Capt. Alexander G. Balian, ending his testimony at his court-martial, said Wednesday that any Navy captain who encounters refugees at sea "would be stupid" if he decided not to pick them up.
Balian, 48, former commanding officer of the amphibious transport dock Dubuque, spent 6 1/2 hours on the witness stand. The six Navy captains who will decide his fate are expected to begin their deliberations today.
Balian is charged with dereliction of duty and disobeying orders for failing to rescue a group of Vietnamese refugees June 9, 1988, in the South China Sea. In the 19 days after the Dubuque sailed away, the refugees resorted to cannibalism before being rescued by Philippine fishermen.
Balian told the court that, on the basis of reports from his executive officer and members of his crew, he believed that the refugees' vessel was seaworthy and that the food and water he gave them was adequate. In retrospect, he said, he has come to realize that the reports were inaccurate. Of the 110 refugees who left Vietnam, only 52 survived the 37 days at sea.
The court questioned Balian repeatedly about the apparently poor communications on his ship and focused on the relationship between Balian and his executive officer, Lt. Cmdr. Stanley F. Halter, who had been aboard the Dubuque only three months at the time of the incident.
After a lookout on the Dubuque sighted the refugee vessel, Balian sent Halter and several crewmen out in a motor launch to assess the situation.
Reported by Radio
No members of the party commanded by Halter boarded the refugee vessel. They circled it and, at times, approached to within 10 feet. Halter reported by radio to Balian, who was on the bridge of the Dubuque, that the vessel was seaworthy.
In fact, the vessel's engine had broken down more than two weeks earlier, and the vessel was taking on water.
Halter, recalled to the witness stand Wednesday, said he thinks he should have conducted a more thorough inspection, but felt pressured by Balian, who told him repeatedly to expedite the operation.
"At the time, the only thing I was concerned about was getting food and water out to them and getting the ship under way as fast as possible," Halter said. "The captain wanted us to get this finished as quickly as possible."
Halter conceded, however, that he did not tell Balian that he needed more time to assess the situation.
He said he did not think it was his role to make a recommendation to Balian on whether to pick up the refugees. He said he was sent out merely to collect information and report back to the bridge. Halter said he could not recall Balian's asking for his opinion.
But in a tape recording heard earlier in the court-martial, Balian can be heard shouting into his radio: "What do you think we ought to do? Food or water them or bring them in?" It is not clear from the recording whether Halter replied.
'Superstar' Among Officers
One member of the court asked Balian why he placed such trust in an officer with whom he had worked for only three months, and Balian responded:
"This executive officer was pretty much handpicked by me." He said Halter had shown himself in three months to be "aggressive, forceful, dynamic." He described Halter, 36, as a "superstar" among young Navy officers, and he said he had great confidence in Halter's ability.
"I really don't understand why it happened that way with him out there," Balian said. "To this day, I have no reason to doubt his ability."
Capt. James A. Freyer, the judge, said he may instruct the court to regard Halter as an accomplice in the case.
"He certainly would have the same motive as any other accomplice," Freyer said. "He falsifies his testimony to make himself look good."
Balian is the only person who has been charged. A Navy spokesman said there are no plans to bring charges against anyone else who was aboard the Dubuque at the time of the refugee incident.