courtesy Bob Sands
Saturday, Sept. 15, 2012 | 2 a.m.
For years Bob Sands resented reunions.
The U.S. Navy veteran always avoided them, from high school to ones with his former submarine crews. He thought of them as an opportunity for a bunch of old guys to gather and rehash the past. He had no use for that.
But then the St. George, Utah, resident received an email asking him to attend a USS Grayback naval submarine reunion in Las Vegas from Sept. 27 to 29. He had worked on the submarine as an executive officer for two of his 22 years in the Navy. It was on that ship where he and his crew disobeyed orders and rescued 29 Vietnamese refugees.
The experience transformed his life. It became the fiber of who Sands is, and now, he finds himself preparing a keynote speech sharing that moment for his first reunion.
“I thought maybe reunions aren’t about living in the past, but a chance to look at how you got to where you are today,” Sands said.
Sands, 67, can remember everything that happened that fateful spring day in 1983 aboard the Grayback. He constantly plays the events over and over in his head.
The crew had been enjoying a relaxing day cruising the South China Sea having recently completed a training exercise for the Thailand navy. They had been on orders not to pick up any Vietnamese “boat people,” the so-called refugees who were fleeing their war-ravaged country. Of course, Sands said, the order was more of a formality than something that was strictly enforced.
So when they noticed a 25-foot boat puttering along with a blue tarp draped over it, the crew knew what to do. Without any discussion, the crew moved into action to assist the boat. As they drew near, the tarp was thrown off to reveal 29 Vietnamese men, women and children crammed together.
“By this time, I’m on a head set with the captain and I said, ‘It looks like there are 29 people including two babies.’ The captain said, ‘Is the boat sea worthy?’” Sands said. “I said, ‘No, I consider it a hazard to our navigation.’ At the time, it was our objective to take anything off it and sink the hazard to navigation.”
Sands considered it a miracle the refugees were even alive. They had to navigate through poisonous sea snakes, pirates, storms and diseases. One wrong move, and they could’ve died.
The refugees quickly climbed aboard the Grayback. Their clothes were rotting off their body, and they were covered in rashes and blisters from the sun, salt water and diesel fuel. Sands can still remember the stench of diesel fuel, human body odor and possibly urine that the tarp emanated.
“They were so downtrodden that any type of spirit or feistiness was not part of them anymore,” Sands said. “They were very relieved to be in safe conditions.”
The crew donated clothing, cooked them rice dishes and took them to a refugee camp in Manila, Philippines. Sands still remembers the reaction of the refugee ship’s captain, Rick YY, when a doctor was checking him for signs of disease.
“The doctors came aboard and had mini-flashlights analyzing their ears, mouth, nose and eyes. He goes up to Rick and says, ‘What’s wrong with your eyes?’ He says, ‘Nothing sir, I’m crying,’” Sands said. “Everyone heard that."
The moment brought tears to even the most hardened sailors, Sands said, but he didn’t realize the magnitude of what he and the crew had done until about two years later. That’s when Sands received a letter addressed to the Grayback from Rick.
In it he learned that Rick and his wife were able to come to America and settled in Minnesota thanks to a Catholic humanitarian agency. He learned of how grateful Rick had been of the Grayback and the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War.
Sands said that for the first time he looked at the risks the refugees took to find freedom. He saw how much they embraced America liberties, and realized how much he took them for granted. He realized how lucky he was to have access to fresh water, grow up in a stable family and receive a college education.
It made him a better person.
“It’s not something I think about every day, but it’s part of my inner being,” Sands said. “You don’t think about integrity every day, but when a situation comes up, it helps you say 'this is the right thing to do'.”
Sands responded and has kept in touch with Rick through Christmas cards and letters every year.
This is the experience Sands can’t wait to recount in front of his fellow shipmates. Rick has also decided to make the trip to share the story. Sands said he’s accomplished a lot in the Navy, but that spring day defined his life and changed 29 others.
“I really started reflecting,” Sands said. “Basically I had been living in black and white prior to this, and now I’m in HD almost to the level of 3D.”
On Sept. 29 Sands will be giving a speech at his first reunion ever, and he can’t wait.