Amazing Grace Tarawa

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Non-Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
A United States War Ship rescues 400 Vietnamese refugees from a disabled freighter and changes the life of so many, especially a baby girl name Grace.

Submitted: December 28, 2012

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Submitted: December 28, 2012

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Amazing Grace Tarawa

February 1979, USS Tarawa LHA1 leaves port for her maiden West Pacific voyage. I was an E-3 Signalman with just a little over a year in the Navy. Within two months of the cruise we had visited many exotic ports, Singapore, Thailand, Philippines. We had participated in several "war game" exercises. Beach landings in assault craft, missile launches, hundreds of helicopter operations, general quarters drills. If we weren't in port we were preparing for Battle! That was our job, we were designated as an Amphibious Assault Ship. Seven hundred Sailors, Twelve hundred Marines, Thirty six helicopters, Twenty plus assault vehicles, Missile launchers, Heavy artillery. If conflict broke anywhere we were prepared, we had more fire power on one ship than most countries!

We also were a floating hospital, with beds, doctors, surgeons, the latest in medical equipment. Primarily these facilities and personnel were to care for our own sick and injured but half way through the cruise we were called into action for another purpose.

Somewhere off the coast of Thailand, not far from Vietnam, we got a call from one of our Destroyer escort ships. They had come across a disabled civilian freighter in open water. The ship was flying a distress flag and when a boarding party was dispatched what they found led to one of the most enduring experiences of my life.

What the boarding party found was over 200 Vietnamese men, women and children in very bad shape. Their ships engines had given out, they were out of food and water and worst of all they had been boarded by pirates who had taken anything of value, beat many of the men and raped several of the women. Two destroyers had evacuated the refugees onto their decks but were not equipped to cope with a rescue mission such as this, but we were!

Within hours we arrived at the location and brought all on board. They were immediately given medical attention, they were provided with hot meals, water, milk, clothing and in many cases, life saving attention! It was discovered that these people were all from the same village, they had pooled their money together to buy the ship and all had visas. They had set sail hoping to make it to America.

The first night on board one of the women gave birth to a baby girl. Any US Ship is considered to be a part of the United States so consequently this little girl became a United States Citizen at birth! Someone told me that her Father nearly passed out when told of this. The baby was named Grace Tarawa Tran! Our ships Cruise Album had a double wide photo of her birth certificate!

Acouple of days later I went to the area of the ship where they were being housed and asked if I could enter. A Marine guard I knew allowed me to visit. The sight I witnessed warms me to this day. Many of the men were playing a game that looked like dominoes, the women were setting together, some knitting but mostly just chatting with each other. The Children, well the children were playing just like children do and many seemed to have convinced the Marine guards that a game of chase or catch would be good exercise. I'm not sure who was having more fun, the kids or the Marines who were playing with them! One Corporal, fittingly called Bruno because of his size, had a kid hanging on each leg, one on each arm and one on his back! It was a heck of a sight to see!

Looking around the room I noticed a little girl of maybe 4 or 5 years old at a table by herself. She seemed sad and was just watching the other children play. I had an idea of maybe a way to cheer her up. I went back to my locker and found a small doll I'd bought in Singapore for my daughter. I returned and cautiously approached the little girl with the doll behind my back. Not wanting to get to close to her I gently laid the doll on the table in front of her. For a few seconds she looked at the doll and then at me, then back at the doll. I smiled at her and motioned for her to pick it up. She slowly moved her hands toward it and then quick as a wink grabbed it and clutched it to her chest. She then turned and ran to a woman nearby who I assumed was her Mother. She said something to the lady and then pointed in my direction. The woman gave me a smile and then nodded her head to the little girl. I watched the kids play for a little while and then went back to work.

We kept our friends on board for about a week until we could arrange safe passage for them with a guarantee that they would eventually be relocated to America. I thought about that little girl often and also about little Grace Tarawa over the years. I wondered if they have families of their own now, where do they live? In my mind they they were all safe and happy and in my mind is where they lived.

In late 2012 I discovered an article about the decommissioning of the USS Tarawa. While reading through the history of the great ship, some of which I was a part of I came to a paragraph that caused me to literally stop breathing for a few seconds. The words recounted the birth of a baby girl on May the 20th 1979. A baby girl who’s parents were rescued at sea after escaping from Vietnam. Who became a United States Citizen at birth and later was relocated to Philadelphia along with many other families from the rescue.

Grace Tarawa Tran graduated from Penn State and became a Financial Adviser for a company in Philadelphia. She returned to the Tarawa in 2009 for the decommissioning ceremony and was reunited with the Corpsman who helped deliver her. The Corpsman became a Minister and credited the birth of Grace as the moment when his life changed.

Call it fate, an act of God or just luck but a couple of weeks in 1979 changed the life of many people. Life changing events were common in the 20 years I spent in the United State Navy but none would compare with the birth of Amazing Grace Tarawa!


© Copyright 2018 Billy Coy Sample. All rights reserved.

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