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.
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.
The refugees seemed really happy to have been rescued and seemed more like people on a vacation outing than people who had many years of hardship facing them. In the Philippines, I learned later, the refugees could expect to live in abject poverty and abysmal conditions for years before being allowed into the few countries that would accept them as permanent immigrants.
The remainder of our trip was uneventful, occupied mainly with interrogating the adult members of the two groups of refugees. I had set aside the empty Squadron Commander’s Cabin for the interviews, which were assisted in every case by Sister Theresa.
She related that, after the fall of the South Vietnamese government, she had not been allowed to function as a nun. To survive, she was forced to sell black-market cigarettes on the street.
The primary motivation for the Vu family’s perilous escape was the harsh treatment of Jacquelynne’s father by the Communists. Following the Communist takeover, males were checked to see whether they had served in the Republic of Vietnam’s military. Because Mr. Vu had served as a helicopter pilot in the air force, he was pressed into slave labor, harvesting and packing hay, digging, and other forms of hard physical work. He was often gone from home for such labor for weeks each month, forcing the family’s own crops to lie fallow. If any member of the family earned any money, over half was taken by the government. Vu family members greatly feared the father would eventually be moved to North Vietnam, leaving the family in distress.
The Vu family had an uncle who arranged escapes from Vietnam for people able to pay a few bars of gold. Not having such wealth, Mr. Vu arranged passage by agreeing to assist in steering and navigating the boat. As reported in a story in the Oregonian on August 23, 2002: “Three times the Vu family planned an escape from Saigon, and three times glitches prevented it. Finally, under cover of darkness, they sneaked barefoot across a field to their boat and set out. They embarked on the trip in haste, without any consideration of the weather at sea at that time of year. The boat was a small fishing vessel intended for use only on the rivers in Vietnam. Its sole means of propulsion was one single-cylinder, five-horsepower gasoline engine. The difficulty of the [Vu family’s] decision to embark was increased by their knowledge that one of their uncles had left in a similar boat, never to be heard from again.”
As summer builds, the ocean heats up. Warm air rising forms low-pressure centers that develop into tropical storms and, later in the summer, into typhoons. The boat people had run afoul of such conditions. While USS Morton had the advantage of frequent weather reports and optimal routing guidance from shore stations, the boat people had cast their fate to the winds.
Following the rescue, that weather moved to the northwest as Morton steamed at 16 knots to the east for a smooth, uneventful passage to the U.S. Navy base at Subic Bay in the Philippines. In Subic Bay, the Vietnamese were transferred to the control of the Philippine government, which placed them in a refugee camp on the Bataan Peninsula.
Morton’s equipment was repaired, and she returned to exercises and operations at sea to finish her six-month deployment. She returned to Pearl Harbor on August 12 to a huge welcome, featuring bands, Miss Hawaii presenting leis, an Air Force skywriter, 1000 yellow balloons, “Aloha” banners along the channel entrance, and girls dressed as Morton Salt girls. (Morton was known as the “Saltiest Ship in the Navy.”)
Even amid this hoopla, we were reminded of the boat people whom we had rescued. A television crew and local news anchorman met the ship as it approached Hawaii to interview me about the rescue. The reporter videotaped me on the bridge of the destroyer describing how “we got them before the sea got them.” My superiors, perhaps grudgingly, recommended the crew for the Humanitarian Service Medal.
In the Philippines, things were not going so well for the Vu family and other refugees. Food was scarce, and half of it was stolen before it ever reached the refugees. Don Vu, Jacquelynne’s father, secured employment as a foreman, assisting the Red Cross with food distribution. The family had some opportunity to study English through lessons given in the camps.
I wrote a letter to Sister Theresa, offering to help her obtain sponsorship into the U.S., but I did not receive an immediate response. Later, about the time of Morton’s November 22, 1982 decommissioning ceremony, I received a letter from her telling me that she was about to leave the camp for Springfield, Massachusetts. She had been sponsored by a Vietnamese priest there, Father John Pham Minh Hua. She was grateful to have gotten out of the camp after only five months.
Many refugees spent years in those camps. Fortunately, most of the Morton group were allowed into the U.S. quickly. Since a U.S. Navy ship had brought them to the Philippines, policy required the U.S. to accept responsibility for resettling them. Sister Theresa stated that most of our group members were going to California. She requested that I write her, but, knowing she was in good hands, I did not.
The Vu family consisted of the father and mother, Don and Karen, plus their four children: John, Jacquelynne, Jenny, and Peter. Peter was born in the camp. They were also accompanied by one of Don’s brothers. Unbeknownst to me, six months after arriving in the camp, an uncle in Portland, Oregon, sponsored them into the U.S.
I got on with my life, retiring early from the Navy in 1987 to work for a former commanding officer who was then vice president of a merchant shipping company. That company had the contract to operate and maintain U.S. Navy civilian-manned surveillance ships. That increased my knowledge of government contracts to the point that I made that field my second career. It was in such a contracts position that I was working when Jacquelynne Vu’s email arrived. Although seeing the five of my employees who were former refugees from Vietnam made me wonder occasionally what had happened to our group, I had otherwise not given the incident much thought over the intervening years.
One exceptional reminder was the court-martial of another U.S. Navy commanding officer seven years after my own tour in command. This captain had chosen not to pick up boat people whom his ship had encountered. He gave them food and water, but the boat never made it to land.
Jacquelynne’s email brought her group’s rescue home to my consciousness. A telephone call to me from Jacquelynne’s mother Karen last year also brought home the full impact of the despair her group of people felt in the hours before their rescue, as well as the panic they felt that we might not see and rescue them. She explained that the burning white “flag” that we had seen was the blouse of a girl on the boat. That girl, of course, did not want to surrender her only upper-body covering and was beset by her panicking shipmates, so certain were they that they would not survive the night if not seen by us. Mrs. Vu, now an engineer for Adidas, also brought me up to date on the happy, successful lives their family has enjoyed in the U.S. despite difficult, impoverished beginnings.
These refugees had to work hard to survive and prosper in America. The parents worked half of each day earning money in menial jobs and studied English the rest of the day. Don Vu also received specialized training and is now a skilled machinist. Don’s brother is a very successful software engineer. Sister Theresa, no longer a nun and now known by her Vietnamese name, Hoai, is a wealthy property owner and landlord for the nine single-family homes she owns and rents out in Massachusetts. Ken Huynh managed to graduate from college in the U.S. and is now a successful and well-known MetLife financial services representative in Seattle.
The consequence of my renewed contact with the Vu family is that this incident has become elevated in my consciousness as a central event in my life. My sister complained to me recently that I had never once mentioned the rescue to her in all of these years. In truth, it had not been a matter of much moment to me in a long and varied life of relatively high adventure, including furious combat in the U Minh forest of Vietnam. Now, however, I consider it among my most important and defining experiences.
The rescue has become a part of a chain of circumstances that lend meaning to my life. Emily Dickinson wrote in her poem “Not in Vain”:
If I can stop one heart from breaking,
I shall not live in vain:
If I can ease one life the aching,
Or cool one pain,
Or help one fainting robin
Unto his nest again,
I shall not live in vain.
There were 70 “robins” in those two boats. The Vu family has helped me see the events of that dark night at sea in a new light. I feel almost the pride of a parent in what they and other refugees have been able to achieve in this country.
Their experiences cause me to reflect on what life might have been like for my ancestors, who arrived in Massachusetts as refugees, like Sister Theresa — only 250 years earlier. Were they afraid at sea? How did they think they would survive and earn a living here? Personally, I do not think I could handle that kind of stress. I am not brave enough to jump off into the dangerous unknown as they did. Our country is truly fortunate in receiving only the boldest, bravest people from the other parts of the world.
In August 2001, I attended the wedding of Jacquelynne in Portland to a Vietnamese-American man, Loc Nguyen, who was a boat person himself. In Portland, the family did everything in their power to show their thanks to me for being a part of their rescue. In that Oregonian story on my reunion with them, Jacquelynne was quoted as saying, “I figured that you never know when you’re going to die, and I wanted to say thank you before I was gone. Our family has always been so grateful. Al Bell went against rules and regulations. He saved us.”
At each phase of the wedding ceremonies, which included a traditional Vietnamese ceremony at the bride’s home, a Catholic nuptial mass at a church, and a reception at a large restaurant, they paused to recognize and honor me as their special guest who had made this day possible. They spoke of divine providence as having sent my ship to save them. The groom read a long speech in Vietnamese, of which I understood only three words repeated twice: “Cam on ong”(Thank you, sir). The depth and sincerity of their gratitude was so moving, it brought a tear to my eye.
In the end, I almost regretted that my presence at that special time in their lives detracted from the real purpose of the celebration, the beautiful wedding of Jacquelynne and Loc. The couple is living happily ever after in the eagerly sought and finally found kingdom of freedom and joy. So, you can see that this is not just a sea story but a fairy tale come true.
— Commander Al Bell, U.S. Navy (retired)