FREDERICK, MD. -- The story of the Vietnamese people trying to escape their country in a boat is an American story.
One speaker after another recalled their life-changing experience Dec. 12, 1980, when Frederick resident Dana French and his crew of the USS Robison rescued them in the Gulf of Thailand.
About 75 people attended the first reunion Saturday of the 262 rescued people at the Hampton Inn and Suites in Frederick. The Vietnamese also planned the event to express their gratitude to French, commanding officer of the USS Robison at the time, and his crew.
"This is an opportunity for us, for the very first time to meet our heroes -- people who have done so much to give us a second chance at life and, subsequently, gave us the opportunity to raise our families in the best country in the world," said Nguyen Pham, of Boston, one of the 262 people the Americans rescued from a 40-foot boat.
The rescued people came from around the country for the event, and those who live in other parts of the world and could not be present sent videos and shipped gifts to be presented to Capt. French and his crew, Pham said.
"This event is about recognizing the goodness of America," Pham said. "Americans as a people are very generous, and the country has a system that protects and guarantees that we attain the best goal we can attain with our hard work.
Our story is the telling of an American story."
Robin Belsaas was only 10 years old when she was rescued, but the memories are fresh for the immigrant, who is a Germantown biopharmacist.
"If Capt. Dana French had decided not to help, my 10-year-old body would be at the bottom of the ocean, raped," Belsaas said. "He saved 262 people. Forty died; 99 were children, and four children died on his ship. They contacted the United Nations to put us in a refugee camp in Thailand."
The rescued people were transferred from one refugee camp to another, and many eventually came to America, Belsaas said.
When she initially contacted French and had dinner with him, he had one question for her, Belsaas said.
"Why were the women so filthy?" Belsaas said. "I told him we were trying to cover ourselves with feces so the Thai won't rape us."
These people are very proud Americans who want others to know their story, said French, who was commanding officer of a Navy guided missile destroyer.
"I'm overwhelmed by this wonderful gathering of extraordinary people, and thank you so much for your very generous expressions of gratitude to me and to my crew," French said. "I stand in awe of the courage that you displayed in 1980 setting sail in that boat, and I applaud the lives that you have created for yourselves here in America."
French said he and his crew have wondered for three decades what happened to the 262 people whose boat crossed paths with their ship in the Gulf of Thailand.
Under international law, a warship is a floating piece of sovereign territory of the country it represents, French said, so the USS Robison was a small piece of America operating in the Gulf of Thailand.
"I don't know what country you wanted your boat to reach when you left Vietnam, but when we tied you up alongside our ship, it was the same as if your boat had landed in California or New York City," French said. "It was like countless boats and ships that have landed on our shores for hundreds of years, bringing refugees to America who chose to leave their home countries hoping for opportunity and for a better life.
"You have honored me very generously tonight for saving your lives," French said. "For tonight, anyway, I'm still your captain. Therefore, in return for saving your lives I ask of you and your children and of their children only one thing: That you will continue to live your lives doing what my sailors did for you -- helping others in need, helping provide them opportunity so that they can make their lives better; and in the process, that will make our great country and our world even better."