WASHINGTON — The Navy has temporarily reassigned the captain of a U.S. warship that left at sea a boatload of Vietnamese refugees who reportedly resorted to cannibalism before reaching safety in the Philippines, defense officials said Wednesday.
Capt. Alexander G. Balian, 48, skipper of the Dubuque, an amphibious landing ship now on duty in the Persian Gulf, has been reassigned to the command staff of the Navy's Pacific surface fleet at Subic Bay in the Philippines.
Officials said the Dubuque stopped to check on the boat in the South China Sea on July 9. After giving the refugees food and navigation charts, the ship continued on to the Persian Gulf.
The Navy said the investigation has not been completed and that no official disciplinary action has been taken against Balian, a resident of Los Angeles. But defense officials said an "administrative" change of command aboard the Dubuque--an unusual move in the middle of a deployment--indicated that Balian may be formally relieved of his command when the investigation is over.
The Navy traditionally has come to the aid of vessels in distress when possible and has picked up 215 "boat people" in the China Sea this year alone.
When the Dubuque stopped July 9, the warship's crew gave the refugees 300 pounds of fresh fruit, supplies of prepared and canned food and 50 gallons of water, said a Navy spokesman, Lt. Kenneth Ross. After determining that the vessel was not in danger of sinking, Ross said, the crew gave the refugees charts with sailing directions, in English and Vietnamese, on how to get to the Palawan Islands west of the Philippines.
"The craft was judged to be seaworthy and was under sail," a Navy spokesman said.
A crewman on the Dubuque who is fluent in Vietnamese spoke to the refugees, Cmdr. Matt Dillon, a spokesman for the Navy's Pacific surface fleet, said in San Diego.
Dillon added, "The Navy is looking into whether assistance was sufficient. If he (the skipper) didn't think the vessel was seaworthy, he was entitled to take the people aboard."
According to refugee workers quoted by the Washington Post, the 35-foot boat--which set off May 22 from Ben Tre in southern Vietnam with 109 people on board--was having engine trouble and was drifting off course.
After the refugees were rescued by Filipino fishermen 19 days later, several of the 52 survivors told reporters that passengers had killed three of those aboard and boiled and eaten their flesh.