From NHHC Public Affairs Officer, Lt. Cmdr. John M. Daniels, USN:
Washington, DC — The Navy premiered “The Lucky Few” at the Smithsonian Institution’s Baird Auditorium Nov. 11.
The documentary featured a little-known rescue operation in the tumultuous days following the fall of Saigon.
In late April, 1975 panic and hysteria ruled the streets of Saigon as North Vietnamese soldiers surrounded the capital city. Americans and South Vietnamese sought escape and refuge any way they could.
Produced by the Bureau of Medicine and Surgery, “The Lucky Few,” chronicles one part of this story. The documentary is about USS Kirk (DE-1087) and its crew of 260 who played an unexpected, but considerable role in Operation Frequent Wind – the evacuation of personnel from Saigon.
For most, the images of the end of the Vietnam War came from the nightly news. Television stations showed the evacuation of the U.S. Embassy as Marine helicopters landed on the roof. But there was another story that didn’t get the same attention—the rescue of more than 30,000 refugees who found other ways to escape the frenzy. USS Kirk played a pivotal role by first rescuing, then escorting South Vietnamese military and civilians to freedom and a new life.
As Frequent Wind began, U.S. helicopters loaded with evacuees began heading out to sea, where a 7th Fleet task force awaited them. Just as suddenly though, hoards of unknown contacts began appearing on the ships’ radar screens. South Vietnamese army and Air Force Hueys, packed with refugees were following the American aircraft out to sea.
USS Kirk quickly jumped into action and began landing aircraft on its tiny flight deck. First one and then two helicopters were on deck. With several more helicopters approaching, the commanding officer quickly made the decision to start pushing aircraft over the side once the men, women, and children were safely aboard to make room for more.
Then the unthinkable happened – Kirk’s crew heard another helicopter approaching, and as the aircraft appeared, the crew grew apprehensive. Attempting to land was a twin-rotor CH-47 Chinook, the largest helicopter in the South Vietnamese inventory. The crew tried to wave off the massive helicopter, but instead its pilot, with utmost prowess, hovered over the fantail while the refugees jumped or were dropped into the waiting arms of Sailors.
After everyone was safely aboard, the Chinook pilot ditched his aircraft in the water. Not missing a beat, several Kirk crew members quickly jumped overboard to rescue the pilot from the water and the vortex of the sinking aircraft. By days end, USS Kirk had landed a total of 13 aircraft and remarkably there were no deaths or injuries.
Retired Capt. Paul Jacobs, was USS Kirk’s commanding officer at the time of evacuation.
“The average age of my crew was 23,” said Jacobs. “They were young and new to the Navy and were trained for war, but the situation quickly turned into a humanitarian effort. We had to take care of a large amount of people by providing them food, shelter, and medical care.”
Shortly thereafter, the refugees were transferred to SS Green Port. USS Kirk was without refugees, but that wouldn’t last long. The next day, the ship was tasked with escorting 16 ships from the South Vietnamese navy to the Philippines – on these ships were 30 thousand refugees. Initially, Kirk was the lone U.S. ship, and was responsible for providing security, engineering support to the damaged and fledgling ships, and feeding and providing medical care.
The ship’s two hospital corpsman faced a very daunting task. They had to take care of everything from dehydration to diarrhea, to conjunctivitis and several pregnant women. Using a commandeered swift boat, they conducted daily rounds at each of the ships. Supplies were short and sanitary conditions were less than ideal, but despite this, the Navy “docs” did everything they could to take care of their patients.
“One of the skills that Navy medicine has honed to a fine edge during its history is helping those in distress, both on the high seas and victims of natural disasters,” said Jan Herman, Navy Medical Department senior historian. “The rescue of thousands of refugees at the end of the Vietnam War and caring for them was a shining moment in our history.”
The flotilla made its way to the Philippines May 7, ending its five-day, 1000 mile odyssey, where the refugees disembarked. From there, another chapter on their journey to freedom was about to begin. Many would continue this journey and make their way to the United States.
In the film many of the refugees expressed their gratitude to the crew of USS Kirk.
“I will never forget the experience on USS Kirk and the crew members who extended their hand to helping us during our time of need,” said Lan Tran.
In the documentary, Donald Cox, who was an Aviation Antisubmarine Warfare Operator 3rd Class aboard USS Kirk during the evacuation, spoke about the operation.
“Combat wasn’t what was needed,” said Cox. “It was a heart and hand that was needed. We didn’t recognize that at first, we just did our jobs.”
This operation was also detailed this summer in a three-part series on National Public Radio entitled “Forgotten Ship: A Daring Rescue as Saigon Fell“.