Left Vietnam as a Refugee, Returns as a U.S. Navy Captain

Commander Le fled Vietnam as a boy, returned as commander of a Navy ship.

November 13, 2009, 1:21 PM

Nov. 13, 2009— -- Hung Ba Le's first ocean voyage was aboard an overcrowded fishing trawler when he was 5 and his family and hundreds of other terrified refugees fled Vietnam as Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese army.

Today he is Commander Le and at the helm of the warship USS Lassen as it makes a good will visit to the country he once fled.

"To think that 34 years ago… I left here as a little boy and to come back here now, it's incredible," said Le, the first ever Vietnamese-American Navy captain.

At the end of the Vietnam War in 1975, Saigon was falling. Thousands fled the country in boats.

Five-year-old Le, his family and 400 other refugees crammed aboard a fishing trawler. Le's father, Thong Ba Le, was a commander in the South Vietnamese Navy and helped navigate the boat.

"It was crowded, we were running out of water, definitely low on diesel fuel," said Le. "We were rescued I think just in time."

After two days at sea, they were rescued by a U.S. Navy ship, the USS Barbour County, that took them to America where the family settled in Virginia.

Le's father, who is now 68, got a job bagging groceries, working his way up to manager to support eight children.

"I start looking for a job the second day I come here," the elder Le said. "I don't want to be a burden to this society."

"I'm very thankful for all the sacrifices he's made for me and my brothers and sisters and for my mom," Le said of his father.

A strong student and athlete, Le won appointment to the United States Naval Academy. Graduating with a bachelor's degree in economics in 1992 with merit, he rose through the ranks of the Navy.

Last April he took command of the USS Lassen and its crew of 300. He was at the helm this summer when the Lassan shadowed a North Korea vessel thought to be carrying illegal weapons -- the Lassen forced it back to port.

This week, Le and his ship made the latest in a series of good will visits to Vietnam.

"I've always dreamed of coming back to Vietnam eventually," he said.

Setting foot on Vietnamese soil, he was greeted as something of a celebrity. Crowds cheered and asked to take his picture.

Bridging the Gap Between the U.S. and Vietnam

For many, his homecoming was a powerful symbol of strengthening ties between the U.S. and Vietnam.

"I've always felt very fortunate to be an American, to grow up in America with all the opportunities that one can have. And I certainly want to give back to my country and to serve," he said.

But reconnecting with family there was more personal.

"I just looked to my dad and his example as a navy commander for his country, and I wanted to follow in his footsteps," Le said. "He's my hero."

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events