Woman took part in dramatic rescue of 1,000 Boat People

Mrs Mildred Martin (76)
Mrs Mildred Martin (76)

A Portadown woman who took part in the dramatic rescue of over 1,000 Vietnamese Boat People in the South China Seas in May 1979 has died after an illness.

Mrs Mildred Martin (76), whose home was at Bleary Road, was married to Sea Captain Healey Martin, and – as the captain’s wife – was entitled to travel with him and the crew of the cargo vessel S.S. Sibonga to virtually every country in the world.

The 1979 voyage was a trans-Pacific trip from North America to the Far East, but their sea-going adventures became an internationally-reported rescue mission when they came across not one, but two, fragile vessels that were crammed to overflowing with terrified refugees fleeing the war-torn Vietnam.

In a heart-rending description at the time, Mildred told how she and the crew spotted the drifting, potentially doomed, ships. When they spotted the first one with 600 people on board, Mrs Martin said that hundreds were packed in the bottom of the boat, “so tight that they hadn’t been able to move to relieve themselves – their limbs were intertwined and there was a terrible stench”.

There was panic, mayhem, while the refugees fought their way up the pilot ladders to climb onto the boat, old men couldn’t stand on weak legs and somehow the captain, his wife, the ship’s nurse and the crew got them sorted out, in a makeshift hospital and fed.

In a newspaper article she said, “The deck outside our small ship hospital was crowded. Children were vomiting, crying, doubled up with tummy pain; nursing mothers were indicating that they had no breast milk as they were dehydrated; old people were slumped, too weak to sit up.”

She also gave a harrowing account of a woman who’d had a Caesarean section within the past few days and was in terrible agony, and of a baby who had fallen overboard into the sea and had died.

The whole scenario was repeated when they spotted the second boat with 400 on board, and after more trauma, the captain, crew and the Mrs Martin managed to get order restored and they headed for Hong Kong. But the city was overwhelmed with 800,000 refugees and things looked bleak.

But, with the help of the Red Cross, the Sibonga’s shipping line (Bank Line) – whose representative flew in – they managed to persuade the British Government to accept 800 of the refugees. Some went to America, and the most sick among the refugees were treated in Hong Kong.

Mrs Martin never saw the Vietnamese again, but some sent Christmas and greeting cards over the years, having got the address via Bank Line, and they were eternally grateful for the life-saving escapades of the Sibonga.

Mildred Martin was born in Dublin and moved north during her childhood when the family settled in Ardboe, County Tyrone, on the western shores of Lough Neagh. After she left school she worked as a stitcher in Moygashel – she was an expert and prepared the prime garments (mainly new designs) - for the company Costello. It was during this time that she met Healey Martin who worked his way up to become a sea captain.

They literally sailed the Seven Seas together – a life they both loved – and they finally settled at Bleary Road, Portadown. They have a son, Healey junior (Bangor) and daughter Judith (Lisburn).

Mrs Martin was a keen supporter of the Save the Children charity and raised around £1,000 at one stage when she created a patchwork quilt, using her stitching skill.

She was also a keen golfer, being vice-captain of Lurgan Golf Club.

Her remains were cremated at Roselawn in Belfast and they are being held for burial at Arboe at a later date.