It was an emotional reunion for Mike Harpold and No Vo at Cape Fox Lodge in Ketchikan on a recent Sunday.
The men first met 44 years ago. At the time, Harpold was working as a US immigration officer. He had visited refugee camps from Cambodia to Malaysia as he prepared to present a report on the camps to Congress.
Then he learned that an American freighter had snatched a family from a sinking fishing boat hundreds of miles from shore. He was sent to the ship to help the refugees find a home.
“Forty-four years ago, your parents posed for my camera on the deck of the J. Paul Getty, the supertanker that rescued them on the high seas, 450 miles off the coast of the Philippines,” Harpold said. “Hungry under the communist regime, they had fled their homeland. But no one in the world wanted it.
The supertanker tried to see the refugees in Singapore, but the country turned them away. In fact, with the refugees on board, the tanker could not dock anywhere.
So Harpold’s wife, Elaine, said her husband took over.
“He said the United States would take these people, so they allowed them to come ashore and go to the refugee camps, and eventually, to the United States,” she said.
Without authority to do so, Harpold visited the ship and gave every refugee on board humanitarian parole status. This is generally reserved for urgent needs such as organ donation, or for people who would generally not be allowed to enter the United States
Harpold called humanitarian parole a “practical fiction at the time”.
“At the time, no one had the authority to allow Vietnamese refugees to be taken to the United States for resettlement, but I realized that if I didn’t address the plight of the Getty and the refugees in board, any vessel hoping to transit through the Singapore Strait would come to the aid of a distressed refugee boat in the future, and many more boat people would perish at sea,” Harpold told KRBD after the meeting.
He even wrote a letter to the Singapore government stating that the tanker refugees had a place in the United States – even though the United States did not accept Vietnamese refugees at the time.
The Vo family was dropped off at a United Nations refugee camp and the Paul Getty was allowed to continue to the Persian Gulf.
“When I arrived in Washington, DC three days later, after an initial discussion of my dismissal had been cleared up, my undertakings were confirmed by the attorney general and the secretary of state,” Harpold said. That evening a telegram went out delegating the powers I had “created” to US immigration officers serving all over the world. Mr. Vo, his family and the others stranded on the Getty were brought to the United States for resettlement and lived happily ever after!
Over the next few weeks, the United States revised its policies, and over the next decade, 1.5 million war refugees from Viet Nam, Laos and Cambodia were resettled in the United States,” said he continued. “Two years later, US refugee policy was first codified in the Refugee Act of 1980 and signed into law by President Carter on St. Patrick’s Day that year.”
His choice affected generations of a family he hadn’t seen for decades, that is, until reuniting at Cape Fox Lodge.
Vo’s only daughter, Holly, said the family’s trip to Ketchikan was a coincidence. Vo’s children – Holly, Alex, Carson, Paul Getty and Sean Vo – had booked an Alaskan cruise on the Celebrity Solstice to celebrate their father’s birthday.
Before they left, Holly Vo said a family member came across a book Harpold had written about the Vos and other Vietnamese refugees called “People we wanted to forget.” They recognized the photo of themselves aboard the J. Paul Getty.
Vo immediately knew he had to visit Harpold during a layover in Ketchikan. He had to thank him.
“It’s (is) very fortuitous and very miraculous and I hope it’s very lucky for our family to see who helped us 44 years ago to resettle in the United States,” he said. declared.
A lunch was organised. Vo and his wife Mai, their five children, spouses and five grandchildren combined made the trip. Harpold was accompanied by his wife Elaine and daughter Liz.
Vo shook Harpold’s hand warmly, becoming emotional alongside his children and wife as he recalled Harpold’s actions that day in 1978.
“Thank you, there are not enough words to say what the US government has helped us do,” Vo said. “Thank you again, Mr. Harpold.”
Around the table, the Vos and the Harpolds shared memories and made up for each other after 44 years apart. Vo’s eldest son, Alex, sat next to his wife, below the table for his 12-year-old daughter.
“And, you know, I always said to my daughter, I said to her, ‘You know, if this hadn’t happened, we would probably either be back in our country or somewhere in a village somewhere , who knows,’” he said. “But the opportunity that presented itself, I can’t even put a price tag on it. So the priceless gift you gave us is something you gave us, it’s something we always treasure.
He explained that when the family arrived in the country, they first settled in Chicago.
“You know, like any immigrant family, the struggle was real,” he said. “We always share with our children what we did at their age. And I think they don’t have the concept of how much of a struggle there was in the beginning. You know, mom and dad, you know, they didn’t speak English, neither did we, but they understood. And they gave us an opportunity that, you know, I think we really cherish.”
He said that because of this, he and his siblings were able to go to school and pursue the American dream.
Carson Vo is in business with his older brother. He now has three boys. He has his own memories of the J. Paul Getty.
“I locked myself in the bathroom there (on the boat) because I didn’t know how to use it,” recalls Carson Vo. “We didn’t have any in Vietnam, did we?”
He reflected that so many others, looking for a safe place for their families, never made it.
“So the fact that we are staying here, I think, is a testament to your will and someone above is watching over us,” he said.
Sean Vo is the youngest of Vo’s children.
“I’m the baby,” he said. “So compared to my older siblings, who kind of made this trip from Vietnam, I had it really easy, I never went hungry growing up, as you can see. And I’m just blessed to be in this blessed family to kind of hear all the experiences that everyone has had.
He remarked on how strange it was to find himself, 44 years later, in the same room as the man who brought his family to the United States.
“It’s been, it’s crazy, how the stars align on this whole journey, so it really feels like fate,” Sean Vo said.
These days, the Vo family lives in California.
Raegan Miller is a member of the Report for America body for KRBD. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps him keep writing stories like this. Please consider making a tax-deductible contribution at KRBD.org/donate.