The following true account of a courageous Vietnamese
River Boat officer will help you understand the meaning behind the words on the
Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless,
tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
The Journey Of Destiny
Thong Ba Le
The battle continued until daybreak then slowly ceased; one could only hear a few wayward gunshots from the distance. The enemy finally stopped
bombarding and they withdrew toward the direction of Thanh Tuy Ha ammunition depot. I radioed to the ambushed platoon leader who was still
holding the front when all units withdrew at 0300 hours. The Ensign reported that the base was intact and the enemy did not send ground
troops to attack the base. I informed the Commanding officer of the River Assault Group that I would return to the base with all personnel to re-group
before the enemy could launch another round of attacks.
My command gunboat got alongside the pier in front of the Naval Base headquarters at 0700 hours on April 30, 1975. As the sunbeams pierced
through the rosy clouds from the east, my crew disembarked ashore and prepared to go out to the defended posts again. Looking at the
destruction of my base caused by enemy rockets, the fires in some warehouses, the collapsed roof and walls of the generator house, I knew that
my base had suffered heavy damage. Nevertheless, I still believed that I could use all available means to continue to fight and to defend my Naval
Base. I ordered my communication officer to destroy all unnecessary confidential and secret materials along with the equipment and coding
machines. I then tried to communicate with Vietnamese Navy headquarters in Saigon for further instructions with the hope that it was still under
command of a few senior officers who had decided to stay behind and fight as I did.
After taking a quick tour around my base, I returned to the control center and was told that Saigon was in a panic and the Vietnamese Navy
headquarters did not respond. I worried about what was happening there then ordered the supply officer to open the food warehouses to distribute
rations, rice, and food to all retrieved units whose Commanding officers had left them and gone out to the sea to escape with others. Gunboats
such as PBR's, Monitors, LCM's, Scant Fom., etc., from different groups of the Riverine Forces withdrew to my base and took refuge with me.
At 10 am, while returning to the operation center, I suddenly heard running steps, noisy sounds of Hondas,
Vespas, and motorcycles rushing to the
main gate. Soldiers ran leaving behind their personal rifles and weapons all over the ground. I ordered them to stop to find out why they were
deserting. They informed me that the radio reported that Saigon was in chaos, and their families were in danger. There was nothing for them to
fight for and they requested permission to return home to their loved ones.
It was over. There was no one willing to fight because there was nothing for which to fight. The country was about to collapse under the
Vietnamese Communists. Their Commanding officers as well as the leaders of the government had long gone abroad with their wives and their
children aboard commercial airplanes or with the Vietnamese Navy Fleet.
I was so desperate, angry, and upset in my heart. Soon, all others had gone and there were only a few sailors staying behind with me and the
weapons that were scattered all over the cold ground of the Naval Base.
I looked toward the blue sky while tears of despair were running down my face.
The rain poured down when the fishing trawler was about to pass the intersection of Nha Be, Gia Dinh and Dong Nai on
the Saigon River. One branch of the river made a turn toward Cat Lai; the other one changed directions to the East Sea and later divided again into Long Tao and
Soi 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 Communists 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-Soi 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 Soi 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, Soi 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 Soi 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 Communists 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 hands 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 Soi 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
Cua Long (Mekong) River. Navy boats of the 4th Riverine Force followed fishing trawlers, merchant ships, or Navy ships to request permission to
come 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
when 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.
The fishing trawler changed course 90 degrees, heading to the area where I saw many boats and vessels of the RVN Army rushing out to the east.
We were about to reach that location after slowly zigzagging to look for abandoned LCUs floating in the water. The crescent moon still hung in the
starry sky above the starboard side of the ship.
A dark shadow appeared like a phantom rocking with the waves. The observer realized that it was a Landing Craft Utility and reported it to Captain
C. The Captain ordered the engineering NCO below to stop the engines. I carefully navigated the trawler alongside the ghost landing craft. There
were no living creatures aboard the vessel except pieces of luggage, clothing, shoes and food scattered all over the main deck. It was so dark, no
emergency lights of any kind. It seemed that the refugees left in a hurry to board floating pontoons or larger ships.
Captain C. gave the order to the young people to form a line from the trawler to the diesel tank of the
LCU. Under the search light from the bridge,
the group scooped oil from the tank with buckets and passed them along the line to dump into the fuel reservoir of the trawler.
The task progressed smoothly under the pale moonbeams in the direction of our homeland. In the cool quiet night, aboard an abandoned ship
somewhere in the East Sea, these people shared a common goal, and it was the determination to survive under difficult situations. The will to stay
alive so they would be rescued was so strong among strangers who never knew one another before the tragic event of their country. They joined
hands with one another and leaned against each other for support.
While their men passed buckets of diesel fuel along the human line, their spouses shared goods with one another on the front deck of the trawler.
The Chinese had brought silk fabric, valuable clothes, and other things with them. They gave homemade pajamas and sleepers to everyone aboard.
The humanity between people who had never met before warmed the hearts of the evacuees.
It was about 0400 hours on May 1, 1975. They had completed the mission of getting diesel fuel and the young men began to move barrels of fresh
water from the main deck of the LCU to the upper deck of the fishing trawler. Once it was done, I maneuvered the ship out from the abandoned
floating landing craft, and resumed course eastward with more speed than before. The LCU was seen undulating on top of the waves, rolling away
and disappearing in the darkness of the night to an unknown destination.
On the horizon, the first light of dawn began to color the clouds drifting across the sky. It was past 0500 hours and even the cool ocean breeze
could not comfort the sleepless people. Then the sun appeared slowly from below the pink horizon. Its sunrays created a multi-color shrine over the
ocean, like a stream of gold spreading on a blue carpet. The gold dust in the air
was blinking toward the depths of the boundless universe.
From the starboard side of the trawler, the refugees soon spotted the subtle shape of a US Destroyer. Everybody yelled and jumped on their feet.
It seemed that life had returned to the desperate evacuees. The atmosphere changed, people started talking to each other, and some even
prepared their belongings as to get ready to board the war ship. A few refugees prayed; others waived to the ship with towels, blankets, and
clothes to get attention of the crew members of the war ship. When I navigated the vessel closer, I noticed that there were many boats, junk
boats, fishing vessels, and sailboats surrounding the US ship but none was permitted near the Destroyer. As soon as I moved the trawler a little
closer, sailors aboard the war ship started shooting their M-16 rifles into the sky to chase us away.
Everybody was surprised and disappointed. They wondered what was going on, and then they all became very upset. The United States Navy
refused to assist the Vietnamese refugees and chased them away? Did the people of Saigon not say before April 30 that the US Seventh Fleet
would wait in the open sea to help the evacuees? Did the United States government order their war ships not allow the refugees? There were
questions after questions that worried the poor people who snuggled like sardines aboard the small vessels. They wondered what would happen to
them and their families if the US ships did not rescue them at sea. They became angry and started yelling at the unsympathetic sailors on the war
Then from nowhere, vessels of all kinds approached the scene and suddenly I saw that the US Destroyer was changing course, increasing speed,
and heading to the southeast. She left behind her, traces of white water pushing from propellers and tens of boats, trawlers, and junks with crying
human beings aboard.
Sorrow returned in my heart when I thought about the actions of this allied country, of the foreign policy that her leaders had followed and
implemented in Vietnam. They sent hundreds of thousands US soldiers to fight in an unconventional and limited war in a country smaller than
California. More than fifty-eight thousand brave young men from the US, died in the deep jungles of the Truong Son Mountains. Their dead bodies
floated in the muddy water of the Mekong River and their flesh and bones scattered over the ground of a poor and corrupted country. Then the
politicians decided to withdraw the US forces and abandon the Vietnamese soldiers, who had fought for freedom and democracy. They wanted to
end the costly war and to “save face.”
The sun had risen to the zenith; the warm air of the tropical East Sea bothered the crowded and sweating refugees. After a while, Captain C.
decided to change course and resume speed toward the international maritime route hoping that we would be able to meet merchant ships from
other nations that might rescue us.
The watchman reported to us that he had spotted on the port side, about five nautical miles, a high-speed vessel heading to our position. I looked
through the binoculars and noticed it was a Swift boat. Perhaps this Patrol Craft Fast
(PCF) was under the command of the Third Coastal Patrol
Force, stationed at Vung Tau.
When the vessel got closer to our trawler, a young Navy Lieutenant Junior Grade who was the skipper of the small patrol craft, requested
permission to board with three members of his crew. He told Captain C. that his 3000-gallon fuel tank was still mostly full and if the trawler towed
his boat, it would become a reserve asset for the trawler. We agreed and passed the line down to his crew and towed the PCF behind the stern.
The fishing trawler continued under the heat of the tropical sun. Onboard, refugees used nylon sheets, blankets, and towels to cover against the
penetrating sun. Suddenly, everybody heard the coughing sound of the engines. Then it became quiet. Captain C. rushed down to the engine room
and later came up to tell everybody that water was mixing with the diesel oil that the refugees obtained from the LCU the night before. It would
take a couple of hours to clean up before the engines would run again.
It was another piece of bad news for the dejected evacuees who began to realize the uncertainty of the journey for freedom that they had
chosen. Twice they were refused rescue by the ships of two previously allied countries. It was now at 1500 hours on the second day of the trip
that they still had not seen any other vessels in the radius of their position in the Pacific Ocean. As their ship drifted on the East Sea, at least
Mother Nature seemed kind to them by letting the sea remain calm during the past few days. Thanks to the good weather and smooth sailing, the
people did not get seasick and were not too tired.
About two hours later, the people aboard felt relief when they heard the sound of the engines starting. The ship began to move again toward the
horizon. I made an estimated fix on the map then asked Captain C. to release me for awhile so I could visit my family. I had not seen them since
the departure of the trawler from the Nha Be Naval Support Base. Before I left the bridge, I looked through the binoculars in all directions. First, I
saw nothing on the port side. As I moved to my right looking forward to starboard side, I spotted a trace of light smoke from the dark blue horizon.
My instincts told me that it would be the smoke coming out from the exhausted turrets of a seagoing vessel.
Captain C. also had seen the smoke and he ordered the skipper of the Swift boat that could run up to the speed of 25 knots, to prepare to
intercept the unknown target and request their assistance. We knew that the fishing trawler would not be able to catch up with the other ship
because of her slow speed. A Lieutenant Commander who spoke fluent English accompanied the four men crews on this hopeful mission. They used
rubber tires to cover the 81mm mortar and other 50 caliber machine guns of the gunboat to avoid any misunderstandings of being an attack boat.
They also hoisted a Red Cross flag on the flagpole to show the sign of SOS.
All eyes followed the patrol craft as it increased speed and prayed for the hope of being rescued. The shape of the Swift boat then disappeared on
the rolling waves, leaving behind questioning faces onboard the lonely fishing trawler that slowly followed the direction of the light cloud of smoke.
Finally, over half an hour later, the refugees stood up on their tired feet and jumped up and down with joy. In front of them, the big US ship rolled
in the waves and waited for the trawler. Beside the war ship, under the word AO, there was the PCF pitching slowly in the water. I moved to the
bow of the fishing trawler between the wall of happy people who pressed against one another to make way for me. Some patted my back to thank
me and congratulated me on my navigation skills that brought them to freedom. I humbly thanked them and proceeded slowly toward the ladder
leading to the front deck. On the front deck, I used a hand loudspeaker and expressed our gratitude to the Captain and crew of the Fleet Oiler that
had stopped and rescued over 400 refugees onboard this vessel. I requested permission for us to board the ship because of the unsafe conditions
on the trawler. The Executive Officer of the ship relayed the message from the Captain that the ship could not allow refugees to come aboard
because of security of the Oiler. However, the Captain already received the approval from his Chain of Command to tow this small vessel with all
refugees onboard to the Seventh Fleet station at sea.
When I reported the conversation to Captain C., he announced the good news on the loudspeaker. The crowd broke out a roar of joy. People
hugged each other; tears of joy immediately ran down their sunburned cheeks. Everybody now knew it was true that the United States Navy had
been waiting at sea, outside the Vietnam water territory to rescue evacuees from the fallen country. They were also sure that the Journey of
Destiny to Freedom was about to reach its destination. The Lord had protected and guided his people who did not want to live under the
dictatorship of the North Vietnamese Communists.
The universe began to drop its velvet petals over the vast ocean; stars were blinking above the big ship with a small vessel towed behind. The
evening sea breeze cooled off the heat of the East Sea and comforted the happy refugees. They smiled and talked to each other about the future,
some had already planned what they would do when they reached the land of opportunity in the Far West.
Then the chef of the US War ship served dinner to all the evacuees. Plates of hot rice, bean sprouts cooked in eggs and pork, fresh milk,
bananas, apples, and oranges were passed down from the stern of the Oiler to hungry refugees. During the last two days, they had only consumed instant
noodles and condensed milk. While enjoying the hot meal with my family, I tried not to think about the well-prepared
rescue plans of our friend, the United States of America. They had thought of everything including bean sprouts and fat pork meat to serve the Vietnamese evacuees. What
else should not we know of the whole picture of the falling of Saigon?
The plan to rescue hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese refugees in the first three days of May 1975 was a huge and well-organized rescue effort.
With hundred of ships and helicopters, and numerous agencies within all branches of the US
Armed Forces and government, America had shown the determination to accept their responsibility to deal with the Vietnamese refugees fleeing from their lost country.
On the early morning of May 2, 1975, my family and I stepped onto the ramp of the Landing Ship Tank
(LST), USS Barbour County with 400 other
refugees from the fishing trawler. I looked back to see the abandoned fishing trawler for the last time as it slowly drifted away with the undulating
waves. The trawler that I had helped to command since the afternoon of April 30, 1975 had carried my family and me to Freedom. I felt like losing a
good friend. Turning around as I carried my daughter, I then walked along with my family, behind the line of refugees to the checkpoint inside the
lower deck of the ship. Without further delay and according to plan, the Barbour County got underway at 1500 hours May 2, 1975, on the first
birthday of my youngest son, Le Ba Phuc.
There were hundreds of Vietnamese evacuees aboard the big ship, lying on the deck in the huge belly of the tank carrier. The people enjoyed three
hot nutritional meals a day. Breakfast consisted of omelets, cereals, fresh milk, and fruits. Lunch included hot dogs, hamburgers, French fries, and
cakes. In the evening, people received rice, meat, vegetables, bean sprouts, and ice cream for dessert.
The time went by, every day the refugees ate their meals then tried to get some sleep. In the early morning of May 6, 1975, the Landing Ship Tank
USS Barbour County reached the Philippines water territory. From the distance, the people saw the greenish mountain range on which the famous
resort, Baguio City was located. The morning fog still covered the blue ocean when the ship dropped its anchor in Subic Bay and all Vietnamese
refugees were told to get ready for the transfer ashore by small landing crafts. The Captain of the USS Barbour County said a few words of best
wishes to the refugees then we began to load ourselves onto small boats that
came along side the LST.
I stood barefoot on the hot deck of the small landing craft heading to the pier inside the bay. Tears blurred my eyes as I looked at the American
flag flying in the wind blowing from the sea. It was the same Stars and Stripes flag that I saw every morning adjacent to the Yellow with Three Red
Stripes South Vietnamese flag on the flagpole of the Coastal Security Service in Danang 10 years ago. I served for three years as Captain of Patrol
Torpedo Fast (PTF) in the Maritime Special Operation Force. This time, I felt in my spirit that this seemed like a different flag. I did not know from
where this feeling came. Perhaps the Journey of Destiny was the destiny for not only the 400 evacuees onboard the fishing trawler, but it would be
one of the Journeys of Destiny of my poor Mother land. Millions of young innocent, patriotic nationalists and courageous soldiers died to protect
those flags and sacrificed their lives for the cause of Freedom and Democracy for their homeland. Were those sacrifices in vain?
The cool ocean breeze could not comfort the wave of sorrow in the heart of this Vietnamese refugee. In less than seven days, destiny had
changed the life of a proud South Vietnamese Navy Officer into an unwanted political
asylum seeking refugee. The man had just lost his beloved country that he had fought and defended all his life and was about to face new challenges of struggling to survive in an unknown world.
Virginia, July 29, 2000
Thong Ba Le
Webmaster's note: Thong, I would say to you that
"Men do not die in vain who seek to preserve freedom for their fellow
inhabitants of this earth." Thank you for your service to your