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.