A Moment for Reflection

  • Issue 87 / May - June 2012



    Captain Bell's Rescue

    Ha-Thanh Nguyen

    "Captain Bell, there's something burning in the distance...take a look." "Lieutenant, they're stranded Vietnamese boat people and there are some dead bodies in the water around them." "Captain, we've been given strict orders not to pick em' up- you know we're supposed to only give them food and water but we can't pick em' up." "For God's sake lieutenant, orders are orders but I see what looks like a few dead bodies around their boat- the rest of 'em are gonna die out there if we don't pick em' up. My orders, haul em' in or we're gonna be left with a lot of blood on our hands!"

    Despite the extraordinary details, my story is quite ordinary. It is a story as quintessentially American as Henry Kissinger's tale of arriving in New York after fleeing Nazi persecution or Madeleine Albright's experience of seeking political asylum from the Czechoslovakian Communist Party. I was born in a Chicago hospital in the immediate days after my family fled Communist Vietnam on a 35-foot fishing boat. My mom gave me the nick-name "Nam-My," literally "Vietnam-America" for being her first-American born child. Thus, I was different from the rest of the kids-simply by virtue of being born here. Unlike my siblings, whose early childhood memories consisted of eating plain rice with salt and hiding in underground shelters during bombings, I watched Rainbow Brite and Transformers before going to school every morning, ate Fruit Loops for breakfast, and had a regular supply of FDA-approved whole milk at my disposal- a luxury from the standpoint of my siblings who fled Vietnam with my parents in the early 1980s. My care-free childhood was like any other American kid - roller-skating madly up and down the two blocks outside of my house that made up my entire universe of a playground, playing Slip n' Slide in my Latino neighborhood, fluent in Spanish slang phrases I did not know the equivalent to in English or Vietnamese, and catching fireflies at night on my porch. My childhood was bright and sunny and I had no idea at that time how different life would have been if it had not been for the heroic but excruciatingly difficult choice of one man out at sea nearly 30 years before: Captain Bell.

    Captain Bell was a U.S. Navy captain aboard the USS Morton DD 948, an anti-submarine weapons destroyer ship deployed during the Vietnam War. His life intersected with mine on a warm day 100 miles into the South China Sea on June 9, 1982- the day he decided to defy the Navy's orders not to pick up Vietnamese refugees. The orders he received to not pick up Vietnamese boat people made perfect sense: such practices would encourage people to continue risking their lives at sea to escape Vietnam. Yet, Captain Bell chose to defy these orders that day and through his single decision, I was born. After Captain Bell brought my family along with the other seventy other boat people to a Philippino refugee camp, my parents spent 8-9 months awaiting relocation to the United States. In the meantime, I must have been conceived because just days after leaving the refugee camp and arriving in the United States, I was born in Chicago without a single glimpse of this stormy chapter in my family's history.

    For as long as I can remember, mom went door-to-door in the freezing Chicago snow to clean homes and dad fixed bikes. Despite growing up in what later became a single parent household of four children with barely enough funds to rent someone's basement to live in, I had always felt lucky to inherit all of the anecdotal stories my mother recounted of her life back in Vietnam. But just like many first-generation kids from an immigrant family, I struggled to figure out how to truly live up to my family's expectations. Was I supposed to grow up and open a nail salon as 99% of the Vietnamese did in the United States? Was I supposed to do something more interesting with my life, something that would make my mother's tumultuous journey here worth it? Should I spend my life fulfilling my filial duties to my family or go off on my own, become a self-made [wo]man and pull myself up by my own bootstraps? The burden of the past weighed heavily on my shoulders and I was desperate to find answers to my questions.

    I searched far and near for answers, insight, and clues to unravel the past that I barely understood as a child. At 15 years old, I traveled and lived in Beijing hiking up the Great Wall of China and back down to the Yangtze River in search of any clues that would solve the mysteries of my past. In college, I lived in South Korea and stood at the edge of the demilitarized zone peering into North Korea to catch a glimpse of Communism at its best. Throughout my adventures, my family's story motivated me to overcome poverty and racial discrimination in Chicago's inner city, graduate cum laude from Northwestern University, and become the first in my family to attend law school. The stark contrast between my privileged life and that of my relatives left behind in Vietnam motivated me to later work with Vietnamese sex trafficking victims in Taiwan and to attend law school to continuing helping the most vulnerable segments of our society. From conception in a Filipino refugee tent to becoming the first attorney in my entire family lineage, I realize now that I would not be here at all had it not been for Captain Bell's decision, a decision which altered the trajectory of many lives out at sea that day.

    Most recently, this investigative process of piecing together my family history has helped me uncover the most valuable treasure I ever expected to find: Captain Bell himself. A casual internet search led me to discover that Captain Bell is still alive and living in sunny California. I recently emailed him to introduce myself as the product of his heroic decision in 1982. Nearly 28 years later through finding Captain Bell and uncovering more facts about what happened that day out at sea, I am discovering how much of a difference one person can make with even just one decision. My mother took a leap of faith by risking her life and fleeing Vietnam so that she would not have to live in a society without choices. Captain Bell defied orders to save a group of complete strangers in need. Suddenly, I realized that Captain Bell's rescue story was not just another one of my mother's Vietnam War stories of the past. Captain Bell was alive and by taking my own leap of faith, I could meet this man who caused my life be possible and now make his story a part of my own.

    With only 72 hours left to live, the only conceivable way to spend my time would be with the two superheroes who literally and figuratively opened me the doors of life: my mom and Captain Bell. As a single mother of four-children and a hard-working nurse now in her fifties, my mom spends all day and night taking care of sick people. She deserves the world and has dreamed of visiting the hometown she left behind in North Vietnam in the 1970s. I would book First-class tickets to Vietnam to tour the town she left more than 40 years ago and has not had the time nor funds to return. The best part of this trip would be that it could allow me to spend meaningful time with my mom, writing down the tremendous war stories she's lived through, using my art skills to draw a life-size portrait of the survivors aboard the USS Morton DD 948 on that day of their rescue, and passing my family history down to the next generation of Vietnamese-Americans. Next, I would give Captain Bell a ring and invite him to travel with me to see Vietnam, which has changed completely from the dark memories he likely remembers from fighting the Viet Cong during the war. I would organize a worldwide reunion for all of the ship-mates, refugees, and families connected to the USS Morton. The seventy Vietnamese boat people Captain Bell saved in 1982 and their children, grandchildren, maybe even great-grandchildren would all be in attendance. Aboard a beautiful ship docked near Vietnam, we would share our war stories, our sea stories, and our dreams for the future as Captain Bell's rescue story is really simply a variation of the same stories many Americans have been telling for the past two hundred years. Yes, despite all the extraordinary details, my story is simply ordinary. And through my 72-hour trip to Vietnam with my mom and Captain Bell, it would all end the same way it began: complete strangers out at sea connected together by the fragile threads of history.

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