PEARL HARBOR (NNS) - A 31-year-old Vietnamese-American woman returned to her place of birth, the decommissioned amphibious assault ship USS Tarawa (LHA 1), presently moored at the Naval Inactive Ships Maintenance Facility, Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Nov. 29.
"This is wonderful," said Grace Tarawa Tran, who was born aboard Tarawa on May 10, 1979, two days after 442 other Vietnamese refugees were rescued in the South China Sea. Being born on U.S. property, Tran immediately became a U.S. citizen. "I never thought this day would come. Meeting all the Marines, coming to see the ship where I was born on, my parents told me a lot of stories. I just never really imagined that this would happen."
Tran was later taken by surprise when the corpsman who delivered her joined her on the flight deck of the ship. Navy Hospital Corpsman 2nd Class Richard Reed, "Doc Reed" as he was referred to back then, was assigned to the Marine Corps' Battalion Landing Team (BLT) 2/3, attached to Tarawa at the time, when the ship was performing the humanitarian rescue effort that rescued the Vietnamese refugees.
"It's wonderful," said Reed who hasn't seen Tran since he delivered her aboard the ship. "She has grown to be a pretty lady. It's amazing that one day you're holding her in your arms, and then the next day she's fully grown."
When Tran's mother gave birth, Reed wrapped Tran up and attended to the infant's needs.
"She seemed like my own child, a daughter from a different country."
Tran cried as Reed revealed himself to her and presented her with flowers and copies of pictures and news clipping of the eventful day. Reed showed Tran old pictures of the day of the rescue, the birth and the days that followed, most of which she has never seen before.
"The events, my experiences with the BLT and seeing the suffering the Vietnamese went through, it changed my life," said Reed. "That's why I'm a pastor today. I've been a pastor now for the past 26 years, and it was all because of this young lady right here. It was a change in my life. It was an unexpected surprise especially for me as a corpsman. I was used to taking care of Marines, sewing them up, giving them shots, taking them to sick call, but delivering a baby— that was a brand new experience. It was a once in a lifetime experience. She was my first and my last."
Tran said she was also overwhelmed meeting Reed as the two went through the photo album that showed photos of other Vietnamese refugees and the wooden motor boat that they were on.
"There are no words that can express how grateful we are for the aid and comfort that all of you provided us while aboard the USS Tarawa," said Tran. "My family along with 400 other Vietnamese citizens fled Vietnam in search for a better life. They fled on a 20 feet wooden motor boat, which later malfunctioned. While adrift, they were robbed by Thai pirates eleven separate times over the course of a week. Condition on the boat was horrible, and they had very little food and water to consume. Exhaustion and hunger took over them that they no longer feared for their lives. So, you can only imagine the joy they felt when the U.S. military came to their rescue."
Despite the end of the Vietnam War with the Fall of Saigon on April 30, 1975, waves of South Vietnamese refugees escaped the war-torn country in search of a better life. More than two million people fled Vietnam in small, unsafe crowded boats ending up in countries like Thailand, Malaysia and the Philippines.
"My parents wanted to get away from the war and the communism," said Tran. "So they, along with 400 others, fled Vietnam. They did not know which nation they were going to, they just wanted to escape Vietnam. My mother said she was really scared, but this was the opportunity to leave Vietnam and find freedom. They took a really big risk."
After the rescue at sea, Tarawa delivered Tran and the refugees to an asylum camp in Thailand where they began the process of immigrating to the U.S. Tran said that in three months the refugees were divided up and distributed to several states. Tran's family was eventually immigrated to Philadelphia, PA.
Today, Tran works as a financial analyst for an insurance company in Philadelphia.
Decommissioned in March 2009, Tarawa was the lead amphibious assault ship, and the second ship to be named after Tarawa Atoll, a site of a Marine landing during World War II. Tarawa is currently moored in West Loch, Pearl Harbor, and is considered a retention asset for the U.S. Navy.
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