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Thread: The Lucky Few – The Story of USS KIRK (FF-1087)

  1. #1
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    24 Apr 09

    The Lucky Few – The Story of USS KIRK (FF-1087)

    « The Lucky Few » is an hour long documentary film produced by the US Navy Medicine and Support Command and its historian, Jan Herman, and was released in late 2010. It featured a little-known rescue mission during the Operation Frequent Wind in the tumultuous days following the fall of Saigon in 1975.

    Jan K. Herman, historian of the Navy Medical Department

    The main figure in this film was the US Navy ship USS KIRK (FF-1087) with about 250 Officers and Sailors in a mission which went unnoticed among the chaos and has been just officially recognized – after 35 years ! - as one of the most important humanitarian missions in the history of the U.S. Navy.
    As the War was coming to an end on April 29th to 30th, 1975, Operation Frequent Wind airlifted about 7100 “ at risk ” Vietnamese (to death from the Communist Viet Cong) and American civilians out of Sai Gon, the capital of South Viet Nam. Some lifts were scheduled. Others were not. The relative American small warship USS KIRK, a destroyer escort, and its crew suddenly found themselves in the midst of a flock of unscheduled airlifts, to which it admirably accommodated even though it was neither meant nor ready to do any such thing.
    Following that ordeal, it led a convoy of 32 Vietnamese Navy ships packed to the max with about 30000 refugees to safety in the Philippines over the course of a week. That’s one ship of about 250 crew doing this work in carrying out one of the most significant humanitarian missions in U.S. military history. The crew worked tirelessly and professionally, showing as much heart and dedication as any group of people you’ll ever find. They treated the Vietnamese refugees with respect and dignity at a time when they needed most in leaving their country at the end of a long and brutal war.

    The heroic, lifesaving mission of USS KIRK got lost, because Americans were bitterly divided over the war´s course and cost. The people were so tired about the war and there was only little interest in celebrating a mission that saved the lives of 20000 to 30000 refugees.
    As Jan Herman said « The KIRK' s story got left in the dust because of bitterness over Vietnam. When the war ended, Americans didn't want to hear stories about the war ».
    But another reason, he said, is that the men of the USS Kirk were trained as warriors, not as caregivers. So they didn't think of what they did more than three decades ago as significant.
    The KIRK, designed to hunt submarines, didn't see combat. When the ship's crew was ordered back to Vietnam — by itself, as the rest of the Navy was leaving — the men saw themselves as « just doing our job », said USS KIRK´s Captain Paul Jacobs.

    One of the first places to recognize the KIRK is the Navy's Medical Department. Vice Admiral Adam Robinson, the Navy Surgeon General, showed up at the July reunion of the KIRK´s crew in Springfield, Va., to thank the officers and men from the small destroyer escort. That was a big step because, for several years, the Navy said it had no record that the Kirk was even present during the 1975 evacuation of Saigon.
    Robinson's department deploys the Navy's hospital ships, the USNS COMFORT and the USNS MERCY. The COMFORT was sent to the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina (2005) and to Haiti after the earthquake there in January 2010. Robinson says those missions showed the growing role for the Navy to carry out humanitarian work.
    And it's that growing role that also led to Robinson's interest in the story of what the Kirk did 35 years ago. Robinson is sponsoring the work of Jan Herman, of the Navy Medical Department, to document the Kirk's mission in a film and a book.

    USS KIRK at commissioning

    USS KIRK in 1975.
    In spite of its heroic history, it was - without ceremony - sold to the Taiwan (Republic of China) Navy in 1993, and now sails under the name FEN YANG.

    A UH-46 Sea Knight Helicopter lowers an external load of cargo to the deck of the destroyer escort ship USS KIRK (FF-1087).

    Retired U.S. Navy Cmdr. Paul Jacobs, Ex-Captain of USS KIRK.

    The ship steamed to Con Son Island, where the last ships from South Vietnam's Navy were awaiting rescue. On board the 30-some Navy ships — and even more small fishing boats and rusted cargo ships — were an estimated 20,000 to 30,000 refugees.
    « So here they are suddenly involved in this drama. It has nothing to do with firing torpedoes or guns », said Herman of the KIRK´s crew. « It has nothing to do with any of that. It has to do with taking care of babies and feeding women and children. And I think for warriors, that doesn't come naturally. But they did it because it was something they had to do on the spot, and they did it. And they did it extremely well ».
    The ship escorted the refugees to safety, later meeting up with other U.S. Navy ships. About half the refugees were women, children and babies. The KIRK´s crew fed them, gave them fresh water and cared for the sick.
    But still, it wasn't something people talked about. « It's certainly not something you go bragging about to your fellow warriors: I diapered a baby today », Herman said.
    That started to change when the men of the KIRK began to hold reunions. They would wonder what happened to the men, women and children they saved. They started to seek them out and when they found them — and heard the stories of their successful lives — the members of the KIRK´s crew began to understand that their humanitarian mission was as important as the military mission they´d been trained for.

    To tell this forgotten story of the KIRK´s rescue mission, correspondent Joseph Shapiro and producer Sandra Bartlett of NPR´s Investigative Unit interviewed more than 20 American and Vietnamese eyewitnesses and participants in the events of late April and early May 1975. They studied hundreds of documents, photographs and other records, many never made public before – including cassette tapes recorded at the time by the ship´s chief engineer.

    And here are the 3 stories recalled by people of both sides of this incredible mission.

  2. #2
    Regular phoggy's Avatar
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    24 Apr 09
    The CH-47 Chinook´s pilot

    As Saigon was falling to Communist North Vietnamese forces in April 1975, U.S. sailor Kent Chipman and Ba Nguyen, a helicopter pilot in the South Vietnamese Air Force (SVAF), crossed paths for one brief moment. Chipman was aboard the USS KIRK, a small Navy ship that rescued Nguyen and his family as they flew in a transport chopper CH-47 Chinook, desperate to get away from Saigon.
    Chipman waited 35 years later to be reunited with Nguyen and his family.
    The two men met again in the summer 2010 at a reunion of the crew of the USS KIRK, held in a conference center in the Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C.

    At the door of the ballroom, Chipman stood, his beard graying, in a white sailor's hat and — even though it's summer — the heavy wool, dark blue winter uniform of the U.S. Navy. He snapped to attention with a crisp salute when he spotted Nguyen, in a wheelchair, being pushed down the hall by his wife and children.
    As a Navy band played, Chipman greeted Nguyen.
    « Hello sir, my name's Kent Chipman. You're the pilot of the big Chinook. Nice to meet you, sir. Thank you for coming. Thank you, sir », he said as he grabbed Nguyen's hand.

    On April 29th , 1975, the city of Saigon was under attack from almost all directions. The North Vietnamese communists have the city surrounded. Reluctantly, the US ambassador gives the order for the evacuation of some 7,000 « official evacuees ». The Operation Frequent Wind begann.
    Over the next two days, American heavy transport helicopters (CH-47 Chinook, CH-53 Super Stallion) ferried humans out to sea, to board one of the waiting ships from the 7th fleet. At this time, the USS KIRK, a destroyer escort, was assigned to patrol an area at the mouth of the Saigon river. The crew had watched the Chinooks cycle back and forth for two days.

    But there was another evacuation that didn't get as much attention. Tens of thousands of Vietnamese found other ways to escape in those tumultuous few days. They left in boats and helicopters and headed to the South China Sea. Particularly, hundreds of South Vietnamese Air Force (VNAF) pilot took it upon themselves to change that. In their beaten up UH-1 Huey’s they took to the sky, each helicopter laden with fleeing refugees. « Lets give it a shot and head out to sea, I’m hearing US Navy communication out there. », recalled an ex-VNAF pilot. Hundreds of South Vietnamese helicopters began flying out of Saigon, to the US 7th fleet. These remnants of the South Vietnamese Air Force were on their own, piloting small, overloaded, shot-up, fuel starving utility helicopters, ferrying their terrified families and friends out to sea. They did know that the U.S. Navy's 7th Fleet was out there, somewhere, and they headed out to the ocean hoping to be rescued.

    The approximately 250 officers and men of the USS Kirk weren't prepared for what happened next.
    The ship's crew saw helicopters on the horizon headed for the Kirk and other U.S. ships. The choppers were piloted by South Vietnamese officers and their families fleeing their homeland.
    Scores of South Vietnamese military helicopters filled the horizon.
    « It looked like bees flying all over the place. And they were just going due east, trying to find someplace to land », said Paul Jacobs, the captain of the KIRK.
    One of the sailors who preserved details of the scene was Hugh Doyle, the KIRK´s chief engineer. When he had free time, he would return to his stateroom and sit on his bunk or at a small pull-down desk and dictate cassette tapes of daily events to send home to his wife, Judy, and three children. His surprise and excitement are evident in the tapes.
    « We looked up out on the horizon, and pretty soon all you could see were helicopters. And they came in and it was incredible. I don't think I'll ever see anything like it again », said Doyle, now retired and living in Rhode Island.
    The South Vietnamese military helicopters were packed with people — pilots and their family and friends. And now, as some of the choppers were precariously low on fuel, the pilots were looking for a place to land. Dozens of UH-1 Huey helicopters flew past the KIRK heading for the larger aircraft carriers. The KIRK had only a small flight deck.
    Jacobs, the KIRK´s captain, wanted in on the action, so he ordered his men to try to make contact with the helicopters and invite one to land.
    But the officers and men of the KIRK weren't sure that the South Vietnamese pilots had the skill to land on a moving flight deck.
    « We never anticipated landing a helicopter landing on us, but we started talking about it. Wouldn’t it be great to grab a helicopter. »- Hugh Doyle, Chief Engineer aboard the USS Kirk. Grab a helicopter they did. A crew member on-board who knew rudimentary Vietnamese sent out a message on an emergency radio channel, « Number 1-0-8-7, land here. »
    This message was repeated constantly, but the hundreds of Huey seemed not to notice the KIRK, as they scrambled to get to one of the larger ships or aircraft carriers. Finally after hours of repeating the message, a Huey turned inbound to the KIRK. The pilot had never landed on a moving ship, and the USS KIRK had never landed a UH-1 Huey. Lucky for both, the Landing Signal Enlisted Airman successfully guided the helicopter to the KIRK´s waiting deck.

    « Most of the Vietnam pilots had never landed on a ship before. Almost to a man they were army pilots and they typically landed either at fire zones, at little clearings in the brush, or at an airport »,
    recalled Don Cox, an anti-submarine-equipment officer on the KIRK, who is now an engineer for a missile defense company in Arizona.
    The sailors stood on the landing deck and directed the first helicopter in. They unloaded its passengers and directed a second helicopter in. There we now several others buzzing overhead waiting to land.
    « I believe it was the third aircraft that landed and chopped the tail off the second aircraft that had landed. There was still helicopters circling wanting to land. There was no room on our deck so we just started pushing helicopters overboard. We figured humans were much more important than the hardware », Cox said.

    Commander Paul Jacobs (3rd from left) and KIRK´s crewmen shove a Huey helicopter overboard to make room on the KIRK´s small flight deck for more helicopters full of refugees.

    Over the next two days, the USS KIRK LSE’s landed 17 Huey’s. They crew fell into a routine, land the helicopter, empty it of refugees and strip it of useful equipment, and push it over the side. The flight deck was equipped with anti-skid surfacing, so the process of pushing the helicopters over was a laborious task. It looked like so : one or two sailors would jump into the helicopter and grab whatever hardware they could find — batteries, radios — as other sailors were bouncing and pushing the machine toward the edge of the deck and over into the sea.

    Early that first day, an overloaded larger helicopte moved toward the KIRK and attempted to land on the KIRK´s tiny flight deck. It was a Chinook CH-47, with two rotors that would tear the ship apart if it tried to land. The flight deck of USS KIRK was too small and the CH-47 Chinook too large to land. The sailors made frantic signals telling the pilot he couldn't land. Ba Nguyen, the pilot got the message but he was determined to unload his passengers. So he hovered above the deck while his passengers – including his wife and three small children – jumped from the hovering giant, dropping 30 ft below to the deck of the ship where a waiting crew member caught them to break their fall.
    Soon, mothers began throwing their children out of the helicopter, hoping the crew would catch them. Hugh Doyle Chief Engineer aboard USS KIRK described the scene to Judy in his cassette tape recording.
    « Picture this, we're steaming along at about 5 knots. And this huge airplane comes in and hovers over, over the fantail, opened up its rear door, and starts dropping people out of it. It's about 15 feet off the fantail ! There's American sailors back on the fantail, catching babies like basketballs ! », he said at the time.

    A young mother in the helicopter — the wife of the pilot — dropped her three young children, including her 10-month-old baby daughter.

    Here, a member of the USS KIRK´s crew tends to a Vietnamese baby.

    Mina Nguyen-Driver, the pilot's daughter, was 10 months old in 1975.
    « I obviously don't remember anything just because I was still a baby in diapers, but what my mom tells me, my parents tell me, is that they dropped me off », she said.
    That's not the same as drop off the baby at day care or drop off the baby at Grandma's house. What Nguyen-Driver means is that her mother literally dropped her — from a moving helicopter. She's heard her parents tell the story.
    « And she just was like, '1-2-3, hallelujah: Drop her,' » Nguyen-Driver said. « And just going for Hail Mary and not really quite being sure as to if the folks below were going to catch me or not. ».
    The folks about 10 feet below were that sailor, Chipman, and his crew mates on the USS KIRK.
    Kent Chipman, a 21-year-old Texan, was one of the sailors who ran under the helicopter to catch the people who jumped out. « I remember the baby coming out », he recalled. « You know, there was no way that we were going to let them hit the deck or drop them. We caught them. »

    That's how desperate things were for families such as the Nguyens. As Saigon fell, the Vietnamese pilot gathered his family, his comrades,… in his helicopter and flew away from the city. The only direction to go was out to sea. He was running out of fuel when he spotted a solitary ship below. It was the USS KIRK.
    Once the passengers were out of the big Chinook, the co-pilot jumped to the deck. But now the pilot was running out of fuel and surrounded by flat, blue ocean. He flew about 60 yards from the KIRK.
    The sailors could see the pilot in the cockpit taking off his clothes as he hovered the aircraft. They watched as he leaned the helicopter to the left and jumped out the right-hand side into the water.
    « Soon as the blades hit the water, they exploded — there were small pieces, but there were also pieces, probably 10, 15 feet long, big pieces go flying out. It sounded like a giant train wreck, you know, in slow motion and it's loud, you know, wind is blowing everywhere », said Chipman, who then worked as a machinist's mate keeping the ship's engine running and who today helps operate a water purification plant in Longview, Texas.

    Chipman and the others on deck assumed the pilot had died as the helicopter exploded in the water. But then the man came to the surface and Chipman was thrilled. « To see that kind of destruction, you think this guy just sacrificed his life. But he popped right out of the water and it was amazing. »
    Excited sailors from the Kirk dove into the water to save the pilot, but others — already in the water in a small boat — got to him first and brought him back to the KIRK.

    The pilot and his family were among some 200 refugees rescued from 16 helicopters by the KIRK´s crew over a day and a half. The sailors looked after their Vietnamese visitors, over half of whom were women, children and babies. They put up tarps on the deck so they would have some shelter from the blazing sun. They distributed food and water and played games with the children. The ship's crew found themselves changing diapers, treating wounds and giving comfort.
    On the second day, the refugees were moved to a larger transport ship.
    « These people were coming out of there with nothing. Whatever they had in their pockets or hands. Some of them had suitcases; some of them had a bag », Chipman said. « You could tell they'd been in a war. They were still wounded. There were people young, old, army guys with the bandages on their head, arms — you could tell they'd been in a fight. »
    Kent Chipman, who was 21 when he served aboard the USS KIRK.

    But the KIRK´s mission was about to change — and suddenly. The rescue of the refugees from those helicopters was just a start. The ship and its crew would eventually help save 20,000 to 30,000 Vietnamese refugees fleeing aboard the vessels of the South Vietnamese navy.
    It's one of the greatest humanitarian missions in the history of the U.S. Navy, but it's a story that has largely gone untold until recently, lost in the bitterness over the Vietnam War.

    Most of the South Vietnamese saved by the KIRK eventually moved to camps in the United States and then resettled in communities across the country.
    The officers and men of the Kirk never knew the names — with a few exceptions — of the men, women and children they had rescued.
    Paul Jacobs was captain of the KIRK. « They want to find out what happened to the Vietnamese that they rescued and the Vietnamese want to pay their respects to the people who rescued them », he explains. Jacobs says the men of the KIRK better understand the importance of what they did when they hear the success stories of the Vietnamese refugees they saved.

    But over the past decade, the crew members started getting together at reunions.
    The Kirk crew had long forgotten the pilot's name. The Nguyen family landed on the ship and was quickly transferred to another ship. But the officers and men never forgot the pilot's stunning airmanship. The crew started to wonder what happened to that pilot, his family and the others they helped save.
    So last year, Jacobs and Herman looked for him. They went on a Vietnamese television show based in Virginia and explained they wanted to find the pilot.
    Soon afterward, an e-mail arrived at the pilot's home. It said a U.S. naval person was looking for the gentleman who ditched a Chinook off the USS Kirk, recalls Miki Nguyen, one of the pilot's sons. "I asked my mom if there was anyone else in the U.S. Vietnamese community who would have performed such a thing and she didn't recall any. So I replied back," he says.
    Last year, Jacobs — along with Jan Herman, a historian with the Navy's Bureau of Medicine who is now documenting the story of the Kirk — gave an interview to a Vietnamese television show in Virginia. They talked of wanting to find that pilot.
    It didn't take long for word of their search to spread in the community of Vietnamese now established across America. Soon afterward, an e-mail arrived at the pilot's home. It said a U.S. naval person was looking for the gentleman who ditched a Chinook off the USS KIRK, recalls Miki Nguyen, one of the pilot's sons. « I asked my mom if there was anyone else in the U.S. Vietnamese community who would have performed such a thing and she didn't recall any. So I replied back », he said.
    And that's how Ba Nguyen and his family were found.

    Ba Nguyen and his wife, Nho, had often told their children the story of their dramatic escape from Vietnam, and how Nho had dropped 10-month-old daughter Mina and 3-year-old son Mika from the helicopter. Miki, the oldest, then 6, had jumped thinking it was an adventure.
    The Nguyen family resettled in the United States and moved to Seattle. Both the husband and wife worked for Boeing, the aerospace giant. Today, Miki is a project manager for AT&T Wireless in Seattle. Mina is a neuropsychologist in Oregon. The middle son died a few years ago.

    Ba Nguyen (right), here with his wife, Nho, was able to maneuver his helicopter so his passengers — including his 10-month-old daughter — could drop to safety on the KIRK. He then flew the Chinook over the ocean and jumped out while the helicopter crashed.

    The KIRK´s crew held a reunion this summer outside Washington, D.C., and invited Nguyen and his family. The pilot came, pushed in his wheelchair into the ballroom by his wife and children.
    The KIRK´s crew surprised Nguyen by honoring him, and pinning an Air Medal on his sport coat. The medal, presented on behalf of the USS KIRK alumni association, is given by the U.S. military to note heroic feats of airmanship.
    « This is our story », said his son Miki Nguyen, who was 6 years old at the time of the rescue.
    « This is how we started in America. »

    Thirty-five years ago (1975-2010), after Nguyen's family had jumped to safety, the pilot was left in his helicopter, low on fuel. So he flew off the side of the KIRK, hovered over the water, took off his flight suit, and jumped into the water just before the huge Chinook helicopter crashed into the sea. He was rescued, in his underwear.
    Nguyen's wife saved the shirt he wore that day and his colorful boxer shorts. In 2000, when he retired from Boeing, son Miki built a box of wood and glass and took the T-shirt and shorts, and Nguyen's flying medals, and put them in.
    « I gave that to him for his retirement party », says Miki. The symbolism of how he started in the U.S. — a T-shirt and boxer shorts and a dream. And it's an American story, it's our story. »
    When Miki Nguyen responded to the e-mail from Herman and Jacobs, the Navy historian sent back a picture that had been taken of the Chinook pilot. Is this your father ? he wanted to know. It was a picture of a pilot, being rescued from the sea, in a T-shirt and those same, colorful boxer shorts.

    The family was excited to attend the reunion and to meet, once more, the men who had helped save them. Miki brought his two young children.
    But the family was surprised when they found out that the crew of the KIRK planned to honor Ba Nguyen.
    « What he did in 1975 to free those people was above and beyond », Jacobs, the KIRK´s captain, said from the ballroom stage. « Great job. Let's give him a hand. »
    As the crowd rose to its feet, Miki pushed his father in his wheelchair to the front of the ballroom. Rick Sautter, an officer from the KIRK, pinned an Air Medal on the man's sport coat. It's a version of the one the U.S. military gives for heroic feats while flying.
    It hadn't been clear how much Ba Nguyen understood, because he has Alzheimer's and doesn't speak anymore. But he frequently cried out during the ceremony.
    Then, the old pilot struggled to get out of his wheelchair. His son hurried to his side and helped him up. Ba Nguyen lifted his shaking arm, and brought it to his head in a salute.

  3. #3
    Regular phoggy's Avatar
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    24 Apr 09
    The dead baby

    Members of the Le family were excited, and nervous. They were moments away from being reunited — after 35 years — with sailors and officers from the USS KIRK. They'd always wanted to thank the ship's crew for its kindness when they were refugees fleeing South Vietnam.
    This past summer, the Le family heard an NPR story about the KIRK, a small escort destroyer. The KIRK´s crew spoke about how they'd been haunted by the death of an infant they'd tried to save. That child was their son, Bao Le.

    The Le family now knew how to contact the crew that had helped them. There were telephone calls and e-mails and then a chance to meet face to face.
    So in late October, the family and the crew gathered in Pensacola, Fla. The parents, Loan and Pierre Le, and their children — daughters Kimsa Hoang, Kimmy Le, and Kim Penridge and her husband, Andrew, and the youngest of the Le children, son Alex — flew in from Texas.

    After 35 years, the Le family reunited with the captain and crew of the USS KIRK.
    From left: Kim Penridge and her husband, Andrew Penridge; youngest son Alex Le, Kimsa Hoang (front center), Kimmy Le, and parents Loan and Pierre Le.

    Paul Jacobs, retired captain of the USS KIRK, reunites with the Le family, who were helped by the men on his ship 35 years ago when he led a rescue mission that saved 20,000 to 30,000 Vietnamese refugees.

    Pierre Le shows off the patch that a crew member of the USS Kirk gave him 35 years ago. He has kept it ever since.

    Members of the KIRK´s crew had come from around the country for a showing at the Naval Air Station, Pensacola of a new documentary about the Kirk's Vietnam mission.

    Before the two groups reunited, the Le family sat down with NPR to talk about their story. Pierre Le unfolded a pink piece of paper. It is his son's death certificate, issued by the U.S. Navy. The cause of death: « cardiopulmonary arrest » due to « gastroenteritis » and « pneumonia ». At the bottom it gives the precise location where Bao Le's body was buried at sea. Not the South China Sea, off the coast of the Philippines, but: « At 14 degrees, 34 minutes North Latitude and 119 degrees and 26 Minutes E Longitude. »
    Loan Le had also brought a photo of Bao Le, the only photo that exists.

    Bao Le was just 1 year and 9 days old when he died onboard the USS KIRK.

    « I was very proud of him because as you look in the picture, he was very handsome », she said. The photo, in browns and whites, is about the size of an index card. And the boy in the white shirt is in mid-movement, as if he's ready to jump into someone's arms. There's an impish smile forming on his lips.
    Just weeks after that photo was taken, Saigon fell. It was the spring of 1975. The Le family, desperate to get out, squeezed onto a South Vietnamese ship.

    In the spring of 1975, as Saigon fell and the Vietnam War ended, the USS KIRK was chosen to go back to Vietnam, by itself, on a mission to rescue the remnants of the South Vietnamese Navy, to prevent those ships from falling into the possession of the North Vietnamese.
    Those 30 South Vietnamese ships, trailed by scores of fishing boats, were packed with more than 20,000 refugees, including the Le family, desperate to leave Vietnam.

    The KIRK started the rescue and was then joined by other Navy ships. The flotilla escorted the South Vietnamese ships to the Philippines.
    During the crossing people soon became sick in the cramped ships. Stephen Burwinkel, the KIRK´s medic — in the Navy he's called a hospital corpsman — went from ship to ship attending to those with dysentery, dehydration, diarrhea and other illnesses.

    Bao Le had gotten violently sick with cramps and fever, so Loan Le and her infant were moved from a South Vietnamese ship to the KIRK. The captain gave up his stateroom to the mother and son. At first Burwinkel was able to revive Bao Le, giving the child a massive dose of penicillin.
    But the boy's fever returned. « I have a very bad feeling that he, he wouldn't survive », said Loan Le. She recalled holding him, massaging him, telling the boy she loved him and praying for him. « I pray, I say, 'Please, God help him. He's my only son.' ».

    But on May 6, the boy died. He would be one of only three people to die during the weeklong evacuation. Bao Le was also the youngest. The ship's logs said he was 9 days old. But that was wrong. He was 1 year and 9 days old.

    Loan Le recalled her desperation when the KIRK´s crew told her what she most feared, that her son had died. « I was hysterical. And I say, 'Let me see my husband and my children, first. Because I don't want to be here by myself. I want to tell them, I have to tell them,' » recalled Le, wiping away her tears.

    Chief Engineer Hugh Doyle was sent over to the Vietnamese ship to get the father and the three Le daughters and bring them to the KIRK. He was moved to find that the Les' three children were about the same ages as his own back home in the U.S. Daughter Kimsa, the oldest, was 7; the next, Kimmy, was 5, and Kim was 4. Doyle recorded cassette tapes and sent them home to his wife. In one he described telling the father his son had died.
    « He asked me does his wife know. So I told him, I said, 'Yes, your wife knows. She knows and she's very sad.' And all the way back in the boat, he was saying, he says, 'When we left Saigon we were six,' there were six people in his family. And he kept shaking his head and he said, 'And now we are five. It is very sad, very sad.' ».

    Pierre Le has vivid memories of the respectful funeral the sailors held for his son on the fantail of the USS Kirk.
    « I remember that was at night. A chilly night, even as it's in summertime. And I still remember there's a moon, too. And I see that there are many soldiers in a line up there. I don't know if I can call it a coffin or not. But, you know, it's the body of my son was wrapped under two flags: the Vietnamese flag and the American flag. »
    Pierre Le recalls that someone played taps. His son's body was on a board and, as the board tipped, the body slid into the dark South China Sea.

    For middle daughter Kimmy, her brother’s burial at sea is her first memory — stamped and stark in her mind.
    « I'm sure my parents told us that my brother died », she said. « But I don't think I grasped that. And I remember the funeral. And I remember when he went over. I remember running towards the edge of the boat. And I remember standing there looking down. And I remember [thinking]: 'How come no one is going to get him?' », she recalled.

    She remembers, too, how one of the sailors scooped her up and took her to another part of the ship and gave her candy.
    A few days later the flotilla of ships arrived in the Philippines and the Le family was taken to a refugee camp in Guam.
    The KIRK´s crew would visit the Le family, bringing food and candy and once, even a projector and showed the film The Towering Inferno. Later, the Les resettled in Hawaii. Pierre resumed his career as an architect and now runs a family financial service firm. The family moved to Texas. Another child, Alex, was born.

    Bao Le's death at sea was something the family would barely talk about. The children saw how sad it made their parents when they raised the subject or asked questions. But the children grew up knowing the family hoped one day to thank the crew of the Kirk.
    And now, in a Pensacola restaurant, they do just that.
    As the family walks into the restaurant the sailors of the KIRK come over to greet them. There are hugs and tears. Hugh Doyle introduces himself to Kimmy and then to her father. Pierre.
    « Hi. I'm Hugh. I think I met you when you were a little tiny girl. Do you remember getting onto the boat ? ».
    Pierre is finally able to say the words he has been holding on to for 35 years.
    « Thank you very much for helping my family. For taking care of, good care of my family. »
    Then he spots Capt. Paul Jacobs and breaks into a smile.
    « Let me say hi to the captain. I remember his face. You're the captain. See I cannot forget you. »
    Jacobs clearly remembers Le and gives him a hearty handshake.
    « I can't forget you, either. That was a long, long time ago. »
    They linger for hours over lunch. The crew members from the KIRK talk about how they'd come home from war, about their careers and family since. The Le family talks about how they became Americans, about their careers and family since.
    And they talk about the tragic death that brought them together long ago.

    When they finally leave the restaurant it is almost time for a reception and showing of the film at the Pensacola Naval Air Station. Jan Herman, a historian with the Navy's Bureau of Medicine and Surgery, has put together the documentary to tell the story of the KIRK´s humanitarian mission. For the Le family it is a chance to see and hear the larger story of the journey from South Vietnam to the Philippines.
    But just as the film is about to begin, the retired Capt. Jacobs calls Loan and Pierre Le to the front of the theater. They are clearly surprised as they make their way down to where Jacobs stands at a podium. They hold hands as he speaks.

    Jacobs says the crew decided to make a proclamation about their son Bao Le and put it on a plaque to honor his death on the USS Kirk.
    Jacobs pauses with emotion as he reads the words on the plaque.
    « Bao Le is now and forever more an honorary crew member of the good ship USS KIRK. Though on board for just a tragically short time, Bao Le's impact on the entire crew of Kirk was profound. ...
    He fought a good fight, struggling in vain to defeat pneumonia. And when he left us during that arduous sea journey to freedom, he left behind hundreds of his shipmates who were deeply saddened and heartbroken by his death. Many years have slipped by since that epic time yet Bao Le's KIRK shipmates still remember him for his valiant struggle to live. But also as a symbol of the struggle of the tens of thousands of his Vietnamese countrymen who accompanied him on that journey to freedom on the South China Sea. »

    The family is touched by the plaque and its words. They each speak of how the day's events had closed the circle for them, even perhaps making it easier in the future to talk about Bao Le.
    For Kimmy Le, who was the 5-year-old watching a funeral she did not understand, the day has given her the chance to do something she had been thinking about since high school.
    « I guess the yearning of finding them was to let them know that what they did made a difference. And I wanted them to see where we are now, you see, how happy we are here living in the U.S. And I wanted to say thank you and I wanted them to see we all grew up. And here we are. »

  4. #4
    Regular phoggy's Avatar
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    24 Apr 09
    The baby named after the KIRK

    A young woman never fully understood the meaning of her middle name until she learned that people were looking for her. 35 years ago her mother escaped Vietnam on the USS KIRK Navy ship. Due to a string of lucky coincidences they've now been reunited and are figuring out what it all means.

    KIRK Giang Tien (10 days) / in the background was the tent city of the refugees in Guam.

    KIRK Giang Tien (4 months).

    KIRK Giang Tien (2005).

    KIRK Giang Tien (2010).

    Paul Jacobs, captain of the KIRK, was first reunited with Lan Tran (left) and her daughter, KIRK Giang Tien (right), named after the KIRK, in 2005. Since then, the pair has formed close friendships with the crew members and other refugees. Here, they meet again at a reunion in July 2010 in Virginia.

    When the USS KIRK received an order from the USS BLUE RIDGE, the flagship of the US Navy´s 7th fleet to sail to Con Don Island, the southernmost island roughly 30 miles off the coast of Vietnam, to join with other US Navy´s ships to evacuate the South Vietnamese Navy and their families, they found what remained of the South Vietnamese Navy´s. The fleet was made up of « scores of boats and ships of all sizes and descriptions, anchored, drifting, or slowly steaming in the vicinity of Con Son Island ». Only thirty-two of these boats were deemed worthy of making the 1000+ mile open-ocean journey to Subic Bay, Philippines. They were packed with sometimes 4 times over maximum capacity.

    « They were rusty, ugly, beat up, some of them wouldn’t even get under way; they were towing each other. And some of them were actually taking on water and we took our guys over and got the ones under way that would run. » - Ken Chipman, Former USS KIRK crew member.

    « We’re going to have to send you back to rescue the Vietnamese Navy. We forgot ‘em. And if we don’t get them or any part of them, they’re all probably going to be killed. » -
    Directive from Rear Admiral Donald Whitmire, the commander of all of the U.S. amphibious forces in the Western Pacific, was placed in charge of all seaborne humanitarian efforts in the region to evacuate all Americans and « at risk » Vietnamese out of Vietnam (April 1975).

    HQ-06 TRAN QUOC TOAN & HQ-402 LAM GIANG of South Vietnamese Navy (Con Son, 1975).

    Crew from the USS KIRK reach a South Vietnamese navy ship, HQ-402 LAM GIANG, overflowing with refugees near Con Son Island on May 1st, 1975.

    HQ-03 TRAN NHAT DUAT of SVN Navy (Con Son, 1975).

    The armada on the route to Philippines (1975).

    Assistance teams from the U.S. Navy ships conducted systematic daily visits to each refugee ship, tending to the many serious engineering problems of the Vietnamese ships, and also ministering to the health and nutritional needs of tens of thousands of refugees. A number of pregnant women were eventually discovered in the teeming crowds, and the decision was made to consolidate these at-risk women – along with their extended families – aboard KIRK, where a compartment was quickly converted into a makeshift maternity ward.
    Volunteers from KIRK’s crew were assigned to tend to the needs of these women and their families around the clock. These young sailors, such as Don Cox from the Air department, and Todd Thedell of the Operations Department, performed their unusual « non-military » duties in a truly outstanding fashion.

    The picture with name and address of his then girl friend in USA on the back which then sergeant Donald Cox of USS KIRK gave Lan Tran as starting help for the beginning of a new life of her family in America. Lan Tran still keeps this picture as her talisman and shows it at each reunion with USS KIRK´s crew every year.

    Eventually, over a period of two days, a total of five expectant mothers – two nearing full term – were resettled aboard KIRK. The first of these young mothers-to-be was Nguyen Thi Tuong-Lan Tran who was brought on board on 3rd May 1975. Her husband, a pilot in the South Vietnamese Air Force, had been left behind in Vietnam.

    Lan Tran was in the final month of her pregnancy, and had endured weeks of turmoil and privation prior to her escape aboard the HQ-16 LY THUONG KIET of the South Vietnamese Navy. She was in poor physical shape when she and her elderly mother were transferred to KIRK, but once aboard she improved markedly. As the armada reached Philippines, Lan Tran was transported into the hospital in Subic Bay and gave birth to a beautiful little girl three weeks later on 22nd May 1975 in the refugee camp in Guam. On the birth certificate of the baby « Tent City, Guam » was written as addresse of the mother.
    Lan Tran was so appreciative of the care provided by the crew of KIRK, that she wanted to name her baby after the US Navy ship which saved her and oher refugees. But there was a little problem : KIRK is a boy´s name, and her baby is a girl ! After long consideration she decided to use KIRK as the middle name for her baby. That means : Tran-Nguyen KIRK Giang-Tien.
    And USS KIRK has endly got a baby.

    Tran Nguyen KIRK Giang Tien, the Vietnamese girl named after the USS KIRK.

    NOTES :

    ● Donald Cox left US Navy 1978, worked then as senior engineer for Raytheon in Tucson, Arizona.
    ● The husband of Lan Tran could escape out of Vietnam to Thailand in the last minute and moved afterwards to Fort Chaffee in Arkansas. The International Red Cross helped him to go to Camp Pendleton in California for reunion with his family living there. Then, afterwards, the whole familie moved to Baltimore. But after 9 months, they came back to California, because « the weather in Baltimore is too cold for me…», recalled Lan Tran. The husband of Lan Tran, ex-pilot AC-119 gunship of SVNAF, passed away in 1995.
    ● KIRK Giang Tien had graduated MBA at the California State University, Long Beach. Her job is to organize conferences, trading fairs,…

  5. #5

  6. #6
    Regular phoggy's Avatar
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    24 Apr 09
    To all US Navy servicemen (ex & current) on this forum !


    To US army guys maybe : GO ARMY BEAT NAVY.
    But to me : GO ARMY...LOVE NAVY !

    Because 37 years before I was also one of tausend tausend refugees on this armada on the route to Philippines !

    Thank you you guys, women and men of the US Navy !

  7. #7
    Idiot Mode [ON] OFF Senior Contributor YellowFever's Avatar
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    17 Jul 06
    I'm reminded of a quote I read somewhere which goes something like this, " For every soldier you see with a medal, there are at least ten more that did just as much. Their only reason for not having one is that no one was around to see them do the heroic acts."

  8. #8

    Military Professional
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    11 Sep 06
    Portland, Oregon
    Remarkable story displaying victory of the resilient human spirit in the midst of defeat.
    "This aggression will not stand, man!" Jeff Lebowski
    "The only true currency in this bankrupt world is what you share with someone else when you're uncool." Lester Bangs

  9. #9
    Lei Feng Protege
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    Arlington, VA

    thank you for putting these stories up. very compelling.
    There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there has always been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that "My ignorance is just as good as your knowledge."- Isaac Asimov

  10. #10
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  11. #11
    Defense ProfessionalSenior Contributor tbm3fan's Avatar
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    01 Nov 09
    San Francisco Bay Area
    Very moving. Met a few of refugees in the early 80's as they made their way to San Jose which today has a large "Little Saigon" district.

  12. #12
    Official Thread Jacker Senior Contributor gunnut's Avatar
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    27 Jan 06
    DPRK, Demokratik People's Republik of Kalifornia
    Thank you phoggy for sharing the story of USS Kirk.

    There is a Little Saigon district near me, populated by Vietnamese Americans loyal to the republic. They are fiercely anti-communist and still fly the republic's flag on April 30th.
    "Only Nixon can go to China." -- Old Vulcan proverb.

  13. #13
    Lei Feng Protege
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    They are fiercely anti-communist and still fly the republic's flag on April 30th.
    only one day?

    in Eden Center, Arlington's equivalent of Little Saigon, the flag is there 24/7. i heard some of the Vietnamese embassy folks eat there, wonder what they must think the first time they see that.
    There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there has always been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that "My ignorance is just as good as your knowledge."- Isaac Asimov

  14. #14
    Official Thread Jacker Senior Contributor gunnut's Avatar
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    DPRK, Demokratik People's Republik of Kalifornia
    Quote Originally Posted by astralis View Post
    only one day?

    in Eden Center, Arlington's equivalent of Little Saigon, the flag is there 24/7. i heard some of the Vietnamese embassy folks eat there, wonder what they must think the first time they see that.
    The streets and shops fly the South Vietnam flag on April 30th. There might be a city ordanance against excessive flags during any non-special days.

    You've been there, haven't you? Bolsa and Magolia in Westminster? Little Saigon extends out a few blocks from there.
    "Only Nixon can go to China." -- Old Vulcan proverb.

  15. #15
    Lei Feng Protege
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    23 Aug 05
    Arlington, VA
    yeah, just never noticed. it's been a while; on the occasions i go back to irvine, there's enough good vietnamese restaurants around now where i don't need to schlep out there...
    There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there has always been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that "My ignorance is just as good as your knowledge."- Isaac Asimov

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