By Ken Denbow
The boat crept silently through the night toward the harbor entrance. A feeling of desperate fear hovered over the 119 occupants. The only sound was the chugging of the engine and the lapping of the water. Silent prayers to various deities were offered, asking that the patrol boats would ignore their radar return as they headed for the South China Sea. It was July 1980, and the boat was loaded with escapees from South Vietnam.
Thirteen-year-old Michael Pham stood with the other occupants in a boat designed for half the number aboard. He had no money, no contacts and no experience of the outside world.
“We were jammed in like sardines,” Pham recalled. “There was barely room to sit down.”
The fear in the boat was palpable. Two months earlier, the police had learned of a previous escape attempt and descended on the crowd waiting to board the boat. Most successfully fled the area, but those arrested spent months in detention camps. The boat had been confiscated, and returned the morning of Pham’s departure. The decision was made to depart that night, before the boat was lost again.
Pham constantly checked his party, older sister and younger brother, to make sure they were safe.
“I was the oldest son,” he said. “By tradition, I was expected to take charge.”
Pham’s father’s background was a perfect trifecta to qualify him as an “enemy of the state” to the new communist rulers of Vietnam. He was a Roman Catholic Christian who served in the South Vietnamese military and worked with Americans. His properties were confiscated and he spent several months in a concentration camp, undergoing “re-education.” He was eventually returned to his family with a small group.
The calm waters of the harbor gave way to the waves of the open seas. The feeling of relief was powerful. But the feeling was tempered by a new problem. The overloaded boat did not ride the waves well, with constant pitching and rolling.
“I got very seasick,” Pham recalled. “I was miserable.”
Dawn came. The occupants of the boat could see nothing but water. The rising sun also brought the boiling heat of summer in the South China Sea. It worsened other problems: no food, limited water and no toilet aboard. They needed to get to the sea-lanes quickly, or they would all die of thirst.
Soon, a larger boat approached them at high speed. It pulled alongside and forced their smaller vessel to stop, but not until it either deliberately, or by poor seamanship, rammed them, causing a crack in the bow of their boat. The intruders were pirates.
“Nobody on board had much,” Pham recalled. “But the pirates took any rings, jewelry or cash that anyone had. We had to plug the hole in the bow with our clothes.”
The people had little money left after paying the three gold bars required for the passage. Pham’s father did not have the gold for the trip, but had something even more valuable. As a fisherman, he had an allocation of fuel from the government, which he provided to fuel the engine.
For three more days, the boat traveled eastward. Water ran out. Thirst was extreme. Hope faded. The horizon showed no sign of a rescue ship.
“A young girl near me had a lime and started to eat it,” Pham said. “She saw me looking at it, and gave me a small piece. It was the most delicious thing I ever ate. I often think of her and her kindness.”
On the third day, they sighted a ship. Would it see them? Would it stop? Their boat was tiny in the vast expanse of ocean, and commercial ships were becoming wary of picking up refugees from Vietnam. International law required they deliver escapees to the nearest refugee camp, an expensive, time-consuming requirement.
But this ship did not veer off. It picked them up and delivered Pham and the other passengers to Pulau Bidong island in Malaysia. The camp was a collection of shacks with tin roofs. Food for the three of them consisted of a bi-weekly issue of a bag of rice, a can of beef and a can of peas.
Pham remained there for three months until the red tape requirements were satisfied. As unaccompanied minors, his family group was fast-tracked for admission to the United States. Finally the three of them were sent to Kuala Lumpur for a month, then via Japan to Seattle, and finally in February, to Blue Earth, Minnesota, where a family hosted the three children.
“It was cold!” Pham remembered. “I had never seen snow before!”
Pham’s 12-year-old sister followed, retracing his route by herself, joining them in Minnesota. The rest of the family followed over the next two years.
Pham started high school in Minnesota, but finished at San Diego High School. His father had taken a trip to San Diego, and moved the family west the next month. Pham earned his bachelor’s and master’s in aeronautical engineering from San Diego State. He worked for Continental Graphics in San Diego, maintaining databases for Boeing Aircraft.
Pham enjoyed his work, but felt a calling to become a priest. His father was against it. He also met a girl that he liked, but she seemed to have little interest in him. Then, he received a letter from her, expressing an interest in pursuing the relationship.
The letter arrived the same week that his father relented and gave permission for Pham to pursue the priesthood. After days of being torn between desires, he opted for the priesthood, and applied for the seminary.
“I waited, but received no word as to whether or not I was accepted,” He recalled. “I later found my application had been filed in the folder of another man. The error was corrected, and I started seminary.”
Pham became Father Pham at age 32. Since then, he has served at St. Mary, Star of the Sea; St. Francis de Sales Seminary; and was pastor of Holy Family Parish for 11 years. In July, he became pastor of St. Therese Parish in Del Cerro.
Despite his harrowing experience there, Fr. Pham has visited Vietnam since his escape.
“Vietnam is a beautiful country,” he said. “Life is much better now, but it lacks the liveliness and vibrancy of what it was before the communist takeover. I love it here in San Diego. It’s my home.”
—Contact Ken Denbow at email@example.com.