Phil and Dorothy with With Madame Uyen, 98 years old, Khanh's mother.

Knowing these Vietnamese Boat people is a ‘privilege’ – Uckfield family

Phil McKiernan tells the inspirational story of a group of Vietnamese Boat People who were rescued by a tanker vessel he served on in the South China Sea. Phil and his wife, Dorothy, have recently joined the family of one member of the group for the Tet celebrations in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon).

In 1980, teenage Khanh was living in liberated Saigon five years after the Communist victory, reunification and living a life of religious repression.

A conquering Communist regime had, as its first priority, to weed out any sort of resistance –intellectuals, capitalists, American sympathisers, Catholics, teachers, historians.

Vietnamese Boat People

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If not eliminated, they would be denied freedoms, re-educated, rehabilitated, taught to admit the error of their ways and converted to the New Way.

Khanh had 23 other Catholics fleeing persecution; from an old man, Xung Vu, to a babe-in-arms, Baby Linh, hiding under the floor of a floating house in Tung Vau.

Setting off, hidden, in a small, rickety boat, they set sail through the army, police and coast guard patrols towards the open sea. Khanh managed to convince the patrols he was merely fishing.

They got away with it.

The next obstacle was avoiding Thai pirates who, in collusion with the patrols, were only interested in the younger women. Many of the group’s friends following, the same route, have never been heard of again.

Out into the unknown of the South China Sea they sailed, not knowing what awaited them.

After some days, hungry and skinny, having lost their water supplies, they entered the shipping lanes where they and other boats were ignored, despite their obvious plight.

They were spotted by Phil’s colleagues on Canadian Pacific tanker, mv Port Hawkesbury.


Vietnamese Boat People

Dorothy McKiernan with Khanh’s sister, Madame Cung, nieces, nephews and family, Tet 2015

They had one more obstacle, however.

The refugee boat was, maybe three tons. The tanker, at the time the world’s largest (at 253,000 tons – it would now be considered a mere tiddler) was 70ft out of the water. That is a long way up a rope ladder.

They all made it to safety and, as the English say, here begins another story – 24 of them.

The South China Sea, February 1980.

With all  24 safely aboard, our Indian crew set about getting them fed and we spread  them around any spare cabins we had, putting most of the girls into our two-bed hospital.

The captain’s wife, Annie, took the girls under her wing to her great merit and six of the boys decided to camp out in the second engineer’s office.

Picking up refugees, never mind the “law of the sea”, is an expensive process leading to costly delays and upheaval which is why many turned a blind eye.

Our ship was registered in Bermuda and so it was their responsibility to take in the refugees. For some reason, I know not of, they did not nor did the Japanese where we made our next call.

We were scheduled for a five-week repair period in Singapore where the people were wonderfully kind to the refugees but were unable to take them at that time.

Vietnamese Boat People

Dorothy with Lieu, Khanh’s sister and niece Mai Thu

The group was confined to the ship, no easy life.

The boys, already imbued with the work ethic which would stand them so well later, managed to escape ashore and get work on construction sites etc.

Five weeks were very uncomfortable for them while the UN High Commissioner for Refugees was at work behind the scenes.

As we left Singapore, they were all taken to a refugee camp in the old Royal Navy barracks and that, we thought, was the end of the story.

Vietnamese Boat People

Lhanh, second left, in 1980. Mai, now from Calgary, is first left.

Some while later, some of the boys got in touch from a children’s home in Southampton.

Others of the group had been resettled wherever they already had family: Australia, France, Canada, the US but six boys were left over and found themselves, freezing, in Sunshine House.

We have met a lady, Mai, then a teenager now a grandmother who lives in Calgary. She is a renowned yachtswoman having spent nine year sailing around Fiji and the Pacific Islands. Her husband happens to have escaped Czechoslovakia on the day the Russians invaded.

Of those settled in England, as far  as I am aware, none of them ever drew any kind of state benefits, welfare, but all grabbed with both hands every opportunity to study at school and this really shows in their children today.

One, Pham, was sponsored, by a titled Lady, to attend Ampleforth Abbey then Durham University eventually being ordained a Benedictine priest. He now runs a mission in Zimbabwe.

Of the others, they took menial jobs where they could find them – van driving, the rag trade, noodle making – in order to provide for their children’s education and to instil in them the work ethic which would drive them all to great things from their humble beginnings.

Today their children number a few PhDs, one is a lead cancer nurse, another retrains teachers in failing primary schools. The younger ones are still studying but their elder siblings also number a police officer, an adviser to David Cameron, a senior accountant at BP and another teacher.

All are a great example to everyone, perhaps our own children and those who seem to complain all the time how hard life is.

I am privileged to know these people.

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