Escaping in late 1950 and early 1951 from Communist persecution of Roman Catholics in Kwangtung Province in South China, Father AUGUSTINE NGUYEN LAC HOA and 2,100 of his parishioners lived precariously for eight years in Cambodia. In 1956, the priest searched in 25 countries for a more permanent solution for his people but found only sympathy and no answer to their problem. Forced again to move by communist guerrilla harassment and finally Cambodian recognition of Communist China, many of the stateless refugees sought sanctuary on their own in the new Republic of South Vietnam. A few who could afford the long voyage left for Taiwan. Learning from the priest of their plight, the government of South Vietnam offered to the remaining 450 facilities to migrate, citizenship and a homestead.
On March 17, 1959 Father HOA and his weary flock arrived at Binh Hung, the remote place on the southernmost Camau Peninsula where they had permission to settle. Swampy, mosquito-infested and imperiled by guerrillas entrenched in surrounding mangrove forests, it was barely habitable, but the land was fertile and fish were plentiful in waterways crisscrossing the delta.
In three months of relentless toil that spared no adult or child, a village was raised above the flooded land and the first rice crop planted. The guerilla-wise priest, himself a former soldier, also drilled every man to be an aggressive fighter. When the Viet Cong struck, the villagers fought back, armed only with fishing knives and wooden staves. With the few weapons then supplied by the government, the defenders suffered losses but never defeat in the frequent raids and ambushes that followed. Father HOA taught them no battle could be won by standing still; day and night patrols moved out learning every place for ambush or hiding and engaging the enemy on his own ground.
The fighting spirit of the little band earned government recognition as a Village Self-Defense Corps, qualifying it for military aid. Refugee Chinese Nationalist soldiers, Montagnards from the central highlands, Nung from the north, and local Vietnamese were recruited to join the defenders. Urgently needed supplies began to arrive regularly by helicopter. Government agencies, Catholic Relief Services, CARE and others helped. In three years, Vietnamese moving in from outlying farms for protection swelled the population of the village and adjoining hamlets to over 1,500.
As military commander without rank for Hai Yen Special Sector, the priest worked closely with Buddhist and Cao-Daist leaders—whose adherents were most numerous in the area—to promote security measures in villages. Though the Viet Cong were not eliminated, his Corps of Sea Swallows -- by late 1963 numbering more than 1,000 — extended relative security over 200 square kilometers to 18,000 inhabitants.
This year, when the military command was given to regular army officers, Father HOA welcomed the change. Now 56, he devotes his energies to his spiritual duties and schools, and serves as adviser-chaplain to the Sea Swallows, admonishing any who tire of the long struggle: "For our freedom, if we are tired, we cannot be free."
In electing Father AUGUSTINE NGUYEN LAC HOA to receive the 1964 Ramon Magsaysay Award for Public Service, the Board of Trustees recognizes his extraordinary valor in defense of freedom, strengthening among a beleaguered people the resolution to resist tyranny.