After a visit to Albion Park’s HARS Aviation Museum in March to visit the RAN Grumman Tracker 851 aircraft that instigated their rescue in the South China Sea, a group of former Vietnamese refugees decided to hold a 40th anniversary reunion there.
Former US Vietnam War correspondent and HARS media officer Carl Robinson backed the plan, with the date set for June 20, World Refugee Day, and one day short of the date the refugees were rescued 40 years ago.
The group was designated MG-99 - Melbourne Group 99 – when they were taken on board HMAS Melbourne all those years ago, with 77 deciding to make Australia home, while 22 moved to Canada and the US, where they had family.
Mr Robinson told Stephen Nguyen, spokesman for the MG-99 people, he would chase up the Australian crew members if Mr Nguyen could locate the former refugees and their families.
The result was hundreds of people attending the reunion, many of whom hadn’t seen each other for 40 years.
Builder and skipper of the refugee boat Nghia Hung, Tam Van Nguyen expressed his gratitude on behalf of the MG-99 people and their families “to this country Australia, her people and especially the Navy force who were involved directly to the recovery.
“We were rescued by you, and thanks to your humanitarian efforts, we have been living for 40 years as free citizens in this country,” he said.
“You have given us a passage of a new life, freedom and happiness for generations more. Our appreciation is beyond measure.
“I believe that, over the past 40 years, the members of MG-99 have been making active contributions to this country, partly in response to the compassion and immense kindness of the Australian Government and her people.”
Stephen Nguyen, who was 20 at the time of his rescue, said all 99 of the refugees were very appreciative for what the Australian Navy did to give them a new life.
“No one wants to leave their country, unless it is not safe to stay,” he said.
“Going to face the ocean in a wooden boat in poor conditions was a big risk of our life – surviving the trip was a miracle.
“Without the dedication, professionalism and bravery of the officers and seamen of HMA Ships Melbourne and Torrens, we would not be here today – we would have died.”
Mr Nguyen said it was a great feeling to be able to finally meet the crew members who rescued them.
“We are always thinking of them and wished to have a reunion with them,” he said.
“As a citizen of this country for 40 years, I found I have always been treated well and feel comfortable as a fair dinkum Aussie.”