One of the Vietnamese refugees rescued by RAN officers in the South China Sea 40 years ago has said his appreciation is “beyond measure”.
“You have given us a passage of a new life, freedom and happiness for generations more,” said Tam Van Nguyen.
The builder and skipper of the refugee boat was speaking as many of the 99 stranded men and women met their rescuers at an event held at the HARS Aviation Museum on 20 June.
“We were rescued by you, and thanks to your humanitarian efforts, we have been living for 40 years as free citizens in this country,” Van Nguyen said.
“I believe that, over the past 40 years, the members of MG-99 have been making active contributions to this country, partly in response to the compassion and immense kindness of the Australian government and her people.
“No one wants to leave their country, unless it is not safe to stay.
“Going to face the ocean in a wooden boat in poor conditions was a big risk of our life – surviving the trip was a miracle.
“Without the dedication, professionalism and bravery of the officers and seamen of HMA Ships Melbourne and Torrens, we would not be here today – we would have died.”
The event, on 20 June, was the first time many of the rescuers have seen the refugees since the incident in 1981.
It has been made possible by HARS’ Carl Robinson, who worked hard to track down sailors, air crew and officers from HMAS Melbourne and HMAS Torrens.
Van Nguyen himself was only 20 at the time of the incident.
“We are always thinking of them and wished to have a reunion with them,” he said.
“As a citizen of this country for 40 years, I found I have always been treated well and feel comfortable as a fair dinkum Aussie.”
The story began in June 1981, when a RAN Grumman S2G Tracker 851 aircraft operating off HMAS Melbourne spotted a broken-down Vietnamese refugee boat at dusk in stormy seas.
A total of 99 Vietnamese men, women, children and infants were crammed into the 13.7-metre wooden-hulled Nghia Hung, which broke down barely a day after its departure from southern Vietnam’s Mekong Delta.
It had drifted north-east for four days and was dangerously out of food and water with those onboard facing certain death.
Along with the RAN Destroyer Escort HMAS Torrens, the HMAS Melbourne launched an immediate five-hour-long rescue operation involving dozens of sailors from both ships, which brought all safely on board the aircraft carrier and given the designation Melbourne Group 99, or MG99.
Over the next five days, they were processed on-board and then disembarked in Singapore where most of them chose to come to Australia as refugees where, like so many others, they’ve had prosperous and successful lives.
Coming at the height of the Vietnamese Boat People exodus from Vietnam after the Fall of Saigon in 1975, the rescue received little publicity at the time.
But the remarkably cohesive MG99 have kept in touch with the carrier’s company or officers, especially then-Supply Officer Commander John Ingram, and held two previous reunions in 2007 and 2012.
And they would’ve had another low-key reunion for this year’s 40th anniversary if not for a remarkable string of coincidences since January with the discovery at HARS of RAN Tracker 851’s remarkable story after New Zealand-based marine artist Darrell White began research on a dramatic painting of the aircraft’s sighting of the stranded refugee boat.
His brother Glenn is a volunteer at HARS and maintains Tracker 851 as one of his regular projects among the museum’s vast collection of historic commercial and military aircraft.
News of Tracker 851’s discovery at HARS touched off a very emotional visit by over 40 MG99 refugees and family in mid-March and immediate plans for a much-larger reunion at HARS on Sunday, 20 June 2021, also World Refugee Day, to pay tribute to their Australian rescuers and the community at large.
Over the past three months and working with the MG99’s organising committee, former Vietnam War correspondent and HARS Media Unit’s Carl Robinson has worked tirelessly on what he calls “Rounding up the Aussies”, and was met with remarkable success tracking down sailors, air crew and officers from the HMAS Melbourne and HMAS Torrens, including several in iconic images taken by the carrier’s on-board photographer.
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