U.S. Navy captain Alexander G. Balian, on trial for not rescuing Vietnamese refugees, was remorseful at not picking them up but said Navy rules did not allow him to do so, a defense witness said Monday.
"He felt bad about it. He had picked up people before. . . . He felt sorry, I guess, that these people didn't meet the guidelines," Bruce Butterfield said at Balian's court-martial.
Balian, commander of the amphibious transport Dubuque, is charged with dereliction of duty for failing to rescue a boatload of refugees encountered by his ship in the South China Sea last June.
Refugees said they turned to cannibalism after the Dubuque left them. Just 52 of the 110 who left Vietnam survived the journey.
Butterfield was captain of the Kilauea, a civilian ship steaming behind the Dubuque.
"He expressed to me remorse. I guess it was disappointment" that he had to leave the refugees behind, Butterfield said, recalling the radio conversation he said he had with Balian after the incident.
U.S. naval ships, according to Navy rules, may pick up refugees if their craft is unseaworthy, if there are sick or injured aboard or if the refugees face imminent death.
Butterfield said Balian advised him he was not picking up the refugees but had given them food, water and navigational assistance. He said his impression from Balian was "these people were not in distress" and that the boat was seaworthy.
The trial, in its second week, is being held at the U.S. naval base at Subic Bay. If convicted, Balian faces a maximum prison sentence of four years and three months, thousands of dollars in fines, discharge and loss of naval benefits.