Bản ANH NGỮ do Chị THANH HƯƠNG, Úc ĐẠI LỢI, một thân hữu của Tạp Chí Dân Văn chuyển dịch.

 

An Escape from Saigon

 

CHAPTER 1

 

 

INTRODUCTION

 

This narration was posted on:

- Tập San Biệt Động Quân, volume 50, May 2017, California, USA.  3000 copies printed and sent to readers worldwide.

 

- Hon Viet UK Online in England (Please Google article to find great reads).

 

Prologue: The following condolences revealed a never-told-before an escape by sea for freedom directly from Saigon, 37 years ago.  Divulging it earlier would threaten those who would attempt to escape later by the Public Security Forces' unsleeping eyes, and they consequently would snatch everyone involved.  Since the escape by sea movement has ceased, this adventure is recounted in detail to attest first and foremost, to our great Samaritan, Dr. Rupert Neudeck, for saving our lives, and second, to share with Tạp Chí Dân Văn's readers, my friends and relatives.

 

Kondolenz von Le Thanh Tung aus Bochum

In tiefer Trauer:

Dr. Rupert Neudeck, Gründer der Hilfsorganisation Cap Anamur zur Rettung der vietnamesischen Bootsflüchtlinge, ist am 31.5.2016 von uns gegangen.

Durch seine selbstlose und unermüdliche Arbeit ist Herr Dr. Neudeck:

- für die vietnamesischen Katholiken ein Heiliger

- für die vietnamesischen Buddhisten ein Bodhisattva.

 

Die Hilfsorganisation Cap Anamur hat auf dem südchinesischen Meer über 11.300 Menschenleben gerettet. Heute, nach über 37 Jahren, verdanken ihm mehr als 70.000 vietnamesischstämmige Mitbürger ein Leben in Freiheit und Demokratie in Deutschland.

 

Möge die Seele Dr. Neudecks schnell ins Nirwana gelangen.

In ewiger Dankbarkeit..

Le Thanh Tung und Familie

 

A brief translation of Lê Thanh Tùng's letter of condolence on the passing of Dr. Rupert Neudeck in Bochum, Germany:

We were deeply saddened to learn:

Dr. Rupert Neudeck, the founder of Cap Anamur Foundation, a foundation to rescue the Vietnamese who fled by sea to freedom has returned to the dust on May 31, 2016.

- For Catholics, he was a Saint. For Buddhists, he was a Bodhisattva for his humanitarian work.

 

Cap Anamur has rescued more than 11,300 people on the East Sea. Now after 37 years, their relatives have reunited and grown up, bringing the total to more than 70,000 people living in the free and democratic Germany.

We pray that Dr. Neudeck's soul will soon return to Heaven.

 

Respectfully,

 

Lê Thanh Tùng and family

 

Crossed the sea by boat, from Saigon Capital. Traveled by river to Vung Tau estuary on April 26, 1980. Were rescued by the ship Cap Anamur at 10:47, on May 1, 1980.

-------------------------------------------------

 

In the 80s of the last century, it was very difficult to undertake a perilous escape by boat to find freedom directly from Saigon, because of the hooligans' tightly governance. The regional police always watched people's homes. The non-official plan to leave the country organized by the police was no longer as rampant as in 1978-1979. Until now, in the Boat People history, there was no other boat that left Saigon Capital straight from its rivers and canals as we did with 45 passengers onboard. This voyage's coordinator dedicates their journey to readers, friends near and far.

 

The reason I clearly stated in the condolence letter was my desire to make friends with people who organized sea crossings by boat directly from Saigon as I did. Thus, no one who left by boat from Saigon had contacted me. But out of curiosity, many people emailed asking me to reveal my escape.

 

The distance from Saigon to Vũng Tàu is 120 km (approximately 80 miles), and it is longer by boat due to meandering and placid rivulets. The police patrol boats often went to and fro to control and swindle the commercial boats owners. Hence, we must be careful throughout the voyage. It would be our demise if the police stopped a boat full of people attempting to flee to freedom! Everyone would go to glasshouse, and the organizer would never have a date to return.

 

I wish to sincerely apologize to my dear friends who were also my fellow military members, including Nguyễn Hữu Huấn1, a neighbor in Ḥa Hưng, for not mentioning about my escape from the Capital Saigon through Saigon River and Vũng Tàu estuary during the 37-year living in Germany (they had many opportunities to divulge this information because we had many intimate get-togethers). I saw him again on the deck of the Cap Anamur on May 1980 shortly after his rescue. The reason I kept this information a secret was because if the communist police knew about our plans, they would invariably seize all those future boat people who would follow suit.

 

The Cap Anamur has rescued the following:

- Cap Anamur I consisted of many tours, from September 1979 to May 1982: 192 boats, 9507 people.

- Cap Anamur II, from March 1986 to June 1986: 18 boats, 888 people.

- Cap Anamur III, from April 1987 to June 1987: 14 boats, 905 people.

 

In total, the three ships of Cap Anamur Committee had rescued 11,300 people from 226 boats. Please note that for those who were under 18 years old they would be sponsored and reunited with their families and the German government would cover all reunification expenses.

 

I brought with me two nieces and they later sponsored their parents and siblings. There were seven total in each family. We did not pay for airfare.  When they arrived in Germany, everyone received social services as a boost to help them to be economically self-sufficient.  Many people noticed how generous Germany was. They all said that these Boat People were born with a silver spoon in their mouth for receiving such great fortune.  St. Neudeck's altruism will be forever in the hearts of all boat people who must leave the blood thirsty dictatorship communist government --- this was a one in a million chance of survival!

 

After 37 years, (1978-2016), reunifying family members had increased to approximately 70,000 people, including many who had succeeded in education, such as anh chị Nguyễn Đức Tru. All of their five children (three sons and two daughters) became physicians and pharmacists. Lê Thanh Tùng in Bochum has four daughters. They all graduated from college, had social status and great jobs in different occupations.

 

Trương Ngọc Than, a passenger on my boat had recently owned a pharmacy in Minden, NRW, Germany. Nguyễn Hữu Hoàng, used to be a geological engineer in VN, immigrated to Germany, had changed his occupation to become a physician.  He now works at a hospital at Menden.  The Phạm văn Hóa's family, surrounded and almost attacked by three pirate boats, were rescued just in time by one of the Cap Anamur ships. Their daughters were four and five then. Now, they finished college. One of them, Thanh Trúc, a young attorney was the official host at the Memorial of Boat People inauguration on September 12, 2009, near Hamburg Port. More noteworthy, Lê Vinh Hiệp, a boat person had become a Pharmacy Corps/Colonel of the German Army. There are many more interesting facts, such as ĐĐ Thích Hạnh Giỏi, a boat person, a residence at Viên Giác Temple and a college graduate, had shaved his head and became a monk. He was encouraged by Master Trích Như Điển to strive to obtain higher education about Buddhism in India. He graduated with a Ph.D. in Buddhism.

 

I have only cited a few examples.  Surely, there are many more boat people's descendants who received great results in education.  The Catholic Church benefited greatly from the rescues of many boat people by the Cap Anamur on the East Sea --- many men became new Catholic priests. I have a chance to get to know and befriended some of these pious new Catholic priests, although I am not Catholic myself.

 

 

CHAPTER 2

 

SEEKING A WAY TO LEAVE

 

Five years living with the red devils has gone quickly. My mother's passing on February 8, 1979 prompted me to find a way to escape.  My three daughters would not have obtained higher education because their father was a refugee in 1954 and an officer of the Republic of Viet Nam. They surely would be oppressed in the communist system where there was no equal education and employment opportunities. The communists verify three generations curriculum vitae for any job or education application, in addition to the discriminatory “hồng hơn chuyên” slogan (being a communist party member is more crucial than having a career or education).

 

I myself was employed at Saigon Thủy Cục (Saigon Water District) now changed to Công Ty Cấp Nước. In June 1976, I was forced to give up working and forced to relocate in the New Economic Zones.  The new regime's aftermath set off a cascade events on my family's life. It was a despicable retribution from the government that always propagandized clemency and altruism to previous government citizens.

 

I got discharged from military from an injury and was rated 70 percent disabled while Saigon Water Department (SWD) an autonomous company had an opening for a controller / cashier. Comparing the salaries between this position and that of a Lieutenant, it was higher. I applied using Veterans Preference Points and was placed highest on the list of five and appointed to work at Chợ Lớn.  After three months I requested transfer to employment closer to my home. 

 

Saigon Water Department had divisions in Saigon, Chợ Lớn and Gia Định in addition to Thu Duc Water Plan.  After April 30, 1975, the barbarous band took over SWD and changed its name to Water Distribution Company. Besides doing the same duties, they had me train two new employees from the North.  I felt reluctant, but I might get reprimanded otherwise. All employees must attend the “re-education” program for a month.  At the end of the training, we received a certificate. It helped me obtain a pass to go across many Western provinces searching for a way to escape. 

 

In a tumultuous time where cheating and lying was a way of life, many people lost their gold and got apprehended because their escape plan was ruined. Knowing this fact did not discourage me. One time, my brother-in-law and I went to Vũng Tàu to spend a night at a fisherman house who was the in-law of my father-in-law to plan an escape. Unfortunately, he would not dare to harbor us, because the regional communist police ransacked every house all the time and would interrogate any stranger, they noticed was new to the area. As outsiders, it was impossible for us to materialize an escape plan there. 

 

On the way back to Saigon, we stopped at Rạch Dừa, Bà Rịa to visit a friend. He let us know how problematic it was for a fishing boat to leave the shore because of regular communist police surveillance. In general, fishing villages were added in the black book and the communist police always kept an eagle eye on them.

 

If a prearrangement had no complications, the escapees would make it. But sometimes, different groups fought each other to carve up the lucrative market of “selling a beach” to prospective escapees and the boat owner ended up being affected by this infighting. Besides losing the gold (used to “buy a beach”) they dared not to report or sue.  My nephew-in-law shared with us his successful voyage. In 1979 he took a bus to Vũng Tàu and someone led him to the fishing village Phước Tỉnh. They talked loudly while travelling publicly by day. Young men carried big bags of Buddhist prayer books and Buddha statue which were brought safely to the free world. This was a safe journey because the coordinator had bought “the beach”. One of the passengers, a nun named Thích Nữ Diệu Hạnh, now presides at a temple in Barntrup, Germany.

 

Not everyone had that luck. My friend Dương Phục and his wife Vũ Thanh Thủy only succeeded after 14 trials. They now work at Radio Houston, Texas.  Thanks to his wife's family who made it to the US and sent home money so they could afford to pay for 13 unsuccessful trips and their boat sailed on their 14th time.  Unfortunately, they had been brutally attacked by pirates. Their ordeals were revealed in a 700-page T́nh Yêu Ngục Tù & Vượt Biên, written in 35 years after the Fall of Saigon to reveal to the world what beyond-imagined atrocities they had experienced.

 

I struggled finding a way to escape in many provinces along the Mekong Delta but to no avail, because I did not know any local. So, after four months I had to return to Saigon to look for a different route.

 

Later I visited my uncle at Khuông Việt, Ngă Ba Ông Tạ.  His wife asked me about my plans.  I told her that generally, it was not easy because there was so many scams involving escaping by boat. The damage that resulted from not being able to differentiate between a swindler and an honest person would end up money and human life losses. My aunt told me that her next-door neighbor's uncle had a boat and earned a living by cutting lumber into logs and transported them from Vũng Tàu to Saigon. His daughters had been driven boats since April 30, 1975. They were very familiar with the canals as the patrol post's location were like the back of their hands.  Thank God, help came just in the nick of time. I asked my aunt to introduce me to Sơn, her neighbor and asked to meet Hoàng Văn Vân, a widower and owner of the logging boat.  I told him I will let him know the time and date.  On the date mentioned, I met cordially at Sơn's place. We agreed that I would buy a boat, an engine, and other expenses. In return, Vân and his 10 children will come with us for free.

 

BOAT and ENGINE PURCHASES

 

Vân's eldest son, Hoàng Văn Sự took me to Thủ Đức to purchase a good quality round nose river boat with no engine, 11-meter long by 3-meter wide. I learned that seaworthy vessels should have Thailand boat sharp bow to plough through waves.  But if the communist police caught your round-bow boat, they would grill you in a flash.  I decided to buy Vân's boat with 37.50-gram gold bar (1 lượng).  Vân handled me an unnotarized receipt. I asked him to secure my boat behind his house, adjacent to Nhiêu Lộc canal, Ḥa B́nh ấp, near Ngă Ba Ông Tạ.

 

The next item on my agenda was to find a boat mechanic to install the engine for my boat. I made some inquiries of some boatowners whose way of earning a living was to ship goods up and down the IV Corps (the 16 southern provinces in the Mekong River Delta area) and Saigon. I got introduced to Chú Bẩy Chợ Quán who lived in front of Chợ Quán Hospital.  A canal behind his house runs along Bridge Y and Bridge Rạch Ông. I candidly told him about my escape plans and asked him if he could mount the engine.  He wanted to inspect the boat before he offered his assistance. The following day, I returned with the boat tethering underneath his floating house.

 

Chú Bảy observed the boat and said it was in good condition. With its dimensions it only needed a one-block silver head Yamaha. I agreed.  In the following days I gave him 187.50-gram gold bar (5 lượng) without any receipt. Living with the communists for five years, I knew that the Saigonese abhorred the barbaric bumpkins. They did not hesitate to openly reveal their escape intention.  Everyone was honest with one another. I myself always aim to be loyal with others. Therefore, when founding Tạp Chí Dân Văn I chose the pen name Lư Trung Tín.

 

One of the main reasons why there were no receipts exchanged involving illegal businesses was because if the kleptocratic followers found out, both parties would be punished. For everyone's benefits, the oppressed dealt with one another with true hearts.

 

In one week, the engine was installed.  I visited Bảy every day.  He treated me with a meal and the more we talked the more we got along, especially about the new regime.  I asked him to leave the country with me, but he refused because he was waiting to leave with his own big family. Though he wished me a lot of luck.  Exactly seven days later, the installation was completed. We agreed on a delivery date. I was satisfied with the engine performance and handed my boat to my brother-in-law named Trân Văn Vinh to keep and drive, so I could plan the next phase of my escape plans.

 

SELECTING TRUSTING CO-JOURNEYERS & NAVY BASIC TRAINING

 

Now, I finally have a boat that is ready to sail. I needed to find a person to whom I can trust to safeguard it. I had to remain ashore to plan everything else.  I had five adult brothers-in-law who lived in Saigon and Biên Ḥa. The youngest, Trần Hoàng Minh, was fulfilling his military obligation in Cambodia. I am the youngest and only had one carefree cousin. Therefore, I could not entrust him in an important matter.  Finally, I chose Trần Văn Vinh.  We went for a coffee, and I asked him to join me to escape by sea directly from Saigon. He agreed with neither hesitation nor inquiry. Now with one concern settled, I had finally found a trusting person to secure the boat until we departed. I instructed Vinh to drive the boat back and forth on the Saigon River to Vũng Tàu estuary. He also needed to observe and pinpoint the communist patrol checkpoints. Later, Vinh disclosed that he knew these checkpoints by heart.

 

About a week, he would drive to Saigon to purchase foods and water, then to Vũng Tàu, cut some firewood and transported them to Hoàng Văn Vân. To drive the boat required at least two people. It was decided that either Hoàng Văn Quỳnh, Trần Văn Vinh, or Hoàng Văn Mục would be the designated captain. Sometimes they would include my cousin Lê Quang Đĩnh to join them so he would acclimate to the torrential heavy weather.  Vân's sons took turn to join in pair to train Vinh, although he had never piloted a boat sailing through a canal.

 

Although the crew had completed, the organizer must have a minimum of seafaring knowledge. I thought about Nguyễn Gia Bảo, my younger brother's dear friend who was trained at Thu Duc Infantry Officer Academy with me. Bảo graduated Class 24 at Dong De Academy Nha Trang. He was imprisoned only one year in the re-educated camp and then stayed with his sister-in-law who was my foster sister. When she visited me at the Academy, I introduced her to my best friend Nguyễn Thiện Tường and they got married. Upon graduation, Tường chose Armored Corps; I selected ARVN Ranger. We both graduated 18 days before 1968 Tet offensive. After graduation, Tường and I continuously were put on patrol or training (he was with Corps II and I at Corps III). During the offensive, I fought in a battle right in Chợ Lớn. We never saw each other. Then April 30, 1975, abruptly arrived. Tường got imprisoned. Since I became handicapped from an injury before Paris Peace Accord in 1972, I was dismissed from re-education camp and was “re-educated” one month at Saigon Water District, where I later was put to work. 

 

In 2010, after participating in the 50th Anniversary of VNCH Armored Corps Founding Day in California, I visited friends and relatives in many states. At Camden, NY I saw Trần Văn Nam, my brother-in-law who was imprisoned eight years in labor camps in the North. Now, in his wheelchair he “day and night” partakes in protest against the communists in New York, Washington, waving three horizontal red stripes on a yellow background flag.

 

I flew to Orlando, Florida to visit Nguyễn Thiện Tường and his family. Until July 2010, we have not seen each other since Thu Duc Academy Class 25 graduation in January 1968.  More than 42 years have passed, after many changes and abuses by the communist beasts, we now had a chance to meet and revisited many memories of past. The next flight brought my wife and me to Denver, Colorado to see Huỳnh Lập Quốc. Quốc and I were in the same Class at Thu Duc Academy. Because only two of us joined the 51st Battalion ARVN Ranger, we were close friends. I got out of the military because of an injury. Quốc continued to be in the military until the end of our Democracy. I have never known what happened to Quốc, a Soc Trang native after the Black April. Only for the last few years, thanks to the ARVN Ranger Alumni, I reconnected with Quốc and asked him to join me in at a Gala in California.

 

When Tường was still in re-education camp in Corps II, I visited Tường's family and saw Bảo. I asked Bảo, a Navy Second Lieutenant to come to my house to teach me about sea travelling fundamental lessons. He fervently came and closed the door and showed me in detail how to look at the stars, to measure the speed of the boat, to calculate the waves height, to read a map, compass ... After a week, I grasped the lessons. Being an Infantry officer graduate, reading a map or a compass was no problem to me. I was more confident learning the seafaring fundamental lessons from Bảo, to lead a small boat to escape at sea for freedom, accepting all dangers with a sheer chance of survival.

 

I appreciated Nguyễn Gia Bảo's enthusiastic tutoring when he personally boarded the boat at Bạch Đằng Wharf to measure its speed, test drove it in a very long distance and explained thoroughly every question I posed about going by sea with this small boat. Naturally, to him fishing boats was not devised to be used in the open sea.

 

I asked Bảo to come along, but his mother advised against it, because his family just had a very sad news. His wife's two younger siblings had perished at sea. Their boat was destroyed when it rammed into a coral reef. Only two survived who later announced the dreadful news. We all have seen classified ads in newspapers and other forms of social platforms finding lost loved ones. According to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, between 200,000 and 400,000 boat people have died at sea, an estimate that only 1/4 had escaped successfully. In the history of Vietnam for thousands of years, there has never been a time when the number of people who tried to escape to find freedom died in the process as greatly as this time. Since April 30, 1975 they rather died than lived under a hideous regime. This is the reality of our history. Historians must write it into our ancestry's history so it will be reserved forever.

 

DEPARTURE PREPAREDNESS

 

I needed to buy supplies for the journey such as maps (purchased from an acquaintance in District V), compass (at a cost of 37.50-gram gold bar, popular in the Republic of VN Navy, had to be inspected at the vendor's site before purchase), alimentation, 300 liters of water, roughly 300 liters of motor oil, 100 bags of dehydrated rice (from Kim Biên Market), 100 kgs jicama (from Cầu Muối market), 3 flares, a K54 pistol (hidden inside a box made by me, inside the boat) and 2 clips of ammos for self-protection.

 

From this clandestine scheme, I had to purchase the supplies myself, except for the last three items which I asked my cousin Hà Văn Cường to get. He and I have never met, because I followed my family to relocate to the South VN on May 2nd, 1954. He was a commercial agent and had been assigned to Saigon for a business assignment. When he arrived at my mother's house, I was summoned to come home. Upon seeing me, he asked, “Being an officer of previous government, why didn't you leave? Pretty soon, retributions will be poured down upon you!”  Precisely. The new government exploited me until June 1976, forced me to resign and subsequently, the new economic zone became a reality for those left behind.

 

I shared with him the plans I have devised to organize an escape. He completely agreed and assisted me in any way he could without any concern if the plots were exposed. He also advised me to be cautious and alert to outwit the ward and commune police.

 

To help passengers drink water easily from the barrels, I torch cut them in half, closed them before installing a faucet on the top. They fit snuggly under the boat cabin for seating.

 

Before the trek, all of the supplies were transferred onto the boat. I instructed Vinh to moor the boat in various places because it was not practical to tie it up by his house near the canals. This plan was wise since Thị Nghè market was busy with the hustle and bustle of boats moving products all day, thus, the communist police could not inspect thoroughly. Otherwise, if the boat were too apparent the district police would promptly detect it and cause us trouble.

 

Overall, this scheme was totally illicit. It was covert from beginning to the end. The fewer people knew, the better. I was the only one who made decisions on everything. My hair turned white the day I became a boatowner! No wonder as I had to continually think and plot the escape in order to outsmart the watchful eye of the communist police. I always applied surprised element to circumvent the police and my brother-in-law Trần Văn Vinh followed exactly my orders. Only my brother-in-law knew about the pickup site. He would embark a few individuals at a time on a single engine outboard boat, used as a taxi, then transport them to the rendezvous, our main boat.

 

A COUPLE of FAILED ATTEMPTS

 

One day Vinh came see me saying that he and the twelve-year-old Hoàng Văn Hàn were arrested. The patrol troops had suspected their logging boat was also used to transport escapees and cruelly beat them. Vinh and Hàn insisted on telling them that they were poor and cutting lumber from logs was their livelihood. For the last four years, since the Black April, Hàn had been working on a logging boat and knew every nook and cranny from Saigon to the Vũng Tàu passage. They had to bribe the communist police two cans of oil to get released.

 

Realizing the communist police suspicion, I decided to depart promptly. We left Vũng Tàu on the 23rd of 1980 Tết.  Everybody got seasick from the northeast winds accompanied by strong gusts. Except me, the crew was debilitated because these men have never been trained in the military. Unassisted, I had no choice but turned around, a rational decision. By 7 am, we arrived at Saigon River. I dropped anchor at Long Kiểng pier at Quận 4 (District 4) in Khánh Hội, brimming with merchant boats transporting goods and produce to buyers in Saigon. Everyone disembarked safely. Not one person got hassled. Vinh hid the boat.  

 

The following were three ideal places to anchor boats, load goods and essentials for the journey, hence the communist police had a hard time to control the area; in addition, merchants paid little heed to folks around:

- Thị Nghè market, by Nhiêu Lộc canal, adjacent from Chuồng Voi (Elephant enclosure) in Sở Thú (the Zoo), always packed with retailers and busy commercial boat traffic by Nhiêu Lộc canal. Therefore, the communist police did not patrol the area as heavily as they did in the neighborhoods.

- Long Kiểng wharf was as busy as Thị Nghè market. Regional police was there to seek for small briberies and reluctant sellers gave them some fruits or packages of rice paper.

- Cầu Muối market. A hustle and bustle place. The regional police would not dare to mess with foul-mouthed sellers and buyers here, because they were the most callous crowd in Saigon. I bought a ton of jicama there with no trouble. 

 

In order to organize the escape, I hung out in many towns to find out where was the best place to leave without getting the communist police's attention. Finally, I decided on a site. This decision was made by me alone, and no one, even my wife knew about the escape plan.

 

Riding around town on my wife's red Honda I wore a pair of black pants, a black shirt, and a pith helmet with the K54 tucked in my waistband. I would not dare to leave it at my parents'. If the police checked their household registration and detected it, they would be in big trouble.

 

Impersonating a Northern man, I used Northern 75 dialect when I must speak to the communist police. Observing my behavior people thought I recently arrived from Saigon from the North.

 

Exactly on February 8, 1980 (a week before Tet) taking advantage of the Lunar New Year, when the communist police was busy greeting the New Year with their families, we left Vũng Tàu the first time. But due to vigorous waves we had to turn back. Afterwards, concerning for the area police detection, I decided to abandon our house in the housing project Công Ty Cấp Nước (Saigon Thủy Cục). Everyone temporarily stayed at my mother-in-law's. It was located on the Biên Ḥa Freeway, where no one was aware of our presence.

 

Exhausted from the failed departure, I fell asleep. Then in my dream, someone reminded me that it was my mother's first death anniversary. Awaken quickly I took my wife and children on her Honda to my dad's on Tô Hiến Thành street, District 10, less than 100 meters from the ARVN Ranger Headquarters in Ḥa Hưng. I wished to assert that I did not remember my mother's anniversary that day. I genuflected in front of her photo, prayed to her for my family safe journey. Unaware her father was the organizer; my eldest daughter recounted our escape in every detail. If you would like to have her journal, please email me at lytrungtin.de@gmail.com

 

On the second attempt, we also left Saigon at sunrise. The communist police unknowingly guarded on top of Tân Thuận bridge while our taxi boat picked up six people at a time, at the bottom, and transferred them to the main boat anchoring in a dense canal. Again, strong winds and choppy seas forced us to sail back.

 

Now, thinking back after 37 years, the fact that I brought 45 people to freedom was a blessing I received from my dear and religious mother. Especially during the two failed operations, when we had to return at 7 a.m. to Saigon from Vũng Tàu. The foods and water were untouched. The K54, two clips of bullets and three flares were safe and sound in the boat hiding place. Someone must have covered the communist police's eyes for they did not see a boat full of people coasting to a stop at the foot of Calmet bridge disembarking passengers. Probably I used the surprised element, and no one would have guessed that it was a failed-escape boat.

 

THREE TIMES IS A CHARM

 

On the previous two occasions, we picked up escapees in daylight, but on the third time, we picked them up at nightfall.

 

Being a city dweller all my life, I had zero experience in seafaring, except the times I crossed rivers and streams searching for the VC after joining the Military.

 

Because the strong waves knocked over the bow completely. It needed repair. Our boat remained in Rạch Giá for replacement. Strong metal and sockets were screwed into the boat gunwales with clamps. The cost was 75-gram gold bar.  I noticed the locals were kindhearted. The boat damage obviously disclose that we had returned from the sea, but they did not notify the police. After a week staying on dry land, the boat was launched. Vinh drove it directly to Thị Nghè market, and then moored it by Thanh Đa Housing Project. During a week of recuperation, I planned a third trip.

 

Before the first trip, I divided the remaining pure gold into three parts. One part went to my wife's and my parents. In case we made it to the free world, they would use it to live the rest of their lives. If we were arrested from failing the escape, they could use the gold to get out of prison. The four parents now are only three because my mother has passed away.

 

After my mother's first death anniversary, I asked my wife to ask her in-law (who was a fisherman) what was the best time to leave to sea. He said for a river boat, the best time was around March or April during lunar year. The other months the waves were too ferocious. But during calm season, surely the patrols would patrol more strictly. Therefore, we had to plan carefully so we could safely leave. The Saigon-Vũng Tàu route seem so far away. Both sides of the river was full of dense vegetations. The patrollers had two ships with strong horsepower, often patrolled this section to inspect the boats and making money from bribing the innocent people transporting goods from District 4 to the capital. Fortunately, there were many small canals the boat could hide in.

 

My wife and our children and Vinh's wife embarked the main boat at Thị Nghè market. Then the boat anchored under Mỹ Cảnh's restaurant, next to Thủ Thiêm's dock, to wait for the taxi boats bringing more people. In half an hour, our boat anchored. In the restaurant and by the harbor, people were still eating, drinking, and chatting noisily. No one ever had guessed that there was a boat with 45 people departing to freedom at exactly 8 pm on April 26, 1980.

 

This time, I applied tactics as combattants during the war, searching for VC. In their outboard motored canoe, scouting ahead of the main boat about one nautical mile would be Vinh and Hà. When identifying threats, they instantly retrieved and sent Morse code. Upon receiving the signal, the main boat must hide at the nearest channel. After many delays, we finally made it to Vũng Tàu river mouth. Knowing exactly the fishermen schedule, we waited until 2 a.m. to join them. Our boat mixed in with this fleet.

 

About half an hour after departure, our boat approached underwater fishing nets, paralleled to buoy number zero. Vinh recommended to avoid it, otherwise, the net would tangle up with the propeller and it would be impossible to move. Exactly at this crucial moment, a VC patrol boat shone a flashlight across our boat. Previously, I asked everyone to hide in the boat compartment and to not say a word. Based on the boat speed, about one day and one night we would reach the national waters around 10 a.m., then turned East to approach Malaysia's shores.

 

On the map, I had drawn and clearly written the trip course so the drivers could follow. I needed to add here: After two failed attempts, I needed to find an ex-Navy officer. Someone introduced me to Trần Duy Bút who was recently dismissed from re-education camps. I told him I only needed a boat pilot, and the rest was taking care by me. Bút came along free of charge.

 

Unknowingly, this ex-Navy officer miscalculating between a mile and a nautical mile, turned the boat too early, exactly into the area ravaged by piracy. I only quietly told my wife because all passengers would be agitated if they knew. Later I discovered that Bút was in Corporal rank and signed up for a brief Officer training course. Thus, his seafaring knowledge was limited.

 

After 10 a.m. on April 28, 1980, we encountered a big Panama oil tanker, about 100 meters from our boat and we could clearly see the Panamanians on the deck. Bút shot one flare into the sky. I got so upset, I told him that we only used them at night if an emergency arose. Admitting his mistake, he kept quiet. My anger dwindled and we sailed Southward and kept following the commercial ships route. All day, we had seen three more metal-hulled gigantic vessels, but none stopped to assist or pick us up. At that time, the water and foods were still sufficient for the following week. Around noon, the sun was fierce, I anchored and let people swim. Those know how to swim enjoyed it immensely.

 

Undeniably, March is the calmest time to cross ocean. Its surface was calm like an autumnal pond. Regrettable, this gentle ocean month brought more frequent patrols.

 

We continued on two more days and encountered several cargos and fishing vessels. They all ignored us, although we made every effort to call for help. Only one Singapore fishing boat donated two boxes of biscuits and one can of water. Then on May 1, 1980, a miracle happened at 10:47 a.m. A helicopter circled around our boat and signaled us to sail Westward. Reading the compass, Westward was the way back to Vietnam! I ordered the pilot to turn off the engine and let it float. Around half an hour later, a very big ship unexpectedly appeared, PORT DE LUMIÈRE read on its hull. On the deck, a Vietnamese man, from a loudspeaker, advised us to be calm, “This is the Cap Anamur. We will pick you up.”

 

I ordered everyone to divide the passengers into two groups to avoid capsizing. The men climbed up the ship on the rope ladders while women and children went through the cargo lifting nets. All 45 of us remember this moment for the rest of our lives: at 10:47 a.m. on 1980 May Day (International Workers' Day), the Cap Anamur had saved our lives.

 

Cap Anamur ran along Viet Nam shores waters to look for more escaped boats. Every day it rescued one boat. Twelve days it picked up 12 boats and the total was 474 Boat people. I got to meet the Cap Anamur captain, and I offered him the K54 and two clips of ammos. He thanked me and wished me luck in the new life.

 

On May 12, 1980, Cap Anamur transported the Boat people they had rescued to Singapore. We temporarily stayed in the first and only the Hawkins Road Refugee Camp in Sembawang, for one month and 28 days. The International Refugee issued S $2.50 for daily allowance for each person. Refugees took care of cooking. The camp leader was an ex-colonel in QLVNCH. He invited me to come to the Office to help out. He founded two committees, Interior and Exterior, worked directly with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugee, without Singaporean government. He appointed me to be the leader of the Interior Committee (Trưởng Ban Nội Vụ), to take care of matters involving the refugees. Although still in shock I eagerly accepted and was happy to help. The Exterior Committee, led by Nguyễn Hữu Huấn, an ex-helicopter pilot. He was fluent in English for undergoing military training in the US. His main responsibilities were to take refugees to hospital appointments and act as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugee's interpreter when the Agency prepared a resettlement application for refugees or when the third country groups came to interview them.  Huấn used to live across of Thanh Vân Cinema, on Lê Văn Duyệt road, very close to my father's house. Huấn and I used to go to Chí Ḥa Elementary school.

 

The Singaporeans were well off and benefactory. Each week they would bring clothes and foods. Big bags of Chinese sausages were very popular. I had to arrange young men to carry them into storage. When a refugee boat arrived, we would distribute clothing and foods to them and there were still plenty of clothes and foods the day my family exited the camp. I believe one of the reasons for this is because probably the refugees received stipends weekly and were able to buy their own things. Another factor is probably because they did not feel a need for handouts. Later, from the news, I learned that the Singapore refugees camp was regarded as “The gate to Heaven on Earth”, comparing with other camps around the world.

 

On July 9, 1980, we were resettled in West Germany.

 

In 1981, on Chanel 2 (ZDF) Germany has shown an “Einen Milimetr uber dem Rand der Welt” (Một Milimét Qua Bờ Kia của Thế Giới), a one-hour long documentary about Cap Anamur rescuing refugees at sea. Our boat was shown clearly. The reporter said it is very difficult to arrive safely to shores when the secondary engine propeller has broken.

 

The reporters from Chanel 2, on National Television German in 2006 and 2008 had filmed our family's activities, a typical Vietnamese refugee family rescued by Cap Anamur, who now integrated and are successful living in Germany.

 

I am truly satisfied.  My descendants were successful according to my plan when I took serious risks in purchasing a boat to take my whole family to flee the country directly from Saigon River. As an ex-officer from the VNCH Ranger, I did not have any seafaring experience. I was able to make it to the free world with 40 others. If the VC caught me I would not see a free day.

 

Our family consisted of five members when we left Saigon. In 2017, the total was 17. We live happily in Bochum, Germany, a free and humanitarian society.

 

 

Lê Thanh Tùng

(In remembering Dr. Rupert Neudeck, our great benefactor)

 

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