The Vuong family, who fled postwar Vietnam on a rickety fishing boat, finally got the chance to thank the merchant seamen who found them at sea.
In June 1980, a family of five joined 57 other refugees fleeing political persecution in Vietnam aboard a rickety fishing boat for a risky journey across the South China Sea.
“If we stayed in Vietnam, we’d die separately, so I made a decision,” recalled Mai Tran, who with her husband, Thiem Vuong, took their three young children onto the boat. “If we died, we’d die together.”
The desperate passengers were among hundreds of Vietnamese refugees known as the boat people in the aftermath of the Vietnam War.
Ms. Tran’s daughter Lauren Vuong, now 45, was 7 at the time but remembers vividly the harrowing 10-day voyage that left passengers on the brink of death as a tropical storm raged and food, water and fuel dwindled.But at sunrise on June 29, 1980, a speck of salvation appeared on the horizon and grew larger. It was the L.N.G. Virgo, a 935-foot-long tanker whose crew rescued all 62 refugees, most of whom became American citizens.
Ms. Vuong, who is now a lawyer in San Francisco, spent years seeking her family’s rescuers, tracking down and scrutinizing maritime ship registries and logs, union rolls and other documents.On Saturday, she met them for the first time, after traveling from California with her family for a reunion of sorts at SUNY Maritime College at Fort Schuyler in the Bronx.
The Virgo was one of eight tankers operated by the Energy Transportation Corporation, now defunct, to carry liquefied natural gas from Indonesia to Japan. Retired seamen from the company gathered for a reunion last weekend and to attend an industry forum as well as the opening of a new shipping exhibition at the college’s Maritime Industry Museum.Over lunch, retired crew members told their story of the rescue, while the Vuongs recounted theirs.
After the Vietnam War ended in 1975, Mr. Vuong, who had served as an officer in the South Vietnamese Army, was imprisoned for four years by the Communist regime, leaving his wife, Mai Tran, to support their three children.
When Mr. Vuong was released into house arrest, Ms. Tran helped secure a 35-foot fishing boat, the Thang Loi, or “Victory” in Vietnamese. A prostitute was hired to get the boat’s operator drunk so that the refugees could kidnap him at gunpoint and force him to navigate the vessel, Ms. Vuong said.
At sea, Ms. Vuong recalled the fishing boat being swamped by walls of dark, salty water, and hearing the cries of passengers who seemed resigned to a watery death.
Ms. Tran said she helped make torches from clothing and remained awake at night watching for passing ships. Many passed, Ms. Vuong said, but only the Virgo stopped.
“My mom was crying and laughing at the same time,” Ms. Vuong said. “She said, ‘We’re going to live.’”
“My Don Walsh recounted being on morning watch on the deck of the Virgo and spotting the fishing boat. Larry O’Toole, the Virgo’s chief engineer, recalled pulling alongside the fishing boat and seeing that “their supplies were dwindling — they were at the end of their rope.”
Two engineers from the Virgo, Ken Nelson and Dan Hanson, were lowered to inspect the boat and saw women and children huddled in areas awash in excrement and vomit.
“You’d have to be inhuman to look at all those faces and just move on,” Mr. Hanson said.
Mr. Nelson said he notified the ship’s captain, Hartmann Schonn, by radio that “this ship is unseaworthy — we got to take them on board,” and then began lifting refugees from the boat up to Mr. Hanson on a gangway.
The Thang Loi was one of many refugee boats that Captain Schonn decided to stop for, some of his former crew members recalled.
Mattresses were kept on board for rescued refugees, and the captain took photographs of the refugees to post on the ship. He also had parties for the refugees before they disembarked and handed each family $10 out of his own pocket.“Not only had he saved our lives, but he didn’t want us to leave his care empty-handed,” Ms. Vuong said.
“It was his gift, for them to start a new life,” said Don McLendon, who served as Captain Schonn’s chief engineer during several rescues. “And I know it bought them meals in refugee camps.”
Captain Schonn died in 2000, but his widow, Karin Schonn, who traveled from Germany for the reunion, said he vowed to lead a charitable life after being pressed into service at age 14 as an antiaircraft gunner in the German Army during World War II.
He later immigrated to America, served in the United States Army, and then became a maritime captain known for saving refugees.“Sometimes he would go on search missions for them, diverting course when he thought he saw some speck on the horizon,” Mr. McLendon said.
Captain Schonn and others had the backing of company executives for rescues, according to Joseph Cuneo, a retired president for the company, who said that his firm’s ships picked up more than 2,000 Vietnamese boat people in all.
“It cost $100,000 a day to run these ships, so to divert one for a day is expensive, but we did it time and time again,” he said. “We delivered valuable cargo, but rescuing people and giving them a new life, you can’t match that.”
After two days on the Virgo, the Vuongs and the other refugees were taken by a United States Navy vessel to land. After spending several months in refugee camps in Singapore and Indonesia, they eventually settled in San Jose, Calif.After lunch on Saturday, the Virgo’s crew gave Ms. Vuong a baseball hat with the ship’s name on it.
“Thank you so much for saving us 37 years ago,” she said. “And for all the Vietnamese boat people, thank you.”