CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL / CRUSSELL@STARBULLETIN.COM
Barry Solywoda, a captain with the Hawaii Pilots Association, worked last week in Honolulu Harbor. Solywoda was a captain for Exxon when he and his crew rescued 42 Vietnamese people at sea who fled communist rule in 1988.
A boat that took Vietnamese to freedom will be on display
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A wooden boat that carried 15 Vietnamese refugees to a beach in the Philippines more than 26 years ago is coming to Hawaii.
The vessel, which has traveled to 48 states, will be displayed at Kewalo Basin Park this weekend as part of a "Freedom Boat" exhibition.
It will celebrate the journeys of hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese who fled their country's communist rule by venturing into the Pacific Ocean on unsafe boats in the wake of the Vietnam War.
The event starts at 11 a.m. Saturday with a ribbon-cutting ceremony, followed by a 7 p.m. candlelight vigil. The boat will be displayed until Sunday.
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It was Sept. 15, 1988, and Barry Solywoda was having dinner aboard an oil tanker heading from Malaysia to Hawaii when a crew member spotted a small wooden boat rocking in 10-foot seas.
Solywoda, then a 36-year-old Exxon captain, peered through his binoculars.
"These people aren't pirates; these people are out there in the ocean drifting," he recalls saying.
He was right.
The 42 Vietnamese whom Solywoda eventually saved nearly two decades ago were among hundreds of thousands of people who fled communist rule by venturing out into the Pacific Ocean on unsafe boats in the wake of the Vietnam War.
Their journeys will be celebrated in Honolulu this weekend with the exhibit of a "Freedom Boat" that carried 15 men, women and children from Vietnam on Dec. 5, 1981, to a beach in the Philippines some two weeks later.
Solywoda, now a captain with the Hawaii Pilots Association, state Sen. Suzanne Chun Oakland and two representatives from the Philippine consulate are scheduled to speak at the event, which starts at 11 a.m. Saturday with a ribbon-cutting ceremony at Kewalo Basin Park, followed by a 7 p.m. candlelight vigil. The boat will be displayed until Sunday.
Not all who tried to escape from Vietnam were as fortunate, and it is estimated that as many as half a million people drowned or were killed by pirates in the South China Sea, according to Madalenna Lai, a Vietnamese who spent four days in 1975 in a vessel at sea with her four children before they were found by an American ship and taken to Guam.
Her husband, a high-ranking police official who stayed behind to fight with South Vietnamese forces, spent 10 years in jail after the communist North captured Saigon, Lai said.
"He told me, 'Honey, you go. I have to stay here to fight in freedom for our country. You go,'" she recalled. "I opened my eyes and cried."
It took 15 years for the family to be reunited in California, where Lai works as president of the nonprofit Vietnamese Cultural House.
Her organization received the "Freedom Boat" from the Philippines on Jan. 20, 2000, and embarked on a nationwide tour. The boat, which was housed in a museum in the Philippines, has traveled to 48 U.S. states, except Hawaii and Alaska, she said.
Lai, who ate rice soup while she drifted away from her country, said the exhibit will honor those who perished in the ocean but also remind survivors, especially those living in the United States, to cherish their freedom. Refugees were relocated to several countries, and a majority settled in the Philippines, Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia, she said.
The crew of the "Freedom Boat" - one of countless voyages that happened mostly between the late 1970s and throughout the '80s - resorted to eating their own clothes after running out of food, Lai said. A doctor later determined they would have had only five more hours to live, she said.
"A lot of people prepared food for a couple of days, but it was not enough," said Evelyn Bui, president of Vietnam Television in Hawaii, which is also organizing the event.
"We have more than 200 pictures to display so people in Hawaii can understand why Vietnamese people escaped to sea and how much we suffered to breathe the free air," said Bui, a Vietnamese immigrant. "We just want to remind people that we all live in a good nation. We all live in freedom."
The Vietnamese Solywoda found crammed in a 32-foot boat were mostly teenagers and children, some as young as 2 years old, a few women and about five men who had been at sea for at least a week. Some were sick from drinking salt water, he said.
"The boat was just old, dilapidated; the engine had broken down," he recalled. "They had no food or water for two days. So they were dehydrated, they were hungry."
But before bringing them to his 800-foot tanker, Solywoda had to make sure he could legally do so and check whether he would be vulnerable to diseases. He estimated spending more than four hours on the phone with Coast Guard officials, the United Nations, medical staff and his company to gain clearance for the rescue.
"I sat and thought about my options as I was looking at them through my binoculars," Solywoda, a Kahala resident, recalled. "I had three options: just keep going, render aid or actually rescue them. ... I couldn't go. These people were out in the deep ocean, and they had no idea where they were going."
The rescue, captured on camera, culminated with the small boat being set on fire at night and the Vietnamese clapping as one young man shouted, "We hated the communists!" The refugees were eventually taken to a U.N. camp in Subic Bay in the Philippines, and Solywoda has not heard from them since.
He got a thank-you letter without a return address from someone in Australia. His sister met a woman during a seminar in Los Angeles who said she was one of the Vietnamese whom Solywoda had saved.
Solywoda is reminded of the ordeal each time he walks by his back yard. There, he keeps a large clay pot the refugees had used to store water on their trip.
"We saw one boat with 42 people out there," Solywoda said. "How many boats do I fathom were out there that were never seen?"