Family travels to Biloxi to thank Navy crew who saved their lives

BILOXI, MS (WLOX) - The Nguyen Phuoc children and grandchildren seemed pretty excited about a reunion dinner Friday night. They came from Florida, Oklahoma and Colorado. But they weren't there for any typical family get-together. They gathered in Biloxi to reunite with the men who saved their lives.

"We had no idea where we would end up. The boat engine wasn't working. We just floated along with the wind," said Nga Le Nguyen Phuoc of Tampa, FL.

The year was 1983. Lu Vinh and Nga Le Nguyen Phuoc, their three sons, and three daughters were drifting on an overcrowded boat in the middle of the Gulf of Thailand. They were fleeing the brutality of the Communist Vietnamese government.

"We knew it would be dangerous, but one, we all live together, or two, we all die together," Nguyen Phuoc.

During the Vietnam War, Mr. Nguyen Phuoc was a Major in the South Vietnamese Army. When Saigon fell into North Vietnamese hands in 1975, he was thrown into what the family calls a concentration camp. He was released six years later.

"My family would never have been able to live under communist rule. That's why we decided to leave the country. Because if we had stayed, the government would find ways to make life very difficult for us," said Nguyen Phuoc.

So the couple made the daring decision to escape, sharing a small boat with more than 165-other people. They didn't get far. The boat engine stalled on the third day.

Amazingly, 13 vessels passed by their boat, yet not one bothered to stop and help. On the seventh day, they ran out of food and water, along with hope of ever making it out alive.   That's when they saw an incredible sight, a U.S. Navy ship heading toward them.

"Oh my goodness, we were all thanking the heavens. We were so happy, because we thought we were all going to die. I can't even begin to describe that excitement," said Nguyen Phuoc.

It was a chance encounter. The USS Sterett, a guided missile cruiser, and her crew of 350 men, were heading to Thailand for a military exercise. That's when they spotted the stranded boat. The Sterett's Captain, George Sullivan, made the call to rescue the helpless Boat People.

"They were in distress, indicating they were in distress, and because of the basic Law of the Sea: Mariners take care of mariners. So we stopped," said Sullivan. "It was surprising to see the number of people come out of that small boat, no doubt about that. And the conditions were not very good."

The retired captain shared some of those memories with his former crewmen this weekend. The veterans were in Biloxi for the bi-annual Sterett reunion. Also attending the get together for the very first time was the Nguyen Phuoc family.

"All these years, I have wanted to find the boat, the crew and the captain to thank them," said Nguyen Phuoc. "Because my children have successful careers, and we have freedom now. We can't wait to meet them."

The opportunity came at a reunion dinner at an Ocean Springs restaurant. Mrs. Nguyen Phuoc beamed as she shook Captain Sullivan's hands.

"Very nice to meet you," Sullivan said to her.

"It's been 28 years since I've seen them," said Nguyen Phuoc. "I'm so emotional right now. I'm very happy to see everyone here today. I wish my husband could be here with us."

Mr. Nguyen Phuoc passed away in January. His family expressed the words he longed to say to the crew of the Sterett, who transported them to freedom and a better future in America.

"We would like to thank you for your generosity, your decision to rescue our boat," Liennhu Laihuyen read from a letter. "You bring light to the world and your kindness has changed our lives forever.  Please accept our sincere appreciation from my mom and all of us to all of you."

"Thank you! Thank you so much," Sullivan responded.

The family presented Captain Sullivan with a plaque of appreciation.  They also handed out shirts to him and his crew. The shirts were made by the family's clothing manufacturing business in Tampa, FL.

While the Nguyen Phuoc family calls the men their heroes, the captain and his crew disagree.

"These people got in a boat that was unseaworthy, overcrowded, 50-50 chance of survival going out in the South China Sea, so they could escape the government in Vietnam. They're the real heroes here, not us," said Steve Hayes, a former USS Sterett Crewman.

The Sterett rescued two other boats in 1982 and 1983, pulling a total of 275-refugees to safety. It's no wonder the refugees refer to her as the "Angel of the Pacific."

The USS Sterett received three Humanitarian Awards for her efforts to rescue the refugees.    Many of those rescued also attended the reunion in Biloxi this weekend. The captain said all the refugees have led successful lives in the U.S., including a woman who holds a PhD in Molecular Biology and is now working at the University of Chicago.

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