Forty years ago the Navy saved the Vietnamese refugees

(To Tiziano Ciocchetti)

The 30 April 1975 the communist forces of North Vietnam enter Saigon, putting an end to a conflict that lasted for about 13 years. However, the suffering for the population is certainly not over, the Communists launch themselves into massacres and summary executions, above all of religious, intellectuals, students, local politicians and artists.

All the people to be "re-educated" are exiled to the New Economic Zones, in fact swampy areas of the country where people die due to diseases and lack of food: South Vietnam is transformed into a huge gulag.

In the 1979 the surviving population tries to escape, and the only possibility is to face the sea to seek asylum in some neighboring country. The West divides, between those who condemn communist barbarism and those who accuse them as propagandistic falsehoods in favor of capitalism.

Meanwhile, refugees on barges - renamed boat people - are rejected wherever they try to land. They fight against hunger (cases of cannibalism also occur), lack of drinking water, tropical storms and fishermen (pirates) who board them to rob them and rape them.

Western ships sometimes approach, supply food, take pictures of them but then move away.

In Italy, the tragedy of the boat people, is made publicly available through the images of Tiziano Terzani and, strangely, the Policy acts.

The current President of the Council of Ministers is Giulio Andreotti, who convenes the Minister of Defense Ruffini to entrust him with the realization of a mission which, due to the distance and weather conditions, is very difficult. It is not known how many refugees there are, or where they are exactly, but the order is to save them.

The Navy has no specific units for this type of operation, the flagship, the Vittorio Veneto, is located in Toulon. The commander, vessel captain Franco Mariotti, receives the communication from the admiral of division Agostinelli, to readjust the structure of the ship and to set sail for La Spezia to meet at theAndrea Doria for a recovery mission.

Commander Mariotti prepares on Veneto 300 beds for women and children at the stern, and 120 for men at the bow. The infirmary is enlarged by using the spaces reserved for the non-commissioned officers' lodgings, and further toilet facilities are made. After five days of work, the ship is ready to sail.

Mariotti arrives at La Spezia on 4 in July 1979, doctors, nurses and interpreters are embarked here. The 5 sets sail, along with the Doria, en route to the island of Crete, where they rejoin the ship Stromboli.

The journey is extremely difficult, as in addition to the oppressive heat the small fleet must face, in the Indian Ocean beaten by the monsoons, a 7 force sea.

After 10 days of uninterrupted navigation, the 18 July arrives in Singapore and they refuel additional supplies. Meanwhile, the operators of the SISMI, take advantage of it to gather information about the location of the refugees.

They discover that they have headed to the Anambas Islands of Indonesia, near an Esso oil platform.

The 25 in July set sail for the South China Sea, the day after, despite the strong wind, an AB-212 helicopter rises up, which manages to locate the first shipwrecked vessel, a boat about 25 meters long that is pouring down near the Esso platform. The Doria sends a rubber boat with medical, escort and interpreter personnel on board. From the now sunken boat the sailors manage to rescue 66 men, 39 women and 23 children. In the following days many other refugees are saved.

As of the date of the 1 August 1979, on board the Navy ships there is now no more space, but they sailed for 2.600 miles, explored an area of ​​250.000 sq km and saved 907 people.

Photo: Navy Historical Archive / Giorgio Arra