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  Duong Le had to endure many hardships to escape as the communists took over Vietnam during the mid-1970s and arrive in the United States. He said he came to Augusta because his sister lives here.

Man escapes from Vietnam

Duong Le persevered against time in prison, days spent lost at sea before coming to America

Web posted November 21, 1999

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By Virginia Norton
Staff Writer

Duong Le ran without looking back when Vietnamese communists released him from a prison camp in 1979.

``I don't want to turn around and look at them. It might be they made a mistake,'' the Grovetown man said.

Mr. Le is one of hundreds of thousands of boat people who fled Vietnam after Saigon fell to the communists in 1975.

The boat people left family and friends and crowded into wooden fishing boats -- standing room only -- to risk their lives for freedom. But their boats, no match for the open sea, often failed them.

The people suffered robbery, humiliation and death at the hands of pirates. No Asian country except Japan would accept them permanently. More than a quarter-million died in the 15-year exodus until Vietnam agreed to take its people back in 1989.

Rice paddies, pineapple and coffee plantations dotted the Vietnamese countryside. It had been a free country like the United States before the communist takeover, said Mr. Le, 43.

``But the communists are way different, way different, because they took everything,'' he said. ``Let's say you've got a house. The communists send the people -- their people -- to live in your house and you have no way to say nothing. They say, `Hey, your house too big. I'm going to send people to live with you.' You can say nothing.

``Say you have a two-story house. They live downstairs. You live upstairs. Every time you go downstairs or somewhere they want to know where you go.''

Mr. Le repeatedly tried to escape. He received a six-month sentence after his third attempt and capture.

He and other prisoners worked in the jungle and rice paddies from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Twice a day, they got a bowl of rice -- no meat, no vegetables. Prisoners could be killed at any time, and no one would know, he said.

After his release, Mr. Le did construction work. The job brought him a bonus -- traveling papers to Ca Mau, a coastal town below Saigon.

MR. LE AND THREE friends planned their escape for April 30, a holiday celebrating the communist takeover of Vietnam.

First, they had to rendezvous with a riverboat at about midnight, slip past the guards on the Ca Mau River, board a larger ship in the South China Sea and head for Thailand and freedom.

They linked up with the first boat but were in danger almost immediately -- two infants started wailing. The families with the babies turned back, but 32 stayed. The Vietnamese packed onto an 8-foot by 24-foot riverboat.

They cut the engines and slipped past the guards using paddles and poles to maneuver the boat. Once outside the three-mile limit, a ship headed for Thailand was to pick them up.

Before they could find the ship, however, the ocean played havoc with the riverboat's engines. The first was crippled when its propeller shaft broke. The boat people tried valiantly to keep the remaining engine running, but the waves silenced it the first day as well.

The passengers were powerless. The ship they hoped to meet was nowhere in sight.

A Thai fishing boat appeared and came alongside. It was a pirate crew.

When people tried to escape Vietnam, they carried as much money as they could.

``Whatever your family had. And that is how they know you have money,'' Mr. Le said of the pirates.

The pirates took an engine, jewelry and money. They enticed the women onto their boat with offers of food. The women crossed over and were raped, he said.

Mr. Le thought the assailants radioed one another about the stranded riverboat.

When all the money and jewelry had been taken, the last band of pirates tossed the boat people's food and fuel overboard and kidnapped an 18-year-old woman, Tuyet. She and her brother, An, were neighbors of Mr. Le's. His mother, Nguyen Minh, who lives in Dearing, was the young woman's godmother.

``She was very pretty,'' said Mr. Le. He never saw the teen again.

LEFT WITH ONLY their disabled riverboat, a friend of Mr. Le's asked the captain for a tow. Instead, the pirate shot him in the head, killing him.

The pirates then rammed the riverboat, knocking everyone -- men, women and children -- into the water. As the panicked victims tried to swim to their tormentors' boat, the pirates killed almost everyone in sight. They threw axes and fishing spears and shot at the swimmers.

``They were destroying the evidence,'' said Ngoc Anh Almeter, Mr. Le's sister, who also lives in Dearing.

A man asked Mr. Le to save his children, but Mr. Le couldn't. That was the hardest part of his ordeal, his sister said. ``He was barely able to save his own life.''

Mr. Le swam away from the boat when he saw the pirates attacking the people in the water. The pirates ``try to kill the people, kidnap the girls and rape them,'' he said.

``They try to kill the people for nothing, the people trying to look for freedom, looking for a better place to live. They didn't have to kill them. They could have left them alone. We are going to die ourselves, anyway. Why did they have to kill? It makes no sense at all.''

The pirates finally towed the empty riverboat away.

Only Mr. Le and another man -- a fisherman -- escaped. They floated on their backs all day, about eight or nine hours.

MR. LE, A FORMER college student who repeatedly had risked his life for more than five years for freedom, thought he had reached the end. He did not want to die in the water, but he was so tired he thought there was no escape.

``I asked God to forgive me for whatever I had done, for my sins, and I get ready to die,'' he said.

But the fisherman encouraged him to keep trying, saying ``not to give up yet because me and him are side by side. If I give up, there's no way he can'' make it, Mr. Le said.

At about 3 or 4 p.m., Mr. Le saw a bird standing about 200 feet away. He swam closer and saw it was a dove atop a log big enough for several people.

``I feel like the dove was (from) the Lord,'' said Mr. Le, who was raised Catholic.

The men climbed on top of the slimy, rolling log and floated for four nights and three days. They pulled crabs off the log and ate them raw. Rain fell, and they had water to drink. They sucked the moisture from their clothing.

They took turns sleeping. Mr. Le slipped off the log and fell into the ocean from time to time. If he fell at night, he had to call out to the fisherman in the dark to locate him again. Barnacles on the log cut him when he climbed back on. At times, sharks circled.

After days of failing to catch the attention of passing ships and planes, the men were spotted by two fishing boats. As the boats closed in, the men could see that both were Thai vessels. One was the pirate crew that had rammed their riverboat a few days before.

The second boat, however, threw them a line, and Mr. Le persuaded the fisherman to grab it.

``If they wanted to kill us, they could have left us there,'' he said.

MR. LE SPENT SIX months in a Thai refugee camp, then six months in a Philippine camp before coming to Augusta, where his sister lives.

``He sent telegram from Thai camp in May,'' a month after his escape, Mrs. Almeter said.

Mr. Le suffered nightmares at first. When awake, he had trouble remembering his experiences; gradually, though, they came back.

Now he has lived in Augusta for 15 years. He works for Sweetheart Cup Co. as a mechanic, a trade he learned from his father in Vietnam.

Mr. Le met his Vietnamese-born wife, Truy, 39, in Florida. They have a daughter, Vi, 11, a pupil at Columbia Middle School, and two sons, Quang, 9, and Lam, 8, who attend Brookwood Elementary School.

He has told his children his story, which was published in the Sweetheart newsletter about three years ago and also in The Rise and Fall of the Communist Revolution by Warren H. Carroll.

``But they are a little bit too young to understand,'' Mr. Le said. ``My daughter thought it was very interesting, but she too young to understand.

``If you are living here, you don't realize how lucky you are.''

Reach Virginia Norton at (706) 823-3336.

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