ESCAPE -- FROM VIETNAM

"If my boat were sink, I sink with my boat! Try to believe me." Le Viet Dieu was trying to calm a boatload of refugees fleeing from South Vietnam. After making the agonizing decision to leave his homeland last June, he was skippering a leaky boat across the South China Sea to bring 419 refugees to safety in Malaysia.

This former South Vietnamese navy ensign is a man who thinks nothing of laying his life on the line for what he calls "my ideal." His heroic saga began four years earlier in March, 1975. It was clear then that the South was losing the war and that an American withdrawal was imminent. Many high-ranking South Vietnamese officers were fleeing the country.

Le Viet Dieu chose instead to return from a training mission with the Us Seventh Fleet on Guam Island to help his homeland and his family in Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City). He felt then that he would rather die in his own country than live in another.

Soon after his return, the North Vietnamese communists arrived. They ripped off his military stripes and, as he puts it, "threw me into the jungle" along with 5,000 other military men. To this day Dieu doesn't know exactly where the camp was, just that it was somewhere in Tayninsh Province in the thick Ka Tum jungle of South Vietnam near Cambodia.

It was euphemistically called a "re-education camp." But a camp it was not. "We didn't have the house," he recalls in his Vietnamese-flavored English. "We didn't have anything." Their Viet Cong captors simply surrounded the area and ordered the prisoners to build their own camp the best way they could without materials or even tools.

"my campmates and I build houses from trees with our human power," he says. "We go into the jungle, pick up metal [remnants of the war], pound, pound, pound it, and make the knives and the saws."

They relied on the jungle for everything they used, felling trees, slinging them between pairs of bearers and carrying them sometimes as far as six miles.

The 5,000 prisoners were soon split up into smaller groups, isolated from one another. The Viet Cong put Dieu, who has a degree in marine engineering, in charge of 500 men, though many higher ranking officers were in his group. Every man was required to work. Orders were issued to Dieu every evening for the following day's labor for his group.

After the prisoners threw up thatched roof-houses, they strung up hammocks made of blankets, the only items issued them by their captors. Later they built beds out of bamboo, a mess hall, a meeting hall, tables, benches, chop sticks from jungle woods. For cooking they made a big wok from bomb parts with a lid fashioned from bamboo and nylon.

They even built roads through the jungle, and bridges of logs lashed only with rattan that, as Dieu proudly points out, could carry "2 1/2-ton GMC trucks."

The men did all this heavy manual work on four bowls of rice per day, plus what vegetables they could find or grow in the jungle. Such scavanging had its tragic consequences. Two prisoners died from mushroom poisoning. Only on some special holidays did the captors issue slivers of meat or fish.

From these austere rations, some prisoners steeled themselves to save and hide a little rice in the jungle. Thus fortified, a few made it to freedom. Those who were caught were locked in small iron boxes, cold at night, hot in the daytime.

Dieu says he knows his captors liked him because occasionally they would call him to their quarters and give him food. "I go to my camp and divide it with my friends," he says. "I love my campmates."

Despite the nagging hunger and the heartbreak of separation from their families, the resourceful captives managed a bit of fun -- making a swimming hole out of a bomb crater, and in their jungle clearing playing volleyball with coconuts.

But every evening came the brainwashing. Viet Cong officers would hand Dieu a propaganda book praising communism and knocking capitalism. They would order him to read it to his fellow prisoners. "They tell me: 'You must leave your own opinion and receive the new idea.' That is what they call 'education.' We bear it," he says. "But when I go to my bed, that propaganda conflicted with my ideas, so I push out their ideas."

On threat of withholding even their meager ration of rice, prisoners were forced to write their families such messages as: "I am very happy in this camp. I learn so much about the party. They love me, and I love them. We live a happy life."

Letters with equally hollow-ringing messages would come back from their families: "We have freedom. We can go anywhere we like. We don't worry about you."

during the two years he was in this camp, Dieu says there was much sickness among the prisoners. And many men feigned sickness to avoid work. When Dieu himself became ill, a doctor friend who was a fellow prisoner helped him. In gratitude, Dieu told him: "If you need me, I can help you."

Shortly after that the doctor was released, and Dieu was transferred to a "military factory" -- a small camp in a jungle in Longkhanh Province about 90 miles from Ho Chi Minh City. Here all the prisoners, like Dieu, were either graduate engineers or men with mechanical experience.

"I fix many kids of engines -- bulldozers, tractors, trucks, automobiles, generators," Dieu recalls. "When I do, I also learn," he says philosophically. "I learn from the Communists. Then I understand them, and I can defeat them."

His know-how and willingness to work with energy and enthusiasm again resulted in his being put in charge of other prisoners. In time his officers gave him a one-day leave to visit his family in Ho Chi Minh City.

On arrival, he found that his doctor friend had organized a plan to leave the country and had bought, together with six Chinese Vietnamese families, an 8 -year-old, 60-ton diesel- powered boat. The doctor had also asked Dieu's father if his son would tell them what was needed to make it seaworthy.

By this time -- fall, 1978 -- the trickle of "boat people" leaving Vietnam was rising flood proportions. Anyone with Dieu's maritime training and experience was in top demand.

"Up to that time I never thought about leaving," Dieu explains, "because I love my country, my people, my campmates. Also I did not like the Communists." Before returning to camp, however, he agreed to inspect the boat.

A month later the doctor sent Dieu a telegram saying a member of his family was ill. On that pretext, Dieu got a four-day leave, fully intending to return on schedule. But as matters developed, that was the end of his prison-camp life. He just walked out and never returned.

Under cover of darkness, he went to Bentre, a small town about seven miles from Ho Chi Minh City, where the boat was docked. All that night he prowled over every square inch of the vessel, a river boat used for carrying bananas, sand, and other commodities up streams like the Bentre, one of the branches of the Mekong that empties into the South China Sea. The boat was never intended for going to sea.

Dieu found its wooden hull, 72 feet long, 15 feet wide, was "so-so, not too good." The vessel had no engine or compass. But he figured that with repairs it could probably transport refugees -- 300 at most.

He dashed off a drawing of the boat that night and drew up a laundry list of what the old tub needed, from a flashlight to a new 225-horsepower engine, submitting both to the owners. Among the six Chinese Vietnamese families who had bought the boat, there were 60 members -- all merchants or manufacturers and one trucking-company owner. The doctor was manager of the venture. After on look at Dieu's list, all begged him not to return to camp but to make the repairs and sail with them. They assured him they had hired a Chinese Vietnamese to captain the ship.

He thought it over, Dieu explains, because among his fellow prisoners were only about 25 friends, while here was an opportunity to help many more people. "I must choose one," he told himself.

His mother did not want him to leave the country. His father left the decision entirely up to him, assuring Dieu that if he decided to help the refugees he was certainly "intelligent enough to do it." Dieu came down on the side of assisting the greater number. "With my ideal," he said, "I helped them."

Though these boat people were of Chinese extraction, Dieu, a pure-blooded Vietnamese, says he thought of them as fellow Vietnamese.

From the moment he made his decision, he disguised his identity. While officers from the prison camp were hunting for him, the Chinese Vietnamese boat owners bought him a Chinese ID card and voting permit from an organization that counterfeited them. Dieu wore Chinese clothes,lived on the boat, and began overseeing its repairs.

The owners took precautions to pay off local police so that when officers came aboard to inspect the vessel, Dieu was never there but was hiding in an attic in Ho Chi Minh City. To avoid arousing suspicion the boat's owners trucked repairmen in from Ho Chi Minh City. Tasks were divided among many small groups so that none was on board for more than a short time. A new engine was installed. An adequate compass had been found on the black market. By working round- the-clock for six months, Dieu had the boat shipshape by mid- June, 1979.

By then the owners had sold passage to 300 refugees, charging the Chinese Vietnamese 10 pieces of gold (about $2,000) per person and the pure Vietnamese 12 pieces of gold (about $2,400). The difference, Dieu explains, was because the Chinese Vietnamese were encouraged by the communists to leave the country; the Vietnamese were not allowed to go, so the risk of taking them on board was greater. One-third of the passengers turned out to be pure Vietnamese.

Government officials had their own pay-as-you-go plan. For every refugee on board, a boat owner had to fork over four pieces of gold (about $800).

Owners of the boat provided the refugees temporary quarters in Bentre while they awaited the government's green light to leave. Finally it came on Saturday , June 16. With all in readiness, Dieu risked one last farewell visit to his family in Ho Chi Minh City.

He refused to accept any payment for his services, desiring only to keep his promise to the doctor. But on the day before departure he let the boat owners give his elderly parents 7,000 piasters.

Returning to Bentre in time to load the boat with food and water, and canned milk for the children who would be on board, he found the owners fighting among themselves over how the gold was to be divided up. He noticed to his dismay they had brought so much luggage aboard there wouldn't be room for all the refugees. He decided to register no protest then but to toss the luggage overboard as soon as the boat was at sea.

His biggest shock, though, was to learn that the Chinese "captain" the owners had hired had never been to sea. This meant that Dieu, at 30 years of age, was suddenly in full command for the first time of an ocean-going vessel with no crew and no one else on board who had spent a day on the water. At this point, he had no choice but to take the surprises in stride.

That night three boats were allowed to leave. Dieu's was to be the last in line. Police investigated each boat in turn, asking Dieu how many people his would hold. He replied "250 to 300." Then the officers reversed the order, making his the lead boat, and forcing 100 more refugees aboard than he had planned on. Suddenly the vessel was as jampacked with humanity as it once had been with bananas. Down in the hold, up in the bow, back in the stern, and on every inch of the deck adults and children squatted with knees tucked under chins. It soon became so stifling that passengers below decks cried out for air to breathe.

"At that time I don't know how many in my boat," Dieu says, "only too much crowded. We don't have enough space for them! My boat overloaded. Sink two feet below waterline. I do not like to see police because maybe they know me. I wanted to disguise my identity. But I must tell them because it was very dangerous for my boat. He tell me: 'You must try, if you want to leave this country."

By midnight all three boats, dangerously overloaded, began their voyage downstream with a police boat in the lead -- without stars, without moon, without known destination, with future uncertain. By 6 a.m. the little flotilla reached the mouth of the Bentre and headed out toward international waters.

Owners of Dieu's boat wanted to go to Hong Kong because they had relatives there. He preferred Singapore because Hong Kong was already flooded with boat people. They had agreed to decide after the boat was at sea. Now, in sole command, he turned southward toward Singapore, while the other two boats headed north for Hong Kong.

However, Dieu ran smack into such strong monsoon winds and rain that he had to turn back.With enough diesel fuel on board to take him about 700 nautical miles, he decided to strike out across the open waters of the South China Sea in the general direction of Malaysia, where more than 70,000 Vietnam refugees already had landed, though at that point, he concedes, he didn't know precisely where he was heading.

(He learned later that the two other boats that set out with him sank on their first day at sea. Some of their passengers drowned. Others were saved by fishing boats and returned to Vietnam. These eventually were, he says, "thrown into the jungle," just as he had been.)

Thus began what turned out to be a harrowing eight-day voyage through rough seas, high winds, and heavy rain, with appalling conditions on board.

Dieu's first job was to try to recruit a 10- man crew from among the passengers, nearly all of whom were seasick. The deck was so crowded that reaching a railing was out of the question. There was hardly elbow room, let alone room enough to lie down or get to the toilet. Dieu couldn't permit the passengers to budge for fear the rocking that would cause might turn the boat over. He threatened not to steer if anybody below tried to come up on deck. Predictably tempers were short. On top of this, the passengers were terrified of the sea.

Dieu tried to calm them. But on the second day, the seas grew heavy, twisting the boat lengthwise, breaking the adhesive on its wooden hull and letting water seep in. "I didn't care about that, but it frightened the refugees," Dieu says. While pumping out the bilge he got the bright idea not to throw the luggage overboard after all but to let the passengers in the hold sit on it.

On the third day out, the young captain decided he should signal for help. He scrawled "SOS" on a blanket and ran it up the flagpole with a black ball dangling below it. He also sent up smoke signals by setting oil and clothing ablaze in the prow of the vessel.

Where did he get the clothing?

Dieu smiles. "From the luggage."

braving rain and wind, all that night he braced himself on the roof of the pilot house, using a flashlight to transmit his "Refugee! Refugee! SOS!" message. (The owners had failed to provide the radio he'd requested.)

Finally out the blackness came a shiptaht circled the boat, while voices in a foreign tongue bellowed from a bull horn. Shining his flashlight on its flag, Dieu saw the hammer and sickle.

"I thought when he come maybe he give us food or drinking water or help us or rescue us," Dieu says. "But when I saw him, I sad too much that it was a Russian Ship.

"The owners of my boat wanted to go back to Vietnam because they think we maybe die in the sea. They asked me to signal again with the Russian ship. But I did not want that. I told them we would not have another chance to go away again." So he stopped his signalling, and the Soviet ship went on its way.

In the days and nights that followed, the refugees were seen by merchant ships of many nations, though none from America. "I make the signals, but no answer," Dieu says. "They saw us but did not try to help us."

The queasiness of the passengers had resulted in a general aversion to food. But there wasn't enough on board to feed everyone anyhow. Dieu was too busy ever to count the children. He estimates they numbered about 150, including one month-old infant and many toddlers one or two years old. He did his best to find safe places for them. Marvelously, none was lost.

As if Dieu didn't have enough on his hands already, on the fifth day the rudder shaft broke. He managed to patch the broken weld together by tightening a bolt around it. While he was below, he turned the helm over to the bogus "captain." But he was so exhausted he fell asleep, and when Dieu came back on deck he found his boat going in circles.

By then, Dieu wasn't sure exactly where they would land -- Borneo, Malaysia, or the Philippines. But on the seventh day land was sighted.

Pandemonium erupted on board, a combination of intense joyful relief and wild excitement.

But they hadn't made it to shore yet. There were reefs in the way. That night Dieu dropped anchor because "without the moon or the star" it was too dangerous to proceed. For him it was another sleepless night while he kept watch to see that the anchor held.

At daybreak he set out again. As the coastline grew clearer there was no restraining the refugees' elation. Everybody who could get there piled on deck, as Dieu inched the vessel forward, sounding the bottom with a plumb bob.

"My boat people very happy!" Dieu exclaims. "They talk too much! Yak, yak, yak!"

Rounding a point of land, the boat hit bottom and stuck ignominiously on a sand bar. Jumping overboard with a bow line in hand, Dieu burst into laughter when he discovered that the blooming surf came up only to his chest. He walked ashore and unceremoniously secured the boat to a tree.

The passengers walked safely to land single file, holding onto the rope as the wind and waves swirled around them. It was only when local police arrived and counted the passengers that Dieu learned he had evacuated a staggering 419 refugees.

He had done what he had hoped to do -- navigate a straight course from Vietnam to East Malaysia, arriving at the small community of Kota Belud on the west coast. Here the sea-weary group came under the protective custody of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and was transferred to the Labuan refugee camp on Pappan Island, operated by the International Red Cross.

Dieu's safe arrival was more wonderful than he or his passengers at first realized. On June 15, the day before his boat left Vietnam, Malaysia shocked the world by announcing that since it could no longer handle the avalanche of refugees arriving daily it would ship those then camped along its coast out to sea and would shoot on sight any others who attempted to land.

Later it relented on these threats. But during the week Dieu's craft landed, 60 boats carrying 13,000 people were forced back into international waters. By July 4 the refugees had become so desperate they were smashing their boats and engines and swimming to shore. Not until late July did ships of the US Seventh Fleet, at President Carter's command, start searching for and rescuing refugees in the South China Sea.

After a few months on Pappan Island, Dieu's band of boat people, like thousands of others before them, began to fan out to countries offering them hospitality: Holland, France, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the United States.

Dieu was flown to Massachusetts under the care of the International Rescue Committee. Founded in 1933, the IRC is one of several private, voluntary agencies helping resettle the refugees. Its stated goal is to help displaced persons become self-sufficient and productive members of their new society.

The United States, which is accepting more boat people than any other nation, has been receiving 14,000 Indo-Chinese a month since last September. The IRC is assuming responsibility for about 10 to 15 percent of them and is constantly searching for groups or private individuals to s them find housing, employment, and their way in a new life.

Theodore G. Hartry, director of the IRC's new office in Boston, met Dieu at Logan International Airport in Boston and drove him directly to the Lexington home of his sponsor, Mrs. Ruth Codier, a retired patent attorney.

She is trying to help him obtain a graduate engineering degree from some American university -- the equivalent of what he already holds from Vietnam -- and then work in his field.

For Dieu the silverest lining to his long ordeal is that among the refugees on his boat he met his future bride. The IRC now is making arrangements to bring his fiance from Pappan Island to America.

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