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Vietnam 1981: America to the Rescue

By MarEx 2014-11-25 16:53:00

All of her life, Minh Vu had been told the story of how she came to live in Australia. Her parents told her they left Vietnam in 1981, in a small riverboat filled with other families. They were helpless at sea, attacked by pirates and desperate to keep the boat afloat for five days, when an American ship rescued the refugees and saved them all from nearly certain death.

But to Vu, it all seemed like a story, a fairy tale told to her as a child. Then she saw the film earlier this year. She watched as the SIU-crewed LNG Capricorn rescued a boat full of refugees, including herself at 2 years old, her brother and parents. A crew member had filmed the entire rescue operation, capturing the lucky escape on tape that until recently had been forgotten. 

But to the Vu family, the footage was much more than a record of a rescue: It was proof of a miracle. “The whole rescue was on tape, like a movie. It blew my mind. That fairy tale was real,” she said.

Australian broadcaster SBS2 put together a 10-minute feature on the rescue, including the old footage along with recent interviews. 

In the years after the war ended in 1975, thousands of North Vietnamese began fleeing the tyranny of the country. Some of these refugees attempted to travel to Australia, many by small boats that were unfit for ocean travel. The trip was perilous, and it is estimated by the UN High Commission for Refugees that up to 400,000 died attempting the transit.

The trip that the Vu family endured was filled with hardship. They were robbed by pirates, who took their gold jewelry, money, rice and other belongings. Two refugees were shot in the process. The tiny vessel was in grave need of assistance when the Capricorn arrived on the scene.

Ike Isenstadt, an officer aboard the Capricorn on that voyage, recalled the rescue: “It looked like a beat up old boat. It wasn’t really in good shape. I don’t think they would have made it if they’d got caught in a storm.”

Isenstadt continued, “There were 47 people on that boat. They were children, infants, youngsters, men and women. And there were three pregnant ladies, and it wasn’t easy to get them on … so our bosun threw a cargo net over the side, we got the ladies into the cargo net, and then we dragged the net up.”

The SIU crew included Bosun William Mitchell, ABs George Holland, Woodrow Shelton and Donald Walsh, OSs William Crane, Larry Lehner and Jamie Miller, QMs B. Hirsh, Brian Morron, Luther Myrex and John Quirke, QEs Walter Davidson, Ole Mortensen and Otis Sessions, Wiper W. Pender, Chief Steward Larry Dockwiller, Chief Cook Lawrence Conlon and UMMs Joseph Emidy, David Fuller and Roger Griswold.

After all of the survivors were on board the Capricorn, Isenstadt sent one of the crew members to sink the riverboat by chopping a hole in the bottom with a fire axe. The crew and refugees all gathered on deck to wave goodbye to the doomed craft.

“Bye-bye to my boat, and bye-bye Vietnam,” said Mr. Vu, Minh’s father.

Source: Seafarers International Union