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'Didn't Do Wrong,' Says Navy Captain Accused of Abandoning Refugees

February 08, 1989|JANE FRITSCH | Times Staff Writer

OLONGAPO, Philippines — With his 26-year Navy career in jeopardy and a court-martial imminent, Capt. Alexander G. Balian is determined to put up a fight.

"I don't think I did anything wrong," Balian said in an interview the other day. "I'm angry enough . . . to do what I have to do to get my name cleared, do what I have to do to continue my career."

Balian has chosen to make the Navy prove its contention that he is to blame for an incident last summer in the South China Sea involving Vietnamese refugees who later resorted to cannibalism to survive.

Given Food and Map

Balian was the commanding officer of the amphibious transport ship Dubuque, en route to the Persian Gulf, when it encountered the refugees' vessel, a junk, last June 9. He gave the refugees food, water, a map and directions to the nearest land, but he decided not to take them on board his ship.

The decision has haunted Balian and embarrassed the Navy since June 28, when the surviving refugees, picked up by Philippine fishermen, began telling stories of killings and cannibalism on the junk after the Dubuque left them.

Balian is to be court-martialed beginning Friday at the Subic Bay Naval Base here on charges of dereliction of duty and disobeying orders. The proceedings will be open, and reporters from around the world are expected.

Navy officials had hoped to avoid such a spectacle. When Balian was relieved of his command last summer, he was offered a chance to appear before an admiral's mast, a closed administrative hearing with relatively restricted power to punish.

It was an offer that Balian, the eldest son of an Armenian immigrant, decided he should refuse, as he is legally entitled to do. In choosing this course, he forced the Navy to either drop the issue or order a court-martial. But he risks more severe punishment: If convicted, he could be sentenced to four years and three months in prison, fined thousands of dollars and discharged from the Navy, losing all benefits, including his pension.

"I love the Navy; it's my life," Balian said in the interview, "but I don't like what's happening to me, and I don't like some of the people that made it happen. . . . No one's writing me off except a few of my own seniors in my own Navy."

At the heart of Balian's defense is his contention that he made the correct decision based on the information available to him at the time of his encounter with the junk. He argues that the information was flawed due to a "cacophony of errors" committed by his crew, who were exhausted and edgy, he says, from a stepped-up schedule intended to get the Dubuque to the Persian Gulf as quickly as possible.

Balian said his case is "just about identical" to that of Capt. Will C. Rogers III, commanding officer of the cruiser Vincennes, which shot down an Iranian airliner last July 3 in the Persian Gulf, killing all 290 people on board. In a report released last August, the Pentagon said the crew of the Vincennes made crucial errors that led Rogers to believe that the airliner was an attacking jet and give the order to fire on it. However, neither Rogers nor any member of his crew was disciplined.

They returned home to San Diego last October to a hero's welcome arranged by the Navy.

"It's the same thing as with me," Balian said. "His crew was fatigued, they say. He made decisions--correct decisions--based on the information he got, and so did I."

Politically Sensitive

The only difference, Balian said, is that "those were Iranians and these were Vietnamese. We were at war with Iran." But the refugee incident came at a politically unfortunate time, Balian said, because the United States was negotiating with the Vietnamese for the return of troops missing in action in the Vietnam War.

"The Navy reacts immediately to State (the State Department) and any other political influence--to my chagrin sometimes," Balian said.

Balian is charged with failing to obey Navy orders requiring that commanding officers render assistance to people and vessels in distress. The Navy also alleges that he ignored the tradition that all mariners offer assistance to anyone in distress at sea.

It alleges that Balian failed to conduct a thorough inspection of the junk, failed to conduct a medical evaluation of the refugees, who were described as "visibly dehydrated and sickly," failed to assist refugees swimming in the water near the Dubuque and ordered crew members not to throw life preservers to them. The Navy also alleges that Balian violated regulations by not accurately informing his superiors of the situation.

He has denied all the charges. Navy prosecutors have declined to discuss the case.

Only 52 of the 110 people reported to have boarded the junk survived the voyage from Ben Tre in Vietnam, which they left last May 22. Some apparently had died before the vessel met the Dubuque. Afterward, one refugee reportedly took control of the junk and the supplies and ordered the killing of three young passengers whose bodies were cannibalized.

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