Fall of Saigon, 2 — Thu Tran where are you?


Thu Tran, on right, next to the author, Atchison, Kansas 1981

The Vietnamese refugees, especially the “boat people” gave the world and the Americans a great witness to the love of liberty and provided testimony to the noble cause of freedom in South Vietnam. I assisted Thu Tran settle in Atchison, Kansas. He had been an enlisted man in the Navy and was an accomplished boat pilot. This brave man used his skills to pilot 28 people to freedom. In Kansas He worked hard and sent much of his money back to his father in South Vietnam through little goods and medicines he purchased at K-mart. The communists confiscated half and allowed his father to sell the rest on the black market. Thu Tran eventually headed west for Stockton, California and I went east to Illinois. I have lost touch with him. If any does know him, please have him contact me. I re-print below an essay he wrote for a class at the community college.

“The Sailing”

Following the end of the Vietnam War, Apr. 30, 1975, the liberty of South Vietnam was forced to die. Hence, thousands of South Vietnamese left their country with tears and pain to find freedom by walking through the jungles in Laos and Cambodia toward Thailand, or by sailing throughout the South China Sea toward the Philippines, Hong Kong, or crossing the Gulf of Siam toward Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia. As a person who loved to be free I had tried two times before I managed my last trip on Apr. 28, 1978 to escape from the Vietnamese Communist Government and sailed to Malaysia for freedom. In my life, I have had so many indelible memories, but the sailing that I had experienced across the Gulf of Siam by boat was one of the most indelible memories I have. It was impressed deeply in my memory because I had to pay its cost with pain, tears, and even fear of death, and because I was responsible for 28 lives seeking liberty through so many obstacles that could bring us back to communist political re-education camp or prison or even death by killing by the Thai, or Malaysian sea pirates, or by sea storms. It all started the very beginning of April, 1978, at Rach Gia, a city on the Southwest coast of Vietnam, in the Gulf of Siam. As local fishermen guessed that the sea would be calm during April until October each year, it was a good chance for us if we would sail at this time. An urgent plan was set up carefully because we had to do it on the sly, and materials were gathered such as fuel, medicine, compass, binoculars, and maps. We had to buy these on the black market with a high price and with the difficulty of hiding them from the government eyes. Finally, the materials which we needed for the trip, including food and water had been concealed in the boat by moving a small quantity each day.

The boat, which was used for the sailing, was old, 49 ft. long, 14 ft, wide, with a 22-hp. machine. It had been built just for sailing near the coast, not for sailing on the open sea a’ It was bought from fishermen with gold by the contributions of all the people on the trip. It took us almost a month to prepare for sailing. Finally we departed. According to my plan, the boat would sail normally just as many fishermen’s local boats starting on their fishing trips out of the port. We passed through the communist harbor patrol boats and control station, and then at night we would return to an appointed time and place to pick up companions. It was dark and without the moon on Apr. 28, 1978. The boat sailed out to the Gulf of Siam carrying 29 refugees aboard. There were 3 children, 5 women, and 21 men. I was the boat’s pilot because none of the men aboard could pilot or even sail the boat out to sea. We had 3 local fishermen on the boat, one of them was a mechanic. They could help me pilot the boat when we sailed alongside the coast, but they knew nothing about navigation when the boat operated on the sea. During the next day we were still in Vietnam territorial waters. we were still worried about being captured by the Vietnamese communist cruiser, and we were afraid of any type of boat even though smaller than our boat. At this time I thought of teaching the men aboard the basics of navigation and training them to be pilot assistants by teaching them how to read the compass and navigation map, and how to keep the direction of the boat when it passed through waves. Then after that I assigned the men aboard into 4 groups as I had been trained when I was in the South Vietnamese Navy . This idea brought me out of the problem that concerned me before: how could I pilot the boat reaching Singapore without pilot assistants ? Could I pilot the boat all day and night long though a week? Of course, I couldn’t do it without any pilot assistance. But now we could do it by all 4 groups aboard.

April 30, 1978 was the morning on the second day of the trip. I had waited for this time since the fall of Saigon, April 30, 1975. Three years I had lived in my country without freedom. Now freedom seemed to be appearing. Suddenly I felt my warm tears running down on my cheeks when I saw a figure of a commercial ship through the binoculars. It meant that we already had reached the international waters, and we would not be captured by the Vietnam communist cruiser. At mid-night, though, the boat stopped because the speed transmission box had been broken. After being repaired we continued sailing but now the problem was more oil required for the speed transmission box. This made us have to change the direction toward Thailand instead of Singapore because the oil now would not be enough to supply the boat to reach Singapore, but could be enough if we sailed toward Thailand. The fear of Thai sea-pirates suddenly increased inside all of us, especially the women and their husbands, because we now had to sail into the center of the pirate’s sea. Most of the people on the refugee boats crossing through the Gulf of Siam toward Thailand had been raped, killed or abducted by Thai pirates. There were few of them reaching freedom without meeting sea pirates. We knew that, but we had no choice ; on the other hand, we could die when the engine run out of oil and the boat run out of food, water, and the land still could not be seen.

May 1st, 1978 . Early morning on the third day of sailing, we saw a beacon on the route which we were going to sail to Thailand An hour later we recognized an American oil rig ship and we sailed toward it to ask for help . We were not allowed to climb up the ship but they gave us some oil, fuel, food, water, and showed us the new direction to reach the closest city of Thailand, Songkhla.

It was 30 minutes after sailing toward Songkhla from the American oil rig ship when a Thai pirate boat came to us. After robbing our property, they helped-tow our boat out of the pirate sea and toward their territorial waters. Hours later they left us and let us know the direction to reach Songkhla. Hence, we sailed nearly another day to arrive at Songkhla. But before we saw the land we passed through a sea storm which frightened us in the darkness of the sea . The boat was driven by the big waves; the engine stopped : the pump halted. The men aboard had to bail out the water inside of the boat with their hands until the next morning.

When the sun came up and the sea became calm, the engine was repaired, and then we continued sailing toward the land. We reached Songkhla at noon on the fourth day of the trip . It took more than 4 days to cross through the Gulf of Siam but the purpose still far away because at Songkhla’s port we met a Norwegian commercial ship and through the conversation with the sailors on board we knew that the Thai government at Songkhla wouldn’t accept any more refugees because the diplomatic situation between Thailand and “Red” Vietnam wouldn’t be good at all if Thai continued to welcome the Vietnamese political refugees. Then we had to change the direction again.

After receiving more food, fuel, oil, water and medicine from the Norwegian ship we continued sailing toward Singapore. This time we felt more safe than when crossing the gulf because we were sailing along Thai and Malaysian coast except for only one thing; that is we didn’t know much about this coast and its aqueous rock This situation could be dangerous to us if our boat might be sunk by aqueous rock. Finally, I decided that we would continue to sail along the coast by day . At night we would stop and rest. On the fifth day of the trip we passed the territorial waters between Thailand and Malaysia. On this night we rested in a small town on the Malaysian coast. On the sixth day of the sailing we were robbed once again by Malaysian fishermen just nearby the town where we had stopped last night. It made our spirits suddenly come down lower than ever. Now we were afraid of all boats, even though the boat might be smaller than our boat that appeared around us. Hence we had second thoughts and decided to stop at any place on the Malaysian coast that would accept us as political refugees . We knew that we would never reach Singapore as we wished, and the sailing would be stopped very soon on this day.

We reached Kuala Trengganu, W. Malaysia the afternoon on the sixth day of the sailing, May 4, 1978, right on the small island, Merang Refugee Camp, which the Malaysian Government built up for political refugees coming from Vietnam by boats. The camp had been sponsored by the United Nations, and when we landed on the beach the people in the camp poured out to watch us, because of wondering, and because of hoping to find their relatives . Reflecting upon their actions, suddenly I recalled the recent trip – sea pirates, sea storms. We were lucky to pass through them. But luck was not always possible. Maybe their relatives were not lucky enough to reach freedom and the Gulf of Siam could be their graves I suddenly felt salt on my lips; my warm tears were coming down. I followed the group led by Malaysian officers. Finally, I turned back and watched the boat and the sea while I thought “There is nothing dearer than human liberty.”

Thu T. Tran

“For the people who have loved liberty; And Remembering the people who lie dead under the Gulf of Siam”

College English IA Class Atchison, Kansas Highland Community College; October 3, 1982.

1 Comment
  1. This is such a moving story. I and my fiancee were fortunate not to have to escape by boat. However, she and her family were imprisoned for trying to escape. Eventually they found relatives to sponsor them to go to the U.S. Many refugees and immigrants like, Thu Tran, come here not only for an opportunity to be successful, but to live out the lives that they were given. This is the true meaning of freedom and every breath of life on free soil is something that I hope not to take for granted.

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