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Skipper to Quit Navy After Trial in Refugee Case

Times Staff Writer

Capt. Alexander Balian, the Navy skipper convicted last month of dereliction of duty for failing to rescue a boatload of Vietnamese refugees, said Tuesday that he is resigning from the Navy after 26 years because he believes he will never again be allowed to command a ship.

“I don’t see the Navy assigning me to a command at sea again, which is what I love, so I intend to pursue endeavors that will give me similar satisfaction,” Balian said in an interview. “I’m going to make it easy on the Navy.”

Balian was convicted last month in a court-martial for failing to give adequate aid to the refugees, who were drifting in a junk in the South China Sea last June 9 when they encountered the Dubuque, an amphibious transport dock commanded by Balian. He ordered that they be given food, water and directions to the nearest land, but decided not to pick them up.

Drifted Another 19 Days

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The refugees drifted another 19 days after the Dubuque passed them by, and have said they resorted to cannibalism when their supplies ran out.

Shortly after his court-martial ended at the Subic Bay Naval Base in the Philippines, Balian said he would remain in the Navy and fight the conviction as well as the Navy order relieving him of command of the Dubuque.

Balian said Tuesday that he will continue his legal appeals, but decided to leave the Navy because of its insistence that he take a desk job in Washington, where he was to have become assistant chief of staff for the Naval Telecommunications Command.

Balian has been visiting relatives in Los Angeles and was in San Diego on Tuesday to consult with his attorneys, Dan Donato and Lt. Cmdr. Ronald Petronio, who are preparing his appeal.

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Balian, who grew up in Los Angeles, had requested that he be transferred to a base somewhere in California, but was told there were no jobs available for him, he said. After he notified Navy officials that he intends to resign, they agreed to assign him to an unspecified job at the Naval Shipyard in Long Beach until his resignation takes effect July 31, Balian said.

Hoping for Reversal

He, his wife and two daughters have been living in Sasebo, Japan, where the Dubuque is based. He said he wants his daughters, who have reached college age, to be able to attend California universities as residents of the state so that their tuition will be lower.

“But the ultimate reason why I did it (resigned) is that I’m hoping the appeal will reverse this case, but, even if it does, the stigma attached to this situation . . . in my mind terminates the potential to excel in this Navy career, to advance or get a position of command at sea,” he said.

Balian, 48, a highly decorated veteran of the Vietnam War, was on the Navy’s fast track and was a likely candidate for eventual promotion to admiral before the refugee incident occurred.

‘Hung Out to Dry’

In a bitter statement to reporters in the Philippines last month, Balian said he had been made a “scapegoat” by the Navy and was “hung out to dry.”

The Navy began investigating the incident last summer after the surviving refugees were rescued by Philippine fishermen and began telling stories of killing and cannibalism that occurred aboard the junk.

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About 110 refugees boarded the junk at Ben Tre in southern Vietnam last May 22 for what they believed would be a four- or five-day trip to Malaysia. But the craft’s engine failed on the third day out. Only 52 people survived.

Balian argued that, at the time of the encounter, he believed the junk was seaworthy and that the supplies he provided would sustain them for the seven days it would take them to reach land.


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