The Old Fishing Boat (A Vietnamese Escape Adventure)

By Timothy Smith

Hidden in a junkyard off a nondescript street in the Pomona Valley is a large packing crate, about the size of a semi-trailer. The flimsy plywood is pulled off one side, revealing a long object made of shaggy dark wood. A small cluster of people is gathered along its side, running their hands almost reverently along the rough planks. At least one of them is misty-eyed as they talk softly in a language that is incomprehensible to me. There is a connection between these people and that object that is deep and immediate. Not everyone is speaking in the crisp yet melodic tongue that I can’t understand. One man, taller with graying hair, is speaking in English, and passing around photographs while the others nod appreciatively. A quarter-century of memories, of a time of unimaginable danger, sorrow and hope, are washing over these people like the whitecaps in a full-force gale. The object of their interest is a boat, the only known example in the US of the type of craft used by the "Boat People" who escaped from Viet Nam in the early 1980s.

The cluster of people are refugees, and all of them left Viet Nam in boats similar to the one they are touching now. A closer look at the boat reveals a shallow draft and low transom, with pointed prow and stern. In the rear of the boat, mounted on rotting beams, is a rusty and corroded one-cylinder diesel engine. I can almost hear the cha-chugga-cha-chugga of the piston and huge flywheel as it once had turned the small screw below the upturned stern. The hull design is well suited to fishing in shallow water in good weather, and seems dangerously unsuitable for a long ocean voyage. The outer planking has been removed to reduce shipping weight, and the dark under planks reveal hundreds of dime-sized holes where wooden pegs had once fastened the layers of wood together. Even in the best of times, the boat would have leaked badly until the seams swelled, and the more it was loaded down, the worse it would have leaked. The fact that this boat made it from Nha Trang, Viet Nam to the Philippines is nothing short of a miracle.

Lora’s Boat in 1980

One of the bystanders is Madalenna, a former refugee who arranged for transportation for the boat. She is proud of the new arrival, and speaks of plans to place it in a museum that will showcase the stories and successes of the "Boat People". But she is also suspicious, for having escaped a regime of great brutality and repression, she is not at all convinced that the boat is safe here. There are those who would destroy it, she feels. Even the ideological and geographical gulf that separates her from her homeland is not quite far enough to avoid the tentacles of a fear that is never far from the minds of these refugees. Madalenna is not her real name, but one that she adopted when coming to her new country. These refugees have changed their names, often several times, to make it harder to be recognized or tracked. It is a life perspective that those raised on these shores in freedom might find excessive, even paranoid. Nevertheless, these who have suffered feel justified in keeping it.

The tall man with the graying hair and pocket full of photos is Galen Beery, a Lao interpreter, who formerly worked with refugees in Laos and Malaysia with the U. S. State Department and Church World Service. He read about the boat in the paper, contacted Madalenna, and is here to share his own experiences. He speaks softly yet energetically of all the success stories, and his distance from the refugee experiences is just enough to be able to articulate the cases with great power. He explains that he spent ten years in Laos working with International Voluntary Services, then the U. S. Agency for International Development, in everything from agriculture projects to refugee assistance. Then he tells of his job after the war, which included searching the remote islands and beaches of Malaysia for the boats and their survivors. He set up and directed an interviewing program that placed over 50,000 refugees with sponsors in the U. S. The stories are alternately horrifying and exhilarating. After the war, the Vietnamese Communists confiscated all maps, in hopes of deterring escapees. Mr. Beery pulls a tiny world map out of his pocket and explains that this map was included in a small notepad that was for sale in Viet Nam, and was overlooked by the authorities. The South China Sea looked like just a thimble full of water on the tiny map, yet the map was used to navigate the hundreds of miles of open ocean between Viet Nam and Malaysia, where Beery got it from its former owner. One piece of the navigational puzzle remained—a compass. Beery retrieves from his pocket a battered, G. I. issue field compass, which a Vietnamese bought on the black market to use in his escape. Using the tiny map and battered compass, the refugees had negotiated the long and treacherous journey to freedom from Viet Nam to Malaysia. Then Beery pulls out a laminated ID card bearing the name and photo of a teenage Vietnamese girl. He shows it carefully to each of the group of former refugees gathered by the boat. No one recognizes her. He explains that he found it on a beach in Malaysia along with rubber sandals and other debris shortly after one of the refugee boats was reported sunk. There is always hope that, what with the changed identities and confusion in the aftermath of war, she may one day be identified, living peacefully in freedom. But Beery fears that she is one of the hundreds, perhaps thousands, for whom their perilous boat trip was their last.

Another person standing near the boat and touching the aged boards is named Lora. That is what we call her now, but in her other life she had a different name. Standing beside the crated artifact she begins telling details of her own journey. "I feel very proud of my escaping from Viet Nam," she says. "This boat is evidence of my story and other people’s. I still wonder about my decision to leave, and how we made it because God helped us. My husband spent two years in a Communist reeducation camp because he had been an engineer at the civilian airport in Saigon. Just working with the South Vietnamese in that way was enough to put him in prison. I remember when I first discussed leaving Viet Nam with my husband. He said ‘Only the deaf do not care about the gunfire.’ We knew that if we stayed, our sons would have to become Communist soldiers and fight in Cambodia. They would have no chance for a higher education. We decided to leave, even though there was a 99% chance we would die at sea. We left in a thirty-five foot boat only eight feet wide, with forty others crowded out of sight under the deck. The oldest one of us was sixty and the youngest was four. We reached Indonesia after five nights at sea in July of 1980. Luckily, we made it. Thank God! Thank God!"

The Forty-Three People In Lora’s Boat, July, 1980


Refugee Camp in Indonesia

There are certain objects that define us, catch our imaginations, connect us with our heritage. Old Ironsides, the U. S. S. Arizona, the Titanic, and Noah’s Ark are aquatic symbols that represent independence, treacherous attack, human frailty or judgment and renewal. The old river fishing boat in the crate in a Pomona junkyard also symbolizes certain ideas: the desire to have liberty, the sacrifices that are necessary to live free, the miracle of Divine intervention and the power and magnitude of the human spirit.