COLLEGE STATION, Texas (Oct. 28, 2020) – Lt. Col. Lan Dalat has traveled a long journey since the day his mother, with he and his siblings, decided to escape from communism and Vietnam when he was only 14. It was then he found himself on the South China Sea looking for freedom in a new country.
Thanks to that decision by his mother, Dalat, who is now Executive Officer and Assistant Professor of Military Science at Texas A&M University, has had many opportunities he would have otherwise missed out on.
His journey began on the morning of March 8, 1981 as his mother, my three siblings and he crept along the edge of the Saigon River in Ho Chi Minh City looking for their contact to get out of the country.
“In tense silence we waited at a prearranged location on the bank of the river. After what seemed like forever, we slipped unnoticed into two fisherman’s canoes,” he remembered. “My mother and siblings climbed on one. Since being the oldest of my siblings, I was told to split up on another canoe with some strangers just in case of getting caught.”
As they moved out in early morning darkness, Dalat was hidden under the bamboo canopy of the canoe, but his school clothing stood out leading the fisherman to refuse to paddle the boat during broad daylight.
“I changed out of my cleaned school uniform into smelly rags found on the bottom of the boat. It was dreadful but I was able to blend in with the environment,” he said. “We covertly traveled during dark hours of the day - paddling along the riverbanks with shadowy tree line.”
Unfortunately, that wasn’t enough for the family to travel to their destination unharrassed.
“A day into our trip, my mother’s canoe was stopped and stripped searched by the river police during their patrol. All valuables brought along with the hope to exchange for cash once reached a new world were taken by the patrol,” Dalat said. “With much negotiating by my mother, she was released and continued with her exodus. It took another week on that river before reaching our larger boat.”
Dalat said it was then he and his family “I joined a new and growing demographic called ‘boat people.’”
“We were among thousands of Vietnamese who crammed onto small wooden boats and fled Vietnam. Not knowing the actual outcome or destination, we set off in a wooden boat hoping to land on a peaceful shore somewhere in the Pacific,” he remembered. “From the relatively still river, we pushed off into the sea. It was rough going. Day and night, the waves lifted our unseaworthy wooden boat and crashed it down again and again. The engine sputtered and the boat shuddered with each wave it survived. Day after day, the sea seemed determined to end our journey. Yet we plowed forward toward an unknown destination.”
Dalat said after five days of the pounding waves, the small boat’s engine protested one last time and stopped.
“We were without power and adrift on the open sea. Soon the food and water supply ran low. In small circles, people began quietly, seriously discussing the implications of cannibalism for our ultimate survival,” he said. “The remaining water was rationed down to one soft drink cap full a day. Even with this severe rationing the water supply ran out two days later. Dehydration and severe hunger caused massive hallucinations among the boat people.”
“Shortly after that, my mother pulled out her compact mirror to seek help. It wasn’t clear if she actually saw an airplane flying high above or was just hallucinating,” Dalat shared. “Nonetheless, she said she saw something and pulled out her mirror attempting to signal the plane using the reflection of the sunlight. Days went by and nothing happened.
Dalat said the boat carrying 138 people remained adrift on the South China Sea For the next seven days.
“Hope for survival dwindled. Now there was no wind, no waves and no land anywhere around our boat,” he said. “Fear was palpable throughout the boat. It was the dread of a painfully slow death that everyone wanted to avoid. Facing a critical juncture, some openly discussed suicide as a better alternative to dying of starvation and exposure.”
Then early on the morning of March 20, 1981, everyone on the boat was awakened by a deafening noise.
“Two low-flying jets roused everyone from our miserable sleep. Those who could speak uttered the questions aloud that some were too weak to muster,” Dalat said. “Was it hallucination? From what country are those jets? Are they Russian or Chinese? Suddenly three shots rang out from the boat’s bow. A defecting soldier had fired three rounds into the sky from his AK47 assault rifle. He attempted to signal the aircraft to return with his makeshift SOS message.”
“’They are definitely real,” a man in his 40’s shouted confidently. “Those are Americans and we are saved!’” Dalat remembered. “The pronouncement sparked a wild excited cheer. The hidden energy from being near death suddenly emerged and triggered the impulse for survival.”
The jets disappeared over the horizon and never returned. Dalat said anxiety quickly set in as everyone waited for the jets to return.
“I forgot about the hunger. I forgot about the thirst. I was so excited about the possibility of being rescued,” he said. “On that very hot and dry day on the surface of the calm sea, I vigorously scanned the horizon for any sign of the planes. The sun began to lower toward the horizon. The adrenalin rush was consumed. Our hopes for rescue faded and our morale diminished. Most of us stared blankly toward the horizon with disbelief and disappointment.”
“Suddenly, a voice cried out, ‘I can see the ships. Over there! Over there!’ I could not see what was causing the commotion. Everyone craned their necks trying to spot the ships,” he went on to share. “Noise inside the boat began to increase as excitement once again filled the air.”
“In the port hole across from me, I was able to see for a brief second a fleet of ships sailing slowly on the horizon. Pure excitement rushed through my body as I screamed out while looking at my mother and siblings. “I can see the ships!”