by: Mark Roberts
This essay was published in the Spring, 1988 Eastern Michigan University Honors
On rare occasions we have the opportunity to take part in events that have historical as well as personal significance. This is such a story, a true story of desperation.
In August 1978 I was stationed aboard the U.S. Navy frigate Whipple in the Gulf of Thailand. After completing a combined exercise with naval forces from many east Asian countries, the crew was looking forward to cruising alone to Hong Kong, our next scheduled port of call.
My duties aboard the Whipple revolved around the Combat Information Center (C.I.C.).
After departing Thailand on the 19th, the ship took a meandering course around the Vietnamese coast (no closer than 100 miles) for Hong Kong. We expected an uneventful trip. Indeed, the next 48 hours were quite somnolent. C.I.C. reported various small slow moving contacts to the bridge. But other than these few interruptions, we passed the time with trivial questions (these were pre-Trivial Pursuit days).
At a few minutes after 1:00pm, August 21, the lookouts sighted a small craft on the horizon dead ahead. The Officer Of the Deck, Mr. Harvey, asked us if we had anything on radar. Our reply was negative. As we got closer, lookouts sighted a banner with "S.O.S." Captain William C. Francis ordered the ship brought about and preparations were made to take the craft alongside.
With a bright sun and calm seas, this 50' craft tied up to Whipple for assistance. The boat's captain said that he had 126 Vietnamese aboard and that they were attempting to flee to Malaysia. Without food for five days, low on water, and a broken-down engine, they were desperate! Over the next three hours, food and water were transferred, repairs made to their engine, and various sailor hats, lighters, and other trinkets were given to these people riding the waves to a new life. The final touch was a nautical chart with their present position, a course to steer for Malaysia, and a report of fair weather ahead. At a few minutes before 5:00, amid cheers and whistles, the refugees cast off in their small boat with a renewed confidence for freedom.
The "mid" watch in the early hours of the 22nd went the same as before: various small radar contacts too far to see or signal interrupting our trivia games. At noon I repeated the routine of the previous day and took the first duty on the bridge. Just before 1:00 pm, lookouts sighted a small boat dead ahead on the horizon. Mr.Harvey strained to see the craft through his binoculars, but to no avail. What everyone did see though was the ominous dark blue shroud of an approaching storm from the same direction. Captain Francis was summoned to the bridge.
Upon his arrival, the captain, a few other sailors and I went out on the bridge wing to see for ourselves the condition of this boat. What we saw I will never forget for the rest of my life: literally hundreds of gaunt eyes staring up at us. In an open boat, over a hundred miles to the nearest land, and a storm now lashing the ship, [the captain ordered rescue stations].
The captain wanted photographs for the record. Ray Eason, the ship's official photographer, worked in C.I.C., so I was sent below to the radar console allowing Ray to scurry aft and take pictures. During the next three hours of rescue, I remained at the radar console in C.I.C.
The storm was now blowing winds at 35-40 knots, and seas would eventually rise to 10-12 feet. Stopped dead in the water, Whipple was now rolling at the mercy of the wind and swells.
Two sailors were outfitted in safety harnesses and suspended horizontally over the side of the ship. These two sailors literally risked life and limb as they drew near and plucked people from the boat in a swirling sea. In addition, nets were strung over the side and any refugee daring enough jumped for it.
There were however refugees who could not get aboard Whipple by these two methods. Among the refugees there was at least one pregnant young lady and a few seniors. For these people, a Coast Guard type rescue litter was sent over and they were hoisted aboard strapped and secured.
Meanwhile, up in the radar room, with pencils, plotting rulers, and coffee mugs tumbling about with each roll of the ship, we were busy tracking radar contacts. This task became all the more critical as visibility deteriorated to less than 500 yards. Situated in a busy section of the shipping lanes, we tracked numerous ships plying the South China Sea. At one point, we reported to the bridge a ship on a collision course with us. The captain sent a message over bridge-to-bridge radio for all vessels to steer clear. While all of this was occurring, I looked at my radar scope with a renewed scrutiny. At that moment, the previous 72 hours flashed before me: all of the small contacts since leaving Thailand; the boat people yesterday; and the drama now taking place. I looked at the radar scope again and a sudden chill raced through me.
On August 22, 1978, the crew of the U.S.S. Whipple rescued 410 Vietnamese refugees from a rickety 60' boat in a storm-tossed South China Sea. The rescue was performed without any injuries more serious than bruises. Of these 410, half were under the age of 16. As Whipple turned and dipped into the seas for Hong Kong, one of the English-speaking refugees sloshed through the radar room with an escort to the bridge for an interview with the captain. "After 3 days of hiding in the woods near Vung-Tao, four stormy days at sea, and growing cracks in the hull, they were waiting to die. In addition, not one of these individuals was a mariner. No one knew how to properly sail a vessel."
Two days later, Whipple entered Junk Bay, Hong Kong, and transferred our grateful guests to the U.N. High Commission for refugees. The incident attracted international attention and as such, members of the media were out in mass. The captain conducted a news conference on the flight deck and described the ordeal. Through mail from our families, we discovered later that we had the honor of Walter Cronkites's (and the nation's) attention back home.
The next day we were chased out of Hong Kong by a typhoon heading toward the colony. Indeed, Whipple and her crew spent the remainder of the year chasing aircraft carriers, and being chased by typhoons before returning home to Pearl Harbor just in time for Christmas. Upon our arrival, amid all of the holiday cards from home, the boat people we encountered on August 21st sent our crew a Christmas card from Malaysia telling us they made it safely...and thanks!
By the spring of 1979, the plight of the boat people had received enough international attention to prompt President Carter to order the 7th Fleet to seek out vessels in distress in the South China sea. Thailand was overwhelmed, Malaysia threatened to tow boats back out to sea.
And still...I personally could not fully comprehend why.
In the spring of 1985, I was the manager of a small neighborhood theater. Our attraction that spring was "The Killing Fields." It was the true story of one man's ordeal in attempting to flee Cambodia in the late 70's. In graphic detail the movie depicted the genocide that befell this subcontinent. I didn't come out of the office that night. Instead, my thoughts returned to a dimly lit radar room nearly seven years prior; pencils, rulers, coffee mugs tumbling about, and many small [boat] contacts in a turbulent South China sea.
Infant: Refugees maneuver an infant to the waiting arms of HTFN Smith.
When discussing the potential of the Internet, my favorite description is from a
I prefer to believe "...the neighborhood is getting bigger."
This past Saturday, I received one of the nicest E-mail's a person can get. Richard Chen was a 14 year old young man on August 22, 1978. He was also one of the 410 refugees rescued by the U.S.S. Whipple in a stormy South China Sea.
When I read the E-mail, no one was looking but I'm quite sure my jaw dropped. Then, a surge of wonderment swept through me.
After Whipple left Hong Kong, and in the subsequent 19 years, I wondered now-and-then what ever became of the people we left behind. Now I know of one. Since 1987, Richard is a citizen of the United States; Father Husband and the rest is for him to say...
September 10, 1997