Thu, Jul 29, 2004 - Page 6 News List

US sailors pay a visit to China Beach

REUTERS , DANANG, VIETNAM

Sailors on the USS Curtis Wilbur hold a Vietnamese flag after arriving in the central Vietnamese city of Danang yesterday.

PHOTO: REUTERS

Forty years after the first US combat troops set foot on the beaches of Vietnam's Danang city, guided missile destroyer USS Curtis Wilbur paid a landmark postwar call yesterday to the former US base.

It was the first US navy visit to the port that housed a key US airbase, and just the second port call by a US warship since the Vietnam war ended in 1975.

Last November, the USS Vandegrift streamed up the Saigon River to Ho Chi Minh City, the former capital of US-backed South Vietnam.

"We are all downright absolutely thrilled to be here," Captain John Lauer told reporters on the deck of the Arleigh Burke class ship as the flags of the former war foes fluttered above.

The Yokosuka, Japan-based ship arrives at a time when political relations between Washington and Hanoi have been strained by renewed efforts on Capitol Hill to punish the communist administration for its human-rights record.

The US House of Representatives this month voted to cap non-humanitarian aid to Vietnam at present levels if it fails to improve its record.

The ship, with 348 crew and officers, pulled into Tien Sa Port with its crew decked in white standing at the rails in a traditional sign of respect for the host country.

The reception four decades later was a far cry from that earlier accorded the 3,500 marines, who were greeted by smiling Vietnamese women bearing flower garlands and banners welcoming the "gallant marines" arriving to defend the strategic Danang airbase.

This time, some 14 uniformed officers from Vietnam's Naval Region 3 Command were on hand and a woman navy officer handed a bouquet of flowers to the ship's commander as he stepped onto a red carpet at the port for the five-day visit. There were no welcome speeches, only handshakes and a handful of curious onlookers at a nearby cafe.

US ambassador to Vietnam Raymond Burghardt said the US was surprised that the Vietnamese selected Danang for the port call.

Reflecting on the first deployment of US combat troops in Vietnam in 1965 not far from Danang port, he said this time the military was "coming in peace and coming with friendship."

The Vietnam war killed more than 58,000 Americans and an estimated 3 million Vietnamese.

For a number of Vietnamese-Americans among the crew, the visit held special significance.

Medical officer Mark Nguyen signed up for the ship visit from his regular post on the USS Coronado. The Danang native who left in 1979 has returned as a tourist but never in uniform.

"I volunteered for this trip back here," he said. "I left on a ship, now I'm coming back on a ship. It's a full circle."

Danang is home to China Beach, popular during the war with US soldiers on their recreation breaks. It now boasts glitzy resorts and direct flights from neighboring countries. Besides sunbathing and shopping, the crew will do some community projects.

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