Sunday Morning, January 18, 1978, Songkhla, Thailand

Their eyes wide but unseeing as if they were prey gripped in the iron jaws of a predator, the refugees huddled in eerie silence on the open deck of their wooden fishing boat. Mothers and fathers, the men half-naked, clutched their children to their sides. They took no notice of our arrival. They know they’re going to die, I realized. My heart stopped.

Tethered to the stern of a steel-hulled Thai navy gunboat, their small boat, once painted light blue with gay red trim, was so overcrowded I feared it would capsize the moment it left the dock. Twin .50-caliber machine guns mounted on the fantail of the naval vessel pointed menacingly down at the people. The throaty rumble of the ship’s diesel engines signaled its impatience to get under way.

American vice consul Bob Hayashida and I ran to a Thai official dressed in casual shirt and slacks, standing at the foot of the gunboat’s gangway, who appeared to be in charge.

“Can we talk to the people?” Hayashida asked.

“Yes,” the official answered, recognizing Hayashida. “But in ten minutes we are towing them out to sea—beyond Thai waters.”

“Can we talk to the vice governor?” Hayashida pressed.

“The vice governor is visiting in another province and cannot be contacted,” the official replied.

Hayashida and I had been at breakfast on the lanai of my hotel that pleasant Sunday morning when a French doctor with Médecins Sans Frontièrs pushed his way through the shrubbery to the rail and told us the Thai navy was preparing to tow a boat loaded with refugees back out to sea.

“The people are in poor shape,” the doctor said. “Many of the women have been raped, the men beaten. The children are sick from drinking seawater. I treated them as best as I could on the deck of their boat. I don’t believe they can survive another night at sea, especially the children,” the doctor added.

Praying that we would not be too late, we ran to Hayashida’s car and raced to the dock. It appeared that the vice governor of Songkhla was about to make good on the threat he had delivered at a reception the previous afternoon to visiting Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and Pacific Affairs Robert Oakley, and more Vietnamese boat people were about to die.

Ambassador Oakley had flown to Songkhla to try to persuade the governor to treat refugees more humanely. I was in Thailand to gather facts about the Vietnamese boat people for a congressional hearing and had been given a seat on the embassy aircraft. When we had arrived the previous afternoon, Oakley had insisted that I attend the official reception where he somewhat grandly, I thought, introduced me as the special assistant to the commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

At the reception, the vice governor would have nothing of Oakley’s plea for restraint. After relating the long history of the United States ignoring Thai pleas to take Vietnamese refugees off their hands, he proclaimed that he would continue to force refugee boats back out to sea until the United States started taking the Vietnamese from the overcrowded camp in Songkhla and resettled them elsewhere in the free world. Oakley had been unable to commit the United States to take in the refugees and earlier that morning had flown back to Bangkok.

Hayashida and I hurried back to the refugee boat.

“Who is the captain?” I asked, my Vietnamese grown rusty in the decade since I served in Vietnam. After some hesitation, a half-dozen men rose to their feet and identified themselves as the committee who made decisions for the group.

“How many are you?” I asked.

“We are thirteen men, five women, and sixteen children from Phuc Quoc Island,” a spokesman said. “We are three families.” One of the men retrieved a map, a page torn from a schoolbook, showing in four colors the countries along the rim of the Western Pacific, and pointed to a dot off the southern tip of South Vietnam.

“We want to go to Australia,” the spokesman said.

I shot Hayashida a puzzled look.

“They know the United States won’t take them,” the vice consul said and looked away.

I winced but pressed on.

“Is this all you have to navigate?” I asked, astounded that they would set sail on a 2,500-mile voyage having only a map torn from an elementary school textbook. From the wheelhouse, the men produced a compass mounted on a block of wood that had apparently been salvaged from the instrument panel of a wrecked aircraft.

“What will you do for food and water,” I asked.

“Nobody eats much because we are mostly sick from drinking sea water,” the spokesman said, and I dropped the issue.

The men related that they had set sail as part of a larger group of 180 from their village. On their first night at sea, they had become separated from the other boats. They had been at sea three days, they said. During the night, their motor had failed, and they had drifted into Songkhla.

“First, Thai pirates, and then even Thai fishermen, overtook our boat four times,” the men said. “They take everything we have: three watches, two rings, and two necklaces.” The spokesman showed me the welts where his watch was ripped from his wrist. The refugees managed to retain a single US twenty-dollar bill that one of the men had concealed in his rectum.

I asked about the herringbone-like rows of welts on the backs of several men.

“We are fishermen and the Communists made us give them our entire catch,” a man said. “They would not give us back enough food to feed our families. We are starving. We tried to flee before, but we were caught and beaten.”

“Where are your clothes?” I asked, gesturing to men clad only in underpants.

“Each time the Thais boarded us, they beat up the men and raped the women and girls, right in front of their children and husbands.
They threatened to throw anyone who resisted into the ocean. Then they took the women’s clothing to shame them. Afterwards, the men gave up their clothing to the women.”

I looked at Hayashida; his grimace acknowledged our helplessness.

“We should take down their names,” he suggested. “Sometime, somewhere, someone may want to know what happened to them.” He retrieved a yellow legal pad from his car, and we began a task that I could equate only to a census of the doomed.

Our allotted time ticking away, my mind desperately churned for options. If the Thai gunboat started to leave the dock with the refugee boat in tow, I was certain I’d be forced to jump aboard the little fishing boat and be towed out to sea with them. Would the Thai sailors forcibly remove me, leaving my gambit for naught? If I succeeded in going out to sea with the refugees, and if a rescue failed to materialize or the small boat floundered, I could lose my life and have accomplished nothing.

But failing to act would leave me to face a lifetime of horror and self-doubt that I knew I would not be able to bear.

Or I could lie, try to convince the governor I had the authority to guarantee that the refugees would be taken to the United States. If I could get them into the camp, I’d have a chance to persuade my superiors in the State Department and the Justice Department to accept them as political refugees.

But would the vice governor believe me, or was this just wishful thinking? Ambassador Oakley had told him the previous day that the boat people were merely fleeing bad economic conditions, not political repression, and therefore were not eligible to be taken in by the United States. Any promise I made, valid or not, would not only contravene what Oakley had said but also underscore the shallowness of the US policy.

It occurred to me that I might be playing directly into the vice governor’s hand, but so be it, I thought. It appeared to be the only chance the people huddled on the boat had. There would be consequences for me. I was certain to lose my job and possibly would face criminal prosecution for misrepresenting my authority in an official matter, but there was no comparing a setback to my career with the loss of thirty-four innocent lives.

The pitch of the gunboats engines dropped. Sailors took their posts at the lines. The Thai official started towards Hayashida and me, signaling that our time was up.