Across Oceans to Root Canals Pt. 1

By Naval Hospital Guam Public Affairs

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Editor’s Note: Editor’s Note: Cmdr. Vinh Doan, director of dental services, Naval Hospital Guam describes his amazing escape from Vietnam and starting a new life with his family in the U.S.

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Cmdr. Vinh Doan

In a world of make believe, a story filled with pirates, gun fire, stormy seas, and a mysterious submarine might make an exciting adventure, but in 1977, it was part of the real-life story of then, six-year old, Cmdr. Vinh Doan.

It began several years earlier when Doan’s school teacher father was commissioned in the South Vietnamese Army to fight against nationalist forces fighting to unify Vietnam under communist rule. Unfortunately, the South eventually surrendered and the country was reunified as the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. After the war military officers and educators were placed into re-education camps. It was supposed to be short-term, but ended up being much like a prison.

Doan’s father, Con, was placed in the camps for two years. His wife Yen was left to care and support four young children on her own.  After his release, Doan’s father decided there was no real future for his children in Vietnam. He then began planning their escape. Con wasn’t alone in his idea. Many professionals and intellectuals had already begun escaping from Vietnam. He and a few other like-minded individuals secretly met to hatch an escape plan. Because they couldn’t buy a boat and just leave they pretended to sell fresh water and other goods, so people would get used to seeing them down near the bay.

On the night of their escape it was much like Paul Revere and his lantern. In the dark the group, including Doan and his family, waded several small boats and canoes out into the water. When they were far enough from land compatriots on a mother boat lit a lantern to signal it was safe to board. In a scene straight out of a movie, their escape came to life. Once the group was aboard the larger vessel they drifted out to sea until confident they were far enough to turn on the engine.  When they turned on the engine, they heard voices in the distance yelling, ‘escaping, escaping…’  A patrol boat pursued, firing at them. Fortunately they were too far and escaped capture or worse.

For almost two-weeks it was smooth sailing for the boat, about the size of three small cars. However, no one aboard was an experienced sailor. The crew soon became disoriented and were lost at sea. When all hope seemed lost, they saw something in the distance that boosted their confidence. As they got closer, what they had thought to be land, turned out to be a U.S. Navy submarine. To Doan who was now age seven, it was surreal when the submarine’s hatch opened. Luckily, his father was able to speak broken English and explained their situation to the submariners. The Americans gave them food and supplies and pointed them toward Thailand. As the, days went by the group grew restless, and tension rose when their supplies began to run low.

During the time people fleeing Vietnam became known as Vietnamese refugee boat people, hoping to start a new life. Unfortunately, they were fell victim to Thai pirate attacks. According to some accounts assaults were often brutal. The pirates would rape the women, kill all on board, including children, and then dump the bodies out to sea. ”It was a scary time. We got pushed and hit, but nothing as extreme as some of the others you hear about,” said Doan. Because most of the refugees aboard their boat weren’t carrying a great deal of valuables the pirates eventually had nothing more to take. Doan’s group were robbed many times. When there was nothing left to steal a pack of pirates stole their boat’s engine, leaving the group to drift out to sea.

Dismayed, but not broken the group of refugees remained optimistic. After several days adrift another boat came by, but there was nothing for them to steal. However, to their good fortune it turned out to be Thai fisherman who provided them with food and helped pull them ashore. While making their way toward shore a Thai patrol boat intercepted them, instructing the fisherman to tow them back out to sea; far enough that land couldn’t be seen.

“At that point everyone was out of ideas. I remember my mom telling me they thought about making a raft from what was available on the boat and putting the kids on it and trying to swim in,” said Doan. So the group built a raft. When it was finished, just like they planned, all the children were loaded on top, but it wasn’t strong enough and the raft flipped completely over. The adults scrambled to get it back around! When they did all the kids were still there, hanging on, it was crazy.”