Sunday, August 30, 2009

The Woman in the Boat Part Two

My visits to the boat people camps in Southeast Asia were heartbreaking, of course. They changed me deeply and gave me a new purpose in life. Not a singular purpose but at least one new purpose -- and that was to do all that I could do for Thoa and Huong(my translator in Chimawan) and others, but also to help them through existing agencies set up to help refugees. It seemed to me that the governments of Hong Kong and Thailand and Malaysia were truly bearing an unfair burden in the flight of the boat people and that there were many men and women of kind and good hearts who were working to solve the problem and to alleviate the suffering. One day after recording a conversation with Thoa, the burned girl, I walked to the dock to take the boat back into Hong Kong. Huong walked with me and waited and while we waited with a group of relief workers she began to cry. She told me that she appreciated what I was doing but that she also wanted to leave the camp, wanted to get to the West. Wanted to be free. She had grown up in Hanoi and had relatives in the People's Army of Vietnam and had suffered under American bombing and now felt she had earned the right to happiness and freedom. I still have the notebook where I wrote down all the personal information I could get on her. I turned it in to American authorities and tried to help her. When I returned a few months later I found her in the Kai Tak processing center, she had been screened in and was on her way to the US. About one year later she called me from Los Angeles to thank me. She was in the US, living in southern California, she was working in a beauty shop and she was happy. What a happy ending, I thought. She has these many years remained in my thoughts but I never saw her again and never heard form her again.

Meanwhile, I had daily watched the various international relief agencies -- at least twenty of them -- working their wonders in the camp. I remember in particular a young Filipino couple who taught music and singing to groups of children in Chimawan. He played a guitar and the kids all sang for visitors. Any visitors. When I showed up, unexpected, I became an audience for them. Of course they broke my heart. The teachers and the students did not understand English very well. All was phonetic with them. And so as I sat in a chair, an audience of one, the teacher played the guitar and his wife directed the singers, and they sang to me, what they called an American favorite, "500 Smiles Away From Home." I caught the mistake of Smiles for Miles, but hearing them sing that song made me cry for them and for me and for the whole world. The song was truer for these little kids if the word was "smiles" rather than "miles" because they had no idea what a mile was. Another of their favorites, devoid of irony, was "Leaving on a Jet Plane." This was their dream. Little did they know that the "folk" groups who performed and sang these songs would never ever visit refugee camps. They were far far too busy singing in Cuba or Nicaragua. But the children learned the songs and sang them, as Father Joe described it to me many times, with the voices of angels.

When I got back to San Jose between trips, my conviction, my strong and burning and singular conviction, was that this cause, the cause of international refugees and their suffering was one of the great causes of our time. I thought the world should know more, especially the US and especially California. I decided to do what I could to get help. I went first to the leader of one of the largest groups of exiled South Vietnamese in San Jose. This man had been a dean of the Saigon University Law School and was making good money by 1991 in his Vietnamese restaurant and in teaching English as a Second Language to students who seemed never to be present. This ESL program was sponsored by government dollars and there were many many classes and not many students. When I visited his office I saw hundreds of brand new text books shrink wrapped on pallets as new as they day they were delivered. He sat as always holding a cigarette between his thumb and forefinger and watching me as I made my appeal, warily. I told him as best I could the story of the situation of the people in the camps. When I was finished I remember his hissing reply: and I use the word hissing specifically. He looked at me and said, "Those people are not Vietnamese." I had expected many replies and denials but I had never dreamed of this one. I was confused. "What do you mean?" I asked him. "Of course they are Vietnamese." He shot back, "Those people are Chinese, not Vietnamese. They belong in China and not in the United States." I was both stunned and sickened. I had not in Asia run across such cold denial as I had among a fortunate and affluent refugee in the US.

I continued my quest for help and found several local "charitable" organizations holding fund raisers and gathering money to "help the boat people." I talked with the leaders and directors and found that the flow of money from donors and well wishers in America that should go to the camps was, well, elusive. It always seemed to evaporate when I sought to find out where the money was going.

When I returned to the camps again late in 1991 I went first to Kai Tak and Whitehead and was told there by workers for the International Red Cross -- unimpeachable sources, I thought, who were not in collusion with each other -- a story. The story was verified by some of the refugees who worked with them in the medical facilities of the camps. They told me that a couple of groups had shown up at the camps. Large groups of Vietnamese who had made it to the US in 1975. They arrived on air conditioned buses. One of the groups included two beauty queens, dressed not only in their large contest gowns but also wearing sparkling tiaras. They of course attracted the attention and fascination of the children and adults behind the barbed wire. The Red Cross workers told me that these groups had nothing for the camps and did not want to go inside and meet the refugees. Rather, they asked if they might "borrow" some of the refugee children for pictures. And this was provided in the expectation it might do some good. Several children were led out through the barbed wire gates. Everyone posed in front of the barbed wire, the queens and the businessmen and the fund raisers and the refugee children. And then to the amazement of the Red Cross workers, the children were ushered back inside the camp, and the visitors all got on their bus and waved goodbye. They left nothing for the camps. And they were never seen again. One young man in Kai Tak, who had very high hopes, broke down in tears when he told me this story. This young man, about 24 years old, was living inside a cardboard box in one of the barracks used to house the people. Since arriving in HK by boat, he had learned, Red Cross workers told me, 5 different languages, fluently. He already spoke Vietnamese, of course, but he had learned flawless Cantonese, Mandarin, English and French. He worked as a translator for the doctors in the medical facility. He expected so much of any western nation that might help and the uninspiring visitors from the US crushed many of his hopes. When I told him that he would become rich in the west some day, he laughed, and told me I was wrong. He said he would die a poor man, poor and unfortunate. I asked how he could think this being so fluent in so many languages. But he told me he was illiterate, he could read only Vietnamese. He said there were no language books available so he learned all of his foreign languages merely by listening and practicing. The reason this impressed me as well as the doctors and nurses in the camps was that this young man translated medical information flawlessly and seemed to have a superb manner and patience that would have made him a valuable physician. Yet he could not read. If there is a happy ending to this story it would involved a phone call I received about five years later from the sister of this young man. He was in Canada, Toronto, with her, she said. They had found sponsorship in and they were both working. She thanked me for what I had done. I did not ask her, but I did wonder what I had done? Told his story to others, I suppose. And someone who could do something, did it. End of story.

I do not mean to imply here that this was true of all of the organizations in America raising money for unassisted children and for boat people. The established international relief agencies were working wonders in providing clothing and food and classes and health care. The Red Cross and various Catholic organizations were prominent. But in no case -- in NO case -- did I find a single instance of an ad hoc agency established in the US to help the refugees or the boat people actually provide anything for them -- any money or clothing that was collected did not make it to those who needed the help. I questioned many of the refugees about help and assistance, many who were fluent in English also, and they knew of no group that helped them from the US.

And this is the rest of the story of the boat people as I saw them and I knew them. I wish I could have done more. I know that the people who worked with them gave their lives to the task and I can only hope that they are happy today in their memories. Surely, they earned a special place in heaven.

Father Joe Devlin, the Boat People's Priest

Transcription of above letter:

I Always Have Bad Dreams

This is my story, the unfortunate little girl on the trip to escape communist. My name is Nguyen Phuong Thuy 15 years old. My boat has 68 persons. I left Vietnam on May 19th, 1981. I went with my sister who is only 6 years old. In the morning of May 2nd my boat met Thai pirates, their boat has 8 persons and one short gun, they stopped my boat and obliged all the people going to their boat except some people who stayed in my boat to keep it and some very old(in which there is a blind woman), later they examined our bodies carefully to find gold, then they shot the engine driver but the bullet hit a very old woman and she died immediately. At last they obliged my people to go back Vietnamese boat except me and other girl name Dung, 2 Thai men kept me and one man threw my sister to my boat, then they also threw other girl(she is not belong to my boat) who was staying on Thai boat the day before to my boat. Then they used their boat hit my boat, so it was broken and sank, all of people(67 persons) were died on sea, in which there is also my sister.

I and Dung lived on that boat(first boat) about 6 days then they took us to 2nd boat, 4 days later to the 3rd boat, some days later we must return to the 1st boat and go on until the 2nd boat. I cant suffer any more, so I killed myself by jumping into the sea but Thai men knew and took me out(about 10 oclock P.M.)

2 days later they put me turn to the 1st boat. When I went back I saw a Vietnamese girl. I asked Thai men and they said they kidnaped her yesterday(on this boat pirates oblige and teach me Thai language, they said if I dont know Thai language I will be died; so gradually I can speak Thai with them), 2 days later this boat met a Vietnamese boat, they threw that girl to Vnamese boat but didnt killed them(because I request they dont kill Vietnamese more, they said if they didnt their friend will do but because my request they let Vietnamese go.) On the days later, I must go to the 8th, 9th, 10th boats, when I stayed on the 10th boat I saw Thai men robbed many things of Vietnamese boat and took 3 more girls, then they gave an oar to Vietnamese boat but all of people cried and begged they gave back engine machine. Thai men became angry so they used their boat(very long) hit that boat and people were died in the sea Even thought 3 girls stayed on the same boat(Thai boat) with me but Thai men dont permit me talking with them(they put me in a private room) until now I lived on Thai boat over 2 months. After 3 nights, they took one girl to other boat, 2 nights later they put 2 girls in front of their boat and shot them, I saw by my eyes 2 girls dropped into the sea. After that I asked why? They said because these girls dont study Thai language.

On the days follow, I was put to the 11th, 12th...14th boat, until on the 15th boat I met the engine driver, he is about 26 years old he said that because he has a pity on me so he dont move me to any more boat except the first boat(because this boat caught me first). I request one to let me go to the land but he said if he did I will accuse them and the 1st boat will kill him. However when he landed to sell fish, he dont kill me and keep me on his boat, after 3 times because he feared police knew, so he took me to his home and 3 days later I must return to his boat(now about September). Some days later he said on September 25th all Thai people who are Buddhist and have parents died must go back to their home and make some good things so their parents can go to heaven, therefore I will die because no one let to to the land or keep me on their boat. After some days thinking carefully, he said he will took me to the land because I dont want me died, later I guide me the way to go when I land in order to find police station, I want after him about 5 meters until I met policemen, he went away. Policemen took me to the police station, while I lived there his sister-in-law usually visited me, after 10 days, they took me to Songkhla camp.

Until now even though I feel safety because there are Father Joe, the camp chief and all of people here who are very kind to me but I can't forget the terrible sights on the sea especially the deaths of my little sister, I always have bad dreams....I wonder if I was died on the sea liked other people, may be it's better then...!!!??

Joe Devlin: The Boat People's Priest

Following his five-year ministry in the Mekong Delta, Jesuit priest James Joseph Devlin, shown above with some of the children he worked with at Song Khla in 1981, became the champion of the Vietnamese boat people who fled to Thailand. There were about 7,000 Vietnamese boat people at Song Khla (located on the east coast of southern Thailand) when Father Devlin arrived in 1979; the number soon swelled to 8,000.

San Jose State University Professor Larry Englemann met Father Joseph Devlin in 1990 while preparing his book Tears Before the Rain: An Oral History of the Fall of South Vietnam (Oxford University Press) for publication. Legendary among both the Vietnamese and the Americans for his tireless work, Father Devlin spent five years in the Mekong Delta ministering to and doctoring thousands of Vietnamese peasants. In 1975, he was one of the last Americans to be flown out of South Vietnam, and the same year he became the principal priest at the temporary base for Vietnamese refugees in Camp Pendleton, California. In 1979 he traveled to Song Khla on the east coast of Thailand, where he soon became known as the "boat people's priest," helping to care for the Vietnamese boat people who survived the trip from Vietnam to Thailand.

By 1990, Devlin was retired and living in Los Gatos, Calif. When the region's Vietnamese immigrants found out he was living nearby, they held reunions for him that were attended by hundreds of the people he had helped.

Father Joe Devlin died on February 23, 1998--Ash Wednesday. At that time he was serving Asian parishioners at Our Lady of Peace Church in Santa Clara. In several visits with Englemann, Father Devlin talked about his experiences while working with the Vietnamese people.

In the spring of 1975 things in South Vietnam fell apart pretty quickly. After the Americans left we worried how long we could survive without them. When the Americans were near us down in the Delta, I was impressed by them. They were high-minded young guys, tough and strong. They were as good as any Americans you ever see over here [in the United States].

So the Vietnamese had come to depend on these men. Their aircraft would be flying overhead hitting the enemy or going to the North, and we felt safe. I could not understand how we could possibly survive once the Americans were gone, and I don't think anyone else really believed that we would survive for long either.

Therefore, we were all pleasantly surprised when 1975 came around and we were still in existence without any major American presence. My colleague Father Bach asked me once, "Tell me, why did you keep us in the war for 10 years if you never intended to help us see it through and if you never intended to save us? We could have dropped out of the war 10 years ago and saved our men and people and it would have been better that way." I had no answer for him. I didn't understand it myself.

As I watched the advance of the Communist forces in March and April of 1975, I feared Vietnam would be partitioned again, as it had been in 1954, and that they were going to draw a line across the country just north of Saigon. I figured we would be able to stay behind that line and fight and survive for maybe a year. My feeling at the time was that if we tried this, then a lot of people would die, but the Americans, at some point in time, would come back and support us because they would see that we were doing the heroic thing in standing against the enemy armies. But I was wrong.

The South Vietnamese government and army collapsed completely. It surprised me. During the last days, if the entire nation could have left they would have, and we would have had 20 million refugees instead of only 130,000.

Someone from the CIA came to the village and tried to get me out and to Saigon. I went along because they ordered me. And when I got to Saigon I went to see George Jacobson at the U.S. Embassy and said, "Mr. Jacobson, please, I left my village too soon and I want to go back to it. Do you think you can help me? I don't want to run away like this." He replied, "I understand. We have a small plane going to Nha Trang this afternoon, and if you want to get on it, you can, and it will drop you off at Phan Thiet." So I got on it and went back to my people, and they gave me a big ovation when they saw I'd come back.

On the same day that I got back, however, the USAID [U.S. Agency for International Development] came to me and told me they were taking Americans out in two final helicopter lifts. They said they would take me. But later, when they came for me, I hid behind a tree so they couldn't find me, and they left without me. I watched them fly away. I thought then that I needed to stay with my people.

But then I started thinking, "I've got to get these people out of here. The enemy is coming down." Soon I saw our beaten armies as they passed near our village. They were a pathetic force. After I saw them I went down to see the province chief to talk to him. I told him, "I am going to take my people out. There are only about 250 left, but I'm going to get them out of here. And I want you to give me some protection when we go out, tomorrow." He said we were on our own, for his men would be fighting, and they could not escort us. It was up to me alone. I took my people out the next day. I got the money from the Catholic Relief Agencies; I had only $1,500 to get three boats to circumvent the enemy and get around the outside of their lines. We went down to Vung Tau on the coast and waited there.

I realized that the war was ending, so I went to the embassy in Saigon and asked them if they could give me a boat to transport my 250 people to some island where we could get away from the Communists. And the embassy representative, a friend of mine who worked for the CIA, said to me, "Father, we have some 200,000 people we have to take care of. We can't do it. Your people are harmless, and they're not a threat to the Communists. They're just poor people, and the enemy won't hurt them if they come in." I could see that he was right.

I tried to take my nurse out and a little boy who had helped me at the hospital. And she said she had to go south to get her baby; she went away and came back in about an hour. She said, "I can't get out because the enemy has the roads blocked off and we are trapped in the city. We're surrounded here." And I said, "Well, there is no sense in staying. The enemy is at the gate. They'll be here tomorrow. It's time to leave."

So on the morning of April 29 I arranged for the three of us to leave Vietnam. I really wanted to bring all of my people out. But what could I do, really? That was impossible. I tried to get a boat for them--I had the money--to have them picked up in Vung Tau, but now I couldn't even get out of Saigon. And I knew that even if I could get back to them and stay with them, my presence would be bad for them once the Communists came in. It didn't make sense for me to stay any more and put them in danger. I stayed at the Jesuit House in Saigon, and the Vietnamese Jesuits there had also decided to stay. But I was a controversial figure among the Vietnamese. I was an American and so I was persona non grata. I would be jailed if I stayed, and they would all also be suspect. I had to leave them, too.

So I eventually asked one fellow if he could drive me to the CIA safe hotel that had an evacuation helicopter pad on the roof. He said, "Sure, I'll take you. We may get stopped by the policemen, but I'll try." When we arrived at this CIA hotel, American soldiers were standing at the gate with rifles that wouldn't have done much good when the North Vietnamese came in. I said, "Hey, can I come in there with you guys?" and they said, "Sure, come on in."

After I entered the compound, I went up on the roof to wait for the helicopters. We were told that we could only take out one bag with our possessions. Some of the CIA people had bags of whiskey. They opened those bags and passed the whiskey around, and each of us took a parting drink. We drank it all. As we stood there, off in the horizon you could see a big plane bursting into flames when it hit the ground--there was a tremendous flareup. It was a big transport plane [see the April 1995 issue of Vietnam to read about the crash of the C-5A evacuation aircraft]. I saw it go down and I thought of hell when I saw the flames and smoke.

You've seen that famous picture of the helicopter landing on the roof of a building removing people, and the people standing on the stairway waiting. Well, if you could see closer, you could see me in that picture. I stood on that stairway with the others and waited and watched Saigon falling around us. Then finally a helicopter came and took us to the top of the crowded embassy and we got out of there. I remember that there was a tremendously big tamarind tree in the courtyard of the embassy. I watched the big Chinook helicopters come in, and when they came down that old tree was shaking back and forth. And you feared a little bit. But they came right down and then went right back up again, straight--just like an elevator. Tremendous work machines.

Then they asked if any of us wanted to go out to Tan Son Nhut airport; they said a plane would be there for us. So I went to the airport with some others. I wanted to see what was happening out there. I took my nurse with me all the way to Tan Son Nhut. But once we were there, she said she could not leave. I blessed her and wished her luck and she left--I never saw her again. We stayed at the MACV headquarters on the tennis courts, waiting for something to happen. Then the Marines came in and surrounded the place, and the big helicopters came in that could hold about 70 people. The choppers lifted off at about 6:30 that evening and took us out to USS Midway.

On Midway, it is pretty well known what happened. They had to push off some of the helicopters to make way for a small Vietnamese helicopter that landed the next morning. There were no Americans with me when I went out to Midway. I don't think there were any other American priests in the country at that time. I didn't see any on Midway. They transferred most people off Midway within a few hours. But I stayed on board. I told them I thought I might have been exposed to tuberculosis, and they sent me down to the sick bay to be examined. I was released the next day.

I was very sad at the time, and I can remember looking up at the ceiling on April 30 on Midway and realizing that a whole nation had gone under. Here I was safe on the ship, and they were under their new masters. I guess I felt lower at that moment than at any other time in my life.

While on Midway I thanked some of the Marines who brought us all out. I said, "Thanks a million," and I asked one of the Marines if they had had any trouble or anything. He said, "No, I was stationed in the embassy. We went into the embassy and we didn't have any trouble at all after we cut the damn tamarind tree down." They didn't cut it down completely, but they cut most of it down. The U.S. ambassador used to come and point to that tree for visitors and he would say, "You see that tree. That's a symbol of the strength of America." And then the Marines, almost symbolically, cut that tree down.

When I was on Midway I sent word to Camp Pendleton, where many of the refugees were taken, and asked them if they had any type of job I could do to help them. I said that I would appreciate it if they could give me work. I told them that I didn't need a salary, I just wanted to work with the Vietnamese.

I had come into Los Angeles and then went to San Francisco and then Utah. After I went back to Utah, they called me and said, "We want to get the Marines out of the job of being the chaplain coordinators with the Vietnamese at Camp Pendleton; we want them to go back to their Marine work. Would you come and be the coordinator for the Catholic Vietnamese in the camp here?" I went in June and stayed until the end of the camp that Christmas. The Marines were kind enough to let me be the chaplain in the camp, and they also let me sleep in the Marine camp.

I felt happy to be with my people again--the Vietnamese. They were sad, of course, but not as sad as the people who came out later on the ocean--not as sad as the boat people. The Vietnamese who came out in 1975 and who I worked with at Camp Pendleton were pretty much the intelligentsia. They were aware as to what had been going on in Vietnam, and they were very smart to have come out when they did. They all seemed to do well when they arrived in America.

There wasn't hopelessness there. The Marines were wonderful, and their conduct was perfect. The Marines were tough in war, but believe me, they were also gentle and kind to the Vietnamese and very sensitive. The Marines wanted to do the best possible job they could, and they wanted to have the best refugee camp in America. They succeeded, God bless them all. I was so happy to be able to stay there.

I gave sermons and brought in priests and bishops to help buoy up the refugees' spirits. And the Marines did what they could to keep them thinking positively. The food was terrific, but it was American food and the Vietnamese had a little trouble with that. But considering the situation, it wasn't really a serious problem. I coordinated the religious services and then tried to help them find places to settle. Organizations gave them clothing and tried to put them up in tents. It was a beautiful quarters for the Vietnamese to stay in on such short notice.

New Vietnamese kept coming to the camp, and the people I served stayed about the same in number. But the authorities wanted to clear it all out by the time the rainy season came around. Then, before Christmas, they sent the last ones out to Fort Chaffee, Ark., and then on to their own homes. All the camps were empty by Christmas.

After the camp emptied, I came to San Jose to help the new refugees here. I took care of the Vietnamese I could find around me. I took care of the poor ones that I found and got them food and a place to live. I taught English to both the adults and the children and tried to help the children in their studies at school, and I came back to the homes every night.

This was a daily routine. I went around to as many Vietnamese households as I could in San Jose and helped them. I went around and found out what the people needed and then tried to get it for them from various charitable organizations. I had once been a schoolteacher, so I always taught the kids. I took their books and went through all their work starting with the oldest child and then going to the next one and the next one and so on. I did this most of the day and night.

I knew when I worked with them that they would succeed in America. I knew they would thrive on freedom and contribute to this country and be good citizens. I watched them learn, and I helped them and thought how lucky they were to have made it here, but at the same time I could see how lucky Americans would be to have them here. I think anyone who worked with them could have seen that. You couldn't miss it.

Then somebody wrote me that my old colleague from Vietnam, Father Bach, was in a refugee camp in Thailand and that he was a camp chief. I expressed a desire to go there and help him again. I wrote to an international refugee organization and said I'd sure like to assist them, and they wrote back, "You can come over and join us and help."

So in 1979 I went to Thailand for the first time. I didn't know for sure that I could get in and stay there, but I went anyway. I went with an organization I had joined, the Thai-Catholic refugee organization, COERR [Catholic Organization For Emergency Relief and Refugees].

When I flew into Thailand, the camp I went to was in Song Khla, which was located on the east coast of southern Thailand on the Gulf of Siam. It was a camp that Vietnamese refugees would come to if they were anywhere along the beaches--it was a boat people camp. I was the only chaplain there. Money started coming in from America, so I could give money to a great number of people who came in. They could buy things at the little market right there in the camp. And I also gave extra money to rape victims--and there were literally thousands of them, mostly young girls--and to children who had lost their parents.

About 7,000 boat people were there when I arrived, and the number soon increased to about 8,000. People kept pouring in from Vietnam. Little by little they were processed out of the camp and sent to the United States and other host countries.

At the beginning we had about four or five small organizations in there. Doctors Without Frontiers took care of medical treatment for the refugees. And then later Catholic Relief took care of the medical supplies. The Thai government kept a tight grip on the camps, and eventually all or-ganizations except Catholic Relief were forced to leave. I was left there with Catholic Relief, and we were the only ones there for the next three years.

The Thais really were trying to get rid of the camp. They didn't want the idea to catch on that the people of Vietnam could just come out and resettle in Thailand. The Thai government wanted to stop that, but they never really completely closed the camp until 1986.

I wrote articles about the camp for a Jesuit magazine. The people in the camp were at first a mixture of boat people from all over. But as the years went on they became more of the poorer Vietnamese--peasants who were fleeing from the Communists.

Most people were never aware that a great number of the boat people died on the ocean. There is no way to tell how many perished. But some people estimated it six years ago at about 100,000. I would have said that about 25 percent of those who went out on the ocean died.

Each morning we would go down to the beaches and there would be bodies--men, women and children--washed ashore during the night. Sometimes there were hundreds of them, like pieces of wood. Some of them were girls who had been raped and then thrown into the sea by pirates to drown. It was tragic beyond words. We would pull them off the beaches and bury them and say prayers for them. This happened every morning. Sometimes I hated to get up in the morning, as the bodies were always there. I wondered if anyone else in the world knew...or cared. Sometimes people would somehow still be alive. They would be on the beach exhausted or unconscious. They washed ashore at night, and we revived them and held them when we found them. They thought we were angels, but we were just men and women who cared.

Of course the weather took its toll on the boat people. The boats were terrible. Sometimes the refugees would be caught by Vietnam-ese authorities and towed back to Vietnam and put in jail. But the pirates were probably the biggest cause of the killing. The pirates stopped nearly every boat. They searched for gold first, even going so far as to take it out of the people's teeth. The next thing that attracted them were the young girls. The pirates were concerned about getting caught, and the best way of not getting caught was to destroy the boat and the people in it and maybe even throw the girls overboard when they were all through with them.

Sometimes they passed young girls from boat to boat for 10 days or so, and they were raped hundreds of times. Then sometimes they tied them to ropes and pulled them behind the boats till they were drowned and cut them loose. Or they cut their throats and threw them in the sea, or simply just tossed them into the sea. These men were all fishermen, and they kept the girls with them during their work. Then they threw them away like garbage. And then the bodies washed up on shore or just disappeared into the sea.

We threw flowers on the water and said mass and prayers for those lost at sea in an attempt to commemorate and honor those unfortunate people. We always believed that so many died on the water that we had to try and honor them. When we learned that the pirates had killed everyone on a boat, we went out and would commemorate that day. We did that once a week while I was in Thailand.

I remember someone saying to me one time that the boat people were homeless. I was in a bad mood at the time, and I said, "No, the boat people have a home. It is at the bottom of the sea." That is where tens of thousands of them ended up. It was a tragedy almost beyond comprehension.

For the most part, the young women who made it to land and survived did pretty well. I think the primitive and rugged environment of the camp helped to soothe them and alleviate their trauma. When you put a person in really nice surroundings, then rape for some reason may come to seem even more terrible. But if the victim ends up in crude and primitive surroundings, the roughness of the existence lessens the feelings that she has about being raped. The rape victims were also able to help each other, since there were lots of others who had undergone the same experience. Most of them survived it pretty well.

They did feel that their own men, who came out with them, looked upon them as scarred merchandise after that. And that was the attitude that the men often took, that in some way the rape victims were not clean anymore and that they were damaged because of these attacks on them. And so they were shunned. That is pretty cruel and silly, when you think about it. I worked with the little raped girls, counseled them and had them write out their experiences, trying to purge them. It was very difficult. But many of them left feeling better. They found husbands and married and had children and the scars faded. They probably never completely healed, but they faded.

Then there were these strange pirates, too. Incredible. They thought the Vietnamese were gutless after they had captured them on the seas, I guess. They didn't realize that in their own element they were very strong. So they used to land near Song Khla and come into the camp several times at night and then try get back the girls that they had raped on the ocean, thinking nobody would resist them. They had to be kind of crazy to do that. Well, we seized them when they tried it, and they were arrested.

I just got a wedding card from a little girl. When I took care of her she was only 10 years old. And I remember, when I knew her in Song Khla, I told her, you went out from Vietnam, and you could have been raped or killed or drowned. But all of those things you risked for freedom, and I think that is pretty heroic. She said in the letter, "It would be good to talk to you again since I haven't talked to you since I was in 'kindygarden'"--that was the word she used, "kindygarden." I taught that class in camp. They were and are great people.

Some of the women who were raped became pregnant, and some kept the children. A number of them aborted them. The Vietnam-ese men didn't like the girls who had been raped. It was part of their culture not to like that. But over here they forgot it. And most of the girls once they got here got married.

A couple of the women kept their kids. But they didn't conceive that easily. Then Planned Parenthood came into the camp, and if they saw any girl who was pregnant from the ocean trip out they would offer them an abortion free. I had a little bit of trouble with them. I told them I didn't agree with them and said, "Don't do that to my Catholics." I said that if the victims asked them for information that was all right, but I didn't want Planned Parenthood asking my people personal questions.

When we finally got down to only 37 people in the camp near the end, it was a very dangerous situation because we had so few people and no strength in the camp. We got fearful of the Thai pirates who came in knowing there were so few people there at night. We were concerned they would try to grab the girls. So, secretly, at night, I went back to the camp from where I had to live--because the government would not let me stay in the boat people camp at night. An Indian relief worker and a Japanese fellow and I rode our motorbikes into the camp and stayed just inside the gate.

The Thai police didn't allow us in at night because they thought we might harm the girls there, but we actually were trying to protect them. We turned out the lights on the motorcycle as we approached. We had a signal telling us that we could come into the camp when the Thai police weren't around, and we went into the camp and stayed overnight and waited in the event of an attack by the pirates. That strength was important so they would not be terrorized again. We sneaked in every night for a month.

Now the police we finally got were pretty well-disciplined for the most part, because I had a very fine chief of police and his men were well-disciplined. I gave them money and supplies to keep them happy and that helped. We treated them nicely, and they stayed happy with us.

Finally my visa expired. The Thais wanted to close the camp, and they wanted me to leave. So I returned to the United States. When I first came back I hoped to go to another refugee area. But it didn't work out. That was it for me. They said I was too old. But I wasn't.

I never put what I did in a religious context. There is a famous expression: Primum est esse, quam esse tale. It means that before you become something, you have to first exist. With the refugees I thought it was more important, for me, at least, to try to keep the refugees in existence, give them being, before I tried to make Catholics out of them. Or whatever it might be. With Buddhists or Catholics or whatever, it made no difference to me at all. I was trying to help them exist. Because, as that expression tells you, you must first keep a man in existence before you try to make him something different. A man or a woman must be able to live first before they can become anything. So my effort has not been, primarily, a religious effort.

Because I don't like to change a person's religion. I want him to do his own thinking and then do what he thinks is the proper thing. But there is a very important step in his life first, and that is to keep him in existence, to hold him up, to be his brother. It's not exactly religious in the sense of trying to convert him to something. It is just to allow him to exist.

My mother was my example in this. I have always been most interested in holding a person in existence, more interested in helping them survive than in making them spiritual or in trying to make a Catholic out of them. I felt they have their own reasons for living and their own indeas of what they want to do later. That is their business. That's not truly mine, I always felt. But that's not agreed on by too many people.

I don't feel guided by the holy spirit or anything in my work. Not really. I don't look at my work with the Vietnamese from a religious point of view. I pray but not too much. And my prayers are not always answered. I never expected divine intervention in Vietnam. I just felt that God stands up and he says, "You gotta do your own work, fella. So do it." And so I did it.

You know these evangelists on television, they're always standing up and saying, "Oh, you pray and God is with you," and all that. All I know for sure is that you have to do your own work. God doesn't do it for you. He watches.

I didn't look at what happened in Vietnam in a biblical sense either, not in a sense of prophecy or warning or anything. I'm not a really truly strong religious person. That may be a dangerous thing to say, because people will take it wrong. It's hard to express it correctly. It's hard to explain. I just want people to live together and to live in peace and in dignity. That's all I've ever wanted. That's what my whole life is about. And I think that's what we're here for--to try to help people.

Many of the Vietnamese found a parallel for their own experiences in the tribulations of the Book of Job. I know that one of the young women who had been raped and beaten and then thrown into the South China Sea found comfort in the story of Job. She said, "Father Joe, don't you think that the life of the Vietnamese people is like the Book of Job?" I said I did.

And what did my work get me? Not many acknowledgments, I can tell you that. I got a bunch of plaques from the Vietnamese all around the world and a bunch of other things. I never received a thing from American organizations, though. But that's all right. What good are they, after all? You can't eat them. What would I do with them? And there is a danger in accepting those awards. You might come to believe that it is the reward for what you do. And it isn't. It should never be. That's not ever the reward for doing the right thing. When that happens you get your reward at the wrong time.

I think the people I helped remember me sometimes. I think I live in their hearts. That's a nice thought, isn't it--to live in people's hearts? I can remember their faces but not their names. I can't even speak their language. But I am sure they remember me, my kindness, my work, and I live in their hearts. If they remember me they will someday be inspired and perhaps do good also, and if they do, when they do, then what I did was worth it. Even if they don't, even if they forget me, it was still worth it, wasn't it?


Joe Devlin told me that American soldiers in the Delta near his little mission worried about his security because there was a high price on his head offered by the Viet Cong. As a result the soldiers not only left an M16 with ammunition at his hut (it was never used) but also provided him with a radio to use in case of emergency. Joe laughed when he told me that the radio call sign the Army gave him was "Waterwalker 2." He liked that kind of humor. Several times snipers took a shot at him in the countryside, he said, but the trick to surviving was riding very fast on that motorbike and providing only a moving target. He never feared death, I could tell. His only fear was for the security of the people who put their faith in him.

Hoang says:

11/25/2013 at 11:36 pm

Cha Joe is not an average Joe. He is an extra ordinary man. I met Father Joe 31 years ago back in Songkhla refugee camp when I arrived as a refugee. I were only 11 years old at that time and had no adult accompanied me execpt my brother who was only 2 years older than I am. He was 13 years old at that time.
My boat left Rach Gia on Oct. 25, 1982 carrying 32 souls on board. After 2 days and 1 night we encounter a very violent storm surges which causes the steering wheel of the boat to break and becomes useless and our boat just drift on the gulf of Siam for 14 days. The water and food that were reserved for our trip estimates 4 days ran out and becomes scarce. Each day we each person can have approximately 30cc of water. I thank God always because every time we almost ran out of water He sent rain so I be able to catch some and reserve it in the container. After 14 days we drifted to Ko Kra island and was picked up by UNHCR. We were robbed 3 times by the Thai pirates.
When I was transfered to Songkhla I met Father Joe. He was a very kind and gentle person. He is like a Good Shepherd caring and tending for the whole bunch of lost and wounded sheep. As a child I have seen and heard violence and brutality of the Thai pirates toward the boat people both by experience and stories of the surviors in the camp at that time. But Father Joe has made up for everything.
I remember I cried a lot because I were homesick and feel very lonesome. Father Joe gave me 2 aeroprograms to write home to let my parents know that we have made it to shore. Father Joe even gave me a rosary which I still keep in my bed room until now to replace the one that my mom gave me before I left home and the Thai pirates stripped from me.(thinking it were a chain of diamonds) My childhood memories of Father Joe is always sweet. I remember he used to go scuba diving and swimming on the beach of Songkhla after he finished saying mass in the little chapel in the camp and we all followed him and it was fun. He used to teasing us kids and ask us in Vietnamese Con mấy tuổi ? and I replied Con 11 tuổi and he replied Cha 8 tuổi. and we all laugh.
Thank you Cha Joe for all your kindness and love. You are always live in my heart and my fond childhood memories in Songkhla Refugee camp.

Love is patient
Love is kind
Love Never fails.