The USS Kirk’s Story
The USS Kirk was a destroyer escort deployed to the U.S. Navy 7th fleet in the late 1960s and early 1970s during the Vietnam War. This vessel was an antisubmarine ship; a deadly fighting machine designed to seek & destroy.
At the end of the Vietnam War, during the final hours of the evacuation of Saigon, a heroic humanitarian mission went unnoticed among the chaos. The USS Kirk, a destroyer escort carried out the most important mission during a controversial war. The crew of this modest ship, directed by a armed civilian from the State Dept., saved the lives of 30,000 of the real victims of war, stranded South Vietnam civilians.
April 29th, 1975
The city of Saigon is 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”. Over the next two days, American heavy Chinook helicopters ferried humans out to sea, to board one of the waiting ship from the 7th fleet. At this time, the USS Kirk 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.
Because of the lack of time, thousands of South Vietnamese Saigon citizens would be left behind to face the wrath of the North Vietnamese. However, hundreds of South Vietnamese Air Force (VNAF) pilot took it upon themselves to change that. In their beaten up 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.” – 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.
“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 Kirks waiting deck.
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.
Early that first day, an overloaded CH-47 Chinook attempted to land on the Kirk’s flight deck, unfortunately, it was much to large for the Kirk’s tiny flight deck. The solution, the Chinook hovered above the moving ship’s flight deck. The refugees aboard began jumping 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. “We were catching babies like basketballs.”- Hugh Doyle Chief Engineer aboard USS Kirk.
In total, the crew of the USS Kirk saved almost 200 people. They were transferred to larger ships, and the USS Kirk returned from its post to rejoin the fleet. They received an order from the USS Blue Ridge, the fleet’s flagship, to pick up a VIP around midnight.
The VIP turned out to be a civilian, Richard Armitage, who later became Deputy Secretary of State.
A Pentagon official gave Armitage an assignment to remove or destroy naval vessels and technology so they would not fall into the hands of the communists.Armitage, came aboard the Kirk to meet Captain Paul Jacobs and Commander Donald Roane. Captain Paul Jacobs verified this, and received this message:
“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 Adm. Donald Whitmire.
Armitage had planned to evacuate the entire South Vietnamese military and their families, but do to the premature fall of Saigon, they would only be able to evacuate the South Vietnamese Navy and their families. He had planned the evacuation with Captain Kiem Do, Chief of Staff of the South Vietnamese Navy. Armitage gave the USS Kirk the order to sail to Con Son Island, an former prison roughly 30 miles off the coast of Vietnam, the rendezvous point for the armada.
May 1st, 1975
When the USS Kirk reached Con Son Island, they found what remained of the South Vietnamese Navy. 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.
As the Kirk’s crew prepared the armada for departure, they knew they had a limited time. Not long after they had arrived, a Russian plane had flown over the group at Con Son Island, no doubt alerting their North Vietnamese allies of the ships.
The armada began for the Philippines. They encountered many problems along the way, including mechanical error and a ship physically sinking. Not to mention the fact that one doctor and one Navy corpsman had to take care of 30,000 plus refugee who had all sorts of ailment. Over the time of the journey, the US Navy made several supply drops to keep the armada supplied.
“But as the flotilla approached the Philippines, the Kirk’s captain got some bad news. The government of the Philippines was one of the first to recognize the Communist rulers now in control of a single Vietnam. The communist leaders had reported that a US Navy ship had “stolen” their ships and Jacobs was told the ships should go back. Armitage and Capt. Do, came up with a solution that Marcos, the Philippine president had to accept.”-NPR
In order for the ships to arrive safely in the Philippines, they needed to fly under the U.S. flag. If they didn’t, they would be stranded helplessly while waiting for the diplomatic knot to be worked out. The USS Kirk crew located 32 U.S. flags. Two crew members from the USS Kirk were dispatched to each South Vietnamese ship. After a ceremony, the United States officially took custody of all the ships.
“And when those flags came down and the American flags went up, that was it. Because a Navy ship is sovereign territory and so that was the last sovereign territory of the Republic of Vietnam.”~ Rick Sautter, Former USS Kirk crew member. These ceremonies were emotional for the refugees on board, it that, they marked the end of South Vietnam as a country. Under the United States flag, the Philippines allowed the armada into their waters.
The refugees were almost immediately placed on ships that journeyed to Guam, and then later were dispersed into several military bases in the United States, and received sponsorships from families all over the United States, to begin a new life.
“This was the high point of my career and I’m very proud of what we did, what we accomplished, how we did it.” ~ Captain Paul Jacobs
This amazing story of good, in a time filled with bad, went unnoticed, and untold to the world until National Public Radio (NPR) produced a three-part story in the fall of 2010 and the US Navy produced a documentary detailing the story of the USS Kirk titled, “The Lucky Few“. Why?
“It was a time to forget a very unhappy war and to move on. And so the story of the Kirk, as good as it was, was kind of left in the dust. No one really looked at it.” ~Jan Herman, Navy Historian
That is the story of the USS Kirk. To learn more, follow our Other Links Page.
R 080155Z MAY 75
FM COMDESRON TWO THREE
TO USS KIRK
UNCLAS E F T O //N01000//
WE ALL KNOW WORDS CAN NOT ADEQUATELY DESCRIBE YOUR RECENT OPERATIONS. IT IS CERTAINLY NO EASIER A TASK FOR ME TO ADEQUATELY EXPRESS MY ADMIRATION FOR WHAT YOU HAVE DONE. UNDER CONDITIONS WHERE THE TOTALLY UNEXPECTED BECAME COMMON PLACE, YOU ALL PERFORMED MAGNIFICENTLY USING BOTH IMAGINATION TO SOLVE NEW AND DIFFICULT PROBLEMS, AND ROUND-THE CLOCK HARD WORK TO GET THE JOB DONE. THERE WERE MANY SPLENDID INDIVIDUAL PERFORMANCES, BUT WHAT MOST IMPRESSED ME WAS THE ALL HAND, AGGRESSIVE, EAM EFFORT DISPLAYED BY ALL OF YOU. I SHALL NEVER FORGET THE REAL FRIENDSHIP, AID AND HUMANITY I SAW EXTENDED BY YOUR CREW TO LITERALLY THOUSANDS OF PEOPLE. YOU HAVE CLOSED A CHAPTER WITH SKILL, PROFESSIONALISM AND DIGNITY. WELL DONE.
Thanks to the USS Kirk website for providing helpful information.