Vietnam’s boat people wept with happiness in 1979 

The arrival of a happy family at Thorney Island.
The arrival of a happy family at Thorney Island.

A Thorney road to freedom. 

More than 100 Vietnamese refugees’ long journey to freedom by boat and air ended with a bus journey to Britain’s southern countryside. 

Thorney Island, near Emsworth, was filled with chatter from the new arrivals whose first priority was a meal of pork, rice and eggs washed down with many cups of jasmine tea.

On the steps of the former RAF base stood some other Vietnamese refugees, who arrived a few days before. Faces young and old were bewildered after their 7,000-mile journey.

These families couldn’t return home – but they could find happiness in their new lives. 

Tears from the youngest were a mixture of confusion and jet-lag after the flight from Hong Kong, and coach ride to Thorney Island, near Emsworth.

But others, faces wizened with age and hardship, wept for Vietnam – their homeland whose new Communist masters had filled them with terror. 

The officers’ mess of the former RAF base at Thorney had never seen such sights before. Babies, big-eyed as their mothers spooned a meal of rice, were far from the usual Naafi customers. 

But the gentle welcome, led by Major Basil Arrowsmith, was made even more reassuring by the English-speaking young people from the Sopley camp in the New Forest, who were also rescued from Vietnam. 

Major Arrowsmith said: ‘They are wonderful people. Very family-conscious.

‘They would never leave an old person behind. They too came in the boats. We can all learn from each other.’

Thorney saw 107 refugees arrive that day, with 450 planned for the week ahead.