On June 9, Morton encountered a 25-foot open sampan loaded to the gunnels with 18 Vietnamese men, begging to come on board. The weather was good, they seemed to be in good condition, and they were less than 100 nautical miles from Thailand. Nevertheless, this was an area teeming with pirates — not far from where the merchant vessel Mayaguez had a few years earlier been captured by Cambodians. I was concerned that their chances of survival were poor. A few weeks before our passage, a Navy ship transiting the area had found bodies floating in the water there. Furthermore, I rationalized, just 18 men would not compromise my simple mission of getting to the Philippines for repairs. The safety of these men seemed more important than Philippine President Marcos’s reluctance to accept refugees. I therefore ordered a boat into the water to tow the sampan alongside. Meanwhile, so desperate to be saved were they that one of the men, Ken Huynh, dove into the water and began swimming toward the ship. I had all of the men brought on board. We sank their empty sampan by gunfire to eliminate it as a hazard to navigation and continued on our voyage.
Orders are orders, but international law of the sea, as well as common humanity, require one to render aid to people in distress. Navy regulations at that time dealt only with specific requests for asylum, but these men were too unsophisticated to request that; they just wanted to live. I felt that I, as the on-scene commander, was the only person in a position to determine the level of distress of the men and the seaworthiness of their boat. Later interviews revealed that my concern about pirates was valid, for those men had, in fact, been chased twice by pirates before being rescued by us. Also, Ken Huynh, the swimmer, had a severely burned leg from contact with the hot engine of the boat.
An additional day of steaming took us hundreds of miles out into the South China Sea, where the weather worsened considerably as a storm approached. As the combined darkness of evening and the approaching storm gathered, a small contact was detected on radar off to our northeast. In those days, some commanding officers chose to avoid the moral dilemma posed by boat people by altering course away from radar contacts before these small vessels became visible — out of sight, out of mind. In addition, a good argument could be made that the small contact might be a fishing boat with miles of fishing nets strung around it. In such cases, ships must give the boats wide berth or risk entangling their propellers in the nets. I chose to continue without altering course, regardless of what the contact might be.
Soon a small wooden Vietnamese fishing boat came within sight. As we approached, we were shocked at the large number of people packed into the 35-foot craft. The people on board the boat were signaling to us with something white and burning. We could see that the boat was taking on water as the rough seas splashed over her sides. People bailing water as fast as they could were apparently losing the battle.
Looking down from the bridge of Morton at the large number of people, I ordered my executive officer, Commander Duane Bower, to bring them all on board, adding, “I’m in for it now!”
Duane knew that I was alluding to my twice-violated orders not to pick up refugees, but he reassured me by saying, “Don’t worry, Captain. There is no way you can get in trouble for doing this!”
There were 52 men, women, and children in that boat, bringing Morton’s total to 70 refugees. Fortunately, the new group contained an English-speaking former nun, Vu Thi Khanh Hoai, or more simply, Sister Theresa. No other person in either boat spoke a word of English. My Vietnamese, never good and unused for many years, had grown so poor that the Vietnamese did not even recognize what language I was trying to speak during my pathetic efforts to communicate. Sister Theresa, I found out later, was Jacquelynne Vu’s great-aunt.
Accommodating this many people was very difficult, particularly on this older destroyer. The Vietnamese had to spend most of their time under awnings rigged on deck. Because of our lack of air-conditioning, many of my sailors would gladly have changed places with the Vietnamese.
During the remaining three days of the passage to Subic Bay, we interviewed the refugees with standard questions provided by Navy intelligence. Some questions were to determine whether any of the refugees had any knowledge of any American POWs still imprisoned in Vietnam. None did, except for one man who said that he had heard of an American spy-plane pilot shot down after the war who might still be held.
We were also directed to look out for Communists, who reportedly sometimes infiltrated groups of refugees. Only two men were in any way suspicious, having boarded the second boat after it had left Vietnam. However, these men were clearly the fishermen they claimed to be, for their fingers bore the characteristic calluses I had come to recognize years earlier as an advisor in the Mekong Delta. These thick, grooved calluses formed on fingertips after years of handling fishing lines and nets. These simple men had merely seized the opportunity of a passing boat to escape Vietnam.
The people had very few clothes or possessions; fewer yet, because they had tossed many overboard and swallowed jewelry and money in desperation when they thought the approaching boat of the aforementioned fishermen belonged to Communists coming to arrest them.
Morton crew members opened their hearts, wallets, and lockers to their new shipmates, donating money, clothes, and other items. As a former marathon runner, I had stacks of finishers’ T-shirts to donate for people to wear while their clothes were being laundered. For days, I saw little children wearing my size large shirts as baggy, drooping dresses.