Emotional rescue, emotional reunion

In 1982, the third time Tuyen Vu and her husband tried to escape from communist Vietnam, they squeezed into the bottom of a crowded fishing boat, feeding their small son and daughter sleeping pills to keep them quiet.

But the engine died 150 miles off the coast. As a storm brewed and other refugees frantically bailed water, Vu curled up with her infant son, sure they would die. Then Corwin “Al” Bell, captain of the USS Morton, spotted their boat and, defying orders, took 52 exhausted men, women and children on board.

“I was pinching my ears to make sure it was real,” said Vu, now a slender woman in her early 50s.

On Friday, in a Best Western hotel in Virginia Beach, Vu and Bell met for the second time.

“Hi!” said a burly man with silver hair as he lumbered into a conference room. Vu and her four children jumped from their chairs.

“It’s an honor to meet you,” she said. “Thirty years ago . . .” She trailed off and executed a small, formal bow to the captain. “You look the same.”

“I’m a little bit fatter,” replied Bell, 69, who served in the Vietnam War and is now retired.

Vu was pregnant at the time of the rescue. Arriving in the United States after a short stop in a camp in the Philippines, she had a daughter, Ha-Thanh Nguyen. She nicknamed her “Nam-My,” which means “Vietnam-America.”

She had another son; her husband eventually returned to Vietnam, and she stayed in Chicago, earned a nursing degree and put her children through college. Their family album contains a souvenir postcard of the Morton, which she received after the rescue.

“I put it on the very first page,” Vu said, “and said, ‘This is our savior.’ ”

It was Nguyen who found Bell. A third-year student at George Washington University’s law school, she asked her mother for the ship’s name before applying for a job. A Google search led to the captain’s name. In September, she sent him an e-mail:

“I am the daughter of one of the families you saved in June of 1982. I cannot believe it has taken me this long to say this to you, but Thank You . . . The entire trajectory of my life has been changed because of what you did that one day.”

Nguyen told Bell how she had grown up hearing bedtime stories about the rescue, and he invited her to speak at a reunion in Virginia Beach for crew members of the ship, which was decommissioned a few months after the rescue.

But the date fell on the weekend of Nguyen’s graduation, and coordination — with family flying in from around the country and events scheduled — seemed difficult.

“Then my mom said, ‘He saved our lives. How could we not go? We have to do this,’ ” Nguyen said.

In the conference room, Vu told Bell about her family’s escape. As her boat chugged past a government checkpoint, she recalled, 1-year-old Huy was awakened by the smell of engine fuel and began to cry; other passengers threatened to throw him overboard until Vu quieted him.

Around sunset on June 9, the Morton was heading from the Gulf of Thailand to the Philippines for repairs when the lookout spotted a tiny light: The refugees had set a shirt on fire to get the ship’s attention.

Bell had orders not to pick up boat people, who routinely struck out to sea to escape communist rule. “You couldn’t perform your mission if you were carrying around hundreds of Vietnamese refugees, and it would encourage others to risk their lives,” he explained.

Whichever country’s vessel picked up boat people, Bell added, was required to take them in, and governments did not want to become destinations for waves of refugees.

“All eyes were on me,” recalled Bell, who was accompanied Friday by his 39-year-old son and a former crew member. The rickety 35-foot fishing boat was carrying 10 times its normal human cargo, the deck only four inches above water.

“Can you imagine just leaving something like this in the middle of the ocean?” Bell said. “I was thinking, ‘These people are going to be dead if we don’t rescue them.’ ”

He’d been second in command on another ship that had run across a group of refugees. “I gave them food and water and sent them on their way and said, ‘The Philippines is that way,’ ” he said. “I felt bad about that.” That came to his mind when he ran across not only Vu’s boat but another, earlier on that voyage, that was carrying 18 Vietnamese men.

He ordered his crew to pick up both boatloads. “I told my executive officer, ‘We’re in for it now.’ ”

The Morton, a 415-foot destroyer, “was like a big, huge, shiny, well-decorated elephant compared to what we were in,” Vu said. Once safe, she watched as the U.S. sailors sank the fishing vessel.

“When they shot our little boat and it was spinning, spinning, I thought, ‘This is real. I don’t know where we’re going, but we’re not going back to the communists.’ ”

Instead, Vu and Bell recalled the kids eating hot dogs and scampering around the ship in Bell’s oversize marathon T-shirts. “It was like freedom in my hand,” Vu said.

For years, Bell thought little about the rescue; he was subtly rebuked, he said, but not heavily disciplined for his actions. Over the past decade, however, a string of reunions has brought the events to the forefront of his memory — Vu and her family were the latest.

“It really gives me a warm, fuzzy feeling,” said Bell. “I had totally forgotten about it, but now it’s a really important factor in my life, and I get a real thrill every new discovery of someone that was rescued.”

He has attended the wedding of one child he rescued. And he has written about the rescue online and for a book he is working on about life at sea.

Nguyen, whose family will watch her graduate Sunday and who has been hired by a District law firm, does not regret missing some graduation events.

“I realized that this is a story that is not just about the 1982 rescue,” she said. “It’s about humanity and the importance of sometimes making an exception.”

“It’s a story about doing the right thing,” her mother said softly.

Tara Bahrampour, a staff writer based in Washington, D.C., writes about aging and mental health.
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