1967–1970: Humanitarian Voyages

Phoenix before Vietnam

Horace Champney, who was to help crew the first of these voyages, writes,

When I heard about A Quaker Action Group (AQAG), born in the summer of 1966 out of profound Quaker shock over the first American bombing of Hanoi, I went to Philadelphia to help organize their medical shipments to North Vietnam through Canada, Russia, and China, as well as their call for American volunteers to go to Hanoi as hostages against further bombing.

At this point I had a vision of a solution which was not without Quaker precedent: A sailing ship, loaded with medicine and with Quaker relief workers, defying the United States government, and sailing directly to Vietnam. The idea seemed fantastic and unreal to AQAG leaders, but they did mail out a query. When it reached Earle Reynolds in Japan, and he promptly volunteered the good ship Phoenix with himself as skipper, the dream rapidly jelled into a major project. i was soon flying to Tokyo with Phil Drath to help get the ship ready…

For the first trip in 1967, a multi-national crew of eight, captained by Earle Reynolds, assembled to sail to Haiphong to deliver nearly a ton of medical aid to the Red Cross Society of North Vietnam for civilian victims of the Vietnam War. While there, the crew was taken on a tour of war museums and shown the remains of American planes and cases of objects taken from downed pilots. “I hated looking at the pictures,” Betty, a crew member, wrote. “It seemed to me that we were getting our noses rubbed in the war, and I didn’t like it. There were rooms full of newspaper clippings and pictures of pacifists around the world decrying American brutality.”

Elizabeth (Betty) Boardman of Madison, Wisconsin, was the only woman to sail all the way to Vietnam. Afterwards, Betty wrote a frank and very personal account of the 3-month journey, The Phoenix Trip: Notes on a Quaker Mission to Haiphong. In its Appendix, Champney discusses their mission.

Why were we here? A complex question. The answers would vary in detail among crew members. Certainly we were all opposed to the war in Vietnam. We saw it as a tragic mistake in United States foreign policy, in violation of the United Nations Charter, the Geneva Agreements, and the age-old principle of self-determination. We believed emphatically that American interests and honor would be best served by an immediate and complete pull-out of our military, allowing the Vietnamese to resolve their own problems.

Personally, I had long been convinced of the evil of all war and violence in the settling of disputes. Gandhi and A.J. Must were my heroes. I had become a Quaker shortly after World War II. For me the Vietnam campaign was, therefore, doubly evil … In leaving job and family I felt like a patriot going forth to fight for his country. But instead of the armed forces it was the newborn, international, non-violent ‘Quaker Navy’! It as a deeply validating experience to have a chance to back up my words with my body, even perhaps with my life. And perhaps one little sailboat with its handful of Quakers and a few boxes of medicines—though hardly a drop in the bucket of need—could serve as a symbolic witness around the world for a better way of running the planet.

A Test of Love and Unity

On the trip to Vietnam and during their time there, this love and unity was put to the test. As the Reynolds family had found during their second protest voyage, the conflict was sometimes not between them and the enemy “out there” but among themselves. Champney had written,

Earle’s authority as Skipper is unquestioned in all matters related to the ship … But the larger project, the Quaker mission to North Vietnam, is something else. [We] are doing fine with a quiet kind of consensus.

That didn’t last. The Quakers aboard expected decisions of the whole group to arise out of consensus resulting from quiet meditation. Instead, Earle made the decisions for everyone (as he had for the Reynolds family, even when they were on shore. Jessica remembers the family going to a restaurant together and having her father tell the waiter, “We’ll have spaghetti.”) This caused resentment and friction.

Despite this, the crew carried out the primary purpose of the trip. They did make an official presentation of the medical supplies to the Red Cross. But whether they got the Quaker message across is questionable.

The Phoenix Trip 001

Betty records that on March 26 they were in the Gulf of Tonkin, “jittery. . . now that we were sailing in the same gulf that the U.S. ships patrolled.” They were buzzed by a delta winged jet, circled by a helicopter, then flown over by a 4-engine jet.

At 2 AM, after the necessary paperwork (and the confiscation of their passports and cameras for the duration of their visit) the crew were swept up in a welcome of “pretty girls, beaming officials, and busy young interpreters,” with big bouquets of flowers and many speeches covered by news cameras with floodlights. For the next 8 days, while Earle and Bob stayed on the Phoenix, the rest were transported in limousines, housed in hotels, fed elaborate meals at banquets. Betty wrote, “It was made clear that our plan to stay on the boat, eat our own food, and make a Quaker witness of simplicity wouldn’t fit in with the plans the Vietnamese had made for us.” Earle, she added, “thought we had sold out.”

Don’t Ask Questions

They were driven to outlying villages and shown the effects of American bombing. They were taken to hospitals in Haiphong and Hanoi and introduced to children crippled by American fire. One child, Tran Thi Minh, 8, had shrapnel in her spinal chord, which was cut through. She was permanently paralyzed from the waist down.

“The child was very thin. . . watched us warily with huge dark eyes,” Betty wrote, In the glare of camera lights, “the doctor rolled her over to show us all the scars and wounds on her back. He said that the shrapnel from the antipersonnel bombs makes a very small cut on the surface but tears a large swathe inside the body. She whimpered when he moved her. The Vietnamese gave me a big bouquet of flowers to give to her as all the photographers (theirs and ours) snapped and whirred away. The scene was being exploited for all it was worth, but I didn’t care. There was a beautiful child lying hopelessly hurt, and that was the real truth … I still can’t think about it without crying and wanting to shout and do violence to those who use the grossest kind of force and violence to satisfy their lust for greater and greater power and riches.”

They were subjected to frequent speeches about how the Vietnamese people were suffering from the imperialism and barbarism of the U.S. government and army. Their hosts told them their people would never allow the United Nations to negotiate between the parties because that would mean being “co-belligerents with the U.S.” They said they “would rather be dead than enslaved by the U.S.”

On April 4, the day the Phoenix was scheduled to sail, the Viet Cong invited them to visit one more hospital in Haiphong. “As a matter of fact, we were pressured to do it,” Betty writes, adding, “so, piling into the huge Russian cars once more, we set off for the hospital.”

This time they were shown four patients injured in the air attack which had taken place while the Phoenix was in the harbor.

“Earle was irritated at the bright lights which the Vietnamese cameramen used on the patients while they took pictures of them and the visiting Americans. He tried to interrupt the doctor who was describing a woman’s injuries, and finally the doctor stopped while Earle explained that it was cruel to subject these people to such discomfort while they were being exploited for the benefit of the war effort. The doctor answered that all of the people were in the war together and that the only way any Vietnamese could have a decent future was for all of them to do what they could to end the war with the enemy defeated. ‘The patients,’ he said, ‘understand the need and are glad to help the world’s people understand what is happening here. They don’t mind the lights if it will help their cause.’ He went back to his explanations and Earle spun on his heel and walked out.”

The Americans came home convinced that their government was not only the unjustified aggressor but was deliberating designing weapons to target civilians. They were persuaded that Ho Chi Minh, the revolutionary communist who had forcefully united Vietnam (semi-retired at that point) was benign, even noble, and universally popular.

From Hong Kong, on April 10, the crew issued the following statement:

“We returned on the yacht Phoenix to Hong Kong today from our Quaker voyage of humanitarian aid to the people of North Vietnam. We nine Americans, representing A Quaker Action Group from Philadelphia, spent eight days in the Haiphong-Hanoi area speaking with citizens and officials, and observing the effects of the bombing. Our medical aid was personally delivered to the Red Cross Society of North Vietnam, for distribution throughout the country. We were met by friendship and good will everywhere, and we found a sound basis for friendly relationships between America and the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, following an end to the war in the near future.”

Follow-up Voyages

Two other voyages to Vietnam followed in 1967 and 1968. The third, like the first, took medical supplies to Vietnam for the relief of civilian wounded. The second voyage attempted to take medical supplies to South Vietnamese Buddhists, but entry was denied both at Da Nang and at Saigon. The supplies were later shipped to South Vietnam from Hong Kong.

Earle and Akie made two attempts to sail the Phoenix to Shanghai as a gesture of “friendship and reconciliation” from an American and a Japanese citizen to the people of mainland China, although the Japanese government refused to grant Akie a passport on the ground China and Japan had no diplomatic relations. In 1968, the Phoenix was stopped on the high seas by a Japanese ship. Two years of litigation followed in Japanese courts. In 1969, with a crew of six Americans, the Phoenix was stopped 20 nautical miles offshore by Chinese authorities and their entry was prohibited.

After these attempts to sail to China, the Japanese government passed a new immigration law cracking down on “undesirable aliens” (1970) and Earle Reynolds was expelled from Japan, his adopted country of 13 years.


A note from Jessica Reynolds Renshaw:

“I was and still am conflicted about the voyage of the Phoenix to Vietnam. We, the Reynolds family, had sailed into the American nuclear test zone to protest American testing, to the USSR to protest Soviet testing. We did not take sides for or against either country.

We were—and are—against nuclear weapons. We called each nation we approached to be accountable for their own wrongs—and we sought to see the potential good in both sides.
With the Vietnam voyages, the message of the Phoenix became political. Though still sincere, it was no longer unbiased. It was not about merely giving humanitarian aid to the innocent victims of war. It was choosing sides, blasting only one country’s actions and allowing the other one to use us.

I personally doubt that the pacifist message the crew made “quite clear” got past the government-appointed interpreters. The eight days they spent in a communist country were tightly controlled and orchestrated—for the Vietnamese they met as well as for themselves. Any questions they attempted to ask were angrily rejected as “inappropriate.” The script that had to be dutifully followed did not allow for give and take. The constant speeches against America turned Betty Boardman, a gentle, reasonable woman, from disapproving of and wanting to change our leaders’ policies to hating the leaders themselves, wanting to “do violence to those … who use violence,” diverting her from looking for “that of God in every man” to rejecting the possibility of “that of God” in our own leaders.”

I attribute this imbalance to the propaganda they were subjected to and hope it was only temporary.”