Part 3: Drama at Phu Quoc Island
[As an update: I'm not yet sure if my Korea Times article
had anything to do with it, but a member of General Lee's family has contacted William's family and should be able to provide the information they seek in trying to track down the family in Busan who helped them - something I'm delighted to hear.]
April 27, 1975
I had never been sailing before in my life, but the blue Ocean was so beautiful and I really enjoyed the wonderful, fresh air. I looked around the deck and saw that Marines were helping everybody set up their own space. I found a little corner and with a little help from a Marine we managed to have an Army poncho put up to block the harsh sun that was streaming down on us. A pretty little Vietnamese lady with 2 kids and her Korean husband were on our left and a family of three, including an old Vietnamese couple, was on our right. Everything seemed to be cozy, and after a few conversations with the lady next to us it seemed like everyone on the ship knew where they were going before they got on except us! The ship was going to Korea as I expected. While it was still cruising at a comfortable speed, the Marines cooked ramyeon for everybody on the deck, and while I was having a bowl of it, at that moment I thought, “Life could not be any better than this.”
April 28, 1975
I got up very early in the morning and walked around the deck of the ship and began observing everything that was happening. I soon realized everyone on the ship had a very close relationship with a Korean. They either worked for a Korean or had a family member who was Korean. Most of them were Vietnamese women who were married to a Korean, and they were so surprised to hear that we did not have any connection to Korea but were on the ship. After that, I found out the reason for the chaos at the Korean Embassy gate was because the guards were checking passports and documents to prove that people were the wives or children of Koreans, or that they had some other connection with Korea. That was how they decided if people could gain entry to the Embassy grounds to wait for the bus to take them to Tan Cang and then to Korea. There were so many people there, I realized, “Good Lord, we were so lucky.” Those four patches given to me by Mr. Cho at the Embassy were like treasures. If someone wanted to take them from me they would have had to do so over my dead body.
By that time I think the ship was cruising at a comfortable speed because everything seemed to be so steady. The ship would never know how good a young guy on her back felt, sailing into an uncertain future, but content knowing for certain his destination was Korea, land of freedom.
April 29 – April 30, 1975
Drama at Phu Quoc Island
After a few days sailing on the ocean in perfect weather, on the early morning of April 30 our ship stopped, and so did the other. Everyone on the ship was wondering what had happened. I don’t think anybody knew where we were. Most people, including common people like my family and all the Vietnamese women with Korean husbands, were preparing for what to do, how to act, and so on once we arrived in Korea, but Korea was not that close. It had only been four days, and people said it would take a whole month to go to Korea by ship. “It’s not this close!” I thought to myself. “Where the hell are we?” I ran around asking but all the information I got was that we were at Phu Quoc Island - we were still in Vietnamese territory. I soon learned that the captain of the ship was preparing a small boat for the passengers on board without any relationship to Koreans or proper authority to be on board. After checking their passports and Korean documents, anybody without proper documents to prove they had the right to stay was to be taken to Phu Quoc Island to be returned to Vietnam on the orders of the government in Saigon.
“Holy shit - this is it,” I thought to myself. We were going to be sent back to Phu Quoc Island. There was nothing we had to prove that we had anything to do with Korea besides those four patches with some Korean words on them, and I was sure that in that situation the damned things would not help. My Sister had tears in her eyes and did not speak for some time because I ordered her to keep a low profile. She said, “I'm so scared, let them put us back on Phu Quoc and from there we can go to our father at Rach Gia.” My father was then still working as Chief of the National Bank in Rach Gia and she thought Rach Gia was not too far from Phu Quoc. I yelled at her, “Just shut up and let me think!”
It was then that two Korean men came to us and surprised me by speaking to us in Vietnamese. They said in a strong accent that they wanted to talk to us in the corner of the ship. I left my sister and brothers and walked with one man to a corner of the ship, and he said because they were Korean they could help us stay aboard if we had money or gold to give him. With a look of shock on my face I told him we did not have any money at all, and that all I had in my pocket was 16,000 Dong from my first pay packet, which was useless money at that point. He laughed and said, “What about on your sister’s suitcase? She must have some money or gold. Just give some to us and we will help the four of you stay on board.” He repeated that it was easy for him to help us stay aboard since he was Korean.
Even today I still wonder how the hell he knew that we didn't have any Korean relatives on board and that we didn’t have anything to do with Korea. I think he must have been a hustler who, after four days of studying all of the passengers on the ship, had figured out who was who on the deck and who had the right to stay and who didn’t. Knowing our situation, he must have thought he could make a ton of money before talking to us because he thought my sister’s suitcase was full of gold and dollars like the others he had approached before.
To his bad luck, we had nothing to offer, and by the look from my face he realized that we were as poor as rats, and he slowly withdrew to the other side of the ship. I didn’t see his face again until we reached Busan, when I saw him during our first week at the refugee. I said hello and then never saw him again. I think because he was Korean he was able to get out of the camp and go to wherever his home was.
The process of checking papers started at the front of the ship, and we were near the middle. I saw the small boat taking passenger to Phu Quoc Island, which could be seen in the distance. I began to panic and yelled at my sister and brothers, in the sternest way I had ever spoken to my siblings, “You all come here! Let's go to the back of the ship! Duyen, you’re a woman – as soon as we get close to the back run up to the captain’s office and tell him everything! Show him the patches Mr. Cho gave us and beg him to stay on board – do whatever you have to do to stay and do not worry about us! We will disappear on the ship – we’ll separate and try to find a place to hide until whatever happens, happens. From now on, you’re all on your own!”
My poor little sister with tears in her eyes walked to the back of the ship. We followed her until she just about got to the stairs up to the captain’s office. Then the Marine stopped us from going any further but let her go through because she wanted to see the captain. By the time she was on the second step my brothers had follow my orders and gone into hiding somewhere. Trying to find a place to hide on the ship, I went down two or three floors below the deck of the ship and then I disappeared too, hiding behind of a stack of drums.
Many hours later, or so I guessed, I couldn’t take it anymore. I got out from behind the drums, walked back up to the deck to see what was going on, and realized that the ship had taken off and Phu Quoc Island was nowhere to be seen. “Oh, no!” I worried. “Where is my sister?! What happened to my brothers, Bao and Phu?!”
Panicking, I ran toward the bow of the ship with the worst possibilities in my mind, worrying that I had lost my sister. I hoped my brothers were still on board somewhere because I had told them and shown them where to hide. On the way up to the bow of the ship, as I scanned the deck from left to right with my eyes, came the happiest second of my life when I saw my sister waving at me. She ran back to me with tears in her eyes and said, "The captain allowed me to stay on the ship with you and our brothers, but when I went out I couldn’t see any of you at all! I was so scared that that you had been sent to Phu Quoc and that I had lost you all! Thank God you are here!"
“Let’s go and find the Bao and Phu,” I said. As I had hoped, my two younger brothers were hiding in a spot under the stairs that I had shown them previously, behind a stack of big drums. They just came out and waved at us. We went and settled back in our old spot in one corner of the deck. The old couple and their son and the little Vietnamese woman with her husband were all still there. I don't think they had any idea the hell we had just been through. The mighty LST warship had turned from Phu Quoc Island and left Vietnamese waters with great speed, and was now sailing to Korea, carrying us to the freedom we were searching for. I found out it would be three weeks before we reached Korea, but I certainly wasn’t bothered by the fact that it would be a long trip.