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Memories of the 1980 Rescue at Sea

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Name: Ray Berilla
Email: webmaster
Rank_division: N/A
Date: Friday, April 26, 2002
Time: 08:06:24 PM


Welcome to the rescue memories submission page! The first messages will be the intial messages sent to our website by the boat people who have contacted us. This is a great story and I'm looking forward to your comments. Thanks!

 Ray Berilla



Name: Ngoc Giang, now Shelley McElheny
Rank_division: N/A
Date: Saturday, April 27, 2002
Time: 07:50:21 AM


I was a 17 year old Vietnamese girl who was fleeing Vietnam in July 1980. 48 people were on the boat, but 5 children died after 13 days lost at sea. Our boat was rescued by the brave men of the USS Joseph Strauss DDG-16 and I am forever grateful. After coming to the U.S, I received my Masters degree from Cal Poly Pomona, have worked as an aerospace engineer, and have married a wonderful man, all made possible by my rescue. If anyone has pictures of the rescue of my boat, I would love to see them. Also, if anyone has the address of Mark Brandenburg, I would appreciate it. He was especially helpful to me and ! gave me an English dictionary. Thanks for your time. Shelley

Name: Huey Nguyenhuu
Rank_division: N/A
Date: Saturday, April 27, 2002
Time: 07:51:14 AM


To whom it may concern, In 1980, Strauss rescued a number of Vietnamese boat people in the South China Sea. I'm one of those Vietnamese boat people. Just wondering if any crew members happen to take some pictures on that very day. Please contact me at Best regards, Huey

Name: Rich Hung Nguyenhuu
Rank_division: N/A
Date: Saturday, April 27, 2002
Time: 07:51:57 AM


To whom it may concern, I am one of the boat people who was rescued on July 15,1980 by the USS Joseph Strauss. From the bottom of my heart, I would like to thank all the crew members who were involved in the rescue. Your humanitarian act will be forever in my heart, my mind and soul. You have saved my life and made me of what I am today, a college math professor.

Name: Peggie N. Sadler
Rank_division: N/A
Date: Saturday, April 27, 2002
Time: 07:52:53 AM


Hello, My previous name was Phuong My Giang, I was a 13 year old girl when I was rescued by the USS Joseph Strauss DDG-16 on July 15, 1980. For the past 22 years, I have not stopped thinking and wondering how I can I find these kind hearted rescuers to thank them from the bottom of my heart and soul. If it hadn't been for them I wouldn't be where I am now. If anyone finds this message and has served on the Joseph Strauss during that time and have any pictures of our rescue, please email me at my above address. Again, your heroic act is forever greatful. Thank you!!! Pegg

Name: Peggie N. Sadler
Rank_division: N/A
Date: Saturday, April 27, 2002
Time: 07:53:57 AM


The following is an email sent by Peggie Sadler after she saw the pictures provided by Warren Westura.

 Hi Ray, Thank you so much for sending us those incredible pictures, if you want to know who you are writing to, I am the one in the red shirt hold out the peace sign on the picture number 6. You might find a lot of me in those pictures. I thank you from the bottom of my heart for all you have done, those pictures mean so much to us especially my family. My husband is now stationed at the Edwards Air Force Base in California and was so excited when he received the pictures that I had forwarded to him earlier. He wants to extend his gratitude and appreciation to you and everyone that was involved in finding all these pictures for us. I have talked so much of this journey to my daughter and now she can actually see it. It helps her put everything together to give her a better understanding of the story that was told over and over again. Looking at these pictures bring me back to the bitter sweet experienced I endured, and now I am thankful for having a wonderful family to share it with. Thanks to the rescuers who saved my life and to people like you who help make it better. Thank you, Peggie

Name: Shelley Ngoc-Giang McElheny
Rank_division: N/A
Date: Saturday, April 27, 2002
Time: 11:12:05 PM


What helped me find the USS Joseph Strauss: The pocket dictionary was given to me by doctor Mark Brandenburg the day following the rescue. I wrote to Mark using the given address about 5 (?) years after settling in America and did not hear back. I often wondered how I could find the ship and the people who saved my life. April 3rd, 2002 I found the USS Joseph Strauss website and I was so happy to hear back from the crew so quickly.

Note: Here is a photo of the dictionary Mark gave to Shelley. (Click to enlarge)

  (Click to enlarge)


Name: Norm ("Stormin' Norman") Nelson
Rank_division: LTJG/Supply
Date: Saturday, May 04, 2002
Time: 02:16:27 PM



Thanks to Warren Westura for the great pics.  I was the food service/disbursing officer on board

at the time. I remember seeing someone ("Doc" Brandenberg or Tilten, I think) rush a baby on

board that unfortunately didn't survive the ordeal.  Then I remember that our guys had a heck of

a time trying to sink the boat afterwards (it was a hazard to navigation).  It was a tough boat and

just didn't want to sink, even after being shot at and burned. Our guys did a great job, and it feels

good to have been part of the team.  Way to go Smokin' Joe!


Name: Mark Bauer
Rank_division: LTJG/Commo
Date: Friday, September 20, 2002
Time: 11:55:32 PM


These photos bring back so many memories. I always think of my time on the Strauss as formative and was proud to have rescued these people. It almost brings tears to my eyes to see how well things have worked out for the survivors. I was the CICWO and gave directions to the bridge on where the boat was based on mark's on top from the P-3 that initally spotted the boat. Oddly enough, the P-3 was flying so low that I used the SPS-10 surface search to track them. At one point the P-3 flew so low that I started to worry that they might have gone into the water because not only had they disappeared off the surface search radar, but we had lost all radio communications with them. Those who were with the Strauss on that cruise will also recall that the Strauss rescued an Australian sailor, whom I spotted in the water just prior to our Westpac deployment. Then, upon leaving Pearl for Westpac we had to rescue three local Hawaiians (Charlie Kalama, et al) who missed Maui from Oahu by a good 45 degrees and 90 nautical miles. Hard to do, but they did it. Naturally, I think we were all proud to be a ship and crew that became a rescuer and affected lives positively. Unfortunately, LT Cole Schmidt bore the task of taking a small girl who had died a few hours before our arrival on scene to our reefer. On the lighter side, I do get a lot of mileage telling stories to friends about how the USS Joseph Strauss, a proud national asset, armed to the gills with weapons, could not sink a 45 foot boat. We fired the 5" 54's from 1800 yards and missed by 300 yards and finally BM1 Wissinger threw a Molotov cocktail in the boat and it started to burn. Our Commanding Officer, CDR J.W. Benepe was not happy with the gunnery performance and while we were pulling away from the scene snapped to the officers to send out a hazard to navigation message. He was provoked I think, because our KG-36 could not raise CINCPACFLT to report the rescue. He mentioned this to me later, as you can imagine. I do have some photographs of the rescue and I am glad to have stumbled onto the site and to discover that some of the people rescued are doing quite well.

Name: John Langdell
Rank_division: Weapons Officer
Date: Saturday, November 30, 2002
Time: 08:48:37 PM


I've often wondered what happened to the brave people we rescued that day in the South China Sea. I remember the burial at sea of the baby that didn't make it to safety. I also remember how hard it was to sink the boat. The five inch gun passed right on through it, the machine gun fire didn't let enough water in to sink a buoyant wooden boat. The concussion grenades we had made a lot of noise but didn't hole the boat. We then pumped 50 gallons of fuel into the boat and set her afire. I remember going to the Mess decks and being absolutely amazed by the spirit of the children, a little food, a little water and two hours after facing a n unknow fate the kids were racing around playing with the sailors. I remember in our attempts to provide clean clothes to the people we had rescued we "confinscated" some of their clothing only to find that there was gold sewn into the seams and hems of many of the jeans and pants. As I remember the explanations from those rescued this had survived tow or three searches by "pirates" before we rescued them. We on the Joseph Strauss received some sort of Humanitarian Service Medal for the rescue. I know that this is one of the bright spots in my twenty year navy career and it makes me extremly happy to know that many of the people we saved made it to the United States and are obviously doing well. John Langdell, CDR USN Ret

name: Burt Upchurch
Rank_division: LTjg/MPA-CICO
Date: Tuesday, December 03, 2002
Time: 03:27:19 PM


    On July 15th 1980 I was getting the rare chance as a Snipe (engineering officer) to stand a bridge watch. I was the JOOD on I believe the 1800-2000 watch. Bob Bender was the OOD and Mark Bauer in CIC. As Mark said in an earlier posting a Navy P-3 vectored us to the drifting refugee boat. We spotted it about an hour into my watch. As JOOD I was conning the ship, I remember desiring to make the approach so as to put the bow upwind and let it slowly drift down on the refugee boat. The Captain didn't like the way I was doing this and took the conn from me. He gave some helm orders and I thought for sure we were going to hit the boat! We didnít and it slid down our starboard bow maybe 10 feet away. I can remember the CO leaving the bridge to go to the fantail and supervising loading the refugees and taking the conn with him. He liked to supervise! I remember looking down from the bridge wing at the boat 45 feet below. You could clearly see what a poor state the people were in. It was a site I'll never forget. I remember the little girl that later died being passed up to the ship first. Now switch to 1995. I am living in Falls Church Virginia. On Route 7 at the west end of Falls Church is a small Vietnamese store. In the front window is a painting of Joseph Strauss. The perspective is looking at the starboard side as if you were in the water. Its how the refugees would have seen us that evening. Pete Hackett, the Gunnery Officer in 1980, the officer in the Gun Director when we tried to sink the boat with MT51, and myself went into the store and asked the owner about the origin of the painting. He did not know. I have always wondered if someone we picked up that day painted the picture. If any one knows please let me know. The painting is still there in December 2002. Its great to hear so many of the people made it to the US and are doing well. Burt Upchurch, CDR USN-retired, Snipe DDG-16

Name: John Zarlino
Rank_division: FTG2
Date: Monday, July 18, 2005
Time: 08:37 PM


This will always be one of the top ten stories to tell in my lifetime. I was surprised not to see more posts from other shipmates. A note to the survivors, thank you for your kind words and you would have done the same if you would have had the chance. God Bless all of you and the "Smokin Joe"

Name: Ray Berilla

Email: Webmaster@   


Date: Monday, January, 8, 2007

Time: 2:00 PM




The following is an email exchange forwarded to me by Shelley McElheny. The first email is in response to her search for the air crew that spotted the craft that held their group of refugees before their rescue in 1980.  She finally located them after 26 and a half years of searching. Here is their exchange:

Ray Berilla

Webmaster USS Joseph Strauss DDG 16

Great news at last! Locating a VP crew for Vietnamese BP Rescue 1980

Dear Don, Larry and the rest of VP-40, Crew One

It's a dream comes true! After 26.5 years wondering and many years of
searching I have finally found the crew that spotted my boat in the South China
Sea in 1980. There is no words to describe how happy I am and I would like to
take this opportunity to thank all of you from the bottom of my heart for saving
our lives that day. My name is Shelley McElheny (was Ngoc Giang) and I was 17
at the time of the rescue. Our boat had been drifting for many days (I could
not remember exactly for how long) and we had no way of telling where we were at
all. The trip that started with 48 people (many of those are young children)
and was intended for 3 days ended up adrift for 13 to 15 days. We already ran
out of water and food for a while and had lost 4 children toward the end (the
5th child ended up dying very soon after we were rescued by the USS Joseph
Strauss DDG-16). I remember that we saw ships at distance every once in a while
without visual aids and we tried to get help any way
we could think of but none approached us. It was a hopeless situation until
July 15th, when your aircraft spotted us and called for the Strauss to come pick
us up. Without your crew's help and the help of the DDG-16 vessel we would not
have made it. On behalf of the Vietnamese Boat People, group "43", we sincerely
THANK YOU so very much for saving our lives! We are forever grateful for your
humanitarian act.

Also, thank you all who have been helping me to search for the P3 aircraft
since 2002. Special thanks to Mike Ragole and Jim Ellis who have recently lead
me to the right contact.

I could not find email addresses of all the crew members for VP-40 Crew 1 or
everyone who's been involving in the search so please forward this email to
those that I might have missed. I would also like to have emails of other crew
members who were on the plane on the day of the rescue. God bless you all. God
bless America!

May you all have a wonderful New Year!

p.s. In case you wonder the status of the BP group "43" after the rescue here
is a brief summary:

We got picked up by the USS Joseph Strauss DDG-16 on the same day that you
spotted us (afternoon July 15th, 1980). We were treated with nothing but
kindness from the wonderful crew of DDG-16. We stayed overnight on the ship and
were brought to Subic Bay the next morning. Shortly after that we flew to
Palawan refugee camp in the Philippines to go through resettlement process.
About 3 to 4 months later we traveled by a Philippino boat to Manila to complete
the final process before coming to America. A small group of us settled in
California in December 1980 and remain here since. The rest left the refugee
camp later and settled in either Florida, Canada or probably some other states
of America which I don't have knowledge of. Some of us who were still young at
the time had the chance to go to school and have become professionals in various
fields: 3 that I know of are engineers, one is a chiropractor, one is a college
professor, one is a teacher, etc. None of which could have
happened without the help of the P3 and DDG-16 crews in saving our lives.
Again, THANK YOU! For me, I obtained a BS degree in Electrical at Cal Poly
Univ. Pomona in 1987 and worked for Aerojet (now Northrop Grumman) in Southern
California for 9 years. During that time I also got my Master Degree from the
same school and in 1996 I came to work for Lockheed in the Bay area. I am now
happily married with 2 small children (see attached picture) and working
half-time for Lockheed in Sunnyvale. My wonderful husband also works for
Lockheed and with his help I was able to locate the DDG-16 crew/association in
2002 (from which I learned that the aircraft that spotted us was a P3 and the
search for the right one started since.) Please let me know if any of you
happens to live close by or if you ever travel this way I would love to meet to
personally express my gratitude. My home email address is Hope you hear from you soon!

From: Ragole, Michael P
Sent: Friday, January 05, 2007 1:01 PM
To: McElheny, Shelley
Cc: Ellis, Jim
Subject: FW: FW: Need help locating a VP crew

Better info, I think.

Michael P. Ragole

Office Phone: 30
Cellular Phone: 30
Fax: 3

Sent: Friday, January 05, 2007 1:47 PM
To: Carl.Honaker
Cc: Ragole, Michael P Roecker, Greg
Subject: Re: FW: Need help locating a VP crew

Thank you for asking. Contrary to popular opinion it was not a VP-1 aircraft
deployed to Cubi Point that located this particular boat. VP-1 was flying P-3
Bravo's at the time and the airplane in the picture is a P-3 Charlie (note the
pod). So .......

Contrary to a VP-1 crew and aircraft, it was VP-40, crew one, in P-3C Bureau
Number 159325. We were on a routine PMB to PMB patrol. I was the PPC/MC, LT
Mike (Dobie) Gilles was the Tacco, LT Doug (Dawg)Pinion was the 2P, LTJG Larry
(Lack-of) Luck was the Nav/Com, LTJG Dave (No-name) Detwiller was the 3P.

VP-40 had just relieved VP-19 in Misawa. Al Branch was the CO, Terry Olson was
the Ops Officer soon to be relieved by me, Jake Axtman was the XO, Don McArthur
was Admin, Jeff Peck was Training, Jim Wyatt was Maintenance and Max Britton was
Safety. My crew (Crew One) was on a short detachment to Cubi to augment VP-1.
Chip Landon was VP-1's CO at the time. Tom Morrisey (sp?) was VP-1 XO. I don't
think Al Ross was the OIC yet at the Patwing Det, but I'm not sure who was.
E.K. Anderson, the Head Laser of Kami-Seya, was CTF-72. Jerry MacKay was CPWP.

Although my recollections are a bit fuzzy, it was quite a remarkable event. It
was near the end of the mission when the SS-3, whose name escapes me right now,
but was a very young and brand new AWAN, spotted a small target. Being the ASW
wizards of the west coast, and just knowing the small contact was a Soviet
periscope, we dropped down to 200' and set condition one for ASW. We could
smell CTF-72 ASW Crew of the Month honors coming our way ......

The first pass was almost the only pass except for the fact that the aft
observer spotted all the folks on the small boat. I was in the left seat
flying and put the contact on the right side - I didn't see a thing (what's

Because of the observer's call, we did a 90/270 and came back over the boat. We
dropped a sonobuoy to mark the position electronically in case we lost the
contact visually or lost the radar or in case the boat sank. It was in sad
shape (I saw it on the second pass - amazing).

We started an orbit, shut down one maybe two engines (I'm not sure now) and
began looking for any nearby ships. It was pure serendipity that we located and
contacted the Strauss. They just happened to be in the area - I think we
initially contacted them broadcasting in the blind on fleet common (UHF/VHF).
They diverted and steamed directly over to the boat. The Strauss was a class
act in all respects. We hung around on-top until the Strauss had positive
visual contact with the boat, and had started its approach. We couldn't stay
around to see the rescue because we were low on JP, and besides, I had a date
with a waitress at the O-club.

We landed back in Cubi after logging 12.5 hours, debriefed at the speed of heat
with the ASWOC, changed in to flower shirts and long pants and headed to town.
After all, we were in Cubi.

Thanks for the chance to remember.


If you wish to add your memories of this Rescue at Sea please contact Webmaster Ray Berilla at webmaster