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Boat People Give Thanks to Navy Commander

By Fred Dickey

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Al Bell with a model of his ship.

One thing wonderful about Thanksgiving is that it opens its arms wide. Gratitude is without measure and not judgmental. We can be thankful for health, for a loving family, for a new job found, for a drug-free teen, for the turkey before us, even for the Chargers’ playoff hopes that remain alive, if barely.

For one family, observance will include memories of cold Pacific fingers reaching up into a small boat and of gratitude for the grace of God and the U.S. Navy. That’s what this story is about.


When a powerful nation decides to quit a foreign war, it picks up and goes home, taking with it the implements of destruction. Left behind are many of the people who trusted that nation and invested their lives in its reassurances. The point is most emphatically proven by the Vietnam War.

The payback for Vietnamese who supported the United States was dramatized by photos of people clinging to a helicopter’s skids, as though clinging to life, as the copter departed Saigon in April 1975.

Among those desperate to escape was the family of Duong Vu. He was a helicopter pilot in the South Vietnamese air force, and that meant the victorious North Vietnamese forces had his name on their target list for punishment.

His family fled from Saigon (renamed as Ho Chi Minh City) to a small farm, but they could not grow enough rice to survive. They were reduced to eating part of the trunk of a banana tree.

Duong himself spent a year in “re-education” captivity, and was told he would soon be sent to the north for a life sentence of hard labor. In June 1982, he and his wife, Thanh, decided to join tens of thousands of fellow Vietnamese in becoming “boat people.”

They were under no illusions as to the risk. Thanh’s uncle and half-brother had tried to escape earlier on a vessel with more than 100 people and were never heard from again.

Duong, the pregnant Thanh, and their three young children, including 8-year-old Xuan-Huong, crept through mud in the early morning darkness to avoid being seen and turned in by villagers who could then claim a reward. They reached the water and saw the rickety, 35-foot boat built for river fishing. They hid their fears and pushed off into the sea with 47 other refugees.

“We knew finding freedom was worth the risk of dying. If we make it, happy, and if cannot make it, we would die,” Thanh says, remembering their resolution.


Shortly before the Vu family departed, U.S. Navy Cmdr. Al Bell, captain of the destroyer Morton, was in a Guam hotel room with four other captains listening to their squadron commander. The subject of picking up “boat people” was broached. Bell knew that admirals were exasperated at Navy ships being diverted to pick up “boat people” and taking them to port. They wanted it stopped. Also, other Southeast Asian countries were complaining about refugee camps literally bursting at the fences.

Bell was not surprised when the squadron commander ordered that his ships not pick up boat people.

Bell knew he was speaking the wishes of the admirals. The five captains said nothing.

International law requires a ship to rescue people in distress on the seas. But that is obviously a gray area. A captain must determine whether the boat is seaworthy and conditions survivable. Bell knew his commander was implying that, “If there was any way to get out of it, he wanted us to do it.”

Later, when the captains were talking at a bar, Bell says one commented that he “would not see” any boat people, meaning that you can’t pick up what you can’t identify.

Bell didn’t become a commander of his own ship by being naive. He knew that in any bureaucracy — and the military is the big enchilada — you get along by going along. You are expected to not only obey orders, but to read your superior’s mind and do his will. If Bell picked up any boat people, he certainly wouldn’t be officially reprimanded, but he could expect no mercy by being “damned by faint praise” in the dreaded “fitness report.” It would not augur well for a ship’s captain to have it written, “Cmdr. Bell is not reliable in following orders.”

He also knew that for every Navy ship, 100 officers were eager to captain it. Indispensable, he was not. He could see himself shuffling personnel folders at a desk in the Aleutians until retirement.

However, Bell had been bothered for years by an incident that happened in 1976. He was executive officer on a destroyer that came upon a small boat with about 35 to 40 “pretty desperate” refugees. On the express orders of the captain, he gave them food and water and directions to the Philippines 500 miles distant. The looks on their faces were still clear in his mind.


The Vu family knew the danger of what they were undertaking. Pirates lurked along the coast, eager to plunder and kill. The family and others had limited food and water — there was not room on the boat for much — and a freeboard of about a foot. That meant even gentle water would splash into the boat. Bailing was constant, even in calm seas.

Almost immediately, the fear and discomfort raised tension to a brittle fragility. Babies and small children started to cry; Xuan-Huong, the 8-year-old, heard one man threaten to throw a crying child overboard.

On June 10, the boat was about 200 miles from land. The sun, heat and humidity were brutal in that latitude, and fears intensified after the sea-savvy men on board recognized that a storm was headed their way. Thanh remembers her anguished conclusion: “I say to children, ‘Big storm, we will die.’ ”

They originally hoped to reach the shore of the nearest country or be picked up by a ship. With the storm looming, they knew their only choice was a ship. But the horizon held only gathering clouds.

Aboard the Morton, Bell was below deck when he was summoned to the bridge to be told of a distant radar contact. He knew immediately from the object’s size that it was a refugee or fishing boat. And he knew that, having picked up 18 refugees the day before, he would be exacerbating superior-officer anger by picking up more.

On the boat, the crowd of people watched as the ship moved closer. The adults knew from hearsay that many ships, military and merchant, were ordered or inclined to turn away.

This was the moment.

Al Bell gave his order: “Maintain course.”

When the blip grew larger and was identified as a refugee boat, Bell muttered to his executive officer, “I’m in for it now.”

On the boat, eyes stared and breaths were held. The ship kept coming, then slowed, then stopped. The refugees exhaled as rope ladders were lowered. They would live.

Bell remembers with a smile that, as the boat came alongside, a solicitous crewman with a megaphone shouted, “Do you need help?”


The refugees were housed on deck with tarps rigged for privacy, alongside the Vietnamese picked up the previous day. Bell, a marathon runner, had a stack of souvenir T-shirts that he distributed to the people. He remembers for the rest of the cruise watching small children scamper about wearing T-shirts as dresses with “Honolulu Marathon” on the front.

Cooks on the Morton laid out a meal — a feast, considering — for the people as soon as they were settled. Bell says many refugees hid extra food in their pockets until the crew told them there would be plenty at the next meal, too.

The ship dropped off the refugees in the Philippines, where they stayed in a camp until authorized to immigrate to the U.S. in February 1983.

Duong and Thanh Vu and their children settled in Portland, Ore., and gained citizenship in 1992. Their ambition was to become thoroughly Americanized. Duong changed his name to Don, Thanh changed hers to Karen and Xuan-Huong became Jacquelynne.

The Vu family, their progeny, and others who pushed off from the mud in that frail craft settled into their new home and entered the commercial and social life of their communities. One member of the Vu clan became wealthy in real estate and another recently graduated from George Washington University School of Law.

In terms of his career, Bell says his rescue activities “did not help.” He retired from the Navy in 1987 and entered the defense industry. Now retired anew at 71, he and his wife, Marla, live in Mission Valley.

In the confusion of their rescue, no one in the Vu family remembered the name of the ship or its skipper. But in 2001, Jacquelynne was in a reminiscent frame of mind and rummaged around to find a forgotten postcard of the Morton that was given out in 1982. From there, it was simply a matter of emails and phone calls to learn the name of Cmdr. Al Bell. And shortly thereafter, Bell’s phone rang.

The next year — the 20th anniversary of their salvation and the 10th of their citizenship — Bell attended Jacquelynne’s wedding. Hugs were exceeded only by tears as he was introduced as the hero who had saved their lives.

He and other crew members have attended five reunions of the refugees. As Karen says, “Without him, I would be in heaven.”

What good came of that war? You have to look beneath the blood, but there you will find heartbeats: On Thursday, in the 30th year since a warship came to “all engines stop” and sympathetic hands reached down, the devoutly Catholic Vu family will sit down to their Thanksgiving turkey and Don will lead the prayer of thanks. He will be certain to include the name of a friend and fellow American named Al Bell.

Al Bell of Mission Valley has attended five reunions with Vietnamese "boat people" whom he helped rescued decades earlier. / Photo by Jamie Scott Lytle * U-T San Diego

This photograph from 1982 shows the Vu family and others rescued in the South China Sea by Al Bell and his Navy crew. / courtesy photo

Fred Dickey of Cardiff is a novelist and award-winning magazine writer who believes every life is an adventure. He welcomes column ideas and other suggestions; contact him at

© Copyright 2012 The San Diego Union-Tribune, LLC. An MLIM LLC Company. All rights reserved.

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