A FAREWELL TO MOTHERLAND
(30 April 1975)
by Thong Ba Le
The rain poured down when the fishing trawler was about to pass the intersection of Nha Be, Gia Dinh and Dong Nai on Saigon River. One branch of the river made a turn toward Cat Lai; the other one changed direction to the East Sea and later divided again into Long Tao and Soai Rap Rivers. The crowd consisted of people of all ages snuggled side by side under nylon tents, umbrellas, and raincoats to hide from the afternoon shower and strong wind blowing from the stern that helped to increase the speed of the big boat.
Finally, the short rainstorm began to stop and the blue sky gradually appeared after the gray-dark clouds slowly drifted away to the west. The sunrays pierced through the clouds and sunshine returned over the Vietnamese refugees who evacuated from the fallen city of Saigon.
From the direction of the Nha Be fuel depot, tens of South Vietnamese Navy gunboats were moving in a column formation. They were combat units of River Groups, Patrol Groups, or Special Mission Groups of the Navy Riverine Force. People aboard the fishing trawler were so surprised to see the gunboats with sailors in a state of combat heading toward Saigon. They wondered if the Commanding officer of the group was aware that Saigon had fallen and the North Vietnamese Communist now occupied the Republic of Vietnam’s Navy Headquarters. The South Vietnamese President, Duong Van Minh who came into office three days before, had surrendered to the Communists. It was about 1230 on April 30, 1975 and the refugees tried to signal to the sailors on these gunboats to turn around rather than continuing on to Saigon.
Within the group of boats, I stood on the deck of the CCB gunboat, which continued to report to the South Vietnamese Navy in Saigon for further instructions, because I could not establish communications with the Senior officers at headquarters. Last night, the heavy attack of the enemy’s 122mm-rockets heavily damaged and almost destroyed my base. I decided to lead all gunboats whose Commanding officers had left their units in previous days to go abroad with their families.
On the starboard side of the formation, I saw sailors taking off their flak jackets, navigating their small boats to follow big civilian ships, and trying to climb up the ropes to get aboard. They left their gunboats floating in the murky water of a historic river that witnessed the departure of the people from a defeated nation.
The nurse from my base came up from below deck and told me that General Duong Van Minh had just surrendered to the North Vietnamese Communist. He ordered all units to drop their weapons and to stop fighting against the enemy of the people. I could not believe what she had just said. Tears began to flow down my cheeks, blurring my eyes. I felt disgraced by the leaders; they were violating and taking away by force the honor of a proud nation. I was outraged as to what was happening to us, the sailors, who did not want to give up our ship. Only cowards who were afraid of death made such decisions. We were not afraid, especially of dying for our country, for the cause of Freedom and Democracy.
The Captain of the fishing trawler ordered his crew to a stop after navigating the vessel close to the Command and Control gunboat of his Navy friend. I saluted Captain C. when the two vessels got alongside. He told me about the bad situation in Saigon early this morning when he had to get underway in a hurry without a navigator aboard. Capt. C. was an engineering officer and had no experiences navigating the trawler out to sea. He also confirmed the surrender of President Duong Van Minh to the Communists.
Finally, he asked if I would be able to help him and the people on board to navigate the vessel through the Long Tao-Soai Rap River and guide it to the open sea. I hesitated a moment, then radioed to the skippers of the gunboats. I informed them of what Captain C. had told me including his request for me to navigate his vessel, which was well guarded by hired special force soldiers.
All my men advised me to take my family and get aboard the vessel to freedom; they would follow me after getting their own families. I felt conflicting emotions raising up inside of me as I sincerely thanked my comrades-at-arms that had fought valiantly during the enemy attack the previous night. I also apologized for not remaining with them until the end of this heartbreaking chapter in our nation’s history.
After saying good-bye and wishing one another good luck, we separated in opposite directions. I helped my wife, Minh, and our four young children to climb aboard the trawler while my comrades-at-arms continued their journey to the unknown future. I took the second in command and began to navigate the 300+ ton vessel with more than 200 people aboard including a Chinese-Vietnamese from Cho Lon district who bought this modified fishing trawler to escape for freedom.
We passed the Nha Be oil depot when the fire smoke from the Naval Support Base at Nha Be was still hanging thickly in the sky. I stopped the engines to recover my personnel from the base. Many of them decided to stay behind for different reasons. Some said that they had planned to find a way to the sea after they found their families. The Chinese and other passengers got all the Vietnamese “dong-piasters” that were no longer valuable to the refugees. The sailors gave them bags of rice and instant noodles. They said good-bye and good luck to one another, people whom had never met each other before and would never meet again in their lifetime.
Before they left, the sailors also told me that Viet Cong ambushed a merchant ship, Viet Nam Thuong Tin, on the Long Tao River, about half an hour ago at 1330. They shot rockets and killed many passengers aboard; among them was Mr. Chu Tu, one of the South Vietnamese famous writers. Having heard this, Captain C. and I decided to navigate the trawler through Soai Rap River instead of Long Tao River. Although it was more difficult to navigate through this shallow but wide river, it was also easy to observe and to avoid being hit by Communist B-40s set up ashore. One of the gunboat skippers gave us an Army map of the Vung Tau, Soai Rap area, and a few navigation aids. I needed those tools to help me fix and determine the position of the vessel because all I had before was a magnetic compass.
We got underway again at approximately 1415 hours and proceeded to the Soai Rap River, following the wake of the boats cruising ahead. There were all kinds of boats and vessels heading toward Vung Tau harbor. I saw many Landing Craft Utility (LCU) boats of the Army Transport Corps, several Landing Craft Mechanized (LCM), Landing Craft Vehicle Personnel (LCVP), and a few Patrol River Boats (PBR's) of the South Vietnamese Navy. I also glimpsed civilian junk boats, vessels, and others steaming at their maximum speed. The whole country was still upset and confused from losing their beloved homeland. The people were in a panic when they heard about the advancement of the North Vietnamese Communist toward the capital of the Republic of South Vietnam. They tried to find any seaworthy means to escape the dictatorship regime of the Communists.
The afternoon breeze blew softly from rows of low water palm trees on the riverbanks. The surface seemed to light up under the late afternoon sunshine, blinking with thousands of small imaginary stars reflected from the calm surface. A few long-necked cranes spread their wide wings, their shapes reflected in the smooth surface while sea birds slowly flew above the reeds along both sides of the river. Nature seemed to ignore the changing hand of a nation. It appeared normal to the eyes of the evacuees who already were aware of the events that caused them to leave behind their livelihood including their birth places, tombs of their ancestors, and their beloved ones. They also knew that anything that happened to them on this journey of destiny could affect their future. They were the refugees who escaped from communism to seek freedom for themselves and their families.
The fishing trawler continued its voyage to an unknown destination at sea. I reduced the speed to be safe in an unpredictable current over the varying depths of the Soai Rap River. We stopped our vessel from time to time and recovered people of all ages and from all classes of society from their small boats that were overloaded and sinking. The number of passengers increased when I saw the hilly sites of Vung Tau harbor with its white lighthouse on top the highest mountain. From time to time, helicopters from the lost SVN Air Force headed to the open sea toward the designated positions of the US Seventh Fleet waiting to receive South Vietnamese evacuees from the fallen capital city.
From the direction of the Cat Lo Naval Support Base, several vessels including LCU's, LCM's, and all kinds of gunboats and junk boats were hurriedly heading to the East Sea. Hundreds of small boats also rushed out from the Cuu Long (Mekong) River. Navy boats of the 4th Riverine Force followed fishing trawlers, merchant ships, or Navy ships to request permission to aboard because their gunboats were not sea-going vessels.
We stopped our trawler to rescue many passengers from sinking boats. As the sun was setting, we passed Vung Tau harbor. I maneuvered the vessel out of the channel and changed course toward the southeast. In order to get a possible fix on the ship, I used the old magnetic compass to get the bearing from Vung Tau’s lighthouse and used chopsticks to measure the distance on the map. We did not have navigation aids aboard. Captain C. said that in the last minute, the navigator who kept all navigating tools could not make it to the fishing trawler.
The crowded evacuees found room where they could. Some were seated, others standing side by side on the front deck, upper deck or lying next to the small conning station. There was no place to go and no room to move around. According to Capt. C., the number of passengers was approximately 400 compared to about 200 when the vessel stopped at Nha Be Naval Support Base at 1400 hours this afternoon. He also told me that in their rush to leave Saigon, they were short on diesel fuel. We needed to find a supply source to replenish the fuel in order to reach the US War ships of the Seventh Fleet in the open sea.
The sun had set behind the range of dark green trees ashore from the northwest, behind the lonely vessel heading eastward. The evening stars began to show their blinking lights in the purple petals of the universe. The long waves rolled toward the far away shoreline, one after another they rocked the boat back a forth comforting the Vietnamese refugees. Light rays from the Vung Tau lighthouse frequently pierced the dark night with their bright streams.
It was almost 2200 hours when the vessel drifted from Vung Tau. Beside the noisy sound of the engines and the whisper of the sea, the people were so quiet. They were deep in the thought of being on the exodus much like the people of Israel were looking for their land long ago. They kept their hope although they realized that the chance of being rescued in the East Sea was as likely as finding water in the desert. They would let destiny guide their lives and wait for the uncertainty of luck.
The evacuees were awakened by loud voices from the bridge. The person on watch reported to Capt. C. and me that there was a merchant ship about one nautical mile on the port side of our vessel. We maneuvered toward the big ship. When we were closer, Capt. C. used a loud speaker to talk with the Captain of the ship. Captain C. requested permission for everybody to get aboard the merchant ship. It was a South Korean vessel with homeport in Seoul. Its Captain, who spoke fluent English, denied our request because he did not have the authority to let people board. He sadly explained to us that because the fall of South Vietnam happened too quickly, his country as well as his Maritime Company did not yet have a policy or procedures in place to deal with the situation in Vietnam. Politics and national interests prevented them from reacting; the Republic of South Korea did not yet give orders to rescue Vietnamese refugees at sea.
The words from this Captain confirmed the abandonment of Vietnam of a previous allied country that had fought side by side to stop the aggression of the International Communist Party-Russia, China, and North Vietnam. The ideals of the Free World Community for Freedom and Democracy to all nations were limited to those who had the power to defend themselves against the Red Communists. When the time came, the weaker was the loser to the dictatorship because the Free World Community turned their back and refused to help due to their own interests.
I was angry at that thought and was very upset with myself for having devoted my whole life for the ideals that I believed. Many times, I was almost killed in combat, at the sea, north of seventeenth parallels or in the jungles near the Viet Cong secret zones at Quang Nam Province. Last night, I defended my base until the last minute of the unwanted war. Now, in the dark cool night in the middle of the East Sea, I found the first lesson of the truth. Everything was politics and for national interests, not for ideals or freedom fighters at all.
The South Korean Captain said a few nice words to comfort the evacuees then he changed course to north-northwest toward the direction of Hai Nam Island with engines all ahead full, and left the scene. He left behind, in the darkness of the night, 400 Vietnamese refugees aboard a small trawler that was running out of diesel fuel, drifting on the waves to find sources of oil from abandoned vessels in the mighty Pacific Ocean.
The clear sky on the first night in May 1975 was decorated with bright stars and a crescent moon in the western sky. Its pale streams could not light up this “Journey of Destiny” of desperate refugees aboard all types of seaworthy vessels heading toward the direction of the sunrise hoping that the US Navy War ships at sea would rescue them.
A rainy day in Virginia
(43 years after "The Fall Of Saigon")