Joe Devlin: The Boat People's Priest
Following his five-year ministry in the Mekong Delta, Jesuit priest James Joseph Devlin, shown above with some of the children he worked with at Song Khla in 1981, became the champion of the Vietnamese boat people who fled to Thailand. There were about 7,000 Vietnamese boat people at Song Khla (located on the east coast of southern Thailand) when Father Devlin arrived in 1979; the number soon swelled to 8,000.
Following his five-year ministry in the Mekong Delta, Jesuit priest Joe Devlin became the champion of the Vietnamese boat people who fled to Thailand.
San Jose State University Professor Larry Englemann met Father Joseph Devlin in 1990 while preparing his book Tears Before the Rain: An Oral History of the Fall of South Vietnam (Oxford University Press) for publication. Legendary among both the Vietnamese and the Americans for his tireless work, Father Devlin spent five years in the Mekong Delta ministering to and doctoring thousands of Vietnamese peasants. In 1975, he was one of the last Americans to be flown out of South Vietnam, and the same year he became the principal priest at the temporary base for Vietnamese refugees in Camp Pendleton, California. In 1979 he traveled to Song Khla on the east coast of Thailand, where he soon became known as the "boat people's priest," helping to care for the Vietnamese boat people who survived the trip from Vietnam to Thailand.
By 1990, Devlin was retired and living in Los Gatos, Calif. When the region's Vietnamese immigrants found out he was living nearby, they held reunions for him that were attended by hundreds of the people he had helped.
Father Joe Devlin died on February 23, 1998--Ash Wednesday. At that time he was serving Asian parishioners at Our Lady of Peace Church in Santa Clara. In several visits with Englemann, Father Devlin had talked about his experiences while working with the Vietnamese people.
In the spring of 1975 things in South Vietnam fell apart pretty quickly. After the Americans left we worried how long we could survive without them. When the Americans were near us down in the Delta, I was impressed by them. They were high-minded young guys, tough and strong. They were as good as any Americans you ever see over here [in the United States].
So the Vietnamese had come to depend on these men. Their aircraft would be flying overhead hitting the enemy or going to the North, and we felt safe. I could not understand how we could possibly survive once the Americans were gone, and I don't think anyone else really believed that we would survive for long either.
Therefore, we were all pleasantly surprised when 1975 came around and we were still in existence without any major American presence. My colleague Father Bach asked me once, "Tell me, why did you keep us in the war for 10 years if you never intended to help us see it through and if you never intended to save us? We could have dropped out of the war 10 years ago and saved our men and people and it would have been better that way." I had no answer for him. I didn't understand it myself.
As I watched the advance of the Communist forces in March and April of 1975, I feared Vietnam would be partitioned again, as it had been in 1954, and that they were going to draw a line across the country just north of Saigon. I figured we would be able to stay behind that line and fight and survive for maybe a year. My feeling at the time was that if we tried this, then a lot of people would die, but the Americans, at some point in time, would come back and support us because they would see that we were doing the heroic thing in standing against the enemy armies. But I was wrong.
The South Vietnamese government and army collapsed completely. It surprised me. During the last days, if the entire nation could have left they would have, and we would have had 20 million refugees instead of only 130,000.
Someone from the CIA came to the village and tried to get me out and to Saigon. I went along because they ordered me. And when I got to Saigon I went to see George Jacobson at the U.S. Embassy and said, "Mr. Jacobson, please, I left my village too soon and I want to go back to it. Do you think you can help me? I don't want to run away like this." He replied, "I understand. We have a small plane going to Nha Trang this afternoon, and if you want to get on it, you can, and it will drop you off at Phan Thiet." So I got on it and went back to my people, and they gave me a big ovation when they saw I'd come back.
On the same day that I got back, however, the USAID [U.S. Agency for International Development] came to me and told me they were taking Americans out in two final helicopter lifts. They said they would take me. But later, when they came for me, I hid behind a tree so they couldn't find me, and they left without me. I watched them fly away. I thought then that I needed to stay with my people.
But then I started thinking, "I've got to get these people out of here. The enemy is coming down." Soon I saw our beaten armies as they passed near our village. They were a pathetic force. After I saw them I went down to see the province chief to talk to him. I told him, "I am going to take my people out. There are only about 250 left, but I'm going to get them out of here. And I want you to give me some protection when we go out, tomorrow." He said we were on our own, for his men would be fighting, and they could not escort us. It was up to me alone. I took my people out the next day. I got the money from the Catholic Relief Agencies; I had only $1,500 to get three boats to circumvent the enemy and get around the outside of their lines. We went down to Vung Tau on the coast and waited there.
I realized that the war was ending, so I went to the embassy in Saigon and asked them if they could give me a boat to transport my 250 people to some island where we could get away from the Communists. And the embassy representative, a friend of mine who worked for the CIA, said to me, "Father, we have some 200,000 people we have to take care of. We can't do it. Your people are harmless, and they're not a threat to the Communists. They're just poor people, and the enemy won't hurt them if they come in." I could see that he was right.
I tried to take my nurse out and a little boy who had helped me at the hospital. And she said she had to go south to get her baby; she went away and came back in about an hour. She said, "I can't get out because the enemy has the roads blocked off and we are trapped in the city. We're surrounded here." And I said, "Well, there is no sense in staying. The enemy is at the gate. They'll be here tomorrow. It's time to leave."
So on the morning of April 29 I arranged for the three of us to leave Vietnam. I really wanted to bring all of my people out. But what could I do, really? That was impossible. I tried to get a boat for them--I had the money--to have them picked up in Vung Tau, but now I couldn't even get out of Saigon. And I knew that even if I could get back to them and stay with them, my presence would be bad for them once the Communists came in. It didn't make sense for me to stay any more and put them in danger. I stayed at the Jesuit House in Saigon, and the Vietnamese Jesuits there had also decided to stay. But I was a controversial figure among the Vietnamese. I was an American and so I was persona non grata. I would be jailed if I stayed, and they would all also be suspect. I had to leave them, too.
So I eventually asked one fellow if he could drive me to the CIA safe hotel that had an evacuation helicopter pad on the roof. He said, "Sure, I'll take you. We may get stopped by the policemen, but I'll try." When we arrived at this CIA hotel, American soldiers were standing at the gate with rifles that wouldn't have done much good when the North Vietnamese came in. I said, "Hey, can I come in there with you guys?" and they said, "Sure, come on in."
After I entered the compound, I went up on the roof to wait for the helicopters. We were told that we could only take out one bag with our possessions. Some of the CIA people had bags of whiskey. They opened those bags and passed the whiskey around, and each of us took a parting drink. We drank it all. As we stood there, off in the horizon you could see a big plane bursting into flames when it hit the ground--there was a tremendous flareup. It was a big transport plane [see the April 1995 issue of Vietnam to read about the crash of the C-5A evacuation aircraft]. I saw it go down and I thought of hell when I saw the flames and smoke.
You've seen that famous picture of the helicopter landing on the roof of a building removing people, and the people standing on the stairway waiting. Well, if you could see closer, you could see me in that picture. I stood on that stairway with the others and waited and watched Saigon falling around us. Then finally a helicopter came and took us to the top of the crowded embassy and we got out of there. I remember that there was a tremendously big tamarind tree in the courtyard of the embassy. I watched the big Chinook helicopters come in, and when they came down that old tree was shaking back and forth. And you feared a little bit. But they came right down and then went right back up again, straight--just like an elevator. Tremendous work machines.
Then they asked if any of us wanted to go out to Tan Son Nhut airport; they said a plane would be there for us. So I went to the airport with some others. I wanted to see what was happening out there. I took my nurse with me all the way to Tan Son Nhut. But once we were there, she said she could not leave. I blessed her and wished her luck and she left--I never saw her again. We stayed at the MACV headquarters on the tennis courts, waiting for something to happen. Then the Marines came in and surrounded the place, and the big helicopters came in that could hold about 70 people. The choppers lifted off at about 6:30 that evening and took us out to USS Midway.
On Midway, it is pretty well known what happened. They had to push off some of the helicopters to make way for a small Vietnamese helicopter that landed the next morning. There were no Americans with me when I went out to Midway. I don't think there were any other American priests in the country at that time. I didn't see any on Midway. They transferred most people off Midway within a few hours. But I stayed on board. I told them I thought I might have been exposed to tuberculosis, and they sent me down to the sick bay to be examined. I was released the next day.
I was very sad at the time, and I can remember looking up at the ceiling on April 30 on Midway and realizing that a whole nation had gone under. Here I was safe on the ship, and they were under their new masters. I guess I felt lower at that moment than at any other time in my life.
While on Midway I thanked some of the Marines who brought us all out. I said, "Thanks a million," and I asked one of the Marines if they had had any trouble or anything. He said, "No, I was stationed in the embassy. We went into the embassy and we didn't have any trouble at all after we cut the damn tamarind tree down." They didn't cut it down completely, but they cut most of it down. The U.S. ambassador used to come and point to that tree for visitors and he would say, "You see that tree. That's a symbol of the strength of America." And then the Marines, almost symbolically, cut that tree down.
When I was on Midway I sent word to Camp Pendleton, where many of the refugees were taken, and asked them if they had any type of job I could do to help them. I said that I would appreciate it if they could give me work. I told them that I didn't need a salary, I just wanted to work with the Vietnamese.
I had come into Los Angeles and then went to San Francisco and then Utah. After I went back to Utah, they called me and said, "We want to get the Marines out of the job of being the chaplain coordinators with the Vietnamese at Camp Pendleton; we want them to go back to their Marine work. Would you come and be the coordinator for the Catholic Vietnamese in the camp here?" I went in June and stayed until the end of the camp that Christmas. The Marines were kind enough to let me be the chaplain in the camp, and they also let me sleep in the Marine camp.
I felt happy to be with my people again--the Vietnamese. They were sad, of course, but not as sad as the people who came out later on the ocean--not as sad as the boat people. The Vietnamese who came out in 1975 and who I worked with at Camp Pendleton were pretty much the intelligentsia. They were aware as to what had been going on in Vietnam, and they were very smart to have come out when they did. They all seemed to do well when they arrived in America.
There wasn't hopelessness there. The Marines were wonderful, and their conduct was perfect. The Marines were tough in war, but believe me, they were also gentle and kind to the Vietnamese and very sensitive. The Marines wanted to do the best possible job they could, and they wanted to have the best refugee camp in America. They succeeded, God bless them all. I was so happy to be able to stay there.
I gave sermons and brought in priests and bishops to help buoy up the refugees' spirits. And the Marines did what they could to keep them thinking positively. The food was terrific, but it was American food and the Vietnamese had a little trouble with that. But considering the situation, it wasn't really a serious problem. I coordinated the religious services and then tried to help them find places to settle. Organizations gave them clothing and tried to put them up in tents. It was a beautiful quarters for the Vietnamese to stay in on such short notice.
New Vietnamese kept coming to the camp, and the people I served stayed about the same in number. But the authorities wanted to clear it all out by the time the rainy season came around. Then, before Christmas, they sent the last ones out to Fort Chaffee, Ark., and then on to their own homes. All the camps were empty by Christmas.
After the camp emptied, I came to San Jose to help the new refugees here. I took care of the Vietnamese I could find around me. I took care of the poor ones that I found and got them food and a place to live. I taught English to both the adults and the children and tried to help the children in their studies at school, and I came back to the homes every night.
This was a daily routine. I went around to as many Vietnamese households as I could in San Jose and helped them. I went around and found out what the people needed and then tried to get it for them from various charitable organizations. I had once been a schoolteacher, so I always taught the kids. I took their books and went through all their work starting with the oldest child and then going to the next one and the next one and so on. I did this most of the day and night.
I knew when I worked with them that they would succeed in America. I knew they would thrive on freedom and contribute to this country and be good citizens. I watched them learn, and I helped them and thought how lucky they were to have made it here, but at the same time I could see how lucky Americans would be to have them here. I think anyone who worked with them could have seen that. You couldn't miss it.
Then somebody wrote me that my old colleague from Vietnam, Father Bach, was in a refugee camp in Thailand and that he was a camp chief. I expressed a desire to go there and help him again. I wrote to an international refugee organization and said I'd sure like to assist them, and they wrote back, "You can come over and join us and help."
So in 1979 I went to Thailand for the first time. I didn't know for sure that I could get in and stay there, but I went anyway. I went with an organization I had joined, the Thai-Catholic refugee organization, COERR [Catholic Organization For Emergency Relief and Refugees].
When I flew into Thailand, the camp I went to was in Song Khla, which was located on the east coast of southern Thailand on the Gulf of Siam. It was a camp that Vietnamese refugees would come to if they were anywhere along the beaches--it was a boat people camp. I was the only chaplain there. Money started coming in from America, so I could give money to a great number of people who came in. They could buy things at the little market right there in the camp. And I also gave extra money to rape victims--and there were literally thousands of them, mostly young girls--and to children who had lost their parents.
About 7,000 boat people were there when I arrived, and the number soon increased to about 8,000. People kept pouring in from Vietnam. Little by little they were processed out of the camp and sent to the United States and other host countries.
At the beginning we had about four or five small organizations in there. Doctors Without Frontiers took care of medical treatment for the refugees. And then later Catholic Relief took care of the medical supplies. The Thai government kept a tight grip on the camps, and eventually all or-ganizations except Catholic Relief were forced to leave. I was left there with Catholic Relief, and we were the only ones there for the next three years.
The Thais really were trying to get rid of the camp. They didn't want the idea to catch on that the people of Vietnam could just come out and resettle in Thailand. The Thai government wanted to stop that, but they never really completely closed the camp until 1986.
I wrote articles about the camp for a Jesuit magazine. The people in the camp were at first a mixture of boat people from all over. But as the years went on they became more of the poorer Vietnamese--peasants who were fleeing from the Communists.
Most people were never aware that a great number of the boat people died on the ocean. There is no way to tell how many perished. But some people estimated it six years ago at about 100,000. I would have said that about 25 percent of those who went out on the ocean died.
Each morning we would go down to the beaches and there would be bodies--men, women and children--washed ashore during the night. Sometimes there were hundreds of them, like pieces of wood. Some of them were girls who had been raped and then thrown into the sea by pirates to drown. It was tragic beyond words. We would pull them off the beaches and bury them and say prayers for them. This happened every morning. Sometimes I hated to get up in the morning, as the bodies were always there. I wondered if anyone else in the world knew...or cared. Sometimes people would somehow still be alive. They would be on the beach exhausted or unconscious. They washed ashore at night, and we revived them and held them when we found them. They thought we were angels, but we were just men and women who cared.
Of course the weather took its toll on the boat people. The boats were terrible. Sometimes the refugees would be caught by Vietnam-ese authorities and towed back to Vietnam and put in jail. But the pirates were probably the biggest cause of the killing. The pirates stopped nearly every boat. They searched for gold first, even going so far as to take it out of the people's teeth. The next thing that attracted them were the young girls. The pirates were concerned about getting caught, and the best way of not getting caught was to destroy the boat and the people in it and maybe even throw the girls overboard when they were all through with them.
Sometimes they passed young girls from boat to boat for 10 days or so, and they were raped hundreds of times. Then sometimes they tied them to ropes and pulled them behind the boats till they were drowned and cut them loose. Or they cut their throats and threw them in the sea, or simply just tossed them into the sea. These men were all fishermen, and they kept the girls with them during their work. Then they threw them away like garbage. And then the bodies washed up on shore or just disappeared into the sea.
We threw flowers on the water and said mass and prayers for those lost at sea in an attempt to commemorate and honor those unfortunate people. We always believed that so many died on the water that we had to try and honor them. When we learned that the pirates had killed everyone on a boat, we went out and would commemorate that day. We did that once a week while I was in Thailand.
I remember someone saying to me one time that the boat people were homeless. I was in a bad mood at the time, and I said, "No, the boat people have a home. It is at the bottom of the sea." That is where tens of thousands of them ended up. It was a tragedy almost beyond comprehension.
For the most part, the young women who made it to land and survived did pretty well. I think the primitive and rugged environment of the camp helped to soothe them and alleviate their trauma. When you put a person in really nice surroundings, then rape for some reason may come to seem even more terrible. But if the victim ends up in crude and primitive surroundings, the roughness of the existence lessens the feelings that she has about being raped. The rape victims were also able to help each other, since there were lots of others who had undergone the same experience. Most of them survived it pretty well.
They did feel that their own men, who came out with them, looked upon them as scarred merchandise after that. And that was the attitude that the men often took, that in some way the rape victims were not clean anymore and that they were damaged because of these attacks on them. And so they were shunned. That is pretty cruel and silly, when you think about it. I worked with the little raped girls, counseled them and had them write out their experiences, trying to purge them. It was very difficult. But many of them left feeling better. They found husbands and married and had children and the scars faded. They probably never completely healed, but they faded.
Then there were these strange pirates, too. Incredible. They thought the Vietnamese were gutless after they had captured them on the seas, I guess. They didn't realize that in their own element they were very strong. So they used to land near Song Khla and come into the camp several times at night and then try get back the girls that they had raped on the ocean, thinking nobody would resist them. They had to be kind of crazy to do that. Well, we seized them when they tried it, and they were arrested.
I just got a wedding card from a little girl. When I took care of her she was only 10 years old. And I remember, when I knew her in Song Khla, I told her, you went out from Vietnam, and you could have been raped or killed or drowned. But all of those things you risked for freedom, and I think that is pretty heroic. She said in the letter, "It would be good to talk to you again since I haven't talked to you since I was in 'kindygarden'"--that was the word she used, "kindygarden." I taught that class in camp. They were and are great people.
Some of the women who were raped became pregnant, and some kept the children. A number of them aborted them. The Vietnam-ese men didn't like the girls who had been raped. It was part of their culture not to like that. But over here they forgot it. And most of the girls once they got here got married.
A couple of the women kept their kids. But they didn't conceive that easily. Then Planned Parenthood came into the camp, and if they saw any girl who was pregnant from the ocean trip out they would offer them an abortion free. I had a little bit of trouble with them. I told them I didn't agree with them and said, "Don't do that to my Catholics." I said that if the victims asked them for information that was all right, but I didn't want Planned Parenthood asking my people personal questions.
When we finally got down to only 37 people in the camp near the end, it was a very dangerous situation because we had so few people and no strength in the camp. We got fearful of the Thai pirates who came in knowing there were so few people there at night. We were concerned they would try to grab the girls. So, secretly, at night, I went back to the camp from where I had to live--because the government would not let me stay in the boat people camp at night. An Indian relief worker and a Japanese fellow and I rode our motorbikes into the camp and stayed just inside the gate.
The Thai police didn't allow us in at night because they thought we might harm the girls there, but we actually were trying to protect them. We turned out the lights on the motorcycle as we approached. We had a signal telling us that we could come into the camp when the Thai police weren't around, and we went into the camp and stayed overnight and waited in the event of an attack by the pirates. That strength was important so they would not be terrorized again. We sneaked in every night for a month.
Now the police we finally got were pretty well-disciplined for the most part, because I had a very fine chief of police and his men were well-disciplined. I gave them money and supplies to keep them happy and that helped. We treated them nicely, and they stayed happy with us.
Finally my visa expired. The Thais wanted to close the camp, and they wanted me to leave. So I returned to the United States. When I first came back I hoped to go to another refugee area. But it didn't work out. That was it for me. They said I was too old. But I wasn't.
I never put what I did in a religious context. There is a famous expression: Primum est esse, quam esse tale. It means that before you become something, you have to first exist. With the refugees I thought it was more important, for me, at least, to try to keep the refugees in existence, give them being, before I tried to make Catholics out of them. Or whatever it might be. With Buddhists or Catholics or whatever, it made no difference to me at all. I was trying to help them exist. Because, as that expression tells you, you must first keep a man in existence before you try to make him something different. A man or a woman must be able to live first before they can become anything. So my effort has not been, primarily, a religious effort.
Because I don't like to change a person's religion. I want him to do his own thinking and then do what he thinks is the proper thing. But there is a very important step in his life first, and that is to keep him in existence, to hold him up, to be his brother. It's not exactly religious in the sense of trying to convert him to something. It is just to allow him to exist.
My mother was my example in this. I have always been most interested in holding a person in existence, more interested in helping them survive than in making them spiritual or in trying to make a Catholic out of them. I felt they have their own reasons for living and their own indeas of what they want to do later. That is their business. That's not truly mine, I always felt. But that's not agreed on by too many people.
I don't feel guided by the holy spirit or anything in my work. Not really. I don't look at my work with the Vietnamese from a religious point of view. I pray but not too much. And my prayers are not always answered. I never expected divine intervention in Vietnam. I just felt that God stands up and he says, "You gotta do your own work, fella. So do it." And so I did it.
You know these evangelists on television, they're always standing up and saying, "Oh, you pray and God is with you," and all that. All I know for sure is that you have to do your own work. God doesn't do it for you. He watches.
I didn't look at what happened in Vietnam in a biblical sense either, not in a sense of prophecy or warning or anything. I'm not a really truly strong religious person. That may be a dangerous thing to say, because people will take it wrong. It's hard to express it correctly. It's hard to explain. I just want people to live together and to live in peace and in dignity. That's all I've ever wanted. That's what my whole life is about. And I think that's what we're here for--to try to help people.
Many of the Vietnamese found a parallel for their own experiences in the tribulations of the Book of Job. I know that one of the young women who had been raped and beaten and then thrown into the South China Sea found comfort in the story of Job. She said, "Father Joe, don't you think that the life of the Vietnamese people is like the Book of Job?" I said I did.
And what did my work get me? Not many acknowledgments, I can tell you that. I got a bunch of plaques from the Vietnamese all around the world and a bunch of other things. I never received a thing from American organizations, though. But that's all right. What good are they, after all? You can't eat them. What would I do with them? And there is a danger in accepting those awards. You might come to believe that it is the reward for what you do. And it isn't. It should never be. That's not ever the reward for doing the right thing. When that happens you get your reward at the wrong time.
I think the people I helped remember me sometimes. I think I live in their hearts. That's a nice thought, isn't it--to live in people's hearts? I can remember their faces but not their names. I can't even speak their language. But I am sure they remember me, my kindness, my work, and I live in their hearts. If they remember me they will someday be inspired and perhaps do good also, and if they do, when they do, then what I did was worth it. Even if they don't, even if they forget me, it was still worth it, wasn't it?
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