Continuing Perspectives’ week of Vietnam War commentaries, Lauren Vuong and her family fled Vietnam after the communist victory. Their harrowing escape by sea and ultimate rescue left her with a lifelong sense of gratitude.

37 years ago, I arrived in America, an 8-year-old Vietnamese refugee. We landed in Seattle where I saw snow for the first time. Everything was clean, white and light-filled. I thought we were in heaven. The first American I met was a little girl with blond curls and blue eyes. She looked exactly like a cherub. I was convinced we were in heaven.

My family’s journey to America is not so different from that of the Middle Eastern refugees today. My father, a member of the South Vietnam regime, was imprisoned for 4 years after the war. As a child, I was reminded daily that he was a traitor, that our family did not belong. Our persecution was ceaseless. There was but one option — escape.

We planned an 8-day voyage to the Philippines. We had two days of good weather. The rest are now a blur of the awful smells of human waste, the constant churning of my stomach, vomiting until I thought I would die. I remember the black walls of water that threatened to engulf our small wooden boat. I remember hunger and thirst so great they twisted like ropes around all my organs. During that time, 120 ships passed us by. None stopped.

On the 10th morning, the skies cleared. We had no food or water. Fuel was dangerously low. Landfall seemed impossible. Miraculously, a ship flying the U.S. flag approached. We were rescued.

Since that day, the image of the giant behemoth flying the American flag has become synonymous with life and freedom. I dedicated most of my adult life searching for the captain and crew who saved us. Their actions made me believe in American generosity and the conscience of the human spirit.

I was a child of war. I am also the beneficiary of extraordinary compassion. Having both perspectives, I know that compassion heals war wounds. It is the seed that cultivates a future worthy of believing in.

With a Perspective and gratitude, I’m Lauren Vuong.

Lauren Vuong is an attorney in San Francisco. This November, she and her family will travel to New York to meet for the first time the surviving captain and crew who rescued them.

Rescue 26 September,2017Amanda Font

  • Brittany Huynh

    Heart wrenching and poignant. You are the vessel for all of us who are grateful for those who never lose their capacity for compassion.

    • Lauren Vuong

      My only and true purpose for taking this on is to thank those who have come to our aid. How many refugees have perished at sea? We are the blessed few who survived because of the compassion of strangers. How can I forget?

  • Karina Jacobo

    Lauren’s story moved me to tears. But it was entirely too short. I need to hear more. Her perspective as a refugee is necessary considering our current world events.

    • Lauren Vuong

      Thank you, Karina. It seems that a similar version of the same story is happening again now. There is no reason that compassion I received should be an isolated incident.

  • David Hettick

    Lauren’s story of the tragic aftermath of that war, a perilous escape, unlikely survival and eventual triumph is an essential part of our history and a necessary reminder of how immigrants come, often against great odds, and make us better.

    • Lauren Vuong

      These are such kind words, David! We could not squander the chance at life that the LNG Virgo’s captain and crew gave us. We should also recognize the sacrifices that many immigrant parents make so that their children can know better than war, hunger and desperation.

  • Kenneth O’Farrell

    What a phenomenal story!! Lauren Vuong is a real Angel and her story about her escape from Vietnam and the Captain and crew of the LNG ship who subsequently saved their lives by rescuing them deserves recognition.

    We need to hear more about true world heroes like the crew of this ship who took it upon themselves to save people they didn’t know!

    Kenneth O’Farrell
    Calistoga, CA

    • Lauren Vuong

      We encounter unlikely heroes and serendipitous angels. Mine were 33 men going about their job. One happened to be on the last minutes of his 4 a.m. – 8 a.m. bow watch when he spotted us in his binoculars. That moment in my life was a miracle; every minute since has continues to be a blessing.

      • Kenneth O’Farrell

        I agree with you, Lauren! Thank God for each and every member of the Virgo crew!

        I’m very fond of the word empathy, and I’ve always been fascinated by human beings who practice it, including those who practice it without having ever heard the word pronounced, seen it in writing or knowing its definition. It simply comes naturally from a giving heart.

        The crew exhibited empathy for the plight of all of you in that boat by rescuing you, and their gracious act of kindness to fellow human beings in peril and on death’s doorstep deserves the recognition you have been working so hard to give them.

        Theirs was an act of unconditional love in the truest sense!

        God Bless Them!!

        • Eric Lindemann

          Wonderful story, Lauren. It needs to be told in schools.

          All the best to you


  • Greg Curtis

    Thank you, Lauren and KQED, for the moving story. I would like to hear more about the ship that rescued Lauren and her family. Why, when 120 ships passed by, did one captain and one crew choose to stop mid-ocean and render aid? Who were these sailors?

    • Lauren Vuong

      Greg, my boat was blessed indeed to have been sighted by the LNG Virgo. The ship was under the command of Captain Hartman Schonn, who was known to rescue many Vietnamese refugees. The company he worked for, the ETC (Energy Transportation Corporation), also had policies that did not prohibit their captains from coming to others’ aid at sea. I’ve gotten to know the mariners who were part of this corporation. They truly are wonderful, compassionate and generous.

  • Helen Wynne

    This is a very important and special story, Lauren, and you are so special to us. Not only did the LNG captain/crew save you and your family, they also blessed our family with you. It would be amazing to sit and think of all the people you/your family/other survivors have touched and positively impacted. You should be so proud of all your efforts. Love, Helen

    • Lauren Vuong

      Helen, I feel so loved being part of the family.

  • Long

    Vietnamese refugees are model examples of how parent’s commitments and sacrifices can lead to success of their children without any money and an English word to begin with.

    In the recent racial tension, I was thinking how Asian American had overcome the prejudice against them in the past 30 years without marching on streets, but instead staying at homes to nurture their children.

    I also wonder where is the American generosity after WWII. Are we so insecure now that we hesitate to extend our helping hands, like the other 120 ships passing Lauren?

    • Lauren Vuong

      Very thought provoking questions, Long. A strong democracy should be able to withstand questions like yours.
      The 120 ships that passed us were of different nations, not necessarily just U.S. ships. Many of them may not have seen us– it’s a fair speculation. But it’s also well known that many captains did not want the hassle of dealing with refugees. I am all the more thankful for the captain, crew, and corporation (Energy Transportation Corporation) whose policies allowed for compassion while conducting commerce.

    • AR in SF

      “In the recent racial tension, I was thinking how Asian American had overcome the prejudice against them in the past 30 years without marching on streets, but instead staying at homes to nurture their children.”

      Are Americans not taught history in school?

      I’m an immigrant, going on twenty-five years now, and even I’d be embarrassed to sound this ignorant about American history.

  • Tiger Doan

    Emotions can be felt through your voice. How brave of you to share your story! For once shared, it becomes an integrated part of you instead of a shadow from the haunting past. We are inspired to call on our higher selves to make a difference with our daily lives.

    • Lauren Vuong

      I’m touched that you understand how haunting the past is. Haunting, scary and lonely. I began searching for the captain and crew of the LNG Virgo (pictured above) as early as 1991. However, I never spoke of the escape or why it was so important for me to find our saviors until very recently. Memories can be so isolating. Releasing them and knowing that others experienced the same emotions have been cathartic and unifying. Thank you, Tiger, for understanding.

  • John Egan

    I am a 21 year veteran sailing aboard the ETC LNG carriers in the Far East. The LNG Libra rescued between 200-300 Vietnamese refugees during the 1980s. My best memory of this period, with the assistance of Captain Ismail Shekem and Deck Cadet John Janowicz ,was the delivery of a healthy boy to Vietnamese National Truong Thi Oan (mother) and Dang Van Truong (father). My wish is that this child, Dang Van Truong, has had as a successful and blessed life as has Lauren. The rescue of persons at sea is the most profound and rewarding act a seaman can experience. I was blessed with this experience a number of times and was able to feel the gratitude of those we rescued.

    • Lauren Vuong

      Hi John! What a miracle it was to welcome that baby boy into the world, one in which he will be safe and able to explore his every potential. I can imagine his parents’ elation.

      I am in touch with Mike Blanton, John Hartono, Bill Snyder, Don McClendon, among others who sailed with Captain Shekem. I am always touched at the efforts and great lengths to which the LNG mariners came to our aid. I know I am not alone in feeling deep gratitude to you all. I hope that you will be at the reunion in November so I can thank you in person.

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