Vietnamese refugees thank the crew of the USS John Young 40 years after rescue

Julia LeDoux
January 22, 2020 - 2:44 pm

Photo courtesy of Marc Cohen

The crew of the USS John Young didn't expect to be thanked by a group of Vietnamese refugees it plucked from the Wester Pacific back in April of 1981, but that's exactly what recently happened. 

"We're grateful to have survived and on behalf of all family members, I deeply thank the US  and the USS John Young's crew for their generosity." said An Tran, one of the refugees who was saved nearly four decades ago. 

Marc Cohen was the engineering officer aboard the Young as it made its maiden deployment through the South China Sea more than four decades ago. He has vivid memories of the day that  Lt. Mark Iverson told him a small boat was approaching the vessel.

“He had requested that we put the engineering plant in full power mode, which was not the standard for normal cruising, so I knew something was up,” Cohen said.

The small boat they spotted, was around 30 feet long and had a large number of Vietnamese refugees aboard.  It was towed to the Young, which took them aboard. 

“When the refugees came aboard they had been out to sea for three days, with no food, water or sanitary facilities,” he said. “There were 127 refugees on that first boat. I say that first boat because it was not the last.”

Photo courtesy of Marc Cohen

“There was a call throughout the ship that if the crew was able, any spare clothing that could be spared would be appreciated,” he continued.

The refugees were also given blankets and bedding, Cohen said.

Soon after Cohen received a report that another small fishing boat had been spotted.

“This time it was a little bit different,” he said. “This boat was not alone, but was being threatened by pirates.”

The Young was placed between the refugee boat and the pirates, who left eventually left Cohen said.

Around 190 refugees were taken aboard the ship, including one woman who was around 7 months pregnant and another woman who came aboard with her infant daughter, Thao Nguyen.

“They told us of escaping the Communist regimes that had taken over after the fall of Saigon, now Ho Chi Minh City, how they had sacrificed everything rather than live under Communist rule,” he said. “The bravery of these people cannot be overstated.”

Cohen said when the refugees left Vietnam, they did not know if they would be rescued, die at sea or be killed by pirates.

“They only knew that they could not live under such an oppressive government in Vietnam,” he explained. “It was very emotional to hear their stories.”

The refugees spent several days aboard the ship before being dropped off at a camp in Singapore.

The unanswered question for Cohen and the rest of the crew for the next 40 plus years was what happened to the people they rescued?

They got their answer when some of those they saved walked in to thank them during a USS John Young reunion in Mobile, Alabama. 

Photo courtesy of Marc Cohen

Nguyen was among those who came to express her appreciation to the crew.

"If I can help someone else, I want to because I know I wouldn't be where I am if people didn't save me," she told WGN.

Cohen said that by sharing the story, the crew is hopeful more of those they rescued will come forward.  To learn more, visit

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