near their son.

Mary (right) was an English teacher during the 1960s and early ‘70s.

Mary (right) was an English teacher during the 1960s and early ‘70s.

Luke always enjoyed writing, so the book was a labor of love. It took more than 10 years, working on and off, he says. It ended up being some 600 pages, filled with remembrances of their lives and their missionary work in Vietnam. The memoir is divided it into three volumes: Engagement, Partnership and Transition. It was edited by Glenn Knight of Lititz and published by Mastof Publishing.

“For many years I considered sketching the work of the Eastern Mennonite Board of Missions and Charities (EMBMC) in Vietnam. After coordinating a study in the late ‘70s on the Vietnam ministries of EMBMC, Mennonite Central Committee (MCC), and the MCC Peace Section from 1954 to 1975, friends suggested I prepare a readable story for the general public,” Luke writes in the preface of his book.

He was encouraged to write the book when he received a note from a Mennonite Central Committee colleague who said: “I hope someone writes about the history of the Mennonite mission in Viet Nam as well. I think there is much there which we all need to remember. Much work was done in a very difficult situation, and the story should be an encouragement to young people who need to be pushed a little in the direction of service. Luke, why don’t you write a book?”

He did just that.

The book is expected to be published in late November, and plans are underway for a book signing at Landis Homes on Dec. 12.

As Luke writes, “The heart of the story I tell is the experience of American Mennonites seeking to live out Jesus Christ’s gospel of peace in Vietnam, when the United States of America engaged in a military conflict in which three million Vietnamese were killed.”

Laura Knowles is a local freelance writer and regular contributor to the Record Express. She welcomes reader feedback and story ideas at lknowles21@gmail.com.

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