LOS ANGELES (AP) _ A former South Vietnamese soldier said he was ″the most lucky man in the world″ after arriving with his family for a tearful meeting with a couple whose bottled message floated 9,000 miles to Thailand and answered their prayers for freedom.
″Welcome to the United States of America,″ Dorothy Peckham said in a quavering voice Friday at Los Angeles International Airport as Hoa Van Nguyen and his family arrived after an 18-hour flight from Singapore.
Nguyen, 31, told reporters through an interpreter that he was ″the most lucky man in the world.″
He arrived with his wife, Joang Kim, 27, whom he met at a refugee camp in Thailand, their 16-month-old son, Hoang Gia Thai Nguyen, whose name means ″Souvenir of Thailand,″ and Nguyen’s brother, Cuong Van Nguyen, 17.
The brothers were making their way from Vietnam in a rickety riverboat in 1983 when Nguyen spotted the bottle off the coast of Thailand, where they took refuge. It had been cast into the ocean by Dorothy Peckham on a Christmas 1979 cruise to Hawaii with her husband, John Henry Peckham, and contained a dollar bill and a request to use the money for postage to write back.
Nguyen said ″a sixth sense″ prompted him to fish the bottle from the sea.
His response to Mrs. Peckham’s note prompted a correspondence between the two families and the Peckmans, from the Los Angeles suburb of Whittier, finally decided to sponsor the family in the United States.
At the airport, Peckham, grinning widely despite tears streaming down his face, took the sleeping baby in his arms. Nguyen then gave the Peckhams a picture he drew in the Thai refugee camp.
Officials from the Catholic Welfare Bureau, who had selected an apartment for the Nguyens to live in, whisked the two families away. The agency resettled about 1,800 Vietnamese refugees here last year.
Earlier, Peckham said his wife and their three childrens’ families had furnished and supplied the apartment. ″You got four families, you can get together a lot of stuff,″ he said.
Mrs. Peckham said a Manhattan Beach auto dealer had offered a job to Nguyen, a mechanic.
She said she had forgotten all about the 1979 shipboard lark until March 4, 1983 - her husband’s birthday - when she received an Aerogram postmarked in Thailand.
″We have received a floating mailbox by a bottle on the way from Vietnam to Thailand,″ Nguyen wrote. The bottle had drifted 9,000 miles in three years and two months in the Pacific Ocean, the Peckhams estimated.
At first they regarded the incident as ″kind of a fun ending,″ Mrs. Peckham said. ″But when we got his second letter back, he told us that from the minute they saw the bottle, they felt it was a prayer answered, that this bottle was somehow their way to freedom.″
During the time they exchanged letters, the former soldier married, fathered a child and eventually asked the Peckhams’ help in taking refuge in the United States.