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Three American seamen Monday won the highest award of...

GENEVA, Switzerland -- Three American seamen Monday won the highest award of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees for rescuing 85 Vietnamese refugees during a storm in the South China Sea.

The captain of the U.S. tanker Rose City, Lewis Hiller, of Carroll, Neb., and crewmen Jeff Kass, Philadelphia, and Gregg Turay, Seattle, received the Nansen Medal at a ceremony at the U.N. European headquarters.

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The Nansen Medal for outstanding service to refugees is awarded annually in memory of Fridtjof Nansen of Norway, the first high commissioner under the League of Nations.

In September 1983, Hiller redirected his 94,000-ton tanker to help 85 boat people tossed about on a small boat in a storm.

Kass and Turay jumped into the turbulent waters to rescue several refugees clinging to lifebelts, the UNHCR said.

'Their daring rescue of 85 Indo-Chinese refugees in distress by stormy weather in the darkness of the night deserves to be inscribed in golden letters in the annals of maritime and refugee history,' said High Commissioner Poul Hartling of Denmark.

Hiller asked 'that men of the ships, of all nations, who have ever participated in a rescue mission at sea, be remembered and honored by these presentations here today.'

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The seamen asked that the $50,000, which goes with the award to be used for a refugee project, be spent on medical rehabilitation for boat people.

The UNHCR says the percentage of refugees rescued at sea has decreased steadily since 1980, when 21 percent of those being resettled were picked up by ships. This year, only six percent of those reaching shore had been helped by vessels.

Hartling said fewer ships help boat people because they believe the refugees will have complications at ports and cause delays.

'This is very alarming. People in distress at sea have always been rescued. It is a duty, an unwritten code that has existed for centuries,' he said.

Eleanor Roosevelt, former French President Valery Giscard d'Estaing, Tanzanian President Julius Nyerere and Crown Princess Sonja of Norway have been some of the Nansen Medal recipients in the past 30 years.

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