Translate the word into any language and it will still convey the same sobering image of a person on a long journey, fraught with hardship and danger, a long trek towards an uncertain future. Refugees have fled war, persecution, and natural disasters via the oceans for as long as boats have challenged the seven seas.
During 1975, as a U.S. Naval Officer stationed in the South China Sea, I witnessed a small part of the human drama of the Vietnamese Boat People. It was not an easy thing to see – an impossible thing to forget. With the fall of Saigon on April 30, 1975, hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese crowded into every type of boat imaginable and fled their homeland. This exodus continued for years. They sailed towards Malaysia, Thailand, the Philippines, Hong Kong, and Indonesia. They sailed on overloaded vessels, many boats totally ill-equiped for the open ocean. Most refugees were rescued – initially moved to relocation camps in Asia, and eventually resettled permanently in strange countries of the Western World – the United States, Canada, Australia, the United Kingdom, Germany, France, Israel, and others. For thousands of Vietnamese refugees, however, their journeys ended in death – their bodies scattered on the ocean floor of the vast expanse of the South Pacific.
Cam Ai Tran and Hap Tu Thai and their two children escaped Vietnam by boat in 1979. Thirteen others on the same boat died and were buried at sea. Tran and Thai are now the publishers of the “Saigon Times”, based in Rosemead, California. For ten years they worked tirelessly to build a memorial to the Boat People, including the tens of thousands who died at sea. In the Spring of 2009 the Vietnamese Boat People Monument was dedicated in Westminster Memorial Park’s Asian Garden of Peaceful Eternity.
The main focus of the monument contains four statues on a slab within a pool, the slab resembling a raft. The figures on the raft are of a man, an older woman, and a younger woman holding a young child. The design is by Vietnamese artist Vi Vi. Surrounding the memorial are 54 blocks of stone, on which are engraved the names of over 6,000 deceased boat people, of which many thousands were lost at sea.
Please use the link below to visit the “Saigon Times” English translation. On the far left of their home page you will find links to many compelling stories of the Vietnamese Boat People. Start your visit by scrolling to the very bottom link on the left side. This link will take you to a page with many fine photographs detailing the design and construction of this beautiful memorial. The memorial’s total area is quite extensive, with the overall design shaped like a ship’s hull.
Like all good memorials, the Vietnamese Boat People Monument tells a compelling story. This is a story with many chapters – chapters detailing suffering and fear and sometimes death – but chapters that just as often end in survival against all odds, and in redemption…