When Vietnamese Fishermen Went to War With the Klan in Texas

© 1981–2021 John R. Van Beekum
© 1981–2021 John R. Van Beekum

A few nights before the start of the 1980 shrimping season in Texas, as a tropical storm pounded the gulf coast, a Justice Department mediator booked a room at a Holiday Inn near the fishing town of Seabrook, on the western edge of Galveston Bay. He was expecting two guests, each representing opposing sides of a turf war liable to explode into violence. His plan was to lock them inside until they brokered some kind of a treaty.

Gene Fisher, the burly 35-year-old founder of the American Fishermen’s Association, arrived first. Ever since coming home from his deployment as a Marine to Vietnam, where he was wounded several times, his life had hit the skids: a felony conviction for stealing a car, another conviction for embezzlement, and another arrest for burglary and assault on a police officer, which landed him two years in the Nebraska State Penitentiary. When he got out, he returned to the Gulf Coast, taking odd jobs as a welder and carpenter. He was now trying his hand at shrimping, but his timing was rotten.

Shrimping was as bad as anyone could remember. The bay was wheezing beneath what seemed to be a permanent plume of black smoke snaking from the Burmah Agate, still burning off oil two months after colliding with another freighter: sixteen million gallons of crude had already seeped to the bottom of the bay or caught fire and darkened the skies above it.

To the south, some of the 140 million gallons of oil gushing from the Mexican Ixtoc I, a deep-water well that exploded ten months earlier and remained uncapped, was tarring Texan beaches. Fifty thousand barrels of oil were leaking each day with no signs of ending, in what would become—at least for a few decades—the largest peacetime spill in history. “If the oil happens to be out there when the shrimp hatch,” a shrimper told a reporter, “the crop will be wiped out.”

Meet the New Klan, Same as the Old Klan (Almost)

Petrochemical plants lined the coastline, sucking up freshwater from the rivers and discharging it into the bays with toxic chemicals. Concrete for highways, hotels, and vacation homes had smothered the estuaries.

But to Gene Fisher and many white shrimpers of Galveston Bay, there was only one reason their nets were coming up light: the few dozen Vietnamese refugees that had started shrimping the bay, ever since being evacuated after the Fall of Saigon.

Fisher was at the vanguard of an anti-Vietnamese campaign; Gene and others routinely described the Vietnamese as “parasites” and secret communists who had infiltrated the refugee program. They called for a ban on refugees. Fish house owners were pressured to stop buying from the Vietnamese, and in the bars and diners around town, white shrimpers embraced the conspiracy that had seized most fishing towns along the Gulf Coast: that the federal government was secretly subsidizing the refugees as part of a plot to drive them out of the industry. The Vietnamese tried in vain to explain that they didn’t even qualify for federal loans, and that their only advantage was that they borrowed money from each other, lived ten to a trailer, and reduced costs by eating what whites considered “junkfish.”

When the death threats began, the refugees began casting about for someone to protect them.

Fisher stiffened at the sound of someone rapping at the door of the Holiday Inn room: the second guest had arrived, the president of the Vietnamese Fishermen’s Association.

Nam Văn Nguyễn was a highly-decorated South Vietnamese colonel. In over 22 years of combat, he commanded thousands of men, was injured several times, and participated in the Paris peace talks. After a harrowing escape with his family, he moved to Seabrook and bought a ramshackle fish house, with dreams of a simple life of sorting shrimp and selling to restaurants in the Houston area. Almost as soon as he arrived, though, he found himself in a new war, with Texans calling for the Vietnamese to leave.

Nam arrived at the Holiday Inn with bodyguards, but the media­tor made them wait in the lobby. Every fifteen minutes, an associate of Fisher’s called up to the hotel room to make sure that he was still alive.

The two men sparred for hours before settling upon a series of promises that Nam felt the Vietnam­ese would sign if it restored peace to the coast: They would not build any new boats, and would try their best to abide by the unwritten laws of the bay. They emerged from the hotel room that night with a handshake and what would become known as “the Seabrook Agreement.” The number of boats would be limited to those currently tied up at the docks: seventy for the Whites, fifty-five for the Vietnamese.

Nam tried to uphold his end, but he knew he wasn’t omnipotent. On the morning the shrimping season opened, he issued an emphatic statement to the press: “I discourage other Vietnamese—don’t go into this business! I ask American fishermen not to sell any boats to us.” He reassured white shrimpers that the Vietnamese were learning the rules and regulations governing shrimping. “Given time, I think the programs will work… it’s not a problem that’s going to be solved by leaving it alone, but it won’t be solved by guns and knives, either.”

The season opened without any violence. When the landings of shrimp outpaced 1979’s miserable numbers, shrimpers started growing a bit more optimistic about the future.

But at the end of the year, a few Vietnamese fishermen moved to the area from Louisiana. Oblivious to the tensions in the bay or the “Seabrook Agreement,” they began building a new shrimp boat. As they sawed away, someone tipped off Gene Fisher, who pulled up and eyeballed the new boat taking shape.

<div class="inline-image__credit">© 1981–2021 John R. Van Beekum</div>
© 1981–2021 John R. Van Beekum

By New Year’s Eve, Fisher was making plans for war.

On January 2, 1981, Nam was eating breakfast at the Dutch Kettle, the local diner a couple of blocks from the water’s edge. He was in high spirits: his wife had just given birth to a baby girl, Judy, who was back at their bungalow on the waterfront. Michael, his 15-year-old son from a previous marriage, had just decided to spend his summer break working at the fish house and taking night classes at the community college.

“Nam!” barked Fisher, as he barreled over to his table. “Why are you letting your people build a new boat?!”

“Nobody told me anything!” Nam said, annoyed; it wasn’t as though every Vietnamese person in Galveston Bay had to get his permission whenever they wanted to fasten a rivet.

“I don’t like them building more boats just like that,” Fisher told him. “They’re gonna get burnt. . .”

Days later, a Vietnamese shrimper was docking his boat when a white man told him to leave or else it’d be burned. When he couldn’t find anywhere else to dock, he left the boat and called Nam to report the threat; when he returned, he was relieved to find that they hadn’t torched it, but found it stripped of every­thing valuable, including his nets and CB radio equipment.

A few days later, a Vietnamese woman in Seabrook raced down to the docks where her forty-foot trawler, the Trudy B, was tied up. She owned the boat with some of her Vietnam­ese relatives and had been operating it for only a few months. Someone had severed the boat’s fuel line, allowing roughly one hun­dred gallons of diesel from the tank to seep into the hull. The fire should have burned the boat down to the waterline, but whoever lit the match subsequently closed the hatch and bolted, inadvertently depriving the fire of oxygen.

Later that night, several hundred white fishermen and shrimpers attended a fish fry at the Stardust Lounge in nearby Clear Lake Shores. Around 11 p.m., a local police officer was radioed to be on the lookout for a yellow Opel with a smashed-out back window: the car had been at the Stardust and apparently had several members of the Ku Klux Klan in it.

Moments later, the officer was flagged down by a motorist who’d just seen a boat on fire. He raced to the docks to find a boat burning on its port side. The flames stretched the entire length of the white trawler, which was registered to a Vietnam­ese shrimper. The fire engine roared up and extinguished the blaze before the boat was totally destroyed. “With the current Vietnamese fishing problems,” the officer wrote in his report, “this appears to be a racial incident, and the actor or actors might be connected with a racial movement, possibly… the KKK.”

Wondering if they were in for a third straight night of burnings, undercover police officers were stationed down by the docks.

Strange things happened. After midnight, a white-and-blue 1971 Oldsmobile registered to a white Texan eased by one of the officers with extinguished lights, driving slowly past where the boats had been burned. At around four thirty in the morning, a 1977 white-and-blue Ford pickup with Louisiana plates drove down to the dock where the second boat had been torched, unaware that they’d just driven past an under­cover officer. The officer watched in tense silence as four white men hopped down from the truck, whose license plate number he couldn’t make out in the darkness.

The men reached into the cab of the truck and pulled out four white robes and hoods, which they donned. For twenty minutes, the Klansmen stood near the docks. Then, as quietly as they’d come, they removed their robes, climbed back into the truck, and disappeared down unlit roads.

Gene Fisher was ready for the news crews pouring into Galveston Bay. “I went to my government…begged them to help the situation, do something about it, and they wouldn’t do it,” Fisher told a reporter. His tone was scolding, his arms stubbornly crossed. “So, I’m a white American. I went to the KKK. Those boats have to be taken out of the water. Destroyed.”

The situation escalated: a white shrimper named Jody Collins offered up his small ranch as a site for the first major Klan rally against the Vietnamese. Held on Valentine’s Day, 750 people hollered as the U.S.S. VIET CONG, an effigy of a Vietnamese boat, was torched, and Louis Beam, the Grand Dragon of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan issued a 90-day deadline for the Vietnamese to leave or else face “blood, blood, blood.”

<div class="inline-image__caption"><p>Louis Beam, Grand Dragon of the Texas Realm of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, sets fire to a boat labeled “Viet-Cong” during a rally for white Texas Gulf fisherman in Santa Fe, Texas, on Feb. 14, 1981.</p></div> <div class="inline-image__credit">Bettmann Archive/Getty</div>

Louis Beam, Grand Dragon of the Texas Realm of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, sets fire to a boat labeled “Viet-Cong” during a rally for white Texas Gulf fisherman in Santa Fe, Texas, on Feb. 14, 1981.

Bettmann Archive/Getty

In the wake of the rally, white shrimpers did little to temper their language. “Our problem is the Vietnamese,” said Bo Jones, a shrimper in the area, from his perch at the Kemah Clipper bar. “And the answer to the problem is to get rid of the Vietnamese. They are killing our bay.” Jones himself was born in Alabama but saw Galveston Bay as his. He was drinking at the bar that day instead of fishing because of fog, and because he hadn’t gotten around to replacing a $10 pulley needed on his boat.

Whites insisted that their issues with the Vietnamese were strictly about economics—that race had nothing to do with it—but they often showed their hand in interviews. “All it’s going to take is for those gooks to run across a shrimper who’s had a little too much beer one day and there’s going to be big trouble,” a shrimper told the Galveston Daily News. “The government thinks more of them gooks than the native Ameri­cans!” said Kemah shrimper Floyd Eades.

“I’m talking, running off at the mouth, because I don’t want to see any violence,” Fisher groused. But, he mur­mured, accidents out on the crowded waters were “unavoidable.”

Nam felt at an impasse. He had plenty of weapons and knew how to use them, but was committed to a peaceful solution. He sensed he was being followed as he drove around town. He had been tipped off to a meeting where Klansmen debated various ways of assassinating him. One wanted to club him with a baseball bat, but they figured the special forces veteran would be too hard to kill that way. Another wanted to knock on the door and shoot him, but they thought the risk of an eyewitness was too great. The current plan was to tail him until he pulled onto the expressway, where they could ram him off the road, shoot him, and then set his car on fire before driving off.

There was a surveillance car with white men, presumably Klans­men, parked outside his house. Each night, Nam would shinny down the gutter on the back side of his home and slip off in a small boat to another part of town, where he’d hidden his family in a safe house. There was a cruel irony: Over nine thousand miles away, his old home in Vietnam was still under surveillance by the communist government he’d fought for decades. Here, he was accused of being a communist.

His son, Michael, was holed up in another safe house with curtains drawn, scribbling away at his homework by candlelight while nervously listening for the footfalls of potential intruders. The teenager kept a baseball bat behind the front door. Whenever he ran out of food, he’d crawl out the back window and creep through the backyard. After scanning the perimeter, he’d climb over the neighbors’ fence, cutting through their yard before hiking to a 7‑Eleven for chips and a Coke.

Many of the Vietnamese were frightened that local law enforcement might also be secret members of the Ku Klux Klan, so they were loath to report the rash of threats made against them, but they did confide in their priest. Father John Toàn Minh Hoang was worried: On several occasions, he’d been called to Vietnamese parishioners’ homes to find a dead cat strung up in a noose, dangling from a nearby tree branch. He’d begun sheltering frightened Vietnamese in his church, telling them, “They’ll have to kill me first.”

Friends in Houston were urging Nam to flee, but his mother implored him to stand his ground: to be peaceful but clever. “You have to find a way to beat the KKK,” she told him. “If you lose, your people here will all be destroyed.” She told him that if he died for the cause, it would be just, but that if he took up arms against his detractors, everyone would blame Nam—even if fifty Vietnamese died and only five Klansmen.

He was doing what he could, advising his community to ignore the drama, but the Valentine’s Day Klan rally had altered the atmosphere in the bay; the threats against Vietnamese in town were increasing. The Trudy B was again torched, this time burning down to the waterline.

<div class="inline-image__credit">Penguin Random House/The Daily Beast</div>
Penguin Random House/The Daily Beast

Some 60 percent of the Vietnamese were making plans to sell their boats and flee before the Grand Dragon’s deadline ran out. But Nam was torn. He liked living in Seabrook. “The reason I decided to come here is I like to have free trade,” he told a reporter. “We feel bad . . . it makes me feel sorry to come to this area.”

As the journalist sat in Nam’s home, twenty feet from the water’s edge, a steady procession of Vietnamese shrimpers came by to sign their names to the list he was compiling of the boats, their condition, and the desired price.

Nam stared out the window past his boat onto the dark water of Galveston Bay, alternating between confusion and anger. What would become of the Vietnamese who chose to stay if he abandoned them? He was normally decisive, but he couldn’t yet bring himself to add his name to the list.

THE Navy-gray paint of Jody Collins’ trawler was faded and chipped, spattered with the excrement of gulls that jostled and shrieked overhead when the catch was still good. The Cherry Betty’s engine was ancient, coughing up black diesel fumes as the boat motored slowly down the channel toward the dark water of Galveston Bay. Blue, rainless sky that March morning. A perfect day for a ride.

On the southern side of the channel, a Vietnamese fisherman was sitting in his living room with a friend, making plans for the upcoming season of shrimping. Their conversation was interrupted by the sight of a trawler, overloaded with passengers, growling past.

They shot to their feet and ran to the window. Most of those on board were dressed in white robes, with rifles slung over their shoulders. There was a cannon on the stern. Something was hanging from one of the outriggers.

“What is that?” the Vietnamese fisherman asked his friend nervously. “Is that a sack of shrimp?”

Jody’s brother David grinned as he piloted the Cherry Betty ahead. Earlier that morning, soon after the Grand Dragon had given them the go‑ahead, the boat was swarm­ing with Klansmen, some in hoods, others in army fatigues and black Ku Klux Klan—Realm of Texas T‑shirts. Nobody concealed their faces that day; they wanted to be seen. There were loads of AR‑15s on board. The Confederate flag hanging from the boat’s mast whipped in the wind as they passed “Saigon Harbor.”

The drawbridge connecting Seabrook and Kemah lowered, blocking their forward progress. Collins threw the engine in neutral, and the boat drifted alongside the Kemah boardwalk, which was thronged with tour­ists and locals. John Van Beekum, a photojournalist for the Houston Chronicle, was on his day off, tucking into a shrimp sandwich, when he caught sight of the Klan boat. He sprinted to his car, praying he had enough film in his camera and that he could get back before it disap­peared.

Word was spreading quickly. Some Vietnamese fishermen by the docks fled; others stayed, with guns, to protect their trawlers.

When the drawbridge raised, Collins shifted into gear and the Cherry Betty resumed its trip. The Klansmen standing along the bow, with their arms folded below the blood drop cross symbol on their robes, were making it difficult to see, but he pressed on.

Van Beekum raced back to the boardwalk with his camera just in time to snap dozens of pictures. As those on board flashed Sieg Heil sa­lutes and mugged for the camera, most on the boardwalk seemed amused.

Just then, another young man, who once fought for the South Viet­namese navy, was about to fire up the engine of the beat‑up shrimp boat he’d just bought. Ever since arriving in Texas as a refugee five years ear­lier, after the collapse of his country, he had been saving every penny he’d earned assembling car radios in Houston in order to break into fishing. He was in a triumphant mood, about to take it out for the first time, when the Cherry Betty skulked past.

<div class="inline-image__credit">© 1981–2021 John R. Van Beekum</div>
© 1981–2021 John R. Van Beekum

He looked up, wide-eyed. It looked as though there was a body hanging from a noose off the outrigger, its boots swaying four feet above the deck.

Some Klansmen gathered around a small-bore field cannon. A small Confederate flag was mounted next to the barrel. Overhead, a ghostly effigy of a Vietnamese refugee swung beneath the flag of the Confederacy, its neck canted to the right as it dangled over the Klansmen.

The wind was whipping in from the west as Collins cleared the channel, steering the trawler north, hugging close to the shoreline. As someone loaded a shell into the cannon, the Klan boat approached the dock jutting out from the home of the man who had become the greatest obstacle to their plans.

Nam and his wife were out. His son, Michael, was back at the safe house. Inside, a 13-year-old relative was babysitting Judy, who was asleep in the nursery. The babysitter was in the kitchen, talking with a friend on the phone, when she peered out the window and saw a boat full of armed Klansmen staring and pointing at her, rifles in hand.

She dropped the phone. She’d started studying American history that year and had recently learned about the KKK, so she knew enough to be afraid. In a panic, she snatched up the sleeping baby and ran out the front door onto Eleventh Avenue.

David Collins grinned. Colonel Nam had been the burr in their saddle, stubbornly resisting their demands to just leave.

If the Klan could drive him from the coast, the rest might follow suit, and the white fishermen would have the waters to themselves again.

As the escalation against the Vietnamese shrimpers of Galveston Bay intensified, some 60 percent of the Vietnamese put FOR SALE signs on their boats, making plans to once again flee. But Colonel Nam, with help from the Southern Poverty Law Center and Houston attorneys, decided that the community should stand its ground and fight back against the Klan, its private militia, and their white allies in the fishing community. The lawsuit, seeking an emergency injunction, led to a historic decision affirming the refugees’ right to fish without fear of violence… but the waters they worked were quickly being poisoned by the sprawling petrochemical industry along the Texas gulf coast. Unless someone could curb the toxic discharges into the bays, there was little hope for shrimpers and crabbers.

From THE FISHERMEN AND THE DRAGON by Kirk Wallace Johnson, published by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2022 by MJ + KJ, Inc.

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