Subtitles section Play video Print subtitles Ninety-nine got on that boat near the mouth of the Saigon River. Most people were below decks, literally crammed together like sardines. They wouldn't have known what was coming. Total Despair. The storms come on the second day, this was unbelievable. The boat was like a small leaf under boiling water. The waters get into the diesel compartment. And then blow up the engine. No engine in the stormy seas is the most dangerous That's when the worries start to creep in. You're at the mercy of nature, really. You had no control of the boat. And I just remember the swell, it was really huge, and it was just up and down, up and down. People were scared. I thought I was going to die. I think I never can see my mum again and my brother and sister again. Five days we was at sea. And then every single day, everyone don't know what to do, they just pray. It's the first time I've seen these photos after 40 years. Most of them gave me goosebumps when I saw them. Ninety-nine people has been hauled up to the deck is a big effort when they so sick, so weak. Me here, very skinny after days at sea. It's very emotional photo for me. I can say that my life has been blessed from the moment I've been rescued. Thank you, Australia. I was born and grew up in Saigon. My parents have nine children. I am number four in the family. On the 30th of April 1975 the north Vietnamese army entered Saigon ending 30 years of war. There were incredible scenes as thousands of Vietnamese crowded, pushed and squeezed to get on American helicopters leaving the city – the last escape route out of Saigon. As the Vietnam War ended their whole lives changed. A lot of people hoped that it would be a time of peace after 40 years of war. But just the opposite happened right away. Anyone associated with a former regime, military or civilian or even just normal people who seemed like a threat were sent away to re-education in camps. Myself, as the son of a republic soldier, so they still treat us as their enemy. And my dad and six sons have to escape. And to stay in the jungle for two years. In Saigon, there were extreme food shortages. There was no work to do. And it was just total deprivation. There was like, no future. No freedom of speech, no freedom of gathering, no freedom of practising religion, all gone under the new rule of the communist mechanism. People took to boats to flee. The ocean was really the only way to go through the South China Sea. But for most Vietnamese refugees their voyages were nightmares. Many boats sank. Many were attacked by pirates. I heard figures up to a million people fled and 300,000 or so perished in the escape. I was 21 in 1981, my father just approached me and said, 'Tonight, you have to go. Take along your younger brother and look after him'. You know, when you got that news from your father is very, very sad very nervous. You believe that you haven't a chance to see the country again. The parents, brother and sister and friends. I was 14-and-a-half when I left Vietnam. Because we lost everything my parents could only afford to do sent me on my own. I was 15 my dad said he will go after me, so he stay back there. So I got so frightened and sad. I was 13 when my mum call me and say, 'You go first with your brother and I will come later'. And then she starts crying and I just cry with her but I don't know where we're going. In the previous trip my brothers, four of them, ended up in jail. I was the first one to escape successfully. The Royal Australian Navy's HMAS Sydney heading for Vung Tao, Vietnam. On board are Australian troops and equipment bound for the war zone. My involvement in the Vietnam War began in 1965 to 1967. My conscience was very much troubled, in fact, by our participation in that war. It really achieved very little, but caused massive misery, especially to the Vietnamese. And I felt very sorry for them. Wherever I managed to go, in the ships that I was serving at the time I would make a point of visiting refugee camps. Distributing clothing, distributing books, make that a little bit of a difference and someone cares. To me it didn't make sense taking people out of a camp in South East Asia, putting them into another camp in Sydney or Melbourne. Just after I'd come back from my second tour of Vietnam I got myself involved with what was known then as the Indo-China Refugee Association in Canberra. You remember the Ho family. We had to actually allocate two houses to them because there were 13 of them. In 1981 I was posted to HMAS Melbourne. The HMAS Melbourne was Australia's only aircraft carrier. It was the flagship of the Royal Australian Navy. I was a commander and we were on passage to Singapore. We were 200 miles plus off the Vietnamese coast. At that stage, you could not sail around South East Asian waters without stumbling over refugee boats. They were basically running out of boats in Vietnam. There were so many boats just going one way and leaving. The dimensions of this boat is a little bit bigger than our boat. This one about 4 metres width. And we only have 2.7. Captain Tam was from a fishing village and he built the boat himself - to go fishing, ostensibly. But he built it in his mind for the express purpose of escaping with his wife and seven children I didn't want my children to grow up living under the communist regime, that's why I built the boat and planned the escape.42:24 Another big reason to leave is that my own father and mother were killed by the communists. 42:32 It was only designed for like 30 people and 99 showed up. They were like doomed from the start. Look at this! The first time after we slipped through the check point, I. I was sitting right in the corner underneath. They purposefully chose the night of the full moon because there were less patrols on full moon. And the first night was just about, you know, staying quiet and trying to sneak out as fast as you could. The boat was going at full rev. About six hours later the engine conked out. Luckily we made it out of Vietnam water. But the boat was just drifting in the sea. That night, as the boat got sucked into this this gigantic vortex. The boat was caught in this big spin, just going round and round. Dad was holding the steering and then suddenly lost control and the boat spin and then he just let go. The force of the water, it was just so strong, you could hear it, the sound was deafening. And I seriously thought that was that was going to be the end of us. That's when dad was really worry - he can see like death is coming. I sit next to my older cousin. So if I die, I got my cousin sitting next to me. I saw two merchant ships pass by. We shot up the flare to let them know we need help. We scream. We call. But no respond. Everyone was just so scared. People were crying, people were praying. The next day was calmer and then we saw a plane flying towards us. Again we set off flares, made some fire, some smoke to get some attention. We saw the plane. It didn't fly away. It make a circle. So we know it spotted us. I just saw the word Navy I said, oh, it's America! Everyone was just, uh, so ecstatic. I just looked to the sky and thank God that, uh, someone looked after me. The captain reported that a tracker had, detected a fishing boat, on fire, about nine miles distant. I was summoned to the bridge. And the commanding officer, said to me, I want you to take charge of the onboard reception. The Navy creed is 'For those in peril on the sea. Do whatever you can' irrespective of nationality, race, colour, creed, whatever. Just half an hour later, is a whole fleet of big ships coming to us. Everyone screaming. And happy. And believe that we will be rescued. By America people. I can't remember whether I actually just grabbed my camera and did the job. I may have been duty photographer that night. I'm just glad I did it. I'm so glad I did it. By the time the recovery started, was darkness and I just remember it was big seas. When we went alongside, we were the first boat there, the boat was just full of women and kids. They'd obviously had a pretty harrowing time. And they just wanted to give us the kids. They just want their kids to be saved. How on earth are you going to get 99 emaciated, weakened, seasick, malnourished people three to five metres onto the lowest point of the decking on the Melbourne. At first they try to let us climb up the ladder by ourselves it was hard for most of us to do it because everyone's so sick I heard the broadcast come over saying about they want to volunteers to go up the starboard ladder bay and assist with embarking refugees There was guys starting to carry kids, there was sailors climbing down the net, there was one sailor, all you see, all you see was his back of his legs leaning over the side of the ship, trying to get down as far as net to grab these people because we're very, very concerned that someone was going to fall. it was pretty full-on, it was pretty intense. We knew there were sharks there. We just couldn't see them. There was a lot of wash between the boats and we were extremely concerned that people would be crushed against the ship's side. That's me on the bottom there with my arms out because there's a guy from Melbourne in a harness holding a baby. And you think if he drops, you know, someone's gotta to catch the baby. It's just that's how it was just scary. 00:15:18 An just the look on their faces it's just stuck with me forever. I'd only been in the Navy two years. I was only 18 years old. It was a it was a bit of an eye opener. I remember thinking back then who would take a child in this? And then, you know, when you get older, mature and you realise that they are trying to get him a better life, yep. I was at the top of the ladder and making a very quick assessment as they were being lifted on board. That is a top photograph of John Ingram, he was everywhere that night. He was like a copper, directing traffic. Some of the first were first kids who came up were, you know, quite sprightly and very happy to see us. And then as the night progressed, as we went on bringing these people on, a lot of the adults especially were just exhausted, absolutely exhausted, to the point where they could barely get up to the ship. That photograph, when I took that, the thing I remember is diesel fuel. She stunk of diesel fuel and it just suddenly hit me that these people had been sitting in diesel fuel in their boat for all those days. I remember when I was carrying that lady, because when I held her, she was she was very limp. And I would sort of best describe it as like a semi-conscious state. They had been through a lot. They've been through a lot. I was able to climb up the ladder onto the deck and as I got to the deck my legs just buckled under me, so I swayed from side to side just like a drunk man! I was really, really sick and so I couldn't climb the ladder. Someone have to pick me up. I think that someone helped me to climb up behind me. 00:35:46 I remember I feeling happy, someone help us be alive. This was a formidable experience. And I'm absolutely full of admiration to this day, there's not a day in the last 40 years that I haven't thought about how everyone got out safely and got on board safely without any injuries or deaths whatsoever. The first shower was so great. We sing, we happy, we clean off everything after four days of trauma. The very first day, they gave us some singlet and a pair of shorts. The pair of shorts was this big! Nothing kid's size! But you make do. We made up as many bunks as we could, the camp stretchers for them all. I remember the big apple and the oranges. First time I've seen an apple. First time was on the ship. The ship had some toys in storage and John Ingram bought them up to keep the kids happy. Other sailors who had already bought stuff for their own kids they gave these Vietnamese children their own children's toys, you know. Stephen was part of a small group of men who came to me on the second morning and said, look, you know, we'd like to help around the ship. What can we do? Here they are painting a chipping paint, you know, doing the jobs I used to hate doing, you know, and cleaning tables. I felt that was very good for the morale. It was also important from the ship's company point of view because they didn't want to be seen as passengers. The next few days we just pretty much went about business as usual on the ship. We knew we were taking them to Singapore. Under international law, Australia was obligated to accept these Vietnamese as refugees.