Correspondence from Wellpark
- 1 Introduction
- 2 Our escape from Vietnam: Memories of an 11 year old girl rescued by Wellpark
- 3 PART 1 :The rescue – etched on my mind forever.
- 4 PART 2: Safely on board Wellpark, the first days
- 5 PART 3: Wellpark arrives to an uncertain welcome in Taiwan
- 6 PART 4: Living in No Man's Land
- 7 PART 5: October 10th - a special date to remember
- 8 PART 6: Leaving Wellpark
- 9 The letters
- 9.1 Letter 1. Joining the ship in Argentina. Crossing to South Africa
- 9.2 Letter 2. Arriving in Durban
- 9.3 Letter 3. The run-up to the rescue
- 9.4 Letter 4. The rescue
- 9.5 Letter 5. Life with the Vietnamese on board
- 9.6 Letter 6. The aftermath
- 9.7 Letter 7 (A collation of excerpts from later letters)
- 9.8 Letter 8. A Mum's letter to her son
- 10 References
The Wellpark Rescue: 30 years after the event I used my letters from the Wellpark to help write a fuller description of events for the upcoming reunion. That account follows, followed by the set of letters I sent to my parents in Scotland.
Memories - Chi Pham - My Recollection of our Journey 30 years ago.
After the fall of Saigon in April 1975 my father was taken from our family on June 1975 to a re-education camp located the remote jungle of Northern Vietnam. He was a Captain in the Military Signal Corp for the South Vietnamese government. Our life was forever altered along with other millions of Vietnamese in the South. I was 11 years old at the time, the oldest of three girls. My sisters were 8 and 7 years old. Mom was playing the role of mother and father to us so she was very strict and protective of us. But she did such a good job that we didn't feel like our Dad was missing. Partly because we moved from Vung Tau (sometimes referred to its colonial name of Cap Saint Jacques, a beach city, 78 miles North of Saigon) to live with our maternal grand parents and aunts when Vung Tau was taken over by the communist a few months before Saigon. We received much love from grandma, grandpa and our aunts.
We missed our Dad when looking at family pictures or seeing other kids playing with their Dads but at that time so many families were separated from their loved ones that your loss was nothing compared to others who had lost their Dads forever to the war.
In October 1975, the communists started the "Communism Reform" throughout the country. Rich and middle income residents in Saigon and the urban cities were forced to migrate to forest or mountain areas that were collectively known as the "New Economic Development" zone. The intention was to force people with money to leave and forfeit all of their property without mercy. We were lucky to have the right connections to delay the process of going to the New Economic Development zone. Meanwhile, outside of the city the regime's policy of complete agricultural collectivization deprived peasants of their landholdings, except for tiny personal plots, and required them to work on collective farms.
The whole education system was reorganized to reflect communist ideology. I remembered every morning all the children from the age 6 to 18 years old were forced to be at the park at 6 am prior to school time to exercise in group and attended meeting after school learning about the life of uncle Ho or “Ho Chi Minh” and singing communist’s songs. We were trained to report our parent, relatives and neighbors to the authority if we hear them talked badly about the government or any plan of leaving the country or where the money were hired in the house because under the communist’s rule everyone is equal. They abolished all ranks and privileges based on heredity, position, wealth, or cultural standing.
By July 1976, the new communist regime banned opposition political activity and imprisoned opponents. The campaigns against private businesses in the South by forcing through our home anytime of the day to look for any suspicious activities, money or gold hidden in the house along with constant changing money to smaller denominator so our money became less value induced the flight of about 1 million Chinese and middle-class Vietnamese from their country between 1978–79 often by sea.
After three years living under the communist rules, life became more intolerable. We had no religious freedoms and no freedom to live as we had. Constantly being watched by neighbors we worried that we might be turned in to the local authorities for saying or doing the wrong thing. Our future was uncertain. We lived day by day not knowing what was going to happen to us next. Mom then decided that it was time to leave our country to find the freedom that we once had. Grandma and aunt Nghiem tried to escape a few times prior with no success. They got tricked and lost a lot of money. They were put away for months when they got caught just a few months earlier. Still they were luckier than many others. Some people were put away for years. Some died at sea because pirates killed them or they didn’t make it through stormy weather. Some didn't even make it to sea because their boat was sunk by shooting soldiers. Three of my cousins died from that a few months earlier. Knowing the risk that we may not ever return, mom was still determined to let three of her daughters escape the country with her mom and her two sisters. She took out all her savings and paid for the escape. She couldn't go with us because she wanted to stay back and wait for our father’s return someday.
Escape was very difficult, dangerous and the odds of failure were enormous. Despite the risk of ending up in prison or dying at sea, we did not give up or get weary. We kept trying until all means were exhausted. Freedom is priceless; people were ready to trade their life for it.
This time a trustworthy brother-in-law of aunt Nghiem’s good friend, who was one of the organizers, planned the escape for his entire family and friends. The process of planning the escape was very time consuming and it took years of planning. They had to sell all their valuables and raise money among the people wanting to escape in order to buy equipment. The boats would normally be only 3 by 10 meters and make out of wood. Our boat was much bigger it was double in size due to the number of people.
I remember the evening of Wednesday September 27, 1978, a day before our journey, when we left Saigon. It was raining. I tried not to think that it may be a bad sign for our trip even though our people are very superstitious. We arrived at one of the Trinhs family and spent the night there along with a few other families so we could all leave together the next day. But that night nobody could sleep; we were worried that we may get caught at any moment.
The next morning we left early on a bus to go to My Tho, a small country town about two hours away southwest of Saigon located on the banks of the Upper Mekong River. The drive was a scenic drive along the National Highway, bordered by green rice fields. A beautiful river, the Mekong was bordered by dense mangroves and palms but everyone were so nervous and anxious that no one could enjoy the beautiful view. Everyone looked very sad thinking that this was probably the last time they would see their dear country.
We arrived at our destination and waited until it got dark, about 8 pm. Each family quickly jumped into a kayak to go to our boat which was waiting about 500 yards from land. Our boat was a small wooden boat about 20 meters in length and 3 meters wide. We managed to pack 346 people comprised of Vietnamese and Vietnamese/Chinese of all ages. Everyone was taken down to the bottom of the boat. It was very dark and very hot. There was no room to move your elbows. We were packed like sardines in a can.
After two hours we couldn’t breathe anymore. It was humid and hot as people breathing on each other. We didn’t feel good. We looked at aunt Nghiem helplessly. Luckily because my aunt is a friend of a family that was one of the organizers of this escape, she asked for our family to be seated with them up in the main deck. So we moved out of the lower deck to the main deck.
On the main deck, the ceiling was packed with hanging “Bánh Tét” (a traditional rice cake most popular in South Vietnam, made primarily from glutinous rice, which is rolled in a banana leaf into a thick, log-like cylindrical shape, with a meat or mung bean filling, then steamed). There were only places to sit as we couldn’t stand because of the hundreds of rice cakes hanging over our heads to be eaten when needed. This was our food supply.
As the night got darker, about 11 pm on Thursday September 28, 1978, the boat quietly departed. In the ghostly darkness of the late September night, hoping to reach Malaysia in three nights and two days, we set off for freedom. We chose a longer route to avoid pirates from Thailand where they troll the seas in search of easy prey, and often find it. Many Vietnamese were robbed, raped and killed. After three hours of slow progress, our boat suddenly came to a complete stop. It was about 11 pm. Everybody was scared to death and didn’t know what just happened. All we heard were the adults talking loudly. Shortly later we found out that we had a low tide and our boat got stuck. Because of a previous arrangement with the local people, they helped us pull out and continue our journey with a broken steering wheel.
The next morning Friday September 29, 1978 when the sun was rising, our boat reached the open sea. We couldn’t see land anywhere. We knew that there was no going back. The morning came to begin a beautiful day. The sky was clear and sunny. The ocean was beautiful with a deep blue color. The boat rocked slightly by the waves and continued to run at full speed. I remembered it was hot, humid and it stank inside the boat. The smell of urine and vomit was everywhere. When people got sea sick, they vomited. There were no toilets so when people had to go; they went right where they were. I was sea sick too on the first day. I couldn't eat anything. I was always sick to my stomach when I traveled on the river. The open sea was ten times worse.
I went outside to the deck with others to look at the fish; I believe they were dolphins jumping up and down along our boat. The breeze was gently blowing on my face. All of the sudden, I forgot that I may die on this trip in the immense and unforgiving sea. I lost all fear of the uncertain and forgot about the lingering doubts the night before. Were we heading in the right direction? Would we survive? Would we be capsized by a big storm? Would we face the cruel and savage Thai pirates and have them steal all our supplies, or be kidnapped or raped, or left on a deserted island to die? At that moment, I thought I was on little a trip with my grandma, aunts, sisters and my little cousin Luan we used to take to “Cao Dai Temple”.
Saturday September 30, 1978. The first half of the day the trip went smoothly. We though very soon we would arrive in Malaysia not knowing that without the steering wheel we just went straight in the open sea. But that evening dark clouds came rolling in and hovered over our heads and strong winds started to blow heavily against our tiny wooden boat. The calm ocean became increasingly violent with ferocious waves drove our boat far off course. It threw our little boat up and down like a roller coaster. We could see waves 15 feet high coming down wanting to drown our boat. We didn’t know that we were in the middle of the Typhoon Lola, with winds reaching 74mph. If you saw the movie “Perfect Storm” with George Clooney you could picture what is was like except our boat was much smaller and much simpler with 346 people in it.
There was no sight of land, nothing except the rumbling sky, the quivering winds, and our fast trembling heartbeats; the people were crying for help. Our engine had broken down along with our compass and the water pump. We did not have any sails or paddles to keep the boat going, so the boat kept moving without any control or guidance. It was raining heavily and the boat started to flood. Then I heard people screaming: “Oh no! The boat is going to sink; water is inside, we are too heavy”. All the young men took turns scooping out the water as fast as they could. I remember seeing some people in panic quickly throwing some of their belongings overboard including food and water.
TO BE CONTINUED...
PART 1 :The rescue – etched on my mind forever.
My mind drifted for a moment, drawn to the glass of ice cold water sat on my desk. The water tilted within the glass and then shuddered as the ship around it rolled on the wave and vibrated to the cavitation of the propeller. I glanced towards the black porthole. I had tightened the dogs on it earlier when the roll of the ship coincided with a high wave and momentarily our cabin view looked underwater, down into the ocean. I was a little weary. With the warm air and physical nature of our work I knew I should get some sleep before my duty watch started on the ship’s navigation bridge at midnight.
But I had to finish my Correspondence course. As only a second trip deck cadet, training as a Navigation Officer, I was almost the lowest of the low, and it was important my study at sea was completed on time. “Wellpark” was only three days from arrival in Kaohsiung and my work would have to be posted back to Nautical College in Glasgow on the other side of the world for marking. As luck would have it, we had speeded up a few days earlier from our normal cruising speed to our maximum of 15 knots, so that the ship could meet its dry-dock slot in Korea and still connect into a lucrative string of cargo charters thereafter. Dammit: I had even less time to finish my studies!
I could have excused myself. As I had just written in a letter to my mother it had already been a very eventful trip, a real experience for a young man keen to see the world. The journey itself from my home in the extreme north of Scotland to the south of Argentina had involved no less than seven separate flights over three days. And the weeks at sea crossing the lower latitudes of the South Atlantic, watching the albatross glide for days, before we moved into the warmer Indian Ocean and relaxed in its sunshine, had made it seem more like a cruise. After the enormous waves we endured around South Africa we had time for fun after work, playing games on deck and organising our Crossing the Line Ceremony. Later we had passed through the Sunda Straights, passing tropical islands on both sides. Here we watched brightly coloured sailing boats dart between the islands, flying fish, and plumes of smoke erupt from a huge volcano. We were a happy ship and we were on a journey that had now taken us into the South China Sea.
It was 7.53 pm on Sunday 1st October when I had just focussed my mind back on my Correspondence course that suddenly the ship’s emergency alarms rang, and my life changed forever.
Immediately the tannoy blared, “This is not a drill!”. Still wearing my jeans and T-shirt, I scooped up my helmet and lifejacket and headed from my cabin, out through the water-tight door on to the main deck and up the two steel staircases to my emergency station on the poop deck next to the port lifeboat. All over the ship, cadets and men rose from what they were doing. Some were in the shower, some in the laundry, some eating, some relaxing and some fast asleep. All rose as one and ran to take up their posts at the three main emergency stations: by the port and starboard lifeboats and on the ship’s bridge.
As we gathered at our post, of course we were intrigued. What was happening? It was pitch dark outside and we could see nothing. Were we in danger of sinking and in trouble ourselves? Was there a fire on board? We relaxed as word filtered round it was a fishing boat that had fired off a distress flare, and we had time to laugh at the first-trip cadet who arrived at the emergency station in slippers and pyjamas.
And then we saw it…well, our keen eyes saw a flame, just a brief glimpse, distant in the black of the night out on the starboard (right) side of the ship. A roll was called and the senior cadets were selected to climb up into the port lifeboat with three officers, as we attended to removing the covers off the launching equipment and unshackling the boat for lowering.
40 minutes had elapsed from the sighting of the flare and the call to emergency stations, when we were ordered to lower the lifeboat to the water. Wellpark had closed in on the boat in distress but from where we were we could no longer see it. At 171 metres long, and a laden weight of over 40,000 tonnes, Wellpark had slowed but was still pushing into the waves at around 7 knots. In the wake of tropical storm ‘Lola’ the sea’s swell was high, there being roughly 15 feet (4.5 metres) between the peaks and troughs of the waves. Quickly the lifeboat was lowered until the tops of the passing waves ran below its hull. On a given signal the fore and aft quick release buckles were pressed to drop the boat onto the top of a wave. But disaster! The release buckle holding the front of the boat did not release, and the falling wave threatened to leave the rescue craft hanging vertically, and hurl its crew into the dark waters.
Desperately they hung on, until the waters rose once more under the boat. Then it thrust the rear of the boat upwards, slamming a cadet’s head against 100 kilos of lifeboat pulley blocks dangling from the ship. Only his helmet saved him from serious injury. In an instant the Second Officer grabbed an axe and swung at the jammed release catch. The steel rings parted and the boat dropped onto the wave. Quickly the Lister engine was put into gear and the Training Officer swung the tiller, accelerating the boat away from the ship, out onto the waves and into the surrounding darkness.
Up above, there had been excited activity since the Chief Officer spotted the red flare, four points on the port bow. Immediately Captain,Hector Connell, had been called to the ship’s command point on the bridge and all other staff had been called to Emergency Stations by alarm and tannoy. The Wellpark swung her bows towards the point of light in the darkness as the Radio Officer began to relay the distress signal. Hearing the distress call, “Manhattan Viscount”, 40 miles to the south advised she would come to assist. But the Russian cargo ship, “Zoia Kosmodiemanskaia”, and the British gas tanker, “Norman Lady” were much closer and they were going to arrive on the emergency scene much sooner.
Out on the sea, the lifeboat battled its way towards the boat in distress. Although accustomed to a life at sea, many of its crew began to suffer from sea-sickness as the small boat rose and fell on the large waves. Swallowed amongst them they often lost sight of the boat they had been sent to investigate, but the powerful beam of the Aldis signalling light shone from the Wellpark’s bridge wing to guide them. With radio instructions too, it helped show them the way. It was 20 minutes before they got close, and then out of the darkness they saw what appeared to be a grossly overcrowded wooden craft. The lifeboat manoeuvred in close, but had to hold off slightly to prevent being thrown against the larger craft by the waves. Although the crew reached out, the desperate people on the boat held back from jumping into the lifeboat, fearful that their rescuers could not be trusted. There were shouts and cries in the confusion, but amongst it someone demanded of the lifeboat crew what nation they were from. When the reply was given that they were British, Scottish at that, the word rapidly spread and without hesitation the first man jumped across the dark waters to the lifeboat. Quickly, in two more passes, about 15 men leapt from all angles for the boat, many landing heavily on the hard thwarts of the lifeboat as it bucked on the waves. Now the boat in distress was heeling over with the shift of humanity wanting to escape the deathtrap their boat had become. But with shouts of, “We’ll come back” the lifeboat withdrew and headed back to Wellpark. Huddled low in the center of the lifeboat one man told his saviours that there were over 300 refugees from South Vietnam crammed on the distress craft.
Looking down from the poop deck to the returning lifeboat I saw a large number of men and one boy. Having not yet seen the distress craft, I thought, what sort of small fishing boat carried such a number? We had rigged a rope pilot ladder down the vertical side of the ship. The lifeboat nosed in under the ship’s side, which had now been turned to provide some shelter. But still the lifeboat rose and fell on the ship’s swell so that when one man started up the ladder the lifeboat lifted suddenly on the next wave and chased him up the ladder. A man started to climb but only got half way before fear or exhaustion took over. Grimly he hung on before eventually carrying on to the top. We watched, helpless to do more, as one at a time they struggled up towards the ship, terrified one would drop down to the lifeboat or disappear into the blackness of the waves. Exhausted they collapsed to the deck where we sat them against the hatch coaming. The ship's cook and his staff dashed to the ship’s stores to gather blankets and to provide drinks for the rescued. Empty of its cargo, the lifeboat twisted and tossed on the waves and we saw many cadets heaving with sea-sickness. But sick as they were, none requested to leave his post.
Again the lifeboat left the ship’s side and headed off into to the dark. I crossed to the starboard side of the vessel and was on the maindeck as Wellpark tried to move closer to protect the refugee boat. Now the refugee boat moved in to the arc of light provided by the ship’s lights mounted high on her deck cranes. For the first time I saw the boat close up. And my eyes failed to comprehend what I was seeing. Here was this wooden boat 60 –70 feet (20 metres) long, packed from stem to stern with people stood shoulder to shoulder on its deck. Here they were riding out the aftermath of a tropical storm some 148 miles from the nearest land. There was a strong, farmyard type smell and I could hear the roaring of the boats engine. The craft was pointing towards the side of Wellpark, and I could tell its commander was frantically trying to get it to reverse away. Suddenly the boat crested a huge swell and was swept towards Wellpark. It’s pointed bow rose high above the Wellpark’s railings immediately above me. I was entranced, fixed to the spot, knowing I was in the wrong place at the wrong time. There was no escape and any second that boat would crash down on the very spot I occupied. But at the exact moment I thought death would come to me, somehow, the giant mouth of the sea sucked the refugee boat back over the Wellpark’s rails and back into the ocean. With relief I saw the boat pass down the side of the ship and back into the dark behind Wellpark. It was 9.00pm
As Wellpark was turned and moved to offer shelter for the rescue operation, the Russian ship “Zoia Kosmodiemanskaia” moved in perilously close. Her lights were so close, to us it seemed like she was trying to interfere, putting her bow between Wellpark and the refugee boat. Now we were beginning to understand what was happening and who we were trying to help. A Russian ship, from a Communist state might try to‘steal’ the refugees and take them back to Vietnam. If it had seemed like just one more interesting high point on our voyage, now we realized it really was a matter of life and death. Wellpark’s Captain ordered the Russian ship to keep her distance.
Tiny against the ocean, Wellpark’s 25 foot long lifeboat closed on the distress craft once more. This time about 20 men, women and children leapt into the boat. Some clasped the hands of its crew thanking them for what they were doing, kissing their hands in gratitude. This time the ship was closer and we found the lifeboat back on the port side at the bottom of the ladder after barely ten minutes. But now we realized we had to help these people reach the deck. We lowered ropes. Some had the strength to pull themselves up the vertical ladder some of the way; others we had to lift completely as they simply were too weak to climb. Focused on the job in hand I barely noticed the small crowd that was forming on the steel deck behind us. As the last was brought on deck we lowered more fuel to the lifeboat. Some cadets looked up at their colleagues on deck. They were physically weak from sea-sickness, but again they set off once more in to the night.
Up on the bridge the ships engine was stopped, started, slowed and speeded up on over 120 separate occasions as her Captain sought to provide shelter to the refugee boat. Constantly turning, and working to adjust to the erratic manoeuvres of the distress craft, and the ‘assisting’ ships, Hector Connell would later be praised for his masterly seamanship.
Now he commanded Wellpark to follow the lifeboat. As the clock passed 10pm, on the deck we were ordered to get all available ropes from the rope store. This included the large floating polypropylene mooring ropes as well as smaller throwing ropes. We tied the bigger ropes together and passed them down to the lifeboat which took them in tow. It struggled to drag them over the waves and made slow progress to the distress vessel. They signalled that the refugees should tie their boat to the ropes, but the British crew could not make themselves understood. Part by luck and part intentionally, the lifeboat was steered so that the ropes fouled the distress craft’s propeller. Quickly we spun the ropes onto the winches and pulled the boat towards the Wellpark’s side. Passing down ropes we wanted the refugees to fix our ropes to the bitts on their boats deck. But the boat was relatively small compared to Wellpark and as it lifted and fell on the waves the ropes kept breaking or pulling off the fixings on the vessel. In all, working hard as a group of cadets, it took us an hour to get the distress craft tied securely to Wellpark so that the rest of the deck crew could start to haul the huge numbers of men, women and children up from the boat below.
Now I could see the mass of humanity covering every part of the simple wooden boat. So disciplined and trained were we that we acted naturally even though none of us had ever experienced, or trained for, such an event. As we organized ourselves into lifting teams to get the Vietnamese on deck I was tasked with searching everyone as they came on board. Of course I had no training for this. We told the poor people we had to search them, but the refugees did not seem to understand our English, and we resorted to comical sign language in a poor version of charades to eventually convey what we meant. But I was shocked at the reaction I got. The women and children in front of me put their hands in the air, in the way I had only seen soldiers in war films surrender. I was embarrassed and horrified to realize these people were frightened of me. Frantically I urged them to put their arms down, and cautiously they did so.
I was lost to time. But on we went, working under the ship’s floodlights, pulling on the ropes, hauling babies in baskets, children on ropes and helping the adults up the scrambling nets and ladders. I was unaware of what everyone else was doing, we were all doing our bit hidden within the crowd at the ship’s railings as the ship’s catering staff led the Vietnamese down towards the ship’s accommodation. Many just collapsed on to the steel deck where they were, just too weak to go on. Realising how dehydrated and starved these people were, the ships cooks and stewards quickly set about making gallons of soup and coffee and handed out all the bedding material they could. But this was a ship equipped and stored for 50 crew, not a population of 400. So starved and thirsty were the refugees that civilities like handing out portions of food gave way to handing out whole packets of cereals and any other foods that came immediately to hand.
It was ten minutes past midnight when the last refugee was pulled from the decrepit craft below. Now Wellpark slowly made way forwards. A large mooring rope was passed down to the lifeboat who landed two crew onto the craft. Unable to find a suitably strong fixing point they moved down in to its stinking hull and found a large beam to secure the tow rope to. As the lifeboat returned to the Wellpark’s port quarter, we cut the refugee craft free of the ropes binding it to the side of Wellpark so it would drift astern and take up its position on tow. But now the lifeboat struggled against the swell to pick up the falls so it could be lifted on board. Time and again the lifeboat approached but could not safely reach the ship for fear of being lifted by a wave to crash against the dangling pulleys. The sea seemed to have become rougher and it took until almost 2.00 a.m to hook up the lifeboat. Up it came, with its tired crew, but one of the davits jammed leaving the boat slewed on its mountings. We secured it there, allowing the crew to dismount awkwardly. There was a sober quietness, everyone was so exhausted. As Wellpark started to get back on course and up to speed. we started to gather our ropes and equipment back up. All around us the Vietnamese were quiet, lying on the ships deck in darkness, now the ship’s deck lights had been switched off for navigation.
I got changed into my uniform and climbed up to the ship’s bridge to start my watch at 4.00am. I took up position as lookout on the starboard bridge wing, looking down on the sleeping refugees curled up on top of No.5 hatch. Although our games nets enclosed the area, there was no protection from the elements, but the night was warm and humid. Some large waves started to come on board, rolling down the deck on the port side, as the ship rolled. The Captain ordered the ship to slow a little to protect the exposed people. From my high view point, I looked down and marvelled at the numbers of people, so quiet and peaceful. Were they dreaming sweetly, enjoying the luxury and safety of Wellpark’s steel decks? Or were they unconscious, utterly drained by their experience? I was tired too and I had to keep active to stay awake. Occasionally I looked back into the darkness behind the ship where the refugee boat snaked from side to side across Wellpark’s wake.
Suddenly there was a loud cracking noise, and I saw the black bulk of the refugee boat suddenly fall apart and disappear in to the dark. Just the stem post and a few beams remained attached to the rope, and they danced on the waters churned white by Wellpark’s propellor. The refugee boat had been lost at sea forever.
PART 2: Safely on board Wellpark, the first days
We were already in to October 2nd, but I didn’t get to sleep that night. At 6am I headed downstairs to change into deck work clothes. We tended to wear a variety of boiler suits carried over from previous ships. Some cadets had orange or grey boiler-suits, but most had one that had started life as white when first made, or navy blue. Mine was navy blue, but I had torn off the sleeves for extra cooling. We were used to changes in routine and so were prepared for something new in the orders of the day that were being passed from cadet to cadet that morning. As in any survival situation the priority was to provide shelter and the cadets were instructed to raid the ship’s lockers, and anywhere else we could think of, and strip out every available, non-essential, bit of canvas, burlap and other weather proof sheeting we could find to make a shelter for the vulnerable people exposed on top of No.5 hatch.
That meant the white canvas screening, with plastic windows, that went around the swimming pool was lashed on top of the games net that enclosed No. 5 hatch. And there were spare winch covers, lifeboat covers, even the ship’s dinghy’s sail, tied haphazardly across the net too. It ended up as an untidy arrangement that gave puny protection from the elements. But fortunately the climate was warm and there was no rain. Even the tropical sun was weaker than usual letting us off with our miserable attempt to make a decent canopy.
Drinking water was made available in buckets, and extra drinking cups provided made out of cut down soft drink and beer cans. The ship simply didn't have enough eating and drinking utensils to go round. Most of the Vietnamese had lost their shoes in their escape and as the sun rose higher in the sky the steel deck began to heat up. Some fire hydrants on the deck were opened to allow salt water for washing, but also to cool the deck which was now painful for the Vietnamese to walk on in bare feet
Most of the Vietnamese lay, curled up under blankets on the bare steel hatch cover. Some were stirring, sitting up, looking about and a few made the short walk to and from the couple of toilets that were accessible from the deck. They seemed in a daze, exhausted and drained of life by their experience. And they were quiet, not even a noise from the children. Slowly they seemed to come to their senses as the ship’s catering staff came out with food. It was a strange mish-mash of food, our cooks prepared, unsure how to provide for so many of diverse cultures and different ages. Here was a ship equipped and provisioned to feed less than 50, but now had almost 400 mouths to feed. So at breakfast the cadets were surprised to find that the customary choice had gone, and in its place was one ‘hot’ course. Peering at the plate we could see potatoes, beans of various types, meat balls, rice, peas, bacon, tomatoes and mushrooms all boiled into a red-brown stew. It was an unrecognisable meal that I’m sure has no name in a cookery book. As the stewards put the food on our plates, our reactions must have given our thoughts away! What’s this?! But actually to our energy sapped bodies it was good wholesome food and tasted better than it looked, and as the cook explained, it was the same as everyone got……….Vietnamese refugees and Wellpark crew alike.
That breakfast was the big one. It was the first proper meal the Vietnamese had had for at least four days. Already the ship’s whole supply of baked beans and oranges had disappeared at the first meal.
Outside the sun shone down on the ship. Now it rhythmically rolled gently on the swell as its bow cut through the sparkling waters at full speed. Out of sight of land, our heading was northerly towards Taiwan, but the crew were told that fact must remain secret and could not be divulged to the Vietnamese. There was the risk they might fear being repatriated to Vietnam or held in detention camps and trapped into a life worse than that they had fought to escape from. The Vietnamese were not known to us, and they outnumbered us seven to one. We could not discount the possibility they might wish to over-power us and take control of the ship.
That morning we set up a one-way system. The Vietnamese lined up the stairs on the starboard side of the ship and filed, one at a time, into a cabin set aside for medical checks. It had been discovered two of the Vietnamese were professional doctors and it was a priority to check everyone over after the trauma of their escape. Basic personal details such as name, sex, date of birth were recorded, before they were asked to carry on back down to the deck via the staircases on the port side of the ship. There were a few cases of measles and they were confined to the ship’s hospital, and a family which included their grandmother were accommodated in a more private part on the rear of the ship’s accommodation.
We were amazed to discover we had 343 ‘passengers’ on board, and as dribs and drabs of their journey before being rescued came out, we were incredulous that so many could have survived such a journey on a boat we seen for ourselves the night before was less than 70 feet long. It was hard to comprehend how they had come to be on that boat. From one cadet I would hear they started on three boats, but two sank and the survivors clambered on the remaining one – hence why it was so cramped. Another would say that they were at sea for three days without food and water. We had found them more than 120 miles from the nearest land. I had been told the boat’s steering had failed. From somewhere else I would hear they had been in concentration camps and that lots of other ships had passed them by. Apparently the Wellpark had spotted what was their last remaining flare. They had had to pay large amounts of gold to corrupt officials to be ‘allowed to escape’. As the cadets passed each other as they worked around the ship they exchanged information, so that as the day went on we had a better picture of who these people were and the terrible experience they had endured.
As we organised and arranged we spoke to the people, but only a few spoke English. Communication was hard but gradually their trepidation and fear dissipated and we began to see some smiles. To us they were all Vietnamese and when we asked one ‘Vietnamese’ to tell another to do something we could not understand why they could not do it. It took some time to appreciate the mix of Vietnamese and Chinese peoples on our ship.
But things improved fast, particularly when in the afternoon we erected screens of burlap around the ship’s small swimming pool. It was a less than perfect arrangement but it allowed everyone to wash and feel a little bit better in themselves.
That evening, after it had gone dark I heard that some of the cadets were out sitting on No.5 hatch amongst the Vietnamese. There they were, some sitting talking, others playing with children. And one had got his guitar out and a few had gathered around for a bit of a sing-song. It was a holiday camp-fire atmosphere, but without the camp-fire. It was a happy time, and I thought at the time it did a huge amount to lift the Vietnamese souls, and engender their trust in us.
Elsewhere the Captain was having to do a lot more thinking. He brought together a committee of Vietnamese leaders, six of them, each one an English speaker. It was essential that he had their co-operation to ensure their safety and security on Wellpark. They agreed on what would be expected of the refugees during their stay on the ship with particular emphasis on hygiene, sanitation, fire-risks and discipline amongst their people. A strict control over cleanliness was kept by both the working Committee of Wellpark’s Officers and the Vietnamese. With limited provisions on the ship, fresh water for drinking purposes would only be provided at 0900, 1300 and 1700 hours daily. Meal times were arranged for 0700, 1200 and 1700 hours. And a doctor’s surgery was set up twice daily 0900-1000 hours and 1600–1700 hours.
I hurriedly updated my letter to my parents that night, telling them the whole story as it had unfolded. Having retired to my bunk late, after joining in the sing-song on deck I was desperate for a few hours sleep, the first rest in 39 hours.
Life was a little more normal for us on the 3rd October, the second full day the Vietnamese were on board. We were still at sea, closing in on Kaohsiung, our next port of call. The day started with the Vietnamese mainly restricted to life on the hatchcover, away from the side railings of the ship. But as time moved on new friendships were being formed. Inevitably the Committee were meeting with the Captain to gain a better idea of their future. Some were working with the Captain acting as interpreters, and administering the personnel records. Elsewhere we already had the doctors helping out with medical aid where it was required. And some of the Vietnamese volunteered to contribute by working in the galley, helping to prepare food. Some Vietnamese who had an engineering background put themselves forward to help down in the ship’s engine room. And out on deck they were just as keen to help. I had just headed down the deck with a couple of other cadets and some brushes and tins of white paint. Our orders were to re-paint the railings where the paintwork had been damaged and spoiled by the actions during the rescue. We had barely started when a few Vietnamese men approached ready armed with paintbrushes. They must have gone to the ship’s stores and requested them, for now they took our paint-tins and started painting with two brushes each, one in each hand. We were somewhat bemused, not knowing whether to accept their help or demand that they returned to the hatchcover. But then a small group of little boys cautiously approached, unsure if they would be shouted at, but their curiosity had the better of them. As I painted, they watched me, all the time inching forward. As I paused to turn round and see who was behind me their little faces would crack into big wide smiles. And then one stretched out his arm pointing to the railing. I looked. The cheeky mite was telling me where I had missed a bit!! And then they were all pointing, all over the place to bits I had missed with my paintbrush! That day they followed me everywhere, only being summoned back to the hatchcover later by their anxious parents.
And that evening more of the cadets and crew came to sit on the hatchcover to talk, play and sing. Tomorrow we would arrive in Taiwan, not knowing what would happen to these people we were already so deeply attached to. Rumour had it we could end up taking them from Taiwan to Hong Kong or the Philippines. And it might take some time before a country would take them in.
PART 3: Wellpark arrives to an uncertain welcome in Taiwan
It was decidedly hotter on Wednesday 4th October. The horizon was hazy and the coastline of Taiwan was veiled in mist as we got closer to land. Many of the teenage Vietnamese had been standing at the ship’s side, day-dreaming as they watched the water slide past Wellpark’s hull as she powered forward. Only two whole days after their rescue it seemed they were at home on the ship and enjoying the experience like some low cost cruise.
But arrival in Kaohsiung meant confrontation with reality, the reality that these people only had one rightful home, which was Vietnam. By all rights they should be returned to their homeland on arrival in Taiwan. As Wellpark entered the quarantine anchorage we could see enormous pylons, hundreds of feet high on which were mounted the biggest red flags I had ever seen. A number of jet fighters flew low across the ship. It all added to increase the air of tension.
A cutter came out to Wellpark with uniformed Port Health and Immigration authorities on board. We all wondered what would happen. We tried to pacify the Vietnamese. Perhaps naively we told them Wellpark was British property, an island of safety and security on the other side of the world. We were passionately protective of our refugees.
But the formalities seemed to be straightforward and were completed that afternoon. Perhaps things had been settled at Government level before we even arrived. But before we could berth to unload our cargo all the Vietnamese must be inoculated against Cholera and Smallpox. And a more comprehensive list of identities would have to be drawn up with left thumbprint, photograph, signature, occupation, Vietnam address, and relative addresses, where possible. Strangely it was discovered there were now 346 Vietnamese on Wellpark, three more than were counted before! The fact that the ship was now cleared ‘inward’ led us to assume the Vietnamese had been accepted by Taiwan. This was to be their new home. I was a little crestfallen. I couldn’t help feeling these kind, gentle, respectful and smiley people on board our ship deserved a better home than Taiwan, which was a country I always perceived as ‘unfriendly’.
As it turned out we were left in doubt a little longer, uncertain what would happen. The grain berth with its grain elevators was still busy unloading another ship and the ship was ordered to remain in the anchorage. Now that we were ‘in’ Taiwan it was hot and humid. Even though we were not going anywhere, we were still working hard. There was no navigating to be done, and no cargo could be unloaded, but in the heat we were worked hard to prepare the ship for a busy time in port.
Through the day there was no escape from the heat. The ship was so low on fresh water that it was rationed even for the crew. That meant no shower after a hard days work, but as the sky darkened at night we could still go out on deck and sit on No.5 hatch and relax in the cooling night air, talking amongst the families, asking them about the lives they once lived in Vietnam, and discussing what their new lives might be. Slowly friendships grew to a point where we found ourselves ‘adopting’ families. They would ask us to write down our names and home addresses or might ask for an essential item; perhaps a needle and thread to mend clothes, or for a pen and paper to write with. The crew had lent some books, a few games and even a couple of guitars to help make their stay more pleasant. Earlier in the day, quite spontaneously, the crew donated every bit of clothing they could spare. It was a token gesture because we had no clothing suitable for women or children, but the smiles on the Vietnamese faces showed it was appreciated. We had all been working so hard that we had not previously had time to stop, but at that point I noted how the crew had been transformed. Only ten days earlier in a boisterous initiation ceremony, Crossing the Line, some cadets had some rather nasty things done to them. Some were given savage haircuts, chunks cut out of one or both sides of the head , and were daubed, dumped in and forced to swallow all sorts of revolting fluids. Presumably all the Vietnamese were too polite to ever ask why some of the cadets had such patchy haircuts! First trippers had the worst time of it, but now as one, the crew had grown into one ‘family’ with the Vietnamese, a family given to sharing and helping, caring and loving each other. In a corner of the hatch cover a group of three girls were singing. Slowly they lowered their voices as the parents tucked up the younger children under the blankets stretched on the steel deck. Gradually they too settled to sleep and we retired to our bunks with sprung mattresses, our hearts filled with a sense of fulfilment and peace.
PART 4: Living in No Man's Land
Day 5 started slowly. The ship lay, swinging lazily on its anchor, in the hot still air. Everything was quiet, and those Vietnamese not included in the various work parties spent the time pacing restlessly up and down the deck. For the adults this new day brought more uneasiness. What was happening? What were the powers-that-be in some far off land deciding? What would be their fate?
Nerves tightened when a cutter was seen leaving the shore and heading directly towards Wellpark. As it reached the gangway we heard our new visitor was no less than one of Denholm Ship Management’s senior Director’s flown out from the UK to assist our situation. Knowing that he was on board in meetings with the Captain and senior officer’s demonstrated the seriousness of our position, one that I and the younger members of the crew had so far thought of as a jolly adventure.
Fortunately the children, who made up half the ship’s population, could not be kept down. They were everywhere, unaware of the tension that enveloped the adults. They played, and laughed, tagging along behind the cadets as if they were older brothers. In return most of the cadets, not so long out of school themselves, could not resist the urge to have fun where it was possible. To the children the ship was a massive and exciting playground, but it could also be a very dangerous place. As potential officers we were thoroughly trained in safety matters, proficient in first aid, and as firefighters and lifeboatmen. So the children were always in safe hands, not least because the crew had a genuine affection for them. We couldn’t resist their sense of fun and their smiles. Smiles are infectious things and seeing and having happy children around, I’m sure helped divert their parents minds from more worrying matters.
Sometime during the day another cadet told me to go and look at the ship’s notice board. There were a few crew members already there, reading a letter pinned to the board. It was a letter of thanks from the Vietnamese. It read:
On behalf of all the refugees in the ship and of myself May I address to you, the General Manager of the Denholm Ship Management Limited, to the Dymandee’s commander, Officers and all the Crews members our profound and Grateful thanks for Saving us from the coming death on our boat. We believe that October the Second 1978 will be an unforgotten day among the coming remaining days of our life, and we think our relative, parents and children will hear from our mouth the Dymandee’s noble and humanitarians task very soon. Really, excepted a Small privileged part of us on the boat, we were in a Semi-consciousness caused by the days lack of food, by the high move of the sea, by the mechanical trouble of the boat. So far the desire to escape has nourished our hope and given us faith. We believe in God and happily our boat was lost on Dymandees road. And Dymandee with her mechanical and human forces managed by a handful of energetic humanitarian people has pulled three hundred and fifty human lives from the nightmare of coming death to the brightness of life, from the unimaginable lack of air in the last hole of the boat, to the bright and hopeful Dymandee’s deck. So Dymandee has saved us! Thanks to God! Thanks to Dymandee’s Managers Thanks to Dymandee’s Commander, Officers and all the members of the crew
Signed, Ny quy Bao
We understood what the name Dymandee was. It’s customary for ships to have the same name on their lifeboats too. But Wellpark was a training ship and she had one addition to the lifeboats in the shape of a small sailing dinghy stowed on the stern. This little boat had been named Dymandee, a name created from the Denholm Line crest, or logo, of a blue diamond shape with a white ‘D’ in the middle of it; hence, Dymandee. Seeing the dinghy with its name on it, it is understandable someone might believe the ship was called Dymandee.
But we overlooked the error of the name. The emotive phrasing of the letter in front of us at first seemed somewhat melodramatic. But slowly as each of us read on, realisation began to dawn on us. As a youthful and carefree ship’s crew, death always seemed a lifetime away. Here, for the first time we began to appreciate that the people we now shared life with really had believed death for them was only a matter of hours or a day away. Hope had slipped away with their last food, the last distress flare and the light of day. And then came the lights of Wellpark, turning towards them like an Angel out of the darkness of despair. That letter was a message of gratitude that sank deep into the psyche of all that read it.
All that day there was no new news for the refugees. All day long we kept glancing up towards the ship’s accommodation within which we knew the Captain and Denholm Director must be in conference calls with Head Office in Glasgow and various government departments discussing what would happen next. It seemed a long drawn out day and the nightly gathering after dark on the hatch lid had a more sombre air to it. It can’t have been easy for the Vietnamese to sleep on the steel hatch cover that night.
Over in the UK my mother hadn't the slightest idea what I was doing. It would be five days more before our families and the British public would be told what had happened on the night of 1st October.
It was the same routine the next day. The bodies stirred under the blankets at about 6.30am. By that time we were already on duty again, and some of the Vietnamese asked when we slept, for they noticed we were active about the ship when they went to sleep and ’still’ on duty when they awoke. Of course we were getting sleep but only for a few hours a day.
Word was passed round that Wellpark would dock later that day at the grain terminal a few miles away. Whilst the crew test opened the cargo hatch lids, the refugees did their best to keep themselves busy. Some washed or repaired clothes, whilst the younger children drew pictures or cut shapes out of card with scissors. Many spent time washing, cleaning or reorganising the few items that constituted their home on the hatchlid, straightening and folding the few blankets each family had. Many were off the hatchlid helping in the ship’s galleys with preparing food and others in various work parties helping out the crew where it was requested. Having been strictly ordered to stay on the hatchlid in the first day, the ‘barriers’ had been eased and now some felt free to roam the ships open deck, but the ship’s accommodation remained off-limits unless the individual was on ‘official duties’.
As the grain berth became vacant by mid-afternoon, Wellpark was ordered in. The crew were busy on the bow raising the 5 tonne anchor. On the bridge wing the Captain and the Pilot were occupied passing orders from bridge wing to the man at the wheel, steering the 30,000 tonne ship towards the berth. A couple of tugs came out to assist, and as the Vietnamese watched, the ship was nudged into her parking spot opposite the grain elevators. The cadets once again showed the skills they had used in securing the refugee boat six days earlier, as they tied Wellpark tight up against the quay.
The sun was setting as two of the giant hatchlids were opened on their hydraulic rams. Almost straightaway two grain elevators marched up, guided from their little wooden control huts mounted up high, and started to suck the grain out of the ship’s holds. And they kept going. Later the refugees settled off to sleep. But the constant hum of the machinery, and the bright lights they used to work by, must have been an ugly intruder of their dreams throughout the night.
Once again I was already on duty when the Vietnamese peeked out from under their blankets next morning. I had started work again at 4.00 am, my duties to control access to the ship on the Gangway watch. We had two Taiwanese Police on board and a total of seven cadets patrolling the ship at any time on a so-called Security watch. From time to time some Taiwanese dock workers would come on board. I didn’t like their attitude. They were nosey. Too often they wandered close to the area where the refugees were sleeping, dressing or sitting. I often had to confront them. But up close I saw they appeared to be bleeding in their mouths. There was red stuff around their teeth like blood. And every so often they would spit the 'blood' on the deck. It was disgusting. Even when I discovered the red stuff they were chewing was beetlejuice, I still found the habit disgusting, as they obscenely desecrated our ‘home’ with patches of spat ‘blood’ all over the place.
Now life for the Vietnamese was less pleasant. As the grain was lifted from the holds dust drifted on the light breeze across the ship’s deck. It got everywhere and the refugees were meticulous in cleaning it from their space on the hatchlid. But worse for them , the weather turned cooler. Used to a life in tropical Vietnam, Taiwan was unfavourably cool by their standards.
Fortunately news of their plight seems to have been broadcast in Taiwan, no doubt with some anti-communist twist to it. Looking down from the gangway we were initially mystified to see large bags being dropped on the quayside by dock workers. The pile grew, until eventually it was gathered up in a crane sling and hauled on board. In it were bags and bags of clothes and footwear. The bags were opened and the whole was made into a long pile some five or six feet wide and perhaps forty feet long down the port side of No.5 hatch. It was probably one to two feet deep in places, all of it clothing donated by the peoples of Kaohsiung. The Vietnamese rummaged amongst it lifting a shirt here, a jumper there, trying on trousers or shoes. In no time the Vietnamese were re-clothed and the pyjama style clothes so many of the women and girls wore, disappeared in favour of warmer and cleaner clothes.
In fact, so many bundles of clothes were donated that a sign was placed at the foot of the gangway explaining the situation and requesting specific items, which seemed to magically appear almost immediately. A huge television turned up from somewhere and this was placed on deck for the refugees, it’s original packing box being used to shade it from the sun. It always had an audience, eager for world news sitting cross-legged on the deck in front of it. Their future was completely unknown and they looked for some clue in the news programmes as to what would happen to them. Word had it that their new home would almost certainly be in the USA.
By 9th October, life on Wellpark had settled into a regular pattern. The ship continued to unload cargo 24 hours a day. To prevent stress to the ship’s hull they had to unload the cargo reasonably evenly so this meant moving the elevators from hold to hold. A time came when the cargo had to be emptied from Hatch No.5. The games nets were taken down, along with the assorted lifeboat and winchcovers, dinghy sail and swimming pool awning that had provided patchy cover. All 346 refugees were moved up the deck to make a new home on No.3 hatch cover. Later they were moved to No.2. Each time it meant building new cover from the weather that increasingly threatened rain. But unlike ten days earlier where we raided the ship for equipment and machinery covers, we now had huge rolls of tough, blue and white stripped plastic sheeting. It made sense to rig this into Arabian tent-like shapes along side the hatch covers.
With a supply of constant fresh water available from the shore by hose, the swimming pool area on the ship was made into a crude washing station where the Vietnamese could not only wash themselves but also use the freshwater to clean clothes. Still, only refugees who were on special duties were allowed in to the ship’s accommodation. There was no apparent resentment to this, and now the crew were surrounded by friendly smiles and respectful assistance wherever they went.
Every day the Captain headed a party of senior officers and Refugee Committee members as they toured the ship, clipboard in hand checking every detail of the social arrangements for the 400 on board. With considerable organisation they considered sleeping arrangements, the shelters, food, washing facilities, and even what could be done to relieve boredom. But much of the time the Captain and Committee members were out of sight, discussing and liaising with government authorities on what would happen. If they had some idea, out on deck they gave no clue to what they knew.
Life for the crew was different. We were still only getting a few hours sleep a night, but at least we slept in mattressed bunks in air conditioned cabins, and now there was an adequate supply of freshwater, we could shower at will. We were also free to leave the ship when off-duty and most made at least one trip in to the city of Kaohsiung. Some were heading on appointments to dentists or doctors, but after browsing a few shops and markets, inevitably we sought out the bars for a cold beer and some ‘cultural education’. Normally after any long period at sea, and it had been two months since I had stepped ashore, we were eager to explore a new country, but this time, after just a brief walk, I knew I just wanted to get back to Wellpark. I bought a black leather bomber jacket thinking it was a wonderful bargain. I hadn’t heard of ‘imitation’ leather before, but that was the greatest thing about going to sea as a young man. You learnt so much in such a short time, sometimes by your mistakes!
PART 5: October 10th - a special date to remember
October 10th was a special day. Not only was it my father’s birthday, but it was also Taiwan’s Independence day. We tried to create a bit of a carnival effect and hung up every available flag on the ship. It added a bit of gaiety to the pattern of life which in the last few days had been a bit stagnant for the Vietnamese adults. With no news on their future and the uncomfortable and restricted living conditions we were all beginning to wonder how long we could be left in limbo.
As the cargo continued to be extracted from the ship’s holds, some detected more activity at ‘management level’. The development came later in the day. It hadn’t taken long after the rescue for Wellpark’s owners to contact Britain’s Foreign Office and Government with their own call for help. Wellpark was one of the first ships to encounter the new phenomena of ‘Vietnamese Boat People’. The world’s nations had no international policies on how to deal with large numbers of people either fleeing or being forced to leave a country who found refuge on a ship in neutral international waters. For the last eight days ministers and other civil servants in Britain’s government had been made aware of a British ship which had sailed into this new political problem. Unknown to us, already, at the highest Government level they had debated and cast aside Britain’s strict immigration policy. They had also allocated accommodation, located and chartered two airliners to take Wellpark’s refugees to London, and put in place all that was necessary to give 346 homeless people a new start in life. It must have been at about 10.00am in London that everything was sanctioned and the Home Secretary agreed to release the news.
There was an announcement over the tannoy. Everyone should assemble on the main deck. There was some nervousness and anticipation as the crowd gathered. The children were gathered in close to their parents and we stood to one side unsure of what the news might be. Nothing could be taken for granted, and just as much as there was positive hope, there was concern for the worst, which might mean indefinite internment with miserable living conditions, or worst of all, repatriation.
The Captain appeared, megaphone in his hands, with his Vietnamese Committee around him. As they stood up on the poop deck facing out over the crowd below, he passed the megaphone to one of the committee members and intimated for him to go ahead with the announcement.
He spoke in Vietnamese and only spoke briefly before there were gasps of delight. Some cheered and some clapped their hands. There was laughter and excited chatter. A few hugged each other. As English speakers only, we had no idea what the message was but it wasn’t hard to conclude it could only be good news. Eagerly we turned to the nearest Vietnamese asking them to explain: ‘England!’ was the reply, ‘We’re going to England!’. Our mouths must have hung open in amazement. In our eyes this was the best possible news, and we were immensely proud that our country had backed up our actions in this way.
We should have had some fireworks to celebrate with but that night, as we chatted with the Vietnamese on deck the sky was lit with the smiles on their faces. Whilst the Captain spent the night answering news reporters questions on the phone we sat talking with the refugees long in to the night. They asked so many questions about life in Britain, about the Queen and the Royal Family, about schools and work and in particular, what the weather and food was like! And they asked where we lived and what it was like there and whether they would be able to see us again. We were thrilled at the prospect.
Back in Britain for the first time, Denholm company management phoned every crew member’s next of kin to tell them what had happened in the South China Sea ten days earlier. They told them it would be in the news. And it was. Next day the Wellpark story was the leading front page story in all the national newspapers.
PART 6: Leaving Wellpark
That was it. For the last ten days we had shared our ship. Now we were going to share our country and heritage. And our home would become their home. Any last barriers that there might have been, came tumbling down. The refugee’s trust was complete. Any reason to keep a small division in case the situation became more complicated, evaporated and the crew relaxed the rules. It meant the adults came into the accommodation freely to use the crew showers and toilets. Whilst they respectfully allowed the cadets to wash in private, their inquisitive toddlers often tugged the shower curtains aside. Their older brothers and sisters roamed the ship’s accommodation, knocking politely on cadet’s cabin doors before peeking their heads round the corner with big grins across their faces. ‘Will you come out to play?’ they seemed to say, not realising that some crew members were trying to get some sleep after a night on duty. Whilst they waited for a favourite cadet to emerge from his cabin, a gang of them would make themselves busy, searching out some brushes so they could sweep the alleyways. It was not long before they found their way to the Officer’s smoke room. It became an overcrowded crèche. Off duty crew kept the children entertained, introducing them to games of darts and cards. But mostly they sat in front of the TV watching videos. They craved the cans of ice-cold Fanta freely served from the bar refrigerator savouring their first tastes of the sweet, fizzy drink.
A weight seemed to have been lifted off everyone’s shoulders and now the atmosphere was totally relaxed, with an air of expectation . They spent the day sitting patiently on deck as if waiting in a train station or airport, ready to leap up as their train or plane departure was announced. They chatted excitedly amongst themselves, flashing brilliant smiles at any of the crew that might pass. News that two chartered Boeing 707 aircraft were on their way from Britain to pick them up on the 12th had circulated the ship. They could hardly believe their luck!
A BBC News Correspondent and film crew arrived on the ship that afternoon. They filmed the refugees at ‘home’ under the awnings and the children playing darts in the smoke-room. They also filmed a little ceremony up on the ship’s bridge. It was led by Captain Vo, Captain of the refugee boat who presented his French made sextant to Captain Connell, watched by the members of the Vietnamese Committee. They also filmed me, and when I asked them where it would be shown, they said it would be beamed to the UK by satellite that night and shown on the BBC Nine O’Clock News. That night my mother, in Britain, saw me and discovered I hadn’t had my hair cut for two months!
The worsening weather should have put a dampener on things. It was getting cooler and the sky more overcast. On the 12th October the authorities warned a typhoon was about to hit western Taiwan. With 346 people living below a thin plastic awning on deck there was a frantic rush to prepare for the storm ahead. The crew worked quickly to ballast the ship down so it lay much deeper and heavier in the water, a smaller profile to be blown about. The mooring ropes tying the ship to the quay were doubled up, and all of the refugees were herded into the safe, steel casing of the ships accommodation. That night as the storm neared we were packed like sardines in Wellpark’s cabins. Designed for less than 50 souls there were now almost 400 sharing the same space.
I don’t know who slept in my bunk that night. All I know is that there were already six other people in the cabin when I returned to try and get a few hours sleep. I got a taste of the life the Vietnamese had endured on the hatchlid outside as I fell asleep on the carpeted steel deck of my cabin. I was dead to the world and never heard the cabin door open three hours later when another cadet came in to wake me to start my watch. He grabbed me by both ankles and pulled me across the floor to the door. The pain caused by the friction of my bare back burning on the carpeted floor tore me from my deep sleep rapidly even though it was only 4.00am in the morning. But 12 days of working an average of 18 hours or so, was beginning to test our stamina.
Everywhere there were bodies. The ship’s alleyways were narrow and we had to step across them, men, women and children as they slept on. It was impossible to be silent. Huddled up next to them were their only worldly possessions: often only empty 5 litre fruit tins, soft drink and beer cans, that they used to collect their meals from the ship’s galley in. And in the crush it was all too easy to kick a can, or stand on a hand..
It took two days for things to return to normal. The typhoon never did hit Taiwan, but sheered away to the south blowing itself out in the empty Pacific. But it rained constantly. The cargo hatches were closed up and no grain was unloaded.
News began to filter through to us from the UK. We got snippets of headlines, and an impression of the story being told back home. It quickly became our perception that the story was being twisted, and manipulated. Perhaps it wasn't helped by our company trying to gain maximum publicity from the event. Given that we knew the truth of every little detail, we fully appreciated why you often shouldn't believe what you read in the papers. We became angry that the media changed small details.
It was Saturday 14th October when the fire alarms went off suddenly. The bemused Vietnamese had a ring side seat to see how we reacted in an emergency, just as we had done when their distress flare was seen 12 days earlier. There was small fire in the ship’s engine room. Two of Wellpark’s engineers quickly extinguished it and the Taiwanese fire brigade were returned to base before they reached the ship. It was a last thrill in the happy adventure that had been life on Wellpark for the refugees, for that night they were supposed to leave the ship at midnight.
They didn’t go. There was an unexplained delay. Some of the Vietnamese started to get nervous. Was this a delaying tactic, a trick, before bad news would be forced on them? In fact it was nothing more than a technical problem with one of the airliners. One of the two aircraft had developed a hydraulic fault in Karachi. All day long they kicked their feet, waiting for the signal to go. They had said their farewell’s in the vacant hours of waiting, touring the ship to find crew members who had helped in some way, perhaps to lend a needle and thread, supply pen and paper, or card and scissors so the children could make things. It seemed that everyone wanted to shake my hand. As a parting gift I was given a gold cross pen, a shoe bag crafted out of second hand clothes with my name embroidered on it and a cleverly made pineapple out of blood transfusion. They were little things that meant so much and I swore I would keep them forever.
Most of them wore a baggage tag tied to their clothing. It bore their name and an official stamp, the only means of formal identification as they did not have passports. And the women wore make-up. Having searched each of them as they were rescued from the sea two weeks earlier and knowing they had nothing but the scanty, dirty clothes they stood in, I never understood where they got lipstick and eye-shadow from, especially as all the crew on Wellpark were men. Had one of them got a secret?
As crew we were resigned to them going. We had a job to do carrying cargo around the world, but each of us dreaded the emptiness we knew we would feel when they had gone. The delay of the aircraft only intensified the dread of the depression that would set in afterwards. The last night was not a joyous occasion, just an interminable extension of the waiting game.
It dragged in to the next day. The planes had finally arrived in Kaohsiung that morning. The refugees , we were told, would go at 3.30 pm . Then it was put back to 8pm. In fact it was almost 10pm by the time they left. 10 buses turned up to take them. There were final ‘Goodbyes’, promises to write, promises to meet., parting handshakes and hugs. And there were tears. Just a few wanted to stay on Wellpark, the only place they knew that was safe and secure. Carefully they walked down the long, steep gangway, past the press photographers and into the coaches. We stayed to wave, but in the dark, and from position high on the ship’s deck we only managed to see a few waving hands at the windows. The faces were out of sight.
Two and a half hours later Wellpark was at sea, urgently trying to make up time and get to dry-dock in Korea. We had taken the ship out of port after midnight and filed back quietly into the ship’s accommodation. It was a miserable place. The Vietnamese had helped to tidy up before they left, but there was still a gulf of difference compared to the way the ship had been two weeks earlier. It had to be put back in shape. But the weather was grim. Outside the ship was battering into a stiff wind , occasional rain, and plumes of spray erupted over the bow to drench the main deck and accommodation. After a short sleep the ship's crew set to work cleaning every part, toilets, showers, cabins, alleyways – everything.
As recognition of the lack of sleep we had had in the last two weeks we worked only until lunchtime. we were exhausted, and desperately needed a chance to recharge our batteries. I was just about to get some sleep myself, when it struck me how unusually quiet the ship was. I took a quick look up the alleyway. Everyone who wasn’t on duty was already fast asleep. And it was only 6.00pm! Outside the wind borne spray hosed the ship from end to end. By morning there was nothing to show there had been 346 Vietnamese on Wellpark for 14 days: not one sign.
But in the minds of 49 crew of Wellpark there was a memory that would stay bright for a lifetime. And a wish that some day those memories could be relived – those happy days of the Wellpark family.
As background Pentlandpirate says this:
The following is a series of letters sent to my Mum (which she saved over the years), from my time as a second trip deck cadet on Denholm's training ship,"Wellpark" leading up to the time when the ship rescued 346 Vietnamese boat people in the South China sea on 1st October 1978. With the passage of time, I hope these letters give an insight to what life at sea was like for a young man at sea, reporting back what was suitable for a Mum to hear! Apologies for the references to life at home, but when you were on the other side of the world, your home on a farm in the extreme north of Scotland could seem very, very far away.
Letter 1. Joining the ship in Argentina. Crossing to South Africa
M/V WELL PARK BAHIA BLANCA ARGENTINA 20th August 1978
Dear Mum and Dad, (etc)
It was yesterday when we finally arrived on the ship. After three days of flying, Wick to Aberdeen, Aberdeen to Glasgow, Glasgow to London, London to Madrid, Rio de Janeiro and on to Buenos Aires and then another flight to Bahia Blanca in the south of Argentina, we thought we would enjoy our stay in the hotel, but it just happened that they were having a local holiday at the time and all the shops and places of entertainment were closed. We were also very tired due to jet lag and the menu at the hotel was not very good. For the first two days I had steak and chips, lunch and dinner, until I got bored and sore jaws, and then I tried some other dishes. The steak was normally barely cooked and very tough. The cuts of meat were huge. However, when we tried ordering anything else but steak the waiters failed to understand. We often waited an hour for each course so we only tended to bother with one course. In one meal the waiter brought us four separate courses of steak and chips. Each time he thought we were dissatisfied and took it away to get another lot. In this way we waited about two hours to get any food at all. In the end we just got so fed up with waiting that we just ate the steak and chips!
We arrived at the hotel on Wednesday afternoon and left on Saturday morning. In that time we just ate, slept or wandered around the streets. Some of the shops were very nice but most things were very expensive and I only bought some postcards. There were some lovely sheepskin and even though they were much cheaper here than in Britain, really nice ones cost about £100 (which is more than I had). On Saturday morning at 11am the agent sent some taxis round to the hotel to take us to the ship. Of course we were all in bed and there was a bit of a scramble to get away.
Anyway, I am now on the ship and I am sharing a cabin with Willie Fraser who lives at Burnside near Mrs Leet. He was in the year below me at school where I had known him vaguely. Everyone has been saying how boring it has been on the Wellpark. They were at anchor for three weeks outside of Bahia Blanca. Apparently cadets are not allowed to do any more painting as they have used up too much in the past few months. Already I am beginning to see that there is very little work to do. The ship is very nicely fitted but seems so much smaller than my last one. Really, I dont know what to say about the ship, I've only been on board a day and as of yet I've done nothing but next week I will be on gangway watch while we are in port and on day work as soon as we get to sea.
We expect to leave here on Tuesday or Wednesday and we are carrying a cargo of millet grain to Taiwan. We will be stopping at Durban for stores and bunkers (fuel), I think in about 3-4 weeks time after we cross the South Atlantic, so you can send mail direct to the agents there (but don't go through the agents in Taiwan). We are expecting to go for dry-dock somewhere too as the ship is buckled after hitting a sandbank off Brazil. The dry-dock will be in Taiwan, Japan or somewhere in that area.
At this stage I have no more news but I'm sure I can write a bit more when we get close to Durban. I will look forward to your letters too.
With love from Michael.
Letter 2. Arriving in Durban
Denholm Line Steamers
Off the Cape of Good Hope
7th September 1978
Dear Mum, Dad and All,
Lets see if I can get started tonight. In the past few days Ive started writing to you twice and was interrupted constantly on both evenings until I eventually gave up.
My first three weeks are almost completed now and I have re-established myself again into this sea-going life. I don't know if anyone ever settles down in this ship as there is so much noise and one is interrupted so often.
At the moment we are just going down past Capetown. We had to cross the Atlantic well north of what one would expect to be our route to be. This was so that the ship would comply with regulations allowing it to be more heavily laden. The vessel is loaded down to its Summer lines and the South Atlantic is classed as a Winter zone, due to Antarctic weather conditions, greater storms, icebergs, etc. So we had to sail north from Bahia Blanca and then sail on a West-East course between Buenos Aires and Capetown, instead of a more direct, shorter route further to the south. We hope to arrive in Durban some time on Monday where we may berth to refuel with bunkers and to pick up supplies and Six Month stores.
We had one spell of weather that was very rough. The ship was rolling and pitching very badly, and at one time I was actually looking underwater through my cabin porthole, but only for a second or two. From now on we expect to be nice sunbathing weather all the way to Taiwan, which will take at least another month I think.
I find it hard to believe I've only been on board for three weeks it seems longer. We left Bahia Blanca on 23rd August. While we were there I was on gangway watches (12-4) which was nice and boring (and very cold). I had to stand by the gangway all the time and throughout the night it the temperature was always below zero. Once we got to sea I worked until Friday as a dayworker on deck. That involved cleaning the ship, washing, sweeping, hosing, etc. The next I spent doing soundings, monitoring the water levels in the bilges, and daywork as well as classes on two days and about two evening classes. Most of the time cadets are washing the outside of the accommodation or decks with fresh water. They've been doing this for weeks for lack of any other jobs. Last week they spent a day washing the radar mast with fresh water only for some heavy weather to cover the ship again in salt spray when the bows of the ship were throwing up massive domes of seawater into the sky. As a result the senior cadet has extreme difficulty in getting anyone to work and there is a lot of horseplay and what one might call truancy with cadets hiding all over the ship playing cards. It is very unfortunate that there is so little to do. We arent allowed to do any painting. Denholms say that too much has been used so they have issued orders that no painting is to be done. As the ship is fully loaded with almost 30,000 tonnes of cargo, no maintenance can be done in the holds. In fact we are completely limited to the deck or accommodation. However, people are thinking what can be done to lift spirits and once past Durban we should be having some deck sports instead of work.
There are 48 on board. Ten of these are Officers, including the Training Officer, who is in fact a Chief officer by rank and acts as a sort of teacher for the cadets. At the moment there are 23 cadets, eight of them being senior cadets. The rest of the crew is made up of three engine room workers, two bosuns and a petty officer and various cooks and stewards.
Apart from the cadet from Thurso, with whom I share a cabin, there is another cadet who was born in Thurso and lived there for ten years. The 3rd Mate is from Hoy in Orkney and another cadet is from South Ronaldsay, Orkney. I had also previously met one of the cadets I flew out to Argentina with, at the Nautical College in Glasgow before last Christmas. I am just one of many cadets and officers on this ship who are from the Highlands and Islands of Scotland.
Each Sunday evening we have a quiz which is great fun except everyone cheats and the only way to win is to get more marks than is possible (if you see what I mean). All sorts of other competitions are arranged and to be honest (or dishonest) I find it difficult to find an evening for the correspondence work we have to do. If one gets behind with work the Training Officer makes sure you catch up!
I was glad to find when I joined the ship that I was well ahead of most cadets in many aspects of my work. I learned more Rules of the Road than most, including Seniors and I am further ahead with my correspondence work than most of the junior cadets. I am a bit behind with General Tasks, like learning knots, etc, but I am well ahead when it comes to bridge work, sun and star sights, chartwork, etc.
This week I have been working in the engine room, just tagging along behind an engineer, doing what he does. I've quite enjoyed it and its much more fun than washing the deck. As a junior cadet one has extremely little responsibility which I rather regret considering what I was given to do on my first ship, Sevonia Team. I would certainly have no chance of doing navigational watches, ballasting operations or many other things on this ship.
As I mentioned before the ship was badly damaged when it hit a sandbank going into Rosario, Brazil, and there is a very bad buckle through the ship about a third of the way from the bow. This will have to be repaired in dry-dock and will probably take a fair time to complete. We expect the dry-docking to be in Taiwan or Japan.
Here is a section about what I should have taken with me: 1) Decent writing paper. This stuff is all they have on board. 2) Shampoo. There is some on board but the Chief Steward refuses to sell it at its real price. Over £2.00 for a normal sized shampoo bottle it is, and no one wants it either at that price. 3) I wish I had taken some of my photography books. Even with all my uniform I had plenty of space in my luggage which only amounted to 29.5 kilos. 4) I should have taken some Christmas cards. One normally does 4 months on the Wellpark and you get a months remission (leave). I officially signed on on 19th August so if I want to get a months remission I cant leave the ship until 19th December, presuming that it happens to be in a port. As I am due to start at college on 9th January I may just be home for a day or two over the Christmas period, or I may arrive home only to have to go off to Glasgow immediately. Anyhow, nearer the time the Training Officer will make the situation very clear to the Training Department at Denholms. It seems unlikely that I shall be home for Christmas but may be I'll be luckier next year (although I wouldnt like to bet on it being third time lucky!)
Incidentally the food on board is not very good !!
I presume that you now have my last batch of slides and if possible I would like you to tell me what's wrong with them (no doubt there are some bad ones) so that I can try to improve my technique. Could you get the Bank to forward my Bank card to me at the end of September. I will need it if I ever come back to Britain! Without it I might find myself sleeping in Heathrow airport instead of the Ariel Hotel!
If Andrew is going away to college I would like to have his address and remember I want to know what is happening on the farm and at the animal sales. Willie Frasers parents send him copies of the John O'Groat Journal and Caithness Courier so I will be able to keep up with some of the local news but no doubt if any arrive here in Durban, knowing the postal system, I'll have seen them all before I left home to go to Argentina!
I hope Grannie Eileen is enjoying her stay on the farm (she is there isn't she?). I would have written to her if I had thought she was at home at Tally-Ho (I promise!). I will have to stop writing now, as I can't think of anything else to say; anyhow its bed time!
Its now Sunday afternoon (10th September). For the past few days it has been nice and warm with plenty sunshine. At the moment we are running up the coast towards Durban where we expect to arrive very early tomorrow morning. There are about twelve people being relieved in Durban, nine of them cadets (one senior and eight juniors) so there will be a lot of new faces. I personally reckon we will only be in Durban about 12 hours at the very most but everyone else seems to think well be there much longer. I've been told that it should take another 22 days to get to Taiwan, thus arriving October 4th. There is some speculation that we may be at anchor there for a long time: someone even said three months! From Durban we will be going south of Madagascar across the Indian Ocean and up between Sumatra and Java and then straight up to Taiwan. It should be nice and warm all the way.
The coast of South Africa looks very nice and I wish I could spend some time there one day. We are only about 5 miles from the coast most of the time. We've seen albatross, dolphins, seals and penguins on the way.
...................Monday 11th. We have now arrived in Durban and we are working hard at getting all the stores on board. We arrived at about 8am but weve been on the go since 5.30am. The Reliefs have just come on board so those going home will be away soon. We will probably stay until about 6pm and then the next stop will be Taiwan. It's very hot here, and South Africa looks quite nice. I really must go now. Dave Parker, who was born in Thurso, is one of those going home and will post this for me in Britain.
With lots of love, Michael
Letter 3. The run-up to the rescue
Somewhere north of Borneo
Sunday 1st October 1978
Dear All at Home,
We are now only about three days away from Kaohsiung in Taiwan and should arrive early on Wednesday. It now seems that we won't be anchoring for any time at all. In fact we have increased to full speed within the last two days. In increasing the speed by three knots we are doubling our fuel consumption.
I think this has been my most memorable voyage so far. Although I have not enjoyed the work (or lack of it) many other factors have made it a special trip.
But first, back to Durban. I only received one letter from Mum, including the one you posted to me last January when Sevonia Team was approaching Korea. Having spoken to others on the matter 9 months beats all records! Anyhow we are always glad to get letters no matter how long they take to get to us. Quite a lot has happened since I left home almost seven weeks ago. I can hardly believe I've been on the ship more than six weeks time is really passing quickly. I suppose the house extension must almost be complete now, and I hope that much of the harvest has been done.
We left Durban at about 10pm on 11th September after staying there about 14 hours. I worked from 3.30am to 20 past midnight continuously, either engaged in mooring operations or in stowing and loading stores. So much stuff- thats the only word I can find for it, as it was so varied had to be brought on board. There must have been about 20 tonnes of drinks alone, huge quantities of food, tinned, flour, sugar, - everything. There were dozens of mops, buckets, cups, boots, duffel coats, broom handles: the list is almost endless and we spent about seven hours getting it all on board even using one of the ships 15 tonne cranes. Quite a few cadets went ashore to the doctors, etc, (any excuse including syphilis to get ashore!) but I didnt even bother to go as far as the gangway. Nine new cadets came on board replacing eight on their way home. Six of them were first-trippers. I've never seen such a dour crowd.
Once clear of Durban we ran into some fairly heavy weather and the new cadets started to suffer (with sea-sickness). Two days out of Durban and two of them went as far as to tell the Captain they wanted to get off right there and then! Of course the new cadets were subjected to all sorts of jokes and tricks. For instance two weeks ago on Sunday the word was put around that there would be a Church service (never heard of before on a Denholm ship). It started with a hymn followed by a sermon on the evils of drink and although the speech given by the Training Officer was absolutely hilarious those of us who were in on it stayed absolutely silent and serious, stifling our giggles. But when the first trippers laughed they were shouted at and threatened with condemnation to Hell for daring to find it amusing. The whole thing was a set-up. In the end two of them were sent all round the ship to make a Collection. All the Officers were phoned ahead and gave them 10ps, etc which they were entitled to keep for providing us with some fun (they still didnt realise it was all a joke even long afterwards). Since then weve had Food Costs with small charges for extra chips, etc. New cadets have been sent to the engine room to get long weights or long stands and have found themselves being instructed by the duty engineer, Just wait there a moment while I get some parts for you to take to the Captain and the left waiting for ages wondering when the engineer will return. In fact first trippers have been at the mercy of everyone on the ship since they came on board.
Last weekend on Saturday we had the Crossing-the-Line Ceremony even though in fact we hadnt crossed the Equator. It was another six days before we crossed into the Northern Hemisphere again. For weeks we had been filling the new cadets heads with all sorts of stories about the initiation ceremony. Those who couldn't swim were a bit worried about it being the closest they would ever come to drowning. Anyhow thirteen cadets were crossing the Line for the first time plus one who said he had crossed the line on his last ship, but it was known he hadn't. He thought he would get away with his story and he still thought all was well until he was grabbed and tied up just before the ceremony.
I spent the afternoon on watch on the ship's bridge with the Captain while the ceremony went on. Much of the time neither of us was on the bridge but instead we were down by the swimming pool taking photographs leaving a Fourth Engineer to make sure we didn't collide with any other ships! At 2pm we slowed the ship down and put on the echo sounder (so that we could hear King Neptune coming!). We then sent out the signal KN (King Neptune) blasted by the ships fog horn and a minute or two later King Neptune and his party emerged from the foc'sle. The costumes were really excellent, considering the limitations of materials found on the ship. The policemen fanned out and searched the ship, finding all but one of the cadets in about half an hour. The cadets being done had been preparing their hiding places for days and cadets were found even in desk drawers or fire hose boxes. Some had hidden in the Captain's accommodation earlier in the day. When he went out for the ceremony, he locked his door to stop cadets hiding in there, thus leaving those clever cadets immune from everything but the best search.
Down by the swimming pool the cadets being initiated were tied to the railings and dealt with one at a time. First they were tried for various crimes before King Neptune before being placed on a slab and being liberally doused from head to toe in muck. All liquids used were organic and washed off easily thus causing no injury, but the experience of being forced to drink from a bed pan filled with a yellowy fluid with curly brown sausages and loo paper in it, cannot have been pleasant given what they thought it might be. After being coated and half drowned in these thick, horribly coloured liquids, each was tipped off the slab down a chute into the pool. After all the cadets were finished with they came and grabbed myself and the Captain from the bridge and did the same to us. After being thrown into the pool I opened my eyes underwater and wished I hadn't for I couldnt see anything, the water was that filthy. I forgot to mention that all the new cadets had haircutsfree, too! The most unpopular cadets got extremely savage haircuts in a range of haphazard where the shears had torn away chunks of hair. I only suffered five large cuts on my foot where a large wooden duck board, picked up by a wave from the over-flowing swimming pool ran over my foot when the ship rolled. I'm sorry I cant describe it better (the ceremony I mean: not my foot!). My photographs, if they come out, should give you a fair idea of what it was like but anyhow the whole thing was excellent. It must have been one of the best done ceremonies, ever. Certainly, none of the Officers had ever seen one nearly so good. (see photos here Wellpark Crossing the Line Ceremony
The work and lack of it: I've now been on this ship for six weeks. I did one week on engine room day work. Four weeks have been spent almost entirely on cleaning the accommodation inside and out. And during the past week Ive been scraping, chipping and painting. I should have been on watch for two weeks so far but due to circumstance and the Training Officers system I havent been on watch for more than two hours. Due to discharging of cargo and the future dry-dock I reckon I may not get a chance to do a bridge watch before December - and it may even work out that I dont do a watch before I go home. As I see it we will be in port during my bridge watch weeks so instead I shall be doing weeks of gangway watches, not getting the experience my training schedule requires. So I feel a bit hard-done-by but unfortunately the system cant be broken. Fortunately, I got well ahead with bridge work on my last ship.
On this ship we get a lot of classes, both in the evenings and once every three weeks we get two whole days of classes. I find that I have less time during the day for studies on this ship but perhaps they were too lenient on Sevonia Team.
Willie Fraser should be paying off in Taiwan, as well as Ian Manson from South Ronaldsay. Mark probably knows Willie Frasers sister. She must be in Marks class or the one below it. There will be a lot of people leaving in Taiwan Captain, training Officer, Chief Engineer (whose wife is from Castletown!) and many others. I believe Denholms have recently recruited quite a few cadets from Thurso. They must have found out we are a good bunch!
In Durban I had my fourth correspondence course returned to me from Head Office. I got 91% for the Physics and 88% in Maths, with Very Good for the project.
September 28th was one of the more interesting days in the journey. It was while we were passing through the Sunda Straits between Sumatra and Java. The Straits are not recommended for navigation due to the amount of volcanic activity. The first island we passed was Anakrakatoa with Krakatoa a bit further away. We passed within two miles of Anakrakatoa, which is extinct, but Krakatoa was throwing up huge amounts of lava and smoke thousands of feet into the air, regularly every ten minutes. It was a very hot day and we laid aside our tools and leant on the rail and watched, absolutely fascinated. We zig-zagged in and out of islands all day and in the evening the sun set in a big orange glow. Later the glow on the horizon still appeared to be there (at about 8pm) and I was a little puzzled until I heard it was an oil-rig which had had a blow out and caught fire that afternoon. It was on that day three cadets shared the same birthday, so the bar was busy that night. Earlier, whilst passing through the hundreds of small palm tree covered islands, we passed through many fishing fleets. There were many , very large yachts or schooners I don't know what you call them, but they looked really splendid with beautifully coloured sails set against the blue sea and sky. We decided they definitely werent pleasure boats, although none of us was exactly sure what they were
The next day was extremely hot (again), as we crossed the Equator. It was so hot that it was uncomfortable to walk on the steel deck even in my thick rubber soled safety shoes. Some cadets, especially the new ones, got very sunburnt and the ship now stinks of calomime lotion. I got my back a bit red, but the pain soon goes.
Yesterday, Saturday, we played deck tennis, quite a fast game with a rubber quoit on top of a hatch cover. We have nets suspended from the ships cranes, totally enclosing the area so that even ball games can be played without losing the ball overboard. The pitch is quite large and can be used for football or even cricket with specially made stumps (because ordinary ones dont stick into steel). The swimming pool has also been in regular use in the past week as it has been very humid, although the sun is not very bright. However the suns rays can penetrate the clouds and so unsuspecting people become sunburnt even with their clothes on.
There are a lot of people interested in photography on the ship, but few have the capabilities that my camera has. I want to try to get some photos for the Denholm News magazine. I've already used up one film and I want to return it home as soon as possible but I dont want it lost in the post or ruined by X-rays. I'm trying to take more interesting photos, rather than just snap shots. I am thinking of seriously photographing subjects which otherwise may be difficult to take. I think there must be a large demand for photos of seabirds and especially albatrosses, and the idea of selling photographs to magazines, etc, appeals to me! However, I shall have to buy the right equipment first. By the way we expect, or hope, there will be plenty to buy in Taiwan.
Must cease writing now and finish off my fifth correspondence course this afternoon. Goodbye for now!
Monday 2nd October: I'm going to start the next bit on a new sheet it should be worth it!
Letter 4. The rescue
South China Sea
Monday 2nd October 1978
Perhaps you already know what happened. You might have seen it mentioned in the papers or maybe Denholms told you. Anyhow, I shall try to describe the events briefly, in chronological order. In fact a lot happened in a relatively short time. Here we go:
On Sunday night I was sitting in my cabin trying to finish my correspondence course. At about 7.30 pm there was an announcement on the tannoy, "Emergency stations. An SOS signal has been seen on the port beam. This is not a drill"
Surprisingly everyone did everything in a disciplined, sensible manner and I headed to my Emergency station by the port lifeboat. Ahead we could see a small boat's lights (it was completely dark outside). Immediately we launched the port lifeboat with a crew of three officers and all the senior cadets. There was a large swell, as the area had been hit by a typhoon, and the water was rising and falling about twenty feet. When the lifeboat reached the water, they tried to release it quickly as the waves fell away, but the front hook refused to let go. The water level dropped and the lifeboat came extremely close to overturning lengthways! One cadet received a terrific blow on the head from one of the swinging lifeboat falls. It would certainly have killed him if he had not had his safety helmet on. An officer then hit the jammed release hook with an axe and the boat dropped onto the waves. The lifeboat then butted out into the dark to the boat in distress about half a mile away. Three other ships, including a Russian one, were standing by in the area. Apart from the Russian one that tried to interfere, the other ships took no part in the rescue.
The lifeboat returned from the dark in what must have been about 40 minutes, with about 15 people, all men and one boy. They struggled to climb the pilot ladder to the ships deck and most had to be helped. The boat then went away again for another load.
Meanwhile the boat in distress, without power or steering gear in operation, as the Wellpark had been manoeuvered round to shelter it, had drifted in close to the starboard side. A big swell picked it up and lifted it above the railings of the maindeck. Twice it did this. I happened to be about20 feet away and I was terrified it would ride over the railings onto the ship, and crush me below it. Luckily it drifted astern. I saw that it was a dilapidated wooden boat, about 70 feet long. There were people standing on it from stem to stern there was no sitting room whatsoever.
The lifeboat returned with a mixed load of men, women and children about 30 in all. Two women were over 8 months pregnant and there were many children as young as about two. The smallest had to be lifted on board in buckets or bags on ropes. They panicked when climbing the ladder as the waves lifted the lifeboat, chasing them up the ladder as they feared being crushed between ship and boat. I thought that limbs must start to be cut off. Luckily no one was injured. All the cadets were very seasick in the lifeboat, but all continued real heroes, every one of them! Once unloaded and refuelled, the lifeboat went away and circled the refugee boat while towing tens of knotted-together ropes from the ship to try and catch the refugee boat and pull it alongside. We used everything we could find. Slowly we brought the distressed vessel alongside. There was a horrible smell of starved, filthy people that was almost bad enough for us to give up rescuing them! The boat was struggling to float and had a bad list. Due to the swell the boat kept on breaking the ropes tying it alongside and it consistently drifted free. First we lifted the children on board on ropes, then the women and last the men. As they came on board we were ordered to search them for weapons. They were frightened and the children put their hands in the air as if surrendering. I think we were shocked they should even think to do this. Although we had never trained for anything like this, amazingly everything just happened and we dealt with the situation. A pistol was found with ammunition and thrown over the side by the Captain. Another unusual, improvised weapon was found: very useful for blowing apart someones stomach. That too was committed to the deep. When everyone was on board, we tied an eight-inch polypropylene mooring rope to the boats main structural members inside. Everyone's possessions, if they had any, was left on it, and it was left to be towed astern. We would decide what to do with it in the morning. We thought we would try to scuttle it with the two bodies inside it. We managed to raise the lifeboat back on board, although it couldnt be raised fully something went wrong with the davits.
With everyone safe we took off back on course at over 15 knots. We handed out all the blankets we had and gave them tons of milk and other foods, including packets of Rice Krispies. I went on watch at 4am by which time they were all settled down and asleep on the steel hatchcovers and deck (it is very warm at night). I was actually watching the refugee boat astern when there was a large cracking noise and the mooring rope ripped the bows out of it. The rest of the boat disappeared into the dark and without even bothering to stop and go back, we left it to sink although no one has any proof that it did.
Of course all the people were Vietnamese from Saigon. They had been at sea for three days without food or water. I reckoned there were about 200 in all. Some were over 80 years old, but a very large percentage were very young children. Some were weak or injured and they went into the ships hospital, although all others were strictly kept out of the ships accommodation. I think they had access to one water tap, and one toilet, for all of them.
After my watch at 6am, we started to make shelters for them on deck using all the canvas and burlap we have including lifeboat covers, winch covers - every weather resistant material we have. After breakfast, which consumed the whole of the ships stock of oranges and all the baked beans in one go, they were all put through a medical inspection. Two of the Vietnamese were doctors, and they carried out the examinations. We counted them at the same time and ended up with the amazing figure of 343 men, women and children. Yes, there were actually 343 of them on a 70 foot wooden boat! They are very quickly using up the ships food and fresh water is being rationed. The cooks are just throwing everything into big pots. We eat the same as the Vietnamese; beans veg, meatballs, potatoes, bacon, eggs, whatever just cooked together in big vats. This evening they all had a wash in the swimming pool (they needed one too badly) after we erected changing screens around it out of burlap.
All the cadets have been working continuously, working in extreme heat. Ive never been so busy in all my life and I haven't been near a bed in the last 39 hours.
All of them are very happy to be on a British ship a Scottish one at that! We were the second ship they saw in three days. We daren't let them into the accommodation and they are strictly limited to the deck. We have made a few toilets available.
Once a distress signal has been seen, it must be or else a charge of manslaughter could be brought against the Captain. We just can't say, Oh look. There's a boatload of Vietnamese looking for a ship to take them on a cruise to a free country. Alter course and we will miss them! The Captain now has no say in what happens to them. We might go to Hong Kong, the Philippines or Taiwan with them, but it is a political problem.
I've actually described very little of what happened during the rescue. I couldnt'. So much happened so quickly and there wasn't really time to think. The Captain has congratulated us all. Very little went wrong there certainly wasn't any human failure. The cadets did the majority of the work in fact almost all of it, and the whole rescue operation was an outright success. We reckon we're famous now!
Must now get some sleep. Tomorrow will be another hard days work looking after 343 people who dont do much to help you!
Tuesday 3rd October
Last night most of the cadets went out onto the deck and we played with the children and then had a sing-song. We've really lifted their souls and they now trust us in every way (Oh, this is hopeless. I'm frustrated because I can't adequately describe what it is really like). I spent all day painting the railings down the main deck. One five year old boy persisted in telling me where I had missed with the paint! We really have built up a fantastic relationship with everyone of them and they have great respect for us! Today about ten Vietnamese men joined in painting with me, some using two brushes at once. Some women are helping the ships cooks. We are in fact at the moment heading for Taiwan, although it is a strict secret among the crew. I forgot to tell you that one man brought one thing in particular with him a sextant. None of them have shoes, and only one set of clothes and extremely few possessions. We should arrive in Taiwan tomorrow at about lunchtime although no one is sure that the refugees will be accepted there. We might spend a long time trying to find a country for them.
Wednesday 4th October
Today we approached Taiwan and anchored off Kaohsiung at 1.30pm this afternoon flying the Quarantine flag. The agent brought us some mail which we were able to read while the refugees were vaccinated, and I presume that Taiwan has now accepted them.
However, we don't want them to go! We love them all. This morning we gave them all our personal clothes we could spare and they were delighted. Everyone amongst the crew has changed. We all want to help them as much as possible, and it seems that life on the ship would be miserable without them. We will be very sorry to see them go whenever it is.
Thank you for your letters I got three: one from Grannie and two from Mum. It sounds as though it is a difficult harvest with such bad weather. Here it is very hot and I am enjoying myself more than ever before. I can't wait for you to read of this trip we are so happy to have accomplished so much and to have made so many people very happy! At the moment we get worse food than the refugees and we are all rationed with water. The work is very hard in these temperatures, and we are working long hours, but that makes us even more satisfied with what we've done. It is now 6.45pm so I will go out on deck to talk to them. I can't have a shower as there is no water.
Thursday 5th October
Today we lay at anchor off Kaohsiung and I spent the day doing the usual sort of jobs. This afternoon one of Denholms Directors arrived to help with the situation and brought some mail with him one letter from Mum, and one from Andrew.
We expect to enter the port soon, but the refugees will have to stay on the ship for some time. Will now sign off and start another letter!
With lots of love, Michael.
P.S This is a letter from the refugees to Wellpark's crew. They obviously saw the yacht kept on the aft end of the ship which is called Dymandee and must have thought it was the name of the ship!
On behalf of all the refugees in the ship and of myself May I address to you, the General Manager of the Denholm Ship Management Limited, to the Dymandees commander, Officers and all the Crews members our profound and Grateful thanks for Saving us from the coming death on our boat.
We believe that October the Second 1978 will be an unforgotten day among the coming remaining days of our life, and we think our relative, parents and children will hear from our mouth the Dymandees noble and humanitarians task very soon.
Really, excepted a Small privileged part of us on the boat, we were in a Semi-consciousness caused by the days lack of food, by the high move of the sea, by the mechanical trouble of the boat.
So far the desire to escape has nourished our hope and given us faith. We believe in God and happily our boat was lost on Dymandees road.
And Dymandee with her mechanical and human forces managed by a handful of energetic humanitarian people has pulled three hundred and fifty human lives from the nightmare of coming death to the brightness of life, from the unimaginable lack of air in the last hole of the boat, to the bright and hopeful Dymandees deck.
So Dymandee has saved us!
Thanks to God!
Thanks to Dymandees Managers
Thanks to Dymandees Commander, Officers and all the members of the crew
Signed, Ny quy Bao
Letter 5. Life with the Vietnamese on board
11th October 1978
Dear All at Home,
Here I am on the end of a pen once again. I can't remember how much I told you in my last letter or even whether we were in port or not.
Anyhow we did enter port on 6th October at about 7.30pm. Until Sunday 8th I was doing the 4-8 gangway watch which was rather boring. Security on the ship is supposed to be tight with two Taiwanese Policemen on board all the time and seven cadets patrolling the outside of the ship at any one time.
On Monday 9th October I changed to a security watch as it is called. One has to keep all Taiwanese away from the Vietnamese. It is not easy and the workmen say they must go on deck to see the cargo of millet and position the elevators to unload the cargo from the holds, but they wander over to the area where the Vietnamese are living on deck. I don't like the Taiwanese people at all but I in particular get on very well with the Vietnamese. On the 9th I went into the town of Kaohsiung for the first time (and only time so far) to do some shopping. It is a very big town and not at all beautiful. Most things are about the same price they would be in Britain but I bought a flashgun for my camera. It is a very good one and cost about £ 47, but is worth nearer to £ 70 in Britain. I've put it to good use already and am very pleased with it.
October 10th, apart from being Dad's birthday is Taiwan's Independence Day, so we covered the ship in flags. That night the Captain spent the whole evening on the telephone to Britain with all the newspapers and radio stations, BBC, etc, ringing up as the news was released to the Press (only ten days late). Later we heard that all the refugees would go to Britain. I could hardly believe it. Nobody could! We all thought that the United States had accepted them. The crew are delighted for we feel that with all the social benefits of Britain they will have the best chance to make new lives for themselves. Most of them are intelligent beings: doctors, managers and other skilled workers. We didn't want them to stay in Taiwan. We were pleased when we heard they would all go to the USA, but when we heard they would all go to Britain we were absolutely shocked. We are all so delighted and proud! It will be a sad occasion when they leave tomorrow (12th October) but now we will have a better chance to meet them again, as I hope to do. I hate to think how boring and dull life is going to be on the ship after they have gone. In the past few days they have helped us in many ways. Some help with cooking and peeling vegetables, some do the washing of our clothes for us, some work in the engine room, they sweep and clean out the accommodation (which they use freely now) and others work on deck. None of them are allowed off the ship, but they seem happy to stay, safe, where they are on our bit of British sovereign property!
Now to the questions in your last letter: The Captain is very nice, 31, slightly podgy and I get on extremely well with him besides he writes good reports of me. The Chief Steward was not charging too much for the shampoo. Some Argentinian probably just ripped him off. As to Wellpark, well, I think Denholms have made the best use of it recently, and its name has definitely had a boost! There's no worry of the Wellpark having a bad name for a while now.
Yes, I do get a fright every so often. I was almost knocked off the gangway when we entered port and the senior cadet responsible became very humble as a result of what I said to him. Also when we rescued the refugees I was very frightened when their boat came up above the ship, over the railings and I thought it would crash down on me. Life at sea is very dangerous, but one learns very quickly from those sort of mistakes.
It is now 10.20am so I must try to get some sleep , as I haven't been able to sleep very well with children screaming up and down the ships alleyways, and also because I spend too much time out on deck talking to the Vietnamese girls.
Cassette tapes and records are very cheap in Taiwan. They are of inferior quality but sound good enough considering the prices. You can buy The Beatles entire works on ten LPs, plus a free LP (11 LPs in all) for less than £ 3. Pre-recorded cassette tapes are about 67p each and some cadets have bought up to 30 of them. It is pleasantly warm in Taiwan (we wear short sleeved shirts and shorts) and although it rarely rains, it is always very cloudy and I haven't seen the sun since we arrived. The Vietnamese think it is cold here I hate to think what they will say about the British climate.
Friday 13th October 1978
Yesterday we heard that we would be going to South Korea for our dry-docking probably this Sunday. It will only take about four days to get there. Although no one knows which dry-dock we will go to, I am certain in my own mind that it will be the same one I went to in Sevonia Team, which will be nice as I know the area and can have a chance to explore it in greater detail this time.
Also yesterday a BBC Correspondent and a film crew arrived on the ship, in the afternoon. I know I was filmed in a rather stupid close-up pose and I hope it wasn't sent by satellite to Britain that day as they said that it would be. Most people are a little annoyed by the photographers because they try to change the appearance of the situation. We believe that The Daily Mail's front page headline title was, "Captain Compassionate": how ridiculous!
Later that evening we heard that a typhoon was expected in the Kaohsiung area and we spent a long time doubling the number of mooring ropes and ballasting the ship to lessen the volume above the water-line. All the refugees were moved inside the accommodation and literally every space was filled with bodies. Willie Fraser and I managed to get the four best looking girls into our cabin to make things more interesting until they go. Willy Fraser and Ian Manson, the Captain, Training Officer and others should leave tomorrow after the refugees have also gone.
Saturday 14th October
The threat of a typhoon has now passed but it is constantly raining, so no cargo operations can go ahead. Yesterday we had another little emergency when there was a small fire in the engine room. All the Vietnamese, who had no idea what was happening, thought it great fun, but when the alarms go and we are told it is not a drill, it really puts the wind up everyone in the crew. Fortunately it was extinguished almost straight away and the shore-side fire brigade were returned to their base before they reached the ship.
We now believe that the whole issue of the refugees is being blown up into a big story in Britain, which we find rather annoying and upsetting. The reporters are not showing the real situation; they are making it all up into a big entertainment show, and we will be glad when it is all over, both for ourselves and the refugees. I believe that a PR man will be joining the Captain and others paying-off when their plane stops in Rome so that they can be briefed. Most of the amateur photographers on the ship intend to keep all photos to themselves and keep it all as a story only we know the truth about (incorrect grammar, I'm sure). I also believe that the Captain's wife is being flown from Scotland to Heathrow so that they can have a soppy meeting together in front of the cameras, followed by the press conference. It really is going too far! And we hate all outsiders for their ignorance and lack of pity. I hope the Captain tells them the truth without glorifying anything and without taking advantage of the situation. The relationship amongst nearly 400 of us is so close that when they leave there will be many tears. Many don't want to leave the ship, they've enjoyed it so much. I can't walk anywhere without being mauled by tens of children, dancing and screaming around me for personal attention! I fully intend to visit some of them in a few months time. We rufty-tufty sailors have gone soft!
It seems that a Daily Mail newspaper correspondent is coming to the ship this evening and wants to take some photographs. For some reason, it seems he is unable to bring a camera, so he may use mine if he does. I intend to make certain conditions, i.e. a copy of every photo he takes or either he can pay me.
Once again the leaving time of the refugees has been put back, now till midnight tonight, as has the departure time of the Captain and others paying off.
Received your letter of 5th October. Even five days after the rescue you had no knowledge news still takes a long time to travel. I was glad you got your birthday card ......eventually, and I'm thrilled that the flowers arrived on Grannie's birthday. I had expected Interflora to deliver them two days after her birthday!
I would tend to agree that calf sale prices weren't too bad. I think our top price last year was about £ 278 for a huge stirk. The average price must have jumped quite a bit I think.
I've been getting very little sleep this week with lots of extra work to do on top of my 4-8 watches. I must average about three hours of sleep each day. Because I'm working when the refugees wake at 5.30 am and when they go to bed, they reckon I work almost 24 hours a day and can't work out how we do it. They get tired just sitting around the ship. The girls in our cabin are very good. They tidy the cabin about four times a day, do our washing, any repairs to our clothing and make the beds. It hasn't got to the stage where they remove our shoes once we are slumped in a comfy chair! Two stewards have leant their electric guitars to them. All four can play them and when they start singing (very nicely) we have beautiful music all night! No complaints so far!
I am really enjoying life on the Wellpark, although once the refugees have gone the work may become more tedious and boring again. But the trip from Durban to Taiwan is definitely one to remember (it is true I had said this before the rescue, in fact).
Must now sign, Over and Out in order to prepare for work this evening. Sweeping the dust out of the wing tanks very dirty work. Will hate to have to say Goodbye to so many girlfriends tonight!
With love from Michael .
Sunday 15th October
They still haven't gone, although the Officers being relieved have left for a hotel.
Rumours have it that after dry-dock in Korea we will return to Kaohsiung for a cargo (but not of Vietnamese refugees!). Here is the latest news. From here we go to Korea for a dry-dock, return to Kaohsiung to load wood pulp. In dry-dock container couplings will be fitted on the deck and hatches. From Taiwan we go to Hong Kong to load a deck cargo of containers. The ship will then head for Europe Antwerp, Rotterdam, Hamburg and finally Westport in Wales, arriving there sometime around the New Year. I should get off there so I should have one or two days leave before going to College.
The refugees still haven't gone. It's now Sunday 15th October at 3.30pm. Mind you I'll be quite happy if they stay. Bye for now!
5pm 15th October; Refugees now go at 8pm and ship sails at 12pm. Write to you from South Korea
Letter 6. The aftermath
17th October 1978
Dear All at Home,
We eventually left Kaohsiung at 2.30am yesterday morning after seeing the last of the refugees leave at 10pm on Sunday evening. At 8pm all the refugees were ready to leave. They were all extremely well dressed considering the clothes I thought they had. The Taiwanese dockers had been bringing piles of clothes to work with them, for the Vietnamese. In fact the pile on the deck was about 50 feet long, 6 feet wide and at least a foot deep in donated clothes. I found it hard to believe that these people were the same, smelly, diseased and starved people we had brought on board exactly two weeks previously. The women surprised me most in that they were wearing make-up and perfume, though I have no idea where they got it (we were all men on the ship and I am not aware that anyone had a secret supply!). They all looked most civilized although they had nothing in the world.....no bags, no cases, nothing. It was a very sad occasion and many of the women and girlfriends were weeping. Everyone was emotionally upset by the sad/happy situation. I think that really, given the choice, every one of them would have stayed on the ship. They loved and respected us that much, I think. Everyone (almost) came round to shake my hand and say, Goodbye and Thank you. They all want to meet us again as soon as we return to Britain. Twelve buses came to take them away to the airport, and they filed down the gangway, past the photographers and cameramen to the buses. Everyone seemed to be in a daze, neither knowing to be sad or happy. My best friends in particular were one group of relatives: four adult brothers, who were a doctor, a computer programmer and two engineers. Their wives and children were all very nice to me in return for my friendship and, really, I think I've adopted myself to the family. Besides that, I particularly liked one of the daughters who had a special smile, and I took a lot of photos of her! I fully intend to visit them if I have some spare time when I come home, to give them their souvenir photographs of themselves on the ship.
After seeing them all go we all trooped silently back into the ship, immediately noticing how empty and quiet it was. No one seems to have recovered from their loss yet and it has been very quiet around the cadets accommodation. We should cheer up once the first pile of letters start to arrive. I was emotionally overcome by the two weeks in which they were on board. I shall be well pleased if it turns out to be the highlight of my life, it really has meant that much to me!
In the last 24 hours that they were here I took more than 72 photographs, mainly with my flash in use. The Captain appointed me as Ship's Photographer and I was given the responsibility of photographing the Vietnamese mixing with the crew. Click this to see all the Vietnamese boat people rescue photos .I only got the job because the Radio Officer had had to leave his camera with Customs as he was paying off. I felt it was a great responsibility and I only pray that I used the flashgun correctly and that the majority of the photos will be a success. If I've failed then there will be no record of the event. The Radio Officer took both films home with him and will get them developed, perhaps selling them to magazines, etc (I don't know, but also couldnt care). He will send me a copy of them all and promised me some payment (no idea how much), but if I do get any I'll spend it all on making copies to distribute to the refugees. The Captain just happened to be leaving the ship in Taiwan and did not go home just because of the rescue of the Vietnamese.
We now have the mammoth job of cleaning the ship, inside and out, before dry-docking in Korea, where we should arrive on Thursday, at a guess. We have hit some heavy weather and work outside is possible though one risks being blown overboard. However the wind and spray combined will certainly take most of the dirt and rubbish off the outside of the ship.
I have just started a cold. I think one of your bugs must have stowed away in your last letter! I think it might be due to the extremely hard work we've done in the past two weeks and the lack of sleep I've had. Today, as we worked late last night, we only worked until lunch and everyone except myself (I've just checked) is sound asleep, and its only just past 6pm!!!
Wednesday 18th October
One thing in particular is amusing the rest of the cadets. Most of my white tropical uniform went missing, although I only discovered the fact the morning after the refugees left. I've lost one pair of shorts, two short-sleeved shirts and a pair of epaulettes. I'm sure they will make a good momento of the Wellpark for one of the refugees! It doesnt really worry me. It will mean less washing to do and I can be acceptably, a little lazier with uniform regulations. Besides that I wont need whites when I leave this ship. I hope whoever took them is happy with them, but he or she will have to wash them as they were filthy.
Everyone is quite excited at the coming voyage back to Europe, and it will be another nice change to go via Suez rather than round South Africa. About three crew members are suffering from dysentery and I hope, very much, that I don't go down with it! Lots of love , Michael
Letter 7 (A collation of excerpts from later letters)
Hyundai Mipo Dockyard
Ulsan, South Korea
23rd October 1978
Dear All at Home,
We haven't had any mail since leaving Taiwan, but we expect to get some when the reliefs for three senior cadets come either tomorrow or the day after.
30th October 1978
………..This afternoon , the T/O and eight junior cadets lowered one of the lifeboats. We had just let go of the falls when the engine stopped. The boat drifted astern of the ship alarmingly quickly and within a few minutes we were hundreds of yards from the ship. We got out the oars and discovered there were only four. We rowed for a while as hard as possible, but we still drifted further away. It was with great relief that the engine was restarted, and we spent the next two hours practising man-overboard.drill, but we made sure we were well up-tide of the ship in case the engine failed. The waves were only about three feet high and we thought it quite rough. Imagine how it was in the rescue with twenty foot swell. I can still see in my mind's eye the lifeboat standing on its stern at about 70 degrees to the horizontal. It really is surprising, still, that no-one was injured or killed during the rescue – it could very easily have happened.
We didn't get any mail in Ulsan, my most recent letter having been from Grannie. Everyone is very frustrated now about the lack of mail and all sorts of threats are being made against the Company. I really hope and pray we'll get some here. Some of the new cadets brought newspaper cuttings to the ship. We are all disgusted at the rubbish and lies written in the columns – its not the way it was at all. Quite a few cadets have been made out as heroes in their locals papers and none of them is particularly pleased about what was written, although they don't let anyone else read the article (to approve it).
I am looking forward to coming home now. I feel a wee bit "down in the dumps" at the moment, and I long for the ship to get back to sea, on her way to Europe. I've had enough of Korea and Taiwan for a while. I still feel sad that the refugees have gone – I was really at my happiest when they were with us………..
Friday 3rd November
………Once again there was no mail at all and I think everyone has given up hoping for anything. So now we've got no money or mail.
Saturday 4th November
….....Well I am happy at last – I've just received some mail. I got one from Mum, one from Andrew and one from Mai, one of the girls who stayed in our cabin. The newspaper cuttings enclosed have caused a great deal of interest on the ship especially Willie's "Exclusive" interview with The John O'Groat Journal. It is now hanging in the bar for everyone to see – it should have been round his neck. Some of it has caused great amusement and I don't know who he was protecting himself from by saying, "There were eight children in the cabin", instead of four nice girls!. It seems that Denholm's jumped on the bandwagon and saw that everyone got a mention in their local papers so that the Company name was seen everywhere. Really I was quite pleased with the publicity and quite proud to have been on television. I wonder what reaction your's was to see me on the News? Shock I should think! It's nice that you got in contact with the Frasers. I intend to write to Willie soon and forward the latest news. I never got on badly with him, but we weren't close friends.
When I first read your letter I couldn't think who Trinh Thi Ngoc was, but I think I know who she is now (Pauline). I got a very moving letter from Le Thi Hoang Mai. She is impressed by Britain and the people, but is very lonely. She works in a kitchen from 7am – 8pm. Her family is still in Vietnam and she says she misses the ship greatly. I really must visit them sometime!
16th November 1978
………By the way absolutely no mail arrived her and as Denholm's have a large office here everyone is disgusted and I think the Captain should worry about the threat of a mutiny. Really there is no excuse for the lack of mail. We might get some going through Suez but that is weeks away.
………I have just heard on my radio that a small Asian ship picked up something like 2,500 Vietnamese refugees – it makes our rescue look like a waste of time……
……...Everyone was bitterly disappointed at the total lack of mail in Hong Kong and we hope to send an official complaint to the Company through the Captain.
After leaving Hong Kong we altered course in order to give Vietnam a big by-pass specifically to avoid the risk of bumping into any more refugees. As we went south the weather became warmer………..
Close to Suez
1st December 1978
……..Very little has happened since leaving Hong Kong and the whole ship is quiet with everyone complaining of being bored. Morale is very low and I think the prime reason for this is the lack of mail – we really depend on it that much.
……..I got one letter last night – it just confirmed that the photographic shop would send a projector home and, of course, thank you for the cheque: In all it contained four sentences, and as some people had up to six letters I went to bed in a bad mood. At 4.30 am this morning I got two letter from two Vietnamese girls – one who had written to you. She sent a nice long letter. The other one sent a short letter in French, reminding me to send her some souvenir photographs of her on the ship!
……..I still haven't received any mail from home, which is really what I long for. Your last letter was written more than six weeks ago.
……..So this should be my last letter before arriving home. Don't bother to send the Christmas cards!
Letter 8. A Mum's letter to her son
North Calder Farm
11th October 1978
My dear Michael,
Our congratulations to you all. From all reports it sounds as though you have done a marvellous job in rescuing all these people. It must rate as one of the largest sea rescues – what a story to tell your Grandchildren – but first hurry up and tell us all about it! Miss Rogers from Denholms phoned yesterday afternoon to say that we weren't to worry, all were well and you had all done an excellent job, and the firm are obviously very proud of you all.
There was quite a bit on every radio news and TV news and I must go to town this afternoon to see what the papers have to say. This is just an in-between note. I keep hoping the boss (Dad) will write and give you some farm news.
What a surprise we got when you appeared on TV. Granny, who can't see, came dashing through from her room to tell us, and Mrs Swanson phoned to say she had seen you too. Granny Eileen also spotted you. It was really marvellous to get a glimpse of you. I recognised the camera first – not the long haired back view! – time you had a hair cut!
Lots of love from us all,
- Photographs taken at the time by Pentlandpirate are available here:
- Letters provided by SN Member Pentlandpirate
- Guide edited and formatted by SN Member Benjidog