Mystery Photo No.51 shows a dramatic moment aboard an RAN ship:
We wanted to know:
- the date and place the image was taken and
- what it was about.
The answer has been extracted from an ABC article entitled “The Luckiest Refugees” which can be seen here, including video footage of the rescue and how the lives of those who were saved have turned out. We also got an email from Jeff Booker, who was the Secretary to Melbourne’s CO at the time (Mike Hudson), and from Andy “Mum” Davies – thank you both for the additional information.
Following South Vietnam’s surrender to the communist North in 1975, more than 1 million people fled the country. Their only escape route lay across the expanse of the South China Sea.
Over the next decade an immense tragedy played out in slow motion, largely unseen by the world. About 300,000 people perished, claimed by treacherous seas, attacks by pirates or exposure to the elements, some after being rejected at gunpoint from neighbouring countries where they sought sanctuary.
The story behind the photo above is of a one-in-a-million encounter on the South China Sea, where unlikely saviours and the saved became friends, forging a bond that endures to this day.
On the evening of June 21, 1981, 99 men women and children aboard a small boat were waiting to die. Their vessel was adrift in storm-tossed waters 250 nautical miles east of Vietnam. The overloaded boat was leaking badly, the engine broken, and drinking water was contaminated. Both Buddhists and Christians began to pray that when the end came, it would be mercifully swift.
They had escaped Vietnam four days earlier under the command of the redoubtable Captain Tam Van Nguyen. A stocky no-nonsense fisherman and former member of the South Vietnamese Navy’s Riverine Forces, Captain Tam knew every twist of the vast Mekong Delta.
He was part of a syndicate that had secretly constructed the 14-metre vessel at a hidden location on the banks of the Mekong. It resembled a fishing boat to fool the authorities, but was built for one purpose – to escape.
Ninety-nine put to sea in the dangerously overloaded boat designed to carry just 60. Captain Tam wouldn’t turn anyone away. Yet those aboard hardly knew each other: they came from all over South Vietnam; there were family groups and individuals, rich and poor, urban and rural, Catholic and Buddhist, Vietnamese and ethnic Chinese.
As the boat slowly disintegrated under the blows of a fading storm, Captain Tam wanted to turn back, but other syndicate leaders over-ruled him.
Passing merchant ships had ignored the boat’s distress flares. And as dusk fell on the fourth day, many believed it would be their last. But then Captain Tam spotted a strange aircraft on the horizon.
“It was the last flare Mr Tam shot up there, and (at) that time the Tracker fly over and he spotted us,” Stephen Nguyen recalls.
The Tracker was a surveillance patrol aircraft from the Royal Australian Navy aircraft carrier HMAS Melbourne; the plane had been preparing to land after its last mission of the day. The TACCO, LEUT Langlands, noticed an old junk about five miles to the East of the ship which appeared to be on fire, and they did a couple of circuits over the vessel to see that it was, in fact, a distress flare.
Stephen Nugyen, one of the refugees aboard, says at first the refugees feared they’d been spotted by a Soviet aircraft. Moscow was an ally of Vietnam, and to be rescued by a Soviet ship meant a passage home to certain imprisonment and possible execution.
But the aircraft that swept in low over the boat carried strange markings: a picture of a kangaroo. And the English word ‘Navy’ stencilled on the side. They were saved. Soon the vast bulk of the Melbourne loomed up out of the darkness.
“I never seen a big ship like that. It’s so huge, and I still remember. We had a very warm welcome by all sailors,” recalls Stephen Nguyen.
Melbourne’s Supply Officer, Commander John Ingram, had been going to sea for more than 20 years, and knew the odds.
“It was a miracle that they were discovered, okay. Just having the Tracker in that position, late in the afternoon in deteriorating light conditions. And to pick up a flare on the horizon, the last flare that they had. They had been ignored by other vessels. And to have an admiral and a captain (on board) who said, ‘investigate’.”
“The concept of turning a boat back, expecting sailors to turn a boat back, and maybe sending men, women and children innocently to a watery grave is absolutely abhorrent,” John Ingram says. “Drowning is a terrible way, dying of dehydration is a terrible way to die. And the sea is a very lonely place.”
The refugees were to be rescued. The carrier’s photographers, who usually recorded aircraft movements, were there to capture the dramatic operation.
“The boats came alongside with these poor emaciated individuals on board. And a number of them were at the point of unconsciousness; they had no idea where they all were. They were in a very distressed physical and emotional state,” John Ingram says.
“Some would have begun to have died within hours, probably by dawn the following morning.”
Getting everyone on board proved difficult, with many too weak to be winched up by helicopters. Sailors volunteered to carry them up the ship’s side on ladders, one by one, a perilous task that took nearly three hours.
“That was six to seven metres up, plus allowing for the fall of the boats each time and the rolling of the ship. (It was) extremely dangerous, and remember it was pitch dark,” Mr Ingram says.
“The fact that all 99 including 19 children under the age of 10 were got on board without any injury whatsoever was an amazing feat.
For Stephen Nguyen, there was a sense of utter relief. “The hope (was) very slim,” he says. “To be rescued by HMAS Melbourne is unforgettable and unbelievable. We felt we were the luckiest refugees among the million people who escape the regime.”
Ingram was tasked with looking after the refugees. Those rescued didn’t know it, but in another stroke of luck they’d been delivered into the care of a passionate and highly skilled refugee advocate.
“The people were chronically dehydrated,” Mr Ingram says. “Many had to be rehydrated in the sick bay. But once they were rehydrated, washed, clothed, they got their appetites back pretty quickly.”
The Melbourne set a course for Singapore. Already overcrowded with refugees, Singaporean authorities declared the MG99 group could only come ashore if other countries agreed to resettle them.
By 1981 the Australian government had already taken 43,000 Vietnamese refugees under the Orderly Departure Program. The vast majority were accepted after being processed in camps across the region. For a Navy ship to request the immediate and direct resettlement of such a large group, thousands of kilometres from Australian territorial waters, was highly unusual, but the government agreed.
“We were extremely fortunate in the sense that we knew the government of Australia was supportive,” Mr Ingram says. “And at that time prime minister Fraser enjoyed the full support of the opposition.”
There was one stipulation: the MG99 would be fast-tracked to Australia only if they agreed to wait at a refugee camp in Singapore while they were formally processed.
Five days after the rescue, the Melbourne arrived in Singapore and the MG99 refugees were bussed to the Hawkins Road refugee camp. The camp was run by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. CMDR Ingram was appalled by what he saw.
“They lived under blue plastic sheeting on a hillside in amongst wet grass. And I got a little concerned because on day one I actually saw not our refugees but other refugees boiling grass over little campfires … to make a soup to feed themselves.”
Determined not to abandon his charges, Ingram returned to the ship and, ignoring official procedures, immediately commandeered a tonne of food to be trucked to the camp, repeating the procedure every day. The Navy turned a Nelsonian ‘blind eye’ to this unofficial one-man aid effort, but there was concern aboard Melbourne that once the ship sailed, the promise of resettlement for MG99 would be forgotten.
“As it transpired, they were actually flown (to Sydney) by Qantas and arrived (home) before we did,” John Ingram recalls. “So they were ensconced at East Hills by the end of July. They were really, really lucky.”
Stephen Nguyen has vivid memories of arriving at Mascot Airport on a clear July day, overwhelmed by mixed emotions: triumph but also a deep fear for those left behind.
“It was in winter and the first time we encounter the coldness of winter and … we just say thank God, we’re really landed into the freedom land and there’s a lot of people, they’re crying. I thought of my parents. What would they do to my parents when they heard that we already escape?”
Mr Ingram says he and his wife visited the refugees as soon as he was back in Sydney. “By the beginning of August they were actually starting their English classes,” he recalls. “They were very happy, very happy little Vegemites, I can tell you that.”
After the visit, John and Janet Ingram were posted to the United Kingdom and briefly lost touch with the refugees from MG99. He was unaware that his elderly parents, then living in comfortable retirement, had immediately agreed to foster two young Vietnamese women when they discovered they were from the MG99.
“They said, ‘we know John Ingram’ and dad said, ‘that’s good enough for me, my son is very proud of what transpired in the Melbourne and if you come and live with us in the Blue Mountains you can practise your English and then you can get some professional qualification in this country’.
“And they maintained that relationship until Mai Lan married, and my father actually gave Mai Lan away, and she now lives in San Jose, California where she has raised two lovely children. And Vanessa married in Sydney. She was an IT expert, has raised two lovely girls, one of whom now has a Masters of Medicine from the Sydney University.”
Stephen Nguyen moved out of the East Hills Migrant Hostel after six months and headed to Bankstown. Jobs in factories and the post office followed, and eight years later he went into a partnership in a western Sydney bakery. His overriding ambition was to reunite his family. In 1982, one of his sisters, a Catholic nun, was lost at sea while fleeing Vietnam.
From 1983, three of his brothers and two sisters successfully escaped Vietnam. All moved to Sydney, spending the next decade under Stephen’s care. He worked to put all five siblings through university.
In 1991, Stephen married Maria, whom he’d met in Australia. His parents were permitted to leave Vietnam for the wedding. They also now live in Sydney.
Stephen Nguyen says the MG99 was unique among Vietnamese refugees “because there was no other big group settling in one city or in one country and the group stayed together”.
John Ingram agrees. “I am unaware of anyone who has not succeeded, either in their professional life, in their personal life, in the eyes of the law or whatever. It has been a remarkably coherent group.”
Three decades on from that fateful encounter in the South China Sea, Stephen Nguyen still can’t quite believe his good fortune. “Yes, we are the luckiest refugees and in the lucky country.”