An old nautical joke is that the difference between a fairy tale and a sea story is that the former begins “Once upon a time…” while the latter begins “Now this ain’t no BS!” Also, fairy tales are told to children at Mother’s knee, while sea stories are told to sailors at some other joint. This story could fit either genre.
On April 19, 2001, working as program manager for an East Coast defense contractor, I received at my office in San Diego an email from a young Vietnamese-American woman. She had posted the message on the guestbook of the website of USS Morton, a destroyer I had commanded as a Navy officer 20 years earlier:
“I should have done this a long time ago, but I just never got around to it,” she wrote. “My brother recently passed away, and, as I was putting together a scrapbook for him, I found an old postcard of the USS Morton given to my family about 18 years ago. I’d like to thank the captain and all the crew who were on board that day when we were rescued (June 1982). We were what you call ‘boat people.’ We had been on a little fishing boat for days, and, when we thought we weren’t going to make it, the USS Morton spotted us and let us come on board. There were about 50 people on that tiny fishing boat and only one person spoke English. We were overjoyed when we realized that we were saved. I remember that families were hiding their food in fear of not getting more, but the crew [of Morton] tried to signal us to eat it. Things were so good at that time since some of us had not eaten for a while; it was like going to heaven. We’d never seen so much food either. We were later dropped off in the Philippines, where my late brother was born. The only thing we had to know who had rescued us was a little postcard. Again, thank you very much. We would not have made it here to the U.S. without you. (By the way, one of my brothers still has the little white monkey that sucks its thumb. This was given to him on his birthday by the ship. I don’t know who gave it to him, but thank you.) Sincerely, Jacquelynne Vu.”
In the years between 1982 and 2001, I had nearly forgotten about the incident that Jacquelynne so vividly described. My response to that email began an exchange of correspondence and telephone calls, refreshing me on what had happened back then, when Jacquelynne was just a child seven years old.
In February 1982, USS Morton, a 419-foot destroyer homeported in Hawaii, joined a squadron of San Diego–based destroyers en route to a six-month deployment to the Far East. Our ship had a complement of 320 officers and men. This was to be the final deployment of Morton before she and all of the ships of her class were decommissioned.
During a brief visit to Guam, the squadron commander assembled the five commanding officers in his hotel room in Agana to brief us on his policies and on the operations and exercises in which we were scheduled to participate. One very specific order that he promulgated orally at the meeting was that we were not to pick up Vietnamese boat people.
The reason for this order was that, over the several years since the end of the Vietnam War, U.S. Navy ships had been handicapped in the performance of their missions by rescuing refugees at sea. Also, refugee camps in the Philippines, Hong Kong, Thailand, and other countries were overflowing with tens of thousands of Vietnamese. These countries were resisting further influx. Furthermore, rescues only encouraged more people to risk their lives at sea, where many refugees had drowned or were victimized and killed by growing numbers of pirates, who believed the refugees possessed gold and jewelry. For these and other reasons, the order was issued for commanding officers to provide only food, fuel, water, and directions to the nearest land.
I never saw the order in writing, but it made perfect sense to me. I had served five years earlier as executive officer (second in command) of another destroyer, which had provided only food and water to refugees. Those people had seemed at the time to be in good shape, and the weather was favorable; therefore, picking them up was not deemed necessary by the commanding officer.
As the only person on board that ship who spoke any Vietnamese (I had been an advisor to a Vietnamese riverine unit during the Vietnam War), I had the unpleasant task of communicating to the desperate people that we would not bring them on board. Although refusing them had not been my decision to make, I had always wondered whether they had made it to shore safely. Their boat had not been designed for open ocean voyages. The small vessel had no watertight compartments, sealed flotation spaces, emergency radios, or position-indicating beacons, lifejackets, flares, life rafts, etc.
Although I had not questioned the wisdom of my captain’s decision at the time, my conscience was troubled later.
My turn as a commanding officer came soon enough, and in June of 1982, I felt the grasp that Conrad had described — down low, where it hurt. Scheduled to participate in an exercise with the Thai navy, Morton was anchored near Thailand when I received word ashore that the ship’s main air-conditioning unit had failed and was hard down. Air-conditioning is absolutely necessary for the electronic equipment and, in the 100-plus-degree Asian summer, for the crew as well. A 20-year-old copper-nickel tube sheet in a condenser had become so porous from years of acid cleaning that it could no longer maintain a vacuum. Morton had been designed with great battle-ready redundancy, having two or four of every piece of equipment needed to steam and fight; four boilers, two main engines, two five-inch guns. The single main air-conditioning unit was the sole exception. Because repairs could be performed only in the Philippines, Morton was forced to withdraw from the exercise and to steam independently to Subic Bay, PI.