May 27, 1985 12:00 PM

Three days after Christmas, 1979, John Peckham, a Los Angeles trial lawyer, and his wife, Dottie, put a message in a wine bottle and tossed it overboard from a cruise ship carrying them from Acapulco to Hawaii. They listed their names and a postbox number, enclosed a dollar bill for return postage and promised a reward to the finder.

More than three years later and across 9,000 miles of ocean, Nguyen Van Hoa was hoping for something to drink when he spotted a bottle floating past his boat 10 miles off the coast of Thailand in the South China Sea. A former lieutenant with the South Vietnamese army, Hoa had escaped the “reeducation camp” where he had been imprisoned with fellow officers following the fall of South Vietnam in 1975 and had fled aboard a five-man fishing boat with more than 30 other refugees, including his 16-year-old brother, Van Cuong. Now they had no drinking water. But Hoa’s disappointment at finding nothing potable in the bottle changed when he read and understood the message. “It gave me hope,” he says.

That hope was vindicated for Hoa, now 31, his wife, Kim Hoang, 28, their 16-month-old son, Thai, and Hoa’s brother when they landed at Los Angeles International Airport on April 26 to begin a new life in the U.S. On hand to greet them were their American sponsors, none other than John and Dottie Peckham. Five years after pitching their bottle into the ocean, the Peckhams were united with the Hoas in a tearful embrace. “I didn’t think I would get emotional,” says John, “but when I picked up their baby, I couldn’t stop crying.”

Hoa’s efforts to reach America began almost as soon as his boat reached Thailand and he, his future wife and his brother got to a United Nations refugee camp. There he composed a note to the Peckhams. “We tried to find freedom according to [your] letter,” he wrote. “Now we send a message to the boss and we wish you will answer us sooner.” When the letter arrived, on March 4, 1983, John’s 70th birthday, the Peckhams were flabbergasted. During the next two years they carried on a correspondence with Hoa, congratulating him on his marriage at the refugee camp, sending him and his new wife money when their first child, Thai, was born. Finally, Hoa asked them to sponsor his family so that they could emigrate to the U.S. “We decided to do so,” says Dottie, 67, “because this was fate. We felt the bottle ended up as it did for a reason.”

The Peckhams’ generosity gave Hoa “the first freedom I have had in 10 years,” he says. During his internment in Vietnam he cut timber and dug irrigation ditches. His meals consisted of only a little rice or corn, supplemented with a catch-as-catch-can diet of insects, small rodents and snakes, and he says torture and beatings by guards were routine. After more than four years he managed to escape and lived underground in Ho Chi Minh City until he was able to work passage on a fishing boat illegally transporting Vietnamese refugees to Thailand.

Hoa and his family now live in a $450-a-month apartment that the Peckhams found and partly furnished for them in the Echo Park section of Los Angeles. The Catholic Welfare Bureau of Los Angeles will be paying the first two months’ rent, while Hoa takes a crash course in English and finds a job. He wants to work as an auto mechanic, but his financial problems may well be relieved by a movie deal. John has secured an agent to represent Hoa with producers eager to buy his story. Kim Hoang, who is pregnant again, says she knows that “America will offer great opportunity for my children.” Indeed, for Hoa and his family the promise carried by the message in the bottle has been fulfilled. The reward was freedom.

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