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Tuesday, June 28, 2005

The other 78

I was a bit surprised by the reactions I got to #23 on my birthday list.  In response to several inquires in the comments section of that post I wrote a bit about four people who lived another day simply because I happened to be standing nearby with a free hand.  Our paths crossed for less than a moment in time and then the moment was over... without drama... and without fanfare.

But on May 26th, 1982 I was given a slightly more prolonged encounter with 78 precious lives.

At the time I was stationed on board a frigate home-ported in Pearl Harbor, HI, and we were in the middle of a 6 month 'WestPac' cruise that took us throughout Asia, Africa and even down to Australia. 

On May 26th we were in the South China Sea when our helicopter crew radioed back to the ship to report that they had spotted a small boat adrift miles from the shipping lanes, and apparently in distress. 

When our ship reached the boat we confirmed that it was full of Vietnamese refugees and that their boat was severely overloaded and in danger of being swamped by even the gentle swells that broke over the gunwales.  We immediately began organizing a rescue party.  I was one of the people who volunteered to go over the side and help bring them aboard.

In all there were 78 people stuffed into that tiny wooden boat; 34 men, 26 women and 18 children.  They had left Vietnam more than two weeks earlier with enough fuel and supplies for a week, but after their fuel had run out they had drifted out of the shipping lanes and into an area where they were not likely to be found.   Many of the elderly were suffering from dehydration and heat stroke, and several of the parents were semi-conscious from malnutrition and dehydration because they had been giving their meager rations to their children.

Once everyone was aboard (along with their few belongings), we scuttled their boat (so it wouldn't be a hazard to navigation) and began taking care of the refugees.

Our two corpsmen (medics) took the most serious cases down to sick bay for infusions of fluid and antibiotics, and we took the rest down to an isolated area in the after portion of the ship.  Each of our guests was given a shower, a new set of clothes (we all donated our civilian clothes until their clothing could be laundered), some bedding and a hot meal. 

Those of us who had come into direct contact with the refugees were quarantined along with them because we had no way of knowing if they had any communicable diseases.  Living in such close quarters we got to know these special people quite well (yes, that's a 21 year old me with a few new smiling friends).

Each of the refugees had paid the equivalent of between 2-3 thousand dollars for a place in the little wooden boat, and for many this was their 6th or 7th escape attempt.  There were stories of torture and reeducation camps... and of the many friends and relatives who had drowned in storms, been killed by pirates during previous attempts (yes kids, piracy is still a big problem), or simply drifted out of the shipping channels and never been heard from again.  Most of the adults were well educated, and the children were extremely well mannered and polite.

By the time we dropped our new friends off at a refugee processing center in Singapore, the United States government had sent guarantees through diplomatic channels that all 78 would be allowed to settle in the US.

For a while I used to get the occasional holiday card from some of the families.  These notes had postmarks from places like Texas, California and Florida.  I loved hearing that they had started new lives for themselves and that some were reunited with relatives who had escaped before or after them.  But I always squirmed a little when the very formal notes drifted around to thanking me for saving their lives.  I hadn't put my life in jeopardy to save these people any more than I had when fate or luck or whatever put me in the right place to have a hand in saving 4 other lives.

I can't explain exactly why, but I never answered any of the cards or letters.   I do think of them often though... especially the little girl who is sitting on my lap in the picture above (she is also in the next picture in the middle row all the way on the left).  She is probably in her late twenties by now and maybe married with a family of her own.  When I played endless games of rock paper scissors with her she spoke only a few words of English.  I'm sure she doesn't even have a trace of an accent when she speaks today.

I have no idea why I was given the opportunity to play a part in saving so many lives.  I certainly didn't earn the privilege by going to medical school, or by becoming a nurse or EMT.   But as I said in my birthday post, the thought of these 82 lives has been an emotional 'Get Out Of Jail' card for some of the darkest moments of my life.  So in a sense, one might say that they saved me too.

[The photos are from my photo album and from my ship's 'cruisebook', a compilation of photos and memorabilia that many of the crew put together at the end of the 6 month voyage.  Thanks to my sweetie for scanning them for me.]



Posted by David Bogner on June 28, 2005 | Permalink


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David Bogner has saved 82: Life # 1: One day during the summer between 1st & 2nd grade I was at the local swimming pool with my family. A friend and I were sitting on the edge of the pool... [Read More]

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Don't worry. She'll google you within the next year. ;o)

The last picture is the one that gets me. They're so obviously healthy, intelligent and wealthy (I can't explain why I say that. It's in their eyes and their hairstyles). It's almost impossible to imagine something so bad that it would make them get on a rowboat and take to the open sea. (And yes, I do realize how blessed I am to find it almost impossible to imagine...)

Posted by: Tanya | Jun 28, 2005 12:45:22 AM

Wow. Speechless. What an amazing story. I work with many Vietnamese computer "geeks" here in Texas. Some escaped from Vietnam via boats like that one (or that one maybe!)

Posted by: Mirty | Jun 28, 2005 1:11:42 AM

This was really touching. Thanks for sharing it. And the pictures really add to it too.

Posted by: The Hedyot | Jun 28, 2005 3:40:07 AM

That really is an amazing story. Are you sure the guy with all that hair is you. ;)

Posted by: Jack | Jun 28, 2005 4:24:03 AM

Very cool story. Wow. And I didn't expect you to look like that. Hmmmm.

Posted by: Stacey | Jun 28, 2005 4:57:17 AM

Wow! Great great work!

That is such a huge number of souls to have literally pulled out of the water. Do you ever think you should track them down, just to make a list of "Bogner's Boaters". You're partially responsible for any kids they have, too!

I've frequently thought that the American military saves a lot of lives (for example, by detering war). Thanks for this most touching example.

Posted by: Doctor Bean | Jun 28, 2005 5:05:54 AM

Wow. Look at the dungarees ... Did you know the navy has done away with the dungarees and chambray shirts? They now have essentially oxford shirts and blue slacks - sans bellbottoms. My husband, before OCS was a nuke ET and was one of the last cycles at boot camp to get dungarees. He still has them and still wears them when doing yard work or frankly, whenever he feels like dressing down a bit.

Posted by: fran | Jun 28, 2005 8:29:36 AM

I like my version better... :)

Menachem Begin also admitted a number of Vietnamese refugees to Israel in the 1970s. One of them who came as a kid served with me in the army here. One of those stories that doesn't get much press attention, I guess...

Posted by: Dave | Jun 28, 2005 8:37:32 AM

Bravo! David, this is def. one of those life-long achievements. I’m impressed man, at 21 you’d done that much and had such a big beard. I’m seated in an office and the walls are closing in on me everyday with no future prospects… what achievement will I have to show the future generations * Panicky *?

Posted by: kakarizz | Jun 28, 2005 11:04:01 AM

Tanya... I was one of the crewmen who had to check these women for lice ( was picked because I was religious). Besides being profoundly embarrassed for them at having a male stranger (me) inspect them in so intimate a way, I was horrified to see cigarette burns and poorly healed scars from multiple beatings on most of their bodies. It was the wealthy and educated that were marked for 'reeducation'... and many 'graduated' from those 'schools' to unmarked graves. That they could still smile and laugh after their experiences made my small troubles pale in comparison.

Mirty... If you know any of these former 'boat people', you should ask them if they were picked up by the US Navy. Chances are good that the answer will be yes.

The Hedyot... Posting this entry still feels too much like bragging to me. I mentioned the 82 lives as part of my birthday list not to brag, but to point out how humbling these random experiences can be. The truth is, none of really know the extent of the positive or negative impact we have on the lives with which we come into contact. One doesn't have to fish a person out of the ocean to save their life... sometimes a well timed word is enough.

Jack... Yes, I know my hairline has migrated a bit since then (ahem)... and my beard was a bit scraggly. I would have enjoyed my hair much more had I known how temporary it would turn out to be. Also, back one wasn't allowed to grow a beard unless you were a petty officer or above. Naturally I grew one the moment I was promoted!

Stacey... Surely you've seen the pics of me in my gallery! I don't look soooo different, do I? :-)

Doctor Bean... I can assure you I am in NO WAY responsible for ANY of their kids! ;-)

Fran... Bellbottom jeans and chambray shirts were soooo comfortable! I didn't appreciate them at the time. :-)

Dave... Me too. :-) Actually, Israel was one of the first (if not THE first) country to accept Vietnamese refugees. I remember back in the early 80s most of the chinese restaurants here in Israel were owned and staffed by Vietnamese folks.

Kakarizz... Like I said to Hedyot, you never know what effect you've had on other lives with which you've come into contact. My guess is that each of us has unknowingly prolonged and shortened many lives around us with our actions and words.

Posted by: David | Jun 28, 2005 11:42:15 AM

The Gallery? Umm, here's my confession for the day. Many months ago when I first read your blog I sort of looked quickly at your "gallery" (translation: didn't actually click on any of the images to see the captions) so I assumed that the one of your friend Larry was you. hee, hee. So each time I've read your blog over the months, I've pictured you to be him. Oy.

Posted by: Stacey | Jun 28, 2005 4:22:38 PM

Stacey... Actually, Larry is my brother-in-law (Zahava's brother). I should probably just put a picture of myself on my 'about' page, but that would mean I would actually have to go there... look at the page... and admit that it has needed updating since the day I started the blog. [sigh] Too much work. :-)

Posted by: David | Jun 28, 2005 4:36:13 PM

Well done, by the way. I thought it but didn't say it.

I know you don't think you're a hero, but sometimes not turning away is all it takes to be one. :o)

Posted by: Tanya | Jun 28, 2005 6:24:31 PM

What a story, I think I am becoming adicted to your blog, it is the only blog I read. It is so professionaly produced, thequality of the writing, pictures etc is of high standard. Todays story is touching. I keep showing your blogs to my husband.
Have been to Efrat several times to visit a daughter of very dear friends, Israel in general and Efrst in particular are small...so do you know Tod and Rashi Zalut?

Thank you for the pleasure your writing brings to sunny Yorkshaire (England).

savta yaffa

Posted by: savta yaffa | Jun 28, 2005 6:35:37 PM

I was waiting for you to tell us you played at one of the weddings. Great post.

Posted by: Jewish Blogmiester | Jun 28, 2005 8:09:40 PM


Posted by: lisa | Jun 28, 2005 8:14:30 PM

Unbelievable...wow. I am speechless. You are a remarkable person.

Posted by: Essie | Jun 28, 2005 8:22:57 PM

Tanya... Perhaps, but my real point was how these events have helped me. Sometimes we all need a little saving.

Savta Yaffa... I'm very flattered, but you are really missing out on some wonderful writers and fascinating points-of-view if you begin and end your reading here. The really fun bit is when you start to notice the connections and side discussions between many of the bloggers and journalers. As to the couple you mentioned, I'm sorry to say that I don't recognize the names... but my wife would tell you that I am terrible with names. For all I know I may sit next to him in shul! :-) Now I'll have to keep an eye out for them. I am ashamed to admit that the sum total of what I know about Yorkshire comes from having read all of the James Harriot books.

Jewish Blogmiester... That would have been a great ending. Unfortunately we rarely get to write the good endings.

Lisa... totally. :-)

Essie... If these events ever lose their ability to raise my spirits, it's nice to know that your comments will be able to fill the void. Thanks.

Posted by: David | Jun 28, 2005 10:43:52 PM

at first i couldnt believe thats you Mr B, wow.

what about the other 4? i looked for where you told that story i couldnt find it? unless in comments...? did i miss it somewhere?

Posted by: Tonny | Jun 29, 2005 9:00:14 AM

Oh. My. This world is very much a better place, and there are so many lives that are continuing and vital, because you are in it. So happy birthday (sorry the wish is a bit late) and thank you for being you!

Posted by: katie-yael | Jun 29, 2005 11:26:45 AM

Sounds like you have a lot in common with Bithia, Pharaoh's righteous daughter, who once saved a baby boy's life by pulling him out of the water. She couldn't know at the time that she was saving an entire people -- so who knows how far the influence of your good deed may extend?

"[W]hoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world." -- Jerusalem Talmud, Sanhedrin 4:1 (22a)

That's quite a lot of worlds.


On another topic, maybe you'll tell us what it was like being religious in the Navy?

Posted by: Rahel | Jun 29, 2005 12:01:00 PM

Tonny... Yes, that's me (pretty skinny, huh?) And the other four were in the comments.

Katie-Yael... For all you know, the homeless guy you stopped and said hello to this morning may have saved your life by delaying you for a couple of extra seconds that would have otherwise placed you in front of a speeding taxi! My point is that we often don't know what effect (for good or bad) we have on others in our little spheres of influence. I was just lucky enough to have my influence be made apparent. You are very sweet to say so, though. :-)

Rahel... That is a really, really long story. Maybe one day. :-)

Posted by: David | Jun 29, 2005 5:30:07 PM

Catching up on my blog reading here. David, thanks so much for telling this story. I think even more important than all that you did to help those people is the fact that you still remember them and think of them from time to time.

Posted by: AmyS | Jun 30, 2005 10:21:41 PM

This is big,that you have this to cherish, as a tangible testimony of how important it is that you are in this world.

Posted by: rabbifleischmann | Jul 1, 2005 2:01:11 AM

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