Australian Story: Aug 23

40 years ago, a boatload of Vietnamese refugees was adrift at sea. The survivors now reunite with their Australian rescuers.

40 years on, Australian Story films a reunion between former Vietnam refugees and their Australian rescuers.

As the Afghanistan refugee exodus gathers pace, survivors from a very different escape reunite to celebrate their good fortune.

Forty years ago, a boatload of Vietnamese refugees was adrift on the South China Sea. The engine of their rickety boat had failed and the deck was awash with water. Ninety-nine men, women and children were preparing to die.

“I sit next to my older cousin. So, if I die, I got my cousin sitting next to me,” remembers Giang Congdon who was just 15 years old at the time.

As the sun went down, an Australian Navy plane on war games manoeuvres spotted smoke from a signal fire burning on the small boat. What happened next was an amazing display of seamanship from those aboard the nearby HMAS Melbourne when a decision was made to rescue the refugees at all costs.

“This to me represented the pinnacle of my naval career,” says former Commander John Ingram.

As the rescue unfolded in the dark and rough seas, Navy photographer Rob Patterson took hundreds of photos capturing the intensity and bravery of that night.

“It wasn’t just a highlight of my career, it was a highlight of my life,” he says.

“When my day comes, I’ll be able to leave a footprint, something that’s there forever. It’s made me a different person,” says retired seaman John Tregoning.

Four decades later, Australian Story documents a heartfelt reunion as many of the survivors reunite with their saviours for the first time and share how the rescue changed all their lives.

“For the lucky ones the ending is happy. And for the big number of the others the ending is horrible. But we are the lucky ones. We ended in this very lucky country,” says retired businessman Stephen Nguyen.

‘Saving MG99’ on Australian Story. A refugee story with heart.

Producer: Olivia Rousset.

8pm Monday on ABC.


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