First of three parts
For Americans, the lasting image of the end of the Vietnam War came from the nightly news. On April 29, 1975, television showed the evacuation of Saigon as U.S. Marine helicopters swooped down to the U.S. Embassy and the roof of a nearby CIA safe house to rescue the last 1,000 Americans in the city and some 6,000 Vietnamese and their families who worked for them.
But there was another evacuation that didn't get as much attention. Tens of thousands of Vietnamese found other ways to escape in those frenzied few days. They left in boats and helicopters and headed to the South China Sea. They didn't know if North Vietnamese jets would sink their boats or shoot the helicopters out of the sky.
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.
One of those U.S. Navy ships was a small destroyer escort, the USS Kirk. As the evacuation began, the Kirk's military mission was to shoot down any North Vietnamese jets that might try to stop the Marine helicopters. The North Vietnamese planes never came.
The approximately 260 officers and men of the USS Kirk weren't prepared for what happened next.
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.
Desperate, Looking For A Place To Land
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.
'Humans More Important Than Hardware'
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.
"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.
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.
These scenes were repeated on other Navy ships. Helicopters would land, refugees would jump off and sailors would quickly push the helicopters overboard to make room for more. That happened on large ships, including the USS Hancock and USS Midway, both aircraft carriers, and the USS Blue Ridge, the headquarters ship for the Navy's 7th Fleet. It also happened on other smaller ships, like the USS Cook, another destroyer escort like the Kirk.
'Catching Babies Like Basketballs'
Amid the chaos, a larger helicopter moved toward the Kirk. It was a Chinook CH-47, with two rotors that would tear the ship apart if it tried to land. The sailors made frantic signals telling the pilot he couldn't land. The pilot got the message but he was determined to unload his passengers.
Doyle 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.
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."
A Miraculous Escape
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 says. "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."
Heroism Gives Vietnamese Chance At New Lives
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.
But over the past decade, the crew members started getting together at reunions. They always found themselves marveling at the masterful airmanship of the pilot of the Chinook. The crew started to wonder what happened to that pilot, his family and the others they helped save.
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. And that's how Ba Nguyen and his family were found. Nguyen and his wife, now American citizens, live in Seattle, where both worked for the aerospace giant Boeing.
The Kirk 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 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."