Hon­or­ing the man who res­cued them

Los Angeles Times - - CALIFORNIA - By Anh Do

The tem­per­a­ture hov­ered around100 un­der a blis­ter­ing sun as the Navy cargo ship Robert E. Peary churned across the open sea off the coast of Malaysia.

When a look­out spot­ted a small fish­ing boat on the hori­zon, Bill Mathis — the naval ves­sel’s com­man­der —or­dered­his crew to head in its di­rec­tion.

It was 1979, four years af­ter the fall of Saigon. But refugees were still flee­ing Viet­nam any­way they could.

The res­cuers found 448 peo­ple pressed into the 55- foot boat, some cling­ing to its rails. There was no food, no wa­ter — only a fleet­ing hope that the refugees might some­how make it to free­dom.

Mathis’ de­ter­mi­na­tion to res­cue those on board changed mar­itime law and es­tab­lished him as a hero in Lit­tle Saigon, the largest and best-known of the Vietnamese Amer­i­can en­claves that sprang up across the U.S. as im­mi­grants ar­rived.

But un­til he was hon­ored re­cently in South­ern Cal­i­for­nia, Mathis— a now-re­tired rear ad­mi­ral who lives near Pen­sacola, Fla. — did not

have a full un­der­stand­ing of his heroic rep­u­ta­tion in a com­mu­nity so far from his own home.

Hun­dreds ap­plauded him dur­ing an im­mi­grant gath­er­ing, he was in­ter­viewed on Vietnamese tele­vi­sion, and he was fea­tured on “Paris By Night,” the long-run­ning Vietnamese va­ri­ety show.

At the gath­er­ing was My Lan To, who was 16 when crew mem­bers pulled her and her fam­ily aboard the Navy ship.

“What­ever you saw in the movies, we ex­pe­ri­enced much­worse,” To said. “I can­not think of how it might have ended, if not for the ad­mi­ral.”

Though it was decades ago, the mem­o­ries came back quickly.

“I will not for­get the ter­ror of the vic­tims,” Mathis said. “They were de­hy­drated, the heat and stench un­bear­able. There were two preg­nant ladies and a 4-day­old baby born in tran­sit. Four days old — can you imag­ine?”

To said she was con­vinced all of them­would die.

A day af­ter he first spot­ted the boat on May 6, 1979, Mathis said he still did not have clear­ance to res­cue the refugees. U.S. re­la­tions abroad were strained, and he re­called govern­ment of­fi­cials be­ing “very leery of al­low­ing unau­tho­rized refugees into the U.S.” at a time when thou­sands were pour­ing out of Viet­nam af­ter the war.

Two days later, Mathis fi­nally got ap­proval— with or­ders to con­tinue to Thai­land, where his pas­sen­gers would be handed over to a United Na­tions hu­man­i­tar­ian as­sis­tance team. Still, as the refugees climbed aboard, he and his crew had to fig­ure out how to keep them alive un­til they ar­rived.

Sailors rigged portable toi­lets and show­ers on the ship’s fan­tail and ra­tioned wa­ter. Blan­kets from the bunks were spread across the rough sur­face of the helo deck as makeshift beds and a he­li­copter hangar were con­verted into a sick bay. Even the Christ­mas candy the crew had saved was passed out.

The pas­sen­gers had en­dured far worse as they bobbed on their own tiny boat. Pi­rates had at­tacked the ves­sel re­peat­edly, tak­ing their food and valu­ables, ac­cord­ing to To and her cousin, fel­low pas­sen­ger Kiet To Snow. When therewas noth­ing left to steal, the in­vaders raped someof the girls.

The sheer num­ber of those res­cued gained world­wide at­ten­tion, and Congress that year made it manda­tory for naval of­fi­cers to “ren­der as­sis­tance, aid and of­fer to em­bark” to any refugees a com­mand­ing of­fi­cer deemed to be in a life-threat­en­ing sit­u­a­tion.

“A mariner’s first obli­ga­tion is to as­sist if peo­ple are in dis­tress on the high seas,” said Mathis, 75.

Laurie Brown said she was still in high school when her fa­ther stepped off the ship, swarmed by re­porters ea­ger to learn more about the res­cue.

“Like a lot of chil­dren of ser­vice­men, I came to un­der­stand that what he did, he did for a love of his work,” Brown said. “For folks like him, it’s God, fam­ily, duty. It’s not some­thing they brag about. My mom and I didn’t even re­al­ize it was a big deal.”

To said Mathis be­came a role model to her. She’s now a civil­ian project man­ager for the Navy’s lit­toral com­bat ships, ag­ile, small-sur­face ves­sels that op­er­ate close to shore.

“He set an ex­am­ple of courage and ded­i­ca­tion for the rest of us to fol­low,” To said.

Mathis said he’s over­whelmed by the af­fec­tion.

“I never, ever thought the refugees would wel­come me into their com­mu­nity and share an honor like this,” he said. “What I did was so sim­ple. Many other peo­ple would have done the same thing.”

‘Like a lot of chil­dren of ser­vice­men, I came to un­der­stand that what he did, he did for a love of his work.’

Bill Mathis’ daugh­ter

— Laurie Brown,

AS COM­MAN­DER of the Navy cargo ship Robert E. Peary, Bill Mathis and his crew res­cued more than 400 Vietnamese refugees off the coast of Malaysia in 1979.

BILL MATHIS and one of the refugees he and his crew res­cued 36 years ago. He’s now 75 and liv­ing near Pen­sacola, Fla. “What I did was so sim­ple,” he said. “Many other peo­ple would have done the same thing.”

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