Editor’s note: This is the second part of a series about two Americans who escaped Vietnam when they were children.
For Vietnamese refugees starving near death on a fishing boat in 1981, watching an American aircraft carrier come to rescue them was an out-of-this-world experience.
Among them were brothers, future Army Maj. Lan Dalat and Army military police officer Anthony Lang, then 13 and 6.
“I remember approaching the ship and it was like a city, from my perspective,” Lang said. “This thing was the biggest thing I had ever seen in my life. It was like a starship.”
The USS Ranger, CV-61, at over 1,046 feet long, was equipped to carry more than 70 aircraft and about 5,600 Sailors. The ship’s captain was Navy Capt. Dan A. Pedersen, who had been the senior officer in a group of nine men who developed a tactics program for the F-4 Navy Fighter Weapons School at Naval Air Station Miramar, nicknamed “Top Gun.” In fact, the movie, “Top Gun” and “Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home” were both filmed aboard the USS Ranger.
Pedersen told Good Morning America 15 years later that he remembers the day the crew of the Ranger saved 138 Vietnamese refugees stranded on a fishing boat in the middle of the ocean. March 20, 1981, was a hot day with no wind to power the boat. Its engine had died seven days earlier, leaving those on board to starve to death in the middle of the ocean.
“Two of my airplanes reported into the control center that they had spotted a boat full of people adrift,” he said. “So, we altered course and went down there and found this wooden craft dead in the water ...”
All four children of Thai Lang and Cam Quy Ton had escaped Vietnam with their mother, while their father stayed behind to keep the government from seizing the family’s property. Dalat and Lang’s sisters, Michelle and Christine, were 12 and 7. The children Americanized their names upon becoming U.S. citizens.
Both brothers went on to eventually serve in the U.S. military that saved their lives. Dalat is now an Intermediate Level Education student at the Command and General Staff College and Lang, a former military police captain, works as an Army civilian at CGSC.
Dalat said those on board the Vietnamese fishing boat had lost all hope of rescue. They had awoken in the middle of the night by planes flying overhead. But the planes didn’t return for many hours.
The people on board wondered if the planes were Russian or Chinese, because surely if they were American, they would have come back to rescue them, Dalat said.
Dalat said he knows now, through his CGSC education, that on the surface of the ocean, it is not possible to see more than 22 miles.
Page 2 of 5 - The Ranger was on its way, but it wasn’t until late afternoon that someone on the Vietnamese boat spotted the ship.
“So when we actually saw it, it was a sight to see,” Dalat said. “It was amazing. It was like, seven ships on a straight line on the horizon.”
He thinks now, with his military experience, that the smaller boats were U.S. Marine patrol boats, sent out before the carrier to make sure the Vietnamese were not hostile. When the refugees first sighted the planes, they had fired three shots with rifles on board, believing that to be a signal for help.
There was a helicopter overhead, and Dalat believed it might have been somehow pushing or pulling the boat, with no working engine, toward the ship.
Dalat could see the faces of what seemed like a million American Sailors peering down from every open space on the ship.
“And I remember seeing so many flashes going off, because it was getting dark, and I knew there were a lot of people out there taking pictures,” he said. “It was fascinating.”
Aboard the Ranger
The Vietnamese boat was docked and Dalat saw some kind of crane lowered down from the ship. He remembers the crew of the Ranger tried to find someone to translate. None of the Vietnamese could speak English. After one failed attempt, they found a Canadian liaison officer on board who could speak French. He told the refugees to drop their weapons, and Dalat remembers the “plop” sound of weapons being dropped into the ocean.
“Once we get on board of the aircraft carrier, I remember everybody was like giants to us,” he said. “Because first of all, I was a little kid. So walking down the corridor, I was so small and people lined up against both sides against the deck.”
The refugees were separated by gender and sent directly to the showers. Dalat doesn’t know what happened to the rags they arrived in, but thinks they were probably burned. At the end of the shower line, each person was given a towel and a uniform.
Some of the children were so small, they just wore a shirt with a cord tied around to keep it on.
“We got our uniform, and I was old enough to get pants, but the pants didn’t fit, so I rolled it up like 10 times and put the 550 (parachute) cord around my waist,” he said.
After getting dressed, the refugees were taken to a doctor and given water.
“They treated us with dignity and respect,” Dalat said, “even though we looked like a bunch of little wet rats, hungry and miserable.”
Pedersen later told Good Morning America that it was just the type of mission his Sailors wanted, to rescue people.
Page 3 of 5 - “I think for many of the crew of the Ranger, about 5,600 Sailors … these are the kinds of things that the Navy’s mission enjoys doing — save people on the high seas,” he said. “And these people needed help.”
Bugs Bunny and M&M’s
After being washed, dressed and seen by a doctor, the Vietnamese were taken to an open bay where there was one small television set showing a Bugs Bunny cartoon.
To Lang, who had never seen cartoons before, it was like watching movies on a giant screen.
“They turned on all sorts of cartoons,” he said. “There was one TV in that bay and I think I parked myself in front of it the whole time.”
The Vietnamese spent five days aboard the Ranger, their first taste of American culture. Pictures, which Dalat found many years later during his research, show young Vietnamese children in oversized uniforms sitting, eating and watching television.
“They were so hospitable to us,” Lang said of the Sailors. “They’d pick me up, take me through the chow line, they’d give us toys they had purchased for their kids back home.”
The Vietnamese were amazed at the quantity of American food. The refugees hadn’t eaten for a whole week, and now each person received more food than they had ever seen.
“We had never had half a chicken for a family ever,” Dalat said. “That’s rare. But each person who got in line, we all had half a chicken. More rice than we had ever seen in our lives.”
“And that was just a side dish,” Lang added.
One thing that disappointed the children was American milk. Vietnamese children had grown up on sweetened condensed milk.
“Everybody knew the rumors,” Dalat said. “’Hey, you’ve got to drink American milk, you’re going to grow up, you’re going to be big.’ So everybody got in line to get the milk. But then after we took the first taste…there was no taste.”
So, they all got in line to pour sugar in their milk.
One of the Sailors wanted to treat the children to candy. He took them to the snack bar on the ship and asked them what they wanted, but none spoke English or had ever seen American candy. So finally, the Sailor picked out a brown package of M&M’s candy pieces.
“He cut it open and gave me a little bit,” Dalat said. “I had no idea … these colorful things were just so pretty. We all looked at each other, ‘What is this?’ I thought it was medicine.”
The Sailors signaled to the children to eat the candy.
“And it was so good,” Dalat said. “After that … we followed him everywhere, just trying to get the M&M’s.”
Page 4 of 5 - Refugee camp
Because they were rescued by a U.S. flagship, Cam Quy and her four children were automatically granted refugee status in the United States. But they weren’t able to enter the United States right away.
The Ranger took the Vietnamese refugees to the processing center in Manila, Philippines. They were named 138 Subic Bay, after the number of Vietnamese and the location where they first arrived.
After that, they were sent to the island of Palawan, where the United Nations had established a Vietnamese refugee camp in Puerto Princesa.
More than 3,500 Vietnamese were already there. They had little food and no running water.
“It was overpopulated,” Dalat said. “The facilities were nonexistent, really, but while we were there, the UN started giving them more money to build up the facility a little bit, but it was still in pretty bad shape.”
They lived in straw huts. Dalat remembers attending the refugee school where they were taught English by British volunteer Muriel Knox.
They endured tough conditions in the camp for about six months, but were granted status to enter the United States. On Sept. 29, 1981, Cam Quy and her four children arrived in Seattle. They would eventually settle in Orange County, Calif.
With green cards, the Lang family had legal resident alien status, so they could work and go to school. Cam Quy was entitled to Aid to Family with Dependent Children and worked for a few years at a garment factory. The children were in school, but Dalat remembers working part time at a swap meet on the weekend, selling fruits and vegetables for a vendor.
The family’s father, Thai Lang, joined them in November 1984. The elder Lang also escaped Vietnam by boat, aided by a commercial oil rig off the coast of Singapore.
Through his research, Dalat said about 1.2 million people escaped Vietnam and reached asylum, either through a refugee camp or sponsor country. About half a million died at sea.
Lang said with the statistics, it’s not only amazing to him that his family survived the voyage, but also amazing they were picked up by a U.S. aircraft carrier. Many people attempted to escape communist Vietnam after the fall of Saigon in 1975. Not only were the conditions harsh, but Vietnamese boat people risked running into pirates who would rob, kill and rape the refugees.
The United Nations and partner nations, including Germany and France, sent out rescue ships to look for stranded boat people. The USS Ranger hadn’t been looking for the fishing boat, but was encouraged to provide rescue.
“When I think about how we ended up here, it’s pretty amazing,” Lang said. “Because the statistics of surviving a voyage like that is — it’s very slim. And then to get rescued by a U.S. ship was even rarer.”
Page 5 of 5 - For the rest of the story about Maj. Lan Dalat and Anthony Lang and their lives in the United States, read the Oct. 28 edition of the Fort Leavenworth Lamp.