Forty years ago, on a dark and stormy evening, a Royal Australian Navy Tracker aircraft spotted a small vessel in distress in the South China Sea. On board were 99 people fleeing Vietnam. On June 20 - World Refugee Day - rescuers and rescued will get together again for the first time.
In the lounge room of his home in North Nowra on the NSW South Coast, Vince Di Pietro thumbs through his pilot's log book, searching for entries on June 21, 1981. The 62-year-old retired Royal Australian Navy commodore is recalling his role in the dramatic rescue of 99 Vietnamese refugees, whose overloaded vessel had broken down and was adrift in a stormy South China Sea.
The last entry for the day reads "Ikon recce, transfer Torrens", four words summarising what Di Pietro says was, in human terms, the highlight of his 40-year career.
He was the 21-year-old pilot of a Wessex search and rescue helicopter - callsign Pedro - which had just returned to the deck of the aircraft carrier HMAS Melbourne.
Pedro had completed plane guard duties, on standby to rescue crew in the event of a fixed wing aircraft mishap on landing or takeoff. The last flight of the day, Grumman Tracker 851, had just landed, followed by Pedro.
Di Pietro was then directed to take off again, to transfer a doctor to the destroyer escort HMAS Torrens before flying to "Ikon", the identifier assigned to a vessel in distress which had been spotted by the Tracker.
"When we got there I saw it very clearly, the boat that was clearly overloaded. On the wheelhouse roof, there was a small fire," he says. The fire was lit in a drum in an effort to attract attention.
"There was a young man on the deck on the roof of the boat letting us know they were a hungry, he was clutching his tummy, and rolling left to right on the deck, letting us know they were in some level of difficulty."
Di Pietro was asked to estimate how many people were on board. He counted 42, unaware that below deck were another 57.
"We stayed there as long as we could but we were running out of daylight and the ship called us back. So we flew straight back to the Melbourne," he recalls.
"In terms of action and excitement it certainly wasn't a really exciting mission. In terms of the human dimension nothing beat it."
By that time HMAS Melbourne and Torrens had drawn close enough to the 13.7-metre Nghia Hung, a wooden vessel fit to carry only 30 people, to begin the rescue of those on board.
The refugees, known collectively as MG99, were brought aboard the Melbourne. They were landed at Singapore five days later, processed as refugees, then flown to Australia, beating the Melbourne home from what would be its last Far East deployment.
Building new lives in a strange land, the refugees stayed in contact with each other and some of the officers involved in the rescue. But the rescue itself had begun to recede into the mists of history.
Then a remarkable coincidence ensured those lives which intersected in the South China Sea all those years ago would once again cross paths.
John Ingram, who was serving on the Melbourne and had stayed in close contact with the refugee group in the intervening years, reached out to the Naval Historical Society last year. He had seen a painting of the 1997 rescue in the Southern Ocean of yachtsman John Bullimore and wanted to see a marine artist paint the MG99 rescue.
In January this year, New Zealander Darrell White took up the challenge. He contacted his brother Glenn, an RAN veteran and volunteer at the Historical Aircraft Restoration Society (HARS) museum at the Illawarra Regional Airport, keen to tap his knowledge about the Tracker aircraft. He hit the mother lode.
Not only was the very aircraft a static display at the museum but its upkeep was also one of Glenn White's responsibilities. Another HARS volunteer, Carl Robinson, saw an opportunity to mark the 40th anniversary of the rescue in a very special way.
An American journalist based in South Vietnam throughout the war, Robinson and his wife Kim Dung had escaped in 1975 just before the communists rolled into Saigon, eventually settling in Australia.
Robinson reached out to the MG99's leader, Stephen Nguyen, and invited him down from Sydney to visit the museum and see the Tracker. The idea was to see if the group wanted to use the museum as a venue to mark the 40th anniversary.
"Originally a group of two or three people turned into 45 people on that visit in March," says Robinson. "It was really quite emotional."
Among them was Jessica Chi Crosskill, who was only 12 when she was fetched by an uncle, taken south from Saigon and placed on a boat, with no idea what was happening or where she was going.
While she remembers the ordeal at sea, recollections of the rescue itself are sketchy - except for one indelible memory. Having never seen a foreigner before, she was amazed by the sailor carrying her up the ladder onto the deck of the Melbourne, especially his bright orange hair.
"I remember I saw the hair on his arms and I was frightened. All I remember was the hair."
Now, she would like to meet that sailor, "to say thank you. To give him a massive hug. Perhaps now, I could carry him."
At the March meeting, Robinson's wife Kim Dung was drafted to act as interpreter. Speaking to the captain of the Nghia Hung, Nguyen Van Tam, gave her a sharp insight into the fear that gripped all on that stricken boat.
"He said we'll just give our lives to God. He regretted bringing his wife and all his children. He said he wished he'd split them up so at least some of them would survive," she recalls. "It gave me goosebumps."
Spread out on the Robinson's dining table are documents and photos relating to the rescue, the fruits of several months of detective work. He has taken a deep dive into the story - joining the dots and connecting the people involved.
Through social media, he's tracked down the rescued and the crew members who rescued them. And these people have reconnected ahead of Sunday's reunion.
Vince Di Pietro has forged a friendship via email with Stephen Nguyen even though they are yet to meet face to face.
"I got his number when I first saw his email introducing himself as the pilot and I rang him straight away," says Nguyen. "The first conversation with him was so marvellous, like an old friend, my saviour.
"He was the rescuer and I was the rescued and we were the same age in different situations. And now we have the chance to see each other at this coming event. That will be beautiful."
The reunion will also be bittersweet, a reminder of terrible times, of lost family members, but also of triumph in the face of adversity.
Celebrated artist and author Anh Do is Nguyen's nephew.
"Anh Do's story and my story is about survival. But Anh Do's grandfather was in the same boat with my eldest sister, a Catholic nun. They made their escape in 1983 but they all perished with the other 50 companions at sea.
"That's the sad side of the Vietnamese families in South Vietnam at that time. Every single family has one relative who perished at sea."
The gathering on Sunday, which is World Refugee Day, will serve as a reminder of the power of compassion.
The gathering this Sunday - World Refugee Day - of a group of Vietnamese Australians and the Royal Australian Navy personnel who saved them from certain death in the South China Sea 40 years ago serves as a reminder of the power of compassion. The power not only to save lives but to enrich them.
The reunion also throws up a mirror to the way our attitudes to refugees have changed, and not always for the better, in those four decades.
Behind the decision to flee to sea
In 1981, we had no hesitation in welcoming to our shores refugees who took to sea in leaky boats. Indeed, the vast majority of the 99 souls plucked from the sea by HMAS Melbourne and Torrens that stormy night arrived in Sydney ahead of the navy ships. They'd been taken to Singapore, checked by Immigration and Quarantine officials, classed as refugees and flown south to find sanctuary and new lives.
Stephen Nguyen was one of them, 21 years old at the time. Like the others rescued with him, he went on to build a successful life and contribute to the country which had taken him in. However, looking back, he acknowledges times and attitudes have changed. Back then, he says, there was no broad concept of people smugglers. Now, of course, there is. And he is comfortable with the tough measures put in place to stem their exploitation of human misery.
Also 21 at the time, now retired navy commodore Vince Di Pietro, who was involved in the rescue, sees it somewhat differently. Rather than "queue jumpers", a term he says gained currency in the 1990s, he sees the closure of numerous Australian consulates around the world at the time as part of the problem. There were fewer places to join the queue, he says, so people took to the boats.
Di Pietro also sees parallels between the people he helped save and his own family's experience after World War II. His parents arrived from war ravaged Italy in the early 1950s, determined to make a better life for themselves. They, too, in a sense were refugees. And Vince himself is proof of their contribution to the nation, serving as he did for 40 years in the RAN, his final post as Commander of the Fleet Air Arm.
- John Hanscombe