Since the fall of South Vietnam to the Communists in 1975, half a million refugees have put to sea, attempting to negotiate the treacherous 200-mile passage to Thailand. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, some 17,000 boat people completed the journey last year, but only after enduring harrowing hardships. At least 500 refugees were murdered by pirates, more than 500 women raped and more than 200 women and girls abducted.

The boat people have never had adequate protection, but now they receive even less. Last September a U.S.-sponsored patrol program came to an end, and Thai naval vessels stopped patrolling the 600 miles of coastline and 18,000 square miles of ocean. The U.N. is trying to organize a $3.6 million effort, sponsored by several nations, to provide patrol boats, armed trawlers masquerading as fishing craft, and decoy refugee boats manned by Thai soldiers. But the bureaucracy, as always, moves slowly. It is a problem that calls for desperate solutions, and one is being provided by Col. Jack Bailey, a retired U.S. Air Force fighter pilot. Operating on a financial shoestring, with no official sanction, he puts to sea whenever he can in a rusting 200-foot World War II hulk, S.S. Akuna II, searching for refugees and the killers who prey on them. Involved in humanitarian work for 15 years, Bailey, 59, has helped found orphanages in Vietnam and Korea, sponsored hundreds of Vietnamese refugees for resettlement in the U.S., and worked to establish the now defunct Weimar Hope Village, a resettlement center near Sacramento. "Bailey is a passionate person," says a U.N. official familiar with the refugee problem. "He doesn't sit on his duff and wait for things to happen. We have yet to see many positive results from his work, but we give him credit for trying."

Bailey's successes in the six-month period he has been operating may appear insignificant, but there is no question that his work has saved lives. Last November the Akuna picked up a boatload of 81 Vietnamese and took them to Singapore. Their open boat had been attacked several times and had been adrift for 17 days, 15 of them without food. "Another 24 hours," Bailey says, "and those people would have been gone." He has also rescued three smaller craft and escorted a handful of others to safety. Among the Thais, who are often resentful and suspicious of the refugees, Bailey is almost Oriental in his soft-spoken politeness, frequently employing wai, the Thai gesture of deference, with hands pressed together prayerfully at his chest. This brings Bailey friendship, loyalty and discounts—and, not incidentally, keeps him alive. "The Thais are beautiful people," he says, "but you can't hurry them. And you can't raise your voice, because it's threatening. If you insult them, they never forget and never forgive."

Despite his preternatural calm, Bailey is continually beset by frustrations. Chief among them is a shortage of cash. Of the $200,000 he says it cost him to run the Akuna last year, only $85,000 came from donations. The rest, he says, came from International Aviation Consultants, his San Francisco-based business that investigates plane crashes for private legal claims; his fees as an aviation consultant to various countries and corporations; and, finally, his Air Force retirement pay. Despite his sacrifices, the Akuna is a faltering tub capable of a maximum speed of six knots, slower than all but the most feeble Thai fishing boats. Worse, it costs $3,000 a day to operate and runs on old-fashioned bunker fuel. On a recent voyage on the Akuna, Bailey was accompanied by Richard Woodley of PEOPLE, who filed this report on the colonel's valiant but quixotic mission:

The problem, as always, is money. Bailey has been forced to reduce his crew from 13 to 9 and has borrowed $10,000 to pay them. Arriving in the Thai port of Songkhla, we learn that the Akuna has fuel for only two days at sea. Bailey had expected the Thai Navy to sell him more but is informed he will not be receiving it. "Mai pen rai," says Bailey with a smile of resignation. "Not to worry." We will sail on the first high tide, as soon as repairs to his ship are completed.

While he is waiting, Bailey visits the local refugee camp. There, in a tin-roofed hut on the beach, he is surrounded by Vietnamese children and adults, a few of whom speak English. Speaking slowly to make himself understood, Bailey shows pictures of missing girls. Last November the Akuna came across four Thai fishing trawlers towing a fifth that was all but sunk. When the trawlers reached Songkhla, bodies began floating out of the swamped boat and drifting onto the beach. The 76 refugees had been attacked by pirates, who had scuttled the boat in the hope of drowning them all. But two girls had somehow escaped. These two are now in the Songkhla camp, and a man goes to get them. He returns alone. The girls are sick, he explains. Another refugee says that they have been threatened with death if they talk.

Next, a pretty young woman is brought in by friends and given a seat beside Bailey. She answers his questions almost inaudibly, glancing up at her interpreter with eyes that seem sad beyond pain. Her name is Lan. She is 24. She and her family were at sea 10 days and were attacked many times. Her father was killed. Five girls, including her sister, were abducted. Hesitantly, Bailey asks if she herself was raped. Lan looks away, then lowers her head and nods, tears falling down her cheeks. "It's awful to ask," says Bailey, "worse for them to tell. But we need every bit of information we can get to try and bring them help." Finally he passes out a few 100-baht notes (worth about $4.50 each) and several of his Operation Rescue business cards. "They don't want to talk here about their relatives and homes and friends," he says, "but they will write to me."

And they do write, stacks of letters, offering information, thanking him for his interest, pleading for his help. Some of his correspondents owe him their lives and do not hesitate to pour out their hearts to him. One letter comes from several men whose wives were taken by pirates. The men are praying that Bailey will find them. "You rescue our lives and bring us food," they say. "We do believe you could warm our hearts and relieve our misfortune also. You bring us new hope, give us strength and courage to face the new life. Thank you very much."

On his birthday Bailey receives a card from a girl who, at 14, had been raped repeatedly at sea before being brought in by the Akuna. She is now in the U.S. Her card shows a happy mouse bearing a cheerful bouquet of flowers. "To my dearest," the girl writes, "you're just a very special one! Mr. Bailey, I hope you'll enjoy my little gift! God always be with you!"

Bailey reads the card, his eyes tearing up. He has a wife, Jessee, at home in Stockton, Calif., three daughters, the youngest of whom is a San Joaquin Delta College freshman, and a son who is in construction. There is also Minh Tran, 21. Bailey befriended him in Saigon in 1975, and was able to bring him to safety as the Viet Cong were taking the city. Minh Tran, who is now a computer operator, has been a member of the Bailey family ever since. "I spent 10 months last year over here in Thailand," Bailey says. "My family understands."

Finally the Akuna is ready to sail. Black smoke billows from the stack as pencil-thin "long-tail" boats deliver fresh fish, chickens, vegetables, fruit, beer, bottled water and huge cakes of ice. Surprisingly, there will be no weapons on board. Ordinarily Bailey carries a borrowed .38, but the Thai owner has retrieved it to fight a duel with his brother-in-law. Aside from a hunting knife, Bailey's only protection is a card identifying him as an affiliate of Interpol. Two American soldier-of-fortune types who have come along looking for action are unhappy that there are no M-16 automatic rifles. Bailey is unhappy that they are accompanied by a former Special Forces medic. "We've got all kinds of medicines aboard," Bailey mutters, "and people who know how to treat everything. I need a trapping medic like a hole in the head." Others on board include the wives of three crewmen, two with small daughters; a Thai woman called Lucky, who will act as interpreter; Mary Ann, an American who has worked in the refugee camps; a bright-colored rooster that crows day and night; and the ship's mascot, a mongrel named Blackie.

At 10 a.m. Captain Albert, the Akuna's dapper Indonesian skipper, gives the order to weigh anchor. For 10 minutes the steam-driven winch will not budge. Finally the anchor chain begins winding. "Dead ahead slow," orders the captain. Instead the boat begins to swing in a gentle arc to starboard. The rudder is jammed. The ship hasn't been out since November, says Captain Albert, so there are bound to be mechanical problems. By the time the Akuna is under way, Tom, the medic, has gone below to rummage through broken cartons filled with ointments, pills, vitamins and plastic pouches of tubes and syringes. He shakes his head. "Most of this stuff is outdated," he says. "Not much use. Some probably even dangerous."

In the sweltering engine room, chief engineer Joemilar, a hard-muscled worker, is wiping the faces of gauges. "One boiler okay," he says. "The other, tubes no good." The electrician, Sri, wearing a white T-shirt with the stenciled legend "Singapore Billy Graham Crusade," scurries from deck to deck trying to make the circuit breakers work. On the bridge, Captain Albert studies his charts and does some quick figuring on his pocket calculator. There is 38 hours worth of fuel. Outside, Blackie has bitten Mary Ann on the foot. The medic takes her below for a peroxide wash. "Blackie doesn't like feet," says Captain Albert.

All day we scan the sparkling hot sea for boats in distress. We find none. "We're going up toward the island of Koh Kra," says Bailey. "That's where things happen. At night, that's when the Vietnamese boats can signal us. They light lanterns or burn shoes and shirts." We continue our watch through the night. Occasionally we see signals, but only from fishing boats frantically warning us away from their nets. "International waters," says the captain. "They have no right to have nets here." Does he have any reservations about patrolling this area? "I go anywhere Jack Bailey says. With others, just where regulations say, strictly. But Jack Bailey helps people."

At dawn Koh Kra, for generations a pirate haven, looms off our port bow, a forbidding hump of scrub-covered rock. Through binoculars we spot the stern of a Thai fishing boat lurking behind an outcropping; then broken hulks of Vietnamese boats embedded in the small coral beach. Our crew lowers a rubber boat and we head in, our borrowed outboard straining. Onshore we are met by a dozen Thai naval personnel. They have been there 12 days, assigned to be on guard against pirates. They have no boat and a single M-16. "Guaranteed," says Bailey, "if you searched around this island, you would find bones of Vietnamese the pirates have killed here."

Back on the Akuna, we set our course to return to Songkhla. The observers on board are frustrated to have found no pirates and no refugees, and Bailey is feeling the tension. "I wouldn't even be out here if it weren't for you," he roars at one passenger. "I wouldn't mind throwing you right off this ship in the middle of the trapping ocean. I can't afford this trapping trip!" Chagrined by the outburst, we resume scanning the sea with binoculars. But as darkness falls, we have a new problem. "We're losing rpms," says Captain Albert. "Three tons fuel left in one tank, but the pump is not transferring." Suddenly the Akuna's twin propellers stop turning. We drop anchor while the crew works frantically. We have flares, but Bailey fears using them. "If we fired one, we'd have every boat out there coming over here, including the bad guys," he says. "And they're the ones with the weapons."

There is no marine radio station in Songkhla to receive distress calls, and the captain cannot raise the Union Oil rig far out to sea. "Sunday night," he explains. "Hard to get anybody." After considerable difficulty, he makes contact with Radio Singapore and tries to persuade them to phone the Akuna's agent in Songkhla. The agent could send out a tug. But first Radio Singapore wants to know who's going to pay for the phone call. Bailey gives them his telephone credit card number. Nothing doing. Finally the captain bills the call to his home in Singapore, and we are put on the line with the agent's office. The party on the other end is a sleepy night watchman. The agent is home in bed. The watchman says the agent will call us back through Radio Singapore. End of conversation. The call never comes. All night Bailey walks the decks like a defeated Ahab, while the crew stands guard against possible boarders. "It's life," he exclaims. "We don't have any more money. The last drop. But mai pen rai."

At dawn we see the hills of Songkhla rising in the mists, still 20 miles off our bow. Fishing boats stream past us, heading for harbor. One of our crew waves a long white towel from the end of a fishing pole, and a small trawler steams to our side. A ride into Songkhla to fetch a tug will cost Bailey 1,000 baht, about $45. Three hours later we are at the offices of the ship's agent, who tells us the watchman never gave him our message. A tow is quickly arranged with a trawler captain, but we must be back in port before nightfall because we cannot be towed through the crowded harbor in darkness. We reach the Akuna by early afternoon, but the boat lacks even enough steam to weigh anchor. As the trawler captain threatens to leave, eight men set to work, groaning and straining, trying to raise the anchor by hand. Blackie scrambles through the forest of legs and, snarling, clamps his jaws around the chief officer's ankle. All work ceases. The captain chases Blackie around the deck, brandishing a pipe and screaming of death.

With Blackie locked safely below and the chief's ankle bandaged, a burst of steam miraculously erupts from the engine and the anchor comes clanking up. The trawler attaches two hawsers and we are under way once again to Songkhla. Sri, the electrician, gazes somberly at our approaching landfall. "We will have to kill Blackie," he says. "There is no other way. He has bitten the chief twice before." On the bridge, Sri surveys the gauges and dials. "It's a tired ship," he says. "She didn't want to go out this time. Right at the beginning she was giving us signs, but we were impatient and went anyway." He shakes his head. "Forty years old. We should have paid attention to the signs."

It is evening when we reach Songkhla, and the trawler throttles back and veers off to port. The towlines go slack, leaving us on a collision course with a freighter at mooring. "No, no!" cries Captain Albert. "We will ram the ship! The trawler must pull us away!" At the last moment the trawler captain obliges, then steams mulishly forward, ignoring a series of impending catastrophes. Finally he swings us gently around, sending our stern ripping through a collection of fishing nets, an indiscretion that, in the morning, will cost Bailey another 250 baht and a $100 bill. For a few agonizing moments we drift aimlessly. Then Bailey appears silently at Captain Albert's side, puts an arm firmly around his shoulders and draws him close. "Listen to me, now," he says calmly. "Let's drop anchor, right here, right now. Mai pen rai." At last the Akuna is home.

The next day, onshore, Bailey has recovered from his debacle. "I'm selling the Akuna right away," he says. "My crew will go to Singapore to check out a small freighter that we could use to haul cargo part-time so Operation Rescue could be self-sufficient. Then what I want to do is supply radios to a thousand Thai fishing boats. And we'll use the freighter as a kind of floating command post. If I can't buy the freighter, I'll get a tugboat, or a trapping life raft if I have to. The bad guys are well equipped and organized. That's how we have to be." He pauses to muse on his mission. "Why do I do all this? I'm stupid, maybe. Nobody else wants to do it. But I'm going to help these people."