Friday, March 20, 2009


Joe Devlin: The Boat People’s Priest

San Jose State University Professor Larry Englemann met Father Joseph Devlin in 1990 while preparing his book Tears Before the Rain: An Oral History of the Fall of South Vietnam (Oxford University Press) for publication. Legendary among both the Vietnamese and the Americans for his tireless work, Father Devlin spent five years in the Mekong Delta ministering to and doctoring thousands of Vietnamese peasants. In 1975, he was one of the last Americans to be flown out of South Vietnam, and the same year he became the principal priest at the temporary base for Vietnamese refugees in Camp Pendleton, California. In 1979 he traveled to Song Khla on the east coast of Thailand, where he soon became known as the ‘boat people’s priest,’ helping to care for the Vietnamese boat people who survived the trip from Vietnam to Thailand.

By 1990, Devlin was retired and living in Los Gatos, Calif. When the region’s Vietnamese immigrants found out he was living nearby, they held reunions for him that were attended by hundreds of the people he had helped.

Father Joe Devlin died on February 23, 1998–Ash Wednesday. At that time he was serving Asian parishioners at Our Lady of Peace Church in Santa Clara. In several visits with Englemann, Father Devlin had talked about his experiences while working with the Vietnamese people.

In the spring of 1975 things in South Vietnam fell apart pretty quickly. After the Americans left we worried how long we could survive without them. When the Americans were near us down in the Delta, I was impressed by them. They were high-minded young guys, tough and strong. They were as good as any Americans you ever see over here [in the United States].

So the Vietnamese had come to depend on these men. Their aircraft would be flying overhead hitting the enemy or going to the North, and we felt safe. I could not understand how we could possibly survive once the Americans were gone, and I don’t think anyone else really believed that we would survive for long either.

Therefore, we were all pleasantly surprised when 1975 came around and we were still in existence without any major American presence. My colleague Father Bach asked me once, ‘Tell me, why did you keep us in the war for 10 years if you never intended to help us see it through and if you never intended to save us? We could have dropped out of the war 10 years ago and saved our men and people and it would have been better that way.’ I had no answer for him. I didn’t understand it myself.

As I watched the advance of the Communist forces in March and April of 1975, I feared Vietnam would be partitioned again, as it had been in 1954, and that they were going to draw a line across the country just north of Saigon. I figured we would be able to stay behind that line and fight and survive for maybe a year. My feeling at the time was that if we tried this, then a lot of people would die, but the Americans, at some point in time, would come back and support us because they would see that we were doing the heroic thing in standing against the enemy armies. But I was wrong.

The South Vietnamese government and army collapsed completely. It surprised me. During the last days, if the entire nation could have left they would have, and we would have had 20 million refugees instead of only 130,000.

Someone from the CIA came to the village and tried to get me out and to Saigon. I went along because they ordered me. And when I got to Saigon I went to see George Jacobson at the U.S. Embassy and said, ‘Mr. Jacobson, please, I left my village too soon and I want to go back to it. Do you think you can help me? I don’t want to run away like this.’ He replied, ‘I understand. We have a small plane going to Nha Trang this afternoon, and if you want to get on it, you can, and it will drop you off at Phan Thiet.’ So I got on it and went back to my people, and they gave me a big ovation when they saw I’d come back.

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