This story is so good and such a great part of Morton's history that I just had to make a separate page just for it. Cdr Bell, I salute your integrity. Every man in your command should be proud to have served under you. I know I would have.
The following is the story of the rescue by Morton and crew of the Vietnamese "boat people"and the results of one doing the right thing. Written by the man who knows most about it and risked most to do it.
By CDR Al Bell USN (ret.)
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 e-mail relayed to me from a young Vietnamese-American woman. She had posted the message on the guestbook of the web site of USS MORTON (DD 948), a destroyer that I had commanded as a Navy officer twenty years earlier:
"I should have done this a long time ago, but I just never got around to it. 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 US 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 intervening years between 1982 and now I had nearly forgotten about the incident which Jacquelynne so vividly described. My response to that e-mail 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 (DD 948), a 419 foot long, 4,000 ton displacement, ASW modernized FORREST SHERMAN class 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 en route, 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, US 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 at sea 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, for 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 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 then 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. Their 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. Each captain had to use his best judgment on the appropriate course of action in any situation. Commanding officers are selected for their ability to make such life and death decisions. He had believed the refugees would survive, and he had acted on that belief. One cannot second guess him now.
Joseph Conrad frequently described the dilemma faced by commanding officers in his novels. He wrote, "Only a seaman realizes to what great extent an entire ship reflects the personality and ability of one individual, her commanding officer…. A ship is a different world in herself and in consideration of the protracted and distant operations of the fleet units the Navy must place great power, responsibility, and trust in the hands of those leaders chosen for command. In each ship there is one man who, in the hour of emergency or peril at sea can turn to no other man. There is one who alone is ultimately responsible for the safe navigation, engineering performance, accurate gunfire and morale of his ship. He is the commanding officer. He is the ship! This is the most difficult and demanding assignment in the Navy. There is not an instant during his tour as commanding officer that he can escape the grasp of command responsibility…."
My turn as a commanding officer came soon enough, and in June of 1982 I then 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+ degree Asian summer, for the crew as well. A twenty 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 5 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, P.I.
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 to me than Philippine President Marcos' 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, requires 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 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 of 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 a 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 tiny 35 foot craft. The people on board the boat were frantically 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 fifty-two men women and children in that tiny 35 foot open boat, bringing MORTON's total to seventy people. 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, unused for many years, had grown so poor that 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. Sister Theresa was a very great help in interpreting for us.
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 were required to interview 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. His information was vague and he did not have direct knowledge of this, however.
We were also directed to look out for Communists who reportedly sometimes infiltrated groups of refugees. Only two single 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' tee 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 accepting 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 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 (Hmm, this sounds like my present tax bite!). Life became extremely difficult for them, and there was no hope for improvement. Vu family members greatly feared the father would eventually be moved to North Vietnam, leaving the family in distress without a head of household.
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 newspaper, Oregonian, "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'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 just such a condition. While USS MORTON had the advantage of frequent weather reports and optimal routing guidance from shore stations, the boat people had simply 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 US 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, one thousand yellow balloons, "Aloha" banners along the channel entrance, girls dressed as Morton Salt girls (MORTON was known as the "Saltiest Ship in the Fleet"), and, of course, hundreds of family members and friends.
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 deployment, in general, and the rescue, in particular. The reporter videotaped me on the bridge of the destroyer describing how, referring to the refugees, "We got them before the sea got them." My superiors, perhaps grudgingly, recommended the crew for the Humanitarian Service Medal.
Meanwhile, back 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 US, but I did not receive and 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, Father John Pham Minh Hua, of St. Thomas Church there. She was very grateful and happy 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 US quickly. Since a US Navy ship had brought them to the Philippines, policy required the US 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. Six months after arriving in the camp an uncle in Portland, Oregon, sponsored them into the US.
Not knowing what had happened to them, 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 US 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 e-mail arrived. Although seeing the five of my employees who were former refugees from Vietnam made me wonder occasionally what had happen 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 US 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 they never made it to land.
The incident occurred in June of 1988 when USS DUBUQUE (LPD-9) came upon 80 Vietnamese boat people in a manner similar to MORTON's earlier encounter. DUBUQUE's commanding officer, Captain Alexander G. Balian, provided emergency supplies and steering instructions, but only 52 persons were subsequently found alive 19 days later, after 37 days at sea, when Philippine fishermen rescued them. Of the 110 refugees who had left Vietnam, 30 had already died before DUBUQUE found them. The survivors, who had not eaten in seven days, were thin, dehydrated, injured, and ailing. CAPT Balian found them in a life-threatening situation and left them in a life-threatening situation, according to the prosecutor at his 1989 court-martial.
According to his testimony, DUBUQUE's executive officer, LCDR Halter, saw his role in the boat sent to investigate as a communications relay, asking questions through an interpreter, a Vietnamese-American crewmember, from the captain and merely repeating over a radio information back to the captain on the bridge of DUBUQUE. He felt no obligation to recommend a course of action. The refugees told the interpreter that about 20 people had already died, that their boat was taking on water, that they had no food or water for days, there were lots of children on board, and that they were dying. In one of many miscommunications, Halter told Balian that the boat had no engine, although, in fact, there was an engine. The junk's engine had broken down three days into the voyage. Balian assumed that, if the boat had made it 250 miles from Vietnam with its small, ragged sail, it could make it the remaining 250 mile to the nearest land. DUBUQUE's corpsman, doctor, and many crewmembers could not believe that the refugees were not going to be picked up - and some were angry about it.
A refugee desperately trying to climb monkey lines (lines held by boat crewmembers as their boat is lowered by a davit) to get on board was ordered shaken off into the sea. One swimming refugee allegedly drowned while trying to swim to the ship. Charges against Balian relating to these events were dropped.
Abandoned by DUBUQUE and misled into believing that another ship was coming for them, the remaining refugees drifted for another 19 days, resorting to cannibalism when supplies ran out. The Vietnamese had become so desperate that they drowned a boy, a young woman, and a man, then boiled and ate parts of their bodies. Two children who had starved were also cannibalized. They related this story to the fishermen, when they were rescued, and to Philippine authorities, when they reach land.
Found guilty of dereliction of duty for failing to give adequate aid to the refugees and awarded a career-ending Letter of Reprimand, Balian claimed that he had been made a "scapegoat" by the Navy and was "hung out to dry." The culprits, he said, were the Navy legal system in general and a young prosecutor in particular, along with unidentified Navy officials and an incompetent crew on his ship.
Interestingly, one Kafkaesque charge, apparently dropped later, was that Captain Balian had disobeyed orders and violated Navy policy when he left the refugees at sea! I do not know the details of what happened to that charge, but even I would have come from retirement to cry "Foul!" had that one stuck. I share Balian's disdain for the so-called "unidentified Navy Officials," who had for years ordered commanding officers not to pick up refugees.
Nevertheless, since the Nuremburg trials following World War II, claiming that you were just following orders has not been an effective defense against charges of performing inhumane acts or omissions. His court-martial helped to vindicate my own decision to disobey my orders. I was never reprimanded for my act. Rather, my entire crew was finally awarded that Humanitarian Service Medal - several years following the rescue.
Jacquelynne's e-mail 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 a pattern engineer for Adidas, also brought me up to date on the happy, successful lives their family has enjoyed in the US despite difficult, impoverished beginnings.
These refugees had to work hard to survive and prosper in America. The parents had to work half of each day earning money in menial jobs and studying English the rest of the day. Don Vu also received training and is now a skilled machinist. Don's brother is now 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 US 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 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 seventy "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 of this year, 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 wedding 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 pure and simple gratitude was ultimately so moving to me that they managed to bring a tear to my eye in front of the assembled guests at the reception.
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 the lucky prince and princess, Jacquelynne and Loc. The couple is planning on 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.
Footnote: At the wedding reception I had the opportunity to dance with the bride. Coincidentally, the song being played by the band was Gloria Gaynor's I Will Survive.
Refugee's on fantail of Morton by after gunmount at the 1982 rescue.
Below is Morton on return to Pearl 1982.
Notice Hawaiin Lei on bow of ship. This is a long tradition of greeting visitors and those returning to the island.
Vu family in 1982
Vu Family portrait about 2000. Proud Americans
Born in the USA
Kit is the new son of Jacquelynne Nguyen (nee Vu) who tracked USS MORTON down on the Internet to thank the crew for saving her and her family in 1982. I still think "Morton" would have been a nice name for him.