Operation Seasweep: A 32-year story of God's provision

Thirty-two years ago, World Vision reported the rescue story of Operation Seasweep, the boat Mr. Vinh Chung was on, in the August 1979 issue of World Vision Magazine. Mr. Chung recently retold his story at our headquarters office. I spoke with him afterward for a fuller picture of his life after Seasweep and the miracle of God's provision for his family.


Two very different parts of Vinh Chung’s life meet when he walks on a beach.

In an instant, the smell of sea salt takes the 36-year-old skin cancer surgeon back to his 1979 exodus from Vietnam.

Just four years old at the time, Vinh recalls fleeing the southern city of Ca Mau by boat from the Mekong River Delta toward the South China Sea with his parents and seven siblings.

The Chung family -- ethnically Chinese -- escaped the communist government’s persecution of ethnic minorities.

Once they reached the open ocean, Thai pirates stole their valuables. Their boat eventually made it to a Malaysian beach, but instead of offering asylum, soldiers held them at gunpoint and brutally beat Vinh’s father and uncle. Then they were towed back out to sea on a smaller boat with no working motor or fuel. They were left to die.

“[We] suffered the slow and painful degradation of basic human dignity...there was no food. No water. There were no toilets,” Vinh says.

With no hope in sight on the waves, his parents considered the unimaginable: throwing their children overboard rather than watching them die of starvation and dehydration.

But on the sixth day adrift, the World Vision freighter Seasweep appeared on the horizon. Seasweep was the first international rescue ship to provide food and medical care to stranded refugees.

Operation Seasweep | World Vision Blog The 4-year-old boy near the center of the photo looking up to the right is Vinh. The man standing directly to his right at the edge is Vinh's father. ©1979 Kenny Waters/World Vision

Seasweep took 93 people on board that day. In time, they were transported to a camp in Singapore. An Arkansas church eventually sponsored the Chung family and helped them to relocate to the United States.

When they landed in Fort Smith, Arkansas, Thanh, Vinh’s father -- a successful businessman in Vietnam -- found himself with no transferable skills.

“He didn’t know much, but he knew that he had eight children to feed,” Vinh says. So his father eventually found an assembly line job building air conditioning units for $7 an hour.

For more than three decades, he never missed a day and worked every overtime hour possible. In time, Vinh’s parents had three more children.

They were frugal, and generous friends, neighbors, and organizations helped keep the Chung family fed and clothed.

“Today I really don’t see how they [his parents] did it,” Vinh says. “The only way that I can really explain this as an educated man, a man of science, [is] God performed a miracle to provide for our family. Somehow at the end of the day we would have just enough.”

Despite starting over with nothing in the United States, things always seemed to tip in Vinh’s favor. He became an all-state football player, valedictorian of his high school class, and was college-bound -- to Harvard.

His parents scrounged up enough money for a one-way bus ticket to Washington, D.C. From D.C., he arrived in Cambridge with two duffel bags and $20 in his wallet.

“I was dumped into deep water without knowing how to swim,” Vinh says. But he survived this elite setting through hard work and by the generosity of people around him.

Medical school, also at Harvard, was next, along with a Rotary Fellowship to study theology in Scotland, and a Fulbright Fellowship to research herbal medicine in Australia.

Today, Vinh has his own growing dermatology practice in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

Operation Seasweep | World Vision Blog The Chung family today at Vinh's brother's wedding in May 2011. Vinh's parents are in the center. They have a total of 11 children and 17 grandchildren. Vinh and his wife (with purple dress holding baby) are the second couple in from the right. Photo courtesy of Vinh Chung.

Vinh is acutely aware that his life could have ended in the sea at age 4. He could be doing backbreaking assembly-line work in the suffocating Arkansas summer like his father, or living in a shack with no water or electricity like his cousins, whose boats floated back to Vietnam 32 years ago.

From one beach to another, the smell of the salt air connects Vinh to his past. It’s a stark reminder of where he’s come from that gives him clarity and a deep sense of gratefulness.

Operation Seasweep | World Vision Blog World Vision first reported the dramatic events surrounding Operation Seasweep for the August 1979 issue of the Magazine. The original cover caption says, "Author Kenny Waters took this photo seconds after the refugees were told they would be taken aboard Seasweep because their engine could not be repaired."

“So I take [this] as a reminder of what I do have, of how much we’re blessed with opportunities and the ability to move from being in a position of vulnerability -- a position of powerlessness -- into a position now where we can actually give to others,” he says.

Vinh sees himself as one to whom much has been given -- a wife and family, an education, a profession, the opportunity to live freely and to raise his three children without fear. And of whom much is expected; so he sows back into the cycle of generosity that has allowed him to flourish.

“All the pieces of my past are always coming together and I feel God uses our experiences to further His Kingdom. We’re still trying to figure out how that is going to be. That’s the exciting part, we don’t know, but we know it can be something great.”

Comments

I am grateful for seeing how the Lord has blessed this family and how they have been a blessing to others.

Stan Mooneyham, WVI president at the time, risked and attracted critcism in doing what no NGO had not done before, and began operating in international waters in response to a governemnt that was intentionally putting the lives of its citizen's lives at risk.

He acted to meet a life threatening situation faced by thousands of Vietnamese "Boat People" and put World Vision at the forefront of humanitarian and relief response.

Ron Maines
World Vision Team Leader
Joplin, MO

I so agree with you in every way. Thanks for the comment, Ron! (And please say hi to our team there in Joplin!)

Lindsey,

I was the team.

We learned how to partner with churches and work alongside them to help them through some difficult transtions but still introduce the World Vision Way.

We leveraged their GIK and their volunteers to distribute over 300 tons and dispatch 31,000 volunteers. Now we are using World Vision building supplies to help rebuild homes.

Thanks for your note.

A very beautiful story of hope, and God's provision in the twists and turns of our lives.

I imagine World Vision could publish a book of incredible stories. Do you know a talented writer who would take on this task? I'd sign up to buy it now!

Oooo that's a really great idea. I'm forwarding your comment to my colleagues who work in print publishing.

I am a writer and married to one of the Seasweep 1 pickups... the captainj in the BBC video actually. Am seriously thinking of doing a book about this... after I finish the alst 3 chapters of my novel...

I work with refugees, in Tulsa, who are from Myanmar (Burma). Their stories are much like this mans. While they dont come to America in boats, their trials and tribluations are very similiar. They are very hard working and its frustrating that more cant be done to help them achieve their goals. I recently asked one man what he "wanted to be when he grows up"...he said he would like to be an electrician, but as long as he can make life better for his family it doesnt matter. Life IS better...he lives in America.

Vihn, I could just imagine that at first sight of the World Vision boat how happy and occassion like that must have been for you and your parents. For you and your parents and the rest of your parents family their wss seeming no hope for survival out in the open sea like that. That must have been very fightening for you and your parents. I am glad that World Vision found you. Thank you for working as a dermatologist and successfully completing your school. I hope that your family life brings you joy.

Spectacular story . I hope ordinary people are inspired to help others in ordinary ways , like sponsoring a child or making a donation to Word Vision. We will all reap a harvest of blessing .

My husband was part of the Seasweep 1 Group and on Dec 29 2011, we had a reunion in Singapore with part of the Ngo Ten family. At dinner, we wondered at how blessed we all were ... If not for Seasweep... what might have been our fate. It would be WONDERFUL to trace all the members of the Seasweep 1 group and do a memorial book of their stories and how divine providence has played a part in their lives.

Thank you for sharing the wonderful information.
I am working to create a comprehensive web site which consolidates information about Refugee Camps in SE Asia. The site will be created by and for refugees. I would like to ask permission to used the info and photos of your pages.
Anna Bui

I'm sure I must have come in contact with and probably taught the Vinh family during their time in Singapore. I was a Director of Education (Volunteer teachers) at the time and don't remember all I came in contact with...there were so many during the years I was active. It always pleases me to hear of the success of the brave and resiliant refugees I came in contact with. It was thanks to the humanitarian efforts of World Vision and Operation Seasweep that these people had a chance at a new life.

I heard Vinh Chung tell his story at the For Every Child Conference on Friday. It is amazing. I think the story should be made into a full length Hollywood movie. So much drama. Such a wonderful picture of grace and God's merciful ways.
Thank you, World Vision.

What an amazing story. Thank you World Vision for always always answering God's call to love your neighbor. I am so proud to be a donor and advocate to this amazing organization. To God be the glory great things He has done.

I am working on a project for my social studies class and this gives me and my group a lot if information and it shows us how big of a deal this was to so many of these families.

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