“And then there is luck, both good luck and bad luck, and as I become more and more experienced it seems that luck becomes ever more important”
Henry Marsh // Engelse hersenchirurg

Bootvlucht familie Cao (foto: Pho Vietnam © Kim Le Cao)My father had the picture above framed and placed on the altar at home. The altar is the most important place in every Vietnamese living room, it is the memorial site with photos of ancestors that are sometimes accompanied by symbols of Buddhism or Catholicism. An enlarged black and white photograph of my deceased grandmother towered over this photo. When I left home for an internship I asked my father if I could take the boat picture with me. He agreed. This picture tells our family history and I see it as a portrait of my father: determined, vulnerable, transient but full of courage.

In Vietnam my grandmother lived in with my parents until my father decided to leave Vietnam. It was the hardest decision ever taken in his life by the uncertain future and the lurking reeducation camp. My father left his mother behind because she would not have survived the boat flight. Family took care of her. They have never seen each other again.

In my hometown Quy Nhon, my father was a successful fish farmer. He owned fishing boats, had employees and his income provided us a good life. This is how my father could support a number of his relatives who could hardly survive.
During the Vietnam War, m
y father fought alongside the American supported South Vietnam against the communist supported North Vietnam. During the war he had seen the most horrible things. Earlier after seeing the news he asked aloud why it is that man is the most vicious kind on earth. He had seen his platoon literally being shot to pieces when they were sent into the mountains to explore. My father escaped miraculously and had to keep himself in life while being surrounded by the enemy. Eventually, an helicopter came to get him. While shots were fired all over the place, my father was lifted into the helicopter. He had quite a strong odor and on his body were just strips of fabric of his pants dangling where his genitals were hanging out, he vividly told us later.

Saigon fell on April 30, 1975 in the hands of the North Vietnamese. As the last Americans left Vietnam, the place became too hot for my father. Partly because of the uncertain future of his children my father decided to flee. Everything he had built, and much that was dear to him he had to leave. One year after the fall of Saigon we secretly got on my father’s fishing boat to open sea

s.s. Kelletia rescues Vietnamese boat people

Travelling from Singapore to Kobe and Yokohama in the South China Sea, in position 08 ° 30 ‘North and 110 ° 04’ East, on 31 July s.s. “Kelletia” struck a sinking boat with onboard 33 exhausted Vietnamese, some of which are in state of shock.
All crew members were taken aboard the “Kelletia” before the small boat disappeared into the depths.
The group, consisting of 12 men, eight women, two growing boys and 11 children aged between 6 months and 6 years old, was found ten days previously fled from Vietnam.

The crew of the “Kelletia” gave first aid and thanks to their hard work, the 33 Vietnamese were disembarked safely and healthily at Yokohamaon on 7 August. Here they were picked up by employees of a charitable organization that will take care of them, find housing and a final destination for them.

Schip en Ka 1976, monthly magazine for the fleet and shore-based personnel // Shell Tankers B.V.

In 2016 my family had a meeting with the first and second helmsman of the s.s. Kelletia. A call in the pension magazine of the Merchant Navy made a lot of heartwarming reactions and eventually these two special meetings. Both helmsmen were able to tell us how lucky we have been. If Kelletia had not crossed our path we’d never survive it. The boat of my father had a leak that was shut with a bag of rice, we had problems with the motor and took the wrong way. It was impossible to reach land on time.

“Who took Kim Le in 1976 out of the sea?” Call in pension magazine Koopvaardij (merchant shipping) 2015

With the help of an interpreter, my father sent a long letter of thanks to the first mate (color photo below left). He never told us.

From the second mate I received this Polaroid he had made himself, and had kept all these years. It is one of the few photos I have of myself as a toddler.

We almost ended in America, the country my father dreamed of. But it was the choice to go with all family members together that we ended in the Netherlands. My father’s dream of America fell apart. In the Netherlands there was a communist party, the Communist Party of the Netherlands (CPN), which had only two seats in 1977. Despite that the power of this party was negligible, it made my father still somewhat paranoid. Something he had kept from the traumatic experiences in his life. Though before the war he did not even know what communism meant, now he jumps up if that word was called. War had given communism a face and meaning. It was unthinkable for him to go to a country where a communist party was part of politics. He cried when we went to the Netherlands. America became a shattered dream.

History repeats itself repeatedly, again millions of people are fleeing. I do not know which choice I had taken when I would have been in my fathers shoes. I’m not sure I would have had the courage to leave everything that’s so dear and familiar to me behind, never to see my mother again. Fortunately, my father made sure that I don’t have to think about that and that I can think and act freely.