Vietnamese refugees, rescuers reunited at SUNY Maritime

Vietnam Boat People

Five years after the U.S. withdrew from Vietnam, life was unbearable for those who fought beside their American allies. Seven-year-old Lauren Vuong and her family had no choice but to escape. They left under the cover of night, cramming 62 people into a small wooden boat in a life or death gamble. After 10 days of storms, they were lost at sea and nearly out of food, water and fuel.

In those waning hours of hope, the American-flagged LNG Virgo spotted and rescued them.

For the past 20 years, Vuong has been searching for the crew of the LNG Virgo, the ship that rescued her and 61 others.

“We never forgot the compassion that saved our lives. It has always been my parents’ dream to find the captain and crew to thank them. I felt compelled to search for the Virgo as my own expression of gratitude for the sacrifices my parents made for us,” said Lauren Vuong, now an attorney in San Francisco. “November means Thanksgiving, and what greater thanks can one give than for the gift of life?”

The search will culminate in a long-awaited reunion between her family and some of the crew at 9:30 a.m. Saturday, Nov. 4, at SUNY Maritime College. It will be the first meeting between the Vuongs and the Virgo crew since their 1980 rescue. The reunion will take place during an exhibit opening at the college’s Maritime Industry Museum at Fort Schuyler.

Vuong will also talk to Maritime students at 3 p.m. Friday, Nov. 3 about her family’s journey to freedom, her assimilation to the United States, and the need for compassion.

“The political climate now is very touchy; you can’t say much about immigration or international policy. That’s not the nature of my message,” said Vuong. “My interest is in conveying the human connection between people fleeing for their lives and those who come to their aid. When you find yourself on the other end of the binoculars, where you can make that decision to aid another, you have an enormous power. That’s not an issue of policy. That’s an issue of compassion.”

Many Maritime students plan to pursue careers on commercial vessels like those that helped to rescue 800,000 Vietnamese boat people.

The Virgo was designed to carry liquefied natural gas from Indonesia to Japan. It was part of a fleet of eight ships that, together, carried nearly 2,000 boat people to safety.

From the end of the Vietnam War in 1975 until 1995, millions of Vietnamese and Sino-Vietnamese people attempted to escape a country destroyed by war, burdened by economic sanctions, and engaged in conflicts with neighboring countries. Many fled on overcrowded fishing boats that were subject to storms and pirates, and rarely had enough food or water to keep the passengers alive.

“As a child on that boat, I remember only hunger, thirst and fear. Now that I’m a parent, I appreciate the gravity of the decision my parents had to make to put us on that boat. It’s not the kind of decision you take lightly. It’s life or death and you have one chance at life,” Vuong said. “That one chance might be the crewman at the other end of the binoculars. That connection can be as thin as a thread or it can be the kind of humanity that saves your life. I was the beneficiary of true compassion.”