- A U.S. Navy captain facing court-martial for failing to rescue a boatload of starving Vietnamese refugees testified Tuesday he believed Navy regulations forbade him from picking them up.
Wiping tears in his eyes, Capt. Alexander Balian also denied he ordered his men to shake loose a Vietnamese climbing a line to his vessel, the USS Dubuque, when it encountered the Vietnamese in the South China Sea June 9. He said he simply had ordered that the refugees not be allowed aboard.Fifty-two refugees on the crowded junk later were rescued by Filipino fishermen, but 58 others died during the 37-day voyage. Survivors said after the encounter with the Dubuque the refugees resorted to cannibalism, eating two of the dead and killing and eating three others.
"The situation did not meet the requirements as called for under operational orders," said Balian, 48, of Los Angeles, on his first day of testimony. The 25-year veteran said his operations officer, Lt. Cmdr. Richard Self, told him Navy rules state that "only when the craft is not seaworthy will we pick them up."
The trial judge earlier, dismissed one of three charges against Balian, failure to rescue a Vietnamese who drowned while swimming to his warship. Balian was stripped of his command last August.
On questioning by the military prosecutor, Lt. Cmdr. Raymond Carlson, Balian admitted the refugees were "in distress" but he said he made "more than a reasonable effort" to base his decision not to pick them up.
"As a matter of fact the refugees were rescued (later by Filipino fishermen). Fifty-two are alive today. If not for us, they would not be alive," he said.
Balian, who won a silver star and a purple heart for his service during the Vietnam War, said he sent his executive officer, Lt. Cmdr. Stanley Halter, to investigate the vessel.
He said Halter, who went near the refugee craft aboard a motor whale boat, said by hand-held radio that the junk had no engine and that the situation in the refugee boat was "chaotic."
Balian said he asked Halter if the junk needed repairs and Halter told him it had no engine. Halter said the boat had a sail, which the refugees were bringing down, Balian recalled.
He said he asked Halter, "Are we going to take them aboard?" He said Halter told him the leader of the refugees said the group needed only food and water and that "they can go on on their own."