By Mark Kodama
Le and his five friends launched the eighteen-foot bamboo fishing boat into the gentle white tipped surf of Cam Ranh Bay. It just was past midnight on the moonless night. The men moved quickly and silently against the purple sky for their lives depended upon it. If they were caught, they risked incarceration and death by the authorities. Informers and spies lurked everywhere. Le’s brother had escaped to America just a year before.
The white sand felt soft beneath their feet as they carried the boat to the warm sea that gently slapped against the boat. They did not notice the verdant green fronds of the beautiful palms swaying in the breeze as they loaded rice, water and gasoline into the boat. They waded into dark water, the taste of salt and freedom on their lips. The seawater rose to their waists soaking their fisherman’s pants before they jumped into the boat. They rowed out to sea before starting the boat’s engine.
It was a long and perilous journey across the shark-infested South China Sea to the Philippines and freedom. Perhaps starvation or hungry sharks awaited them. Perhaps a new life. The captain had a compass but no maps.
Le had no time to see his mother and little sister before departing. Freedom beckoned and the odds of success were slim enough without risking sentimental goodbyes.
The four men and two boys pledged their lives to one another. There was nothing for them in Vietnam. They toiled in slave labor camps with neither hope nor opportunity. Their fathers had worked for the Americans. Now that the Americans were gone, they had no chance. It was death or freedom.
They floated for eighteen days in the sometimes angry sea. The green foaming waves rose to the height of telephone poles during one storm as the sea threatened to swallow their boat and drag the men to the bottom of the ocean. One of the men chanted to Buddha as the other men frantically bailed with buckets, tin cans and their hands.
After ten days, they ran out of food and water. They tried not to think of their hunger and as the hot sun burned their uncovered skin and swelled their dry tongues. The boat provided no refuge from the burning sun during the day or the cold wind at night that seemed to penetrate their very bones.
Then it started to rain. Four men spread a plastic tarp to catch the rain. In the center, a small hole drained water into a tin can. They shared the water all drinking from the can, carfeful to only drink their allotted amount.
Finally, they spied a fishing boat. A crew of Filipino fishermen gave them food and water and directions to the islands.
They lived in palm tree huts in a refugee camp that leaked water when it rained. Finally, Le was granted political asylum in America, the shining city on the hill. America offered freedom and a new life for Le.