MORE than 30 years ago, the historic aircraft carrier USS Ranger CV-61 — “Top Gun of the Pacific” — saved my life from the deadly South China Sea. Today, I join Ranger veterans to save that same ship from the scrap heap.
On June 20, the Bremerton-moored Ranger will be considered for the Washington Heritage Register, and for the first step toward the National Register of Historic Places. Please join me in supporting this effort as an important milestone toward saving the ship that saved my family.
Under the cover of darkness on March 8, 1981, my mother, my three siblings and I crept along the edge of the Saigon River in Ho Chi Minh City. In tense silence, we waited on the bank of the river, then we slipped unnoticed into a fisherman’s small wooden boat. We became “boat people,” joining thousands fleeing Communist Vietnam. Outcome and destination unknown, we hoped to land on a peaceful shore.
Day and night, the waves relentlessly lifted our unseaworthy boat and crashed it down again. The engine sputtered, and the boat shuddered with each wave. The sea seemed determined to end our journey, yet we endured.
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After five days of pounding waves, the engine protested one last time and stopped, leaving us adrift on the open sea. For the next week, our boat carrying 138 people floated without food or water. Hope for survival dwindled.
But just as the sea threatened to end our exodus, help appeared. On March 20, a deafening noise from two jets roused us from our sleep. That afternoon, excitement rushed through me when I saw a fleet of ships on the horizon. “I can see ships!” I screamed.
The floating metal cities grew closer, and two helicopters approached our boat. A Ranger crew member was lowered down and handed a canteen of water to a little girl.
That canteen changed everything. It restored hope and offered freedom.
We all were rescued and taken aboard the USS Ranger, where we were examined, clothed and fed. Our first meal on the Ranger was unforgettable: My family of five sat on the floor, sharing a single chicken breast, not realizing the meal was meant for just one person. For dessert, I experienced the most wonderful taste when a sailor gave me colorful candies stamped with an “m.”
Before reaching the U.S., we spent six months in a refugee camp in the Philippines. In September 1981, my family arrived at our first home in the U.S. — Lacey, Thurston County, where my uncle and his church had sponsored us.
After high-school graduation, I joined the Army Reserve to serve my adopted nation. I often wondered if Ranger’s crew would be happy to know what had happened to us, so before my college graduation, I sought out the skipper responsible for the rescue to thank him. Capt. Dan A. Pedersen and I reunited and shared many stories.
As a newly commissioned officer in the U.S. Army in 1997, I traveled to Bremerton to pay tribute to Ranger. Sixteen years later, having completed two combat tours in Afghanistan, I visited Ranger again, this time with my wife and children. I wanted to show them the ship that gave life, liberty and the opportunity to pursue the American dream to so many refugees. I shared stories about the crew — how they welcomed us generously and treated us with dignity and respect.
In the circle of life, it seems unlikely that a former refugee boy would help save the same ship that rescued him so long ago. But to me, the USS Ranger is more than a warship. It is the humanitarian vessel that breathed life into my family and me. Now, Ranger needs rescuing before it is sent to the scrap yard. This ship should live as a museum where visitors can experience the significance of both war and peace.
Lt. Col. Lan Dalat, formerly of Lacey, is director of U.S. Army Pacific Communications Information Systems Activity in Seoul. He has served 17 years with two tours in Afghanistan.