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The Lucky Few: The Story of the USS Kirk
A Documentary by Jan Herman
It can be viewed here on YouTube.
Last Days in Vietnam
From PBS American Experience
A book about this event published in November of 2013
The Lucky Few: The Fall of Saigon and the Rescue Mission of the USS Kirk
National Public Radio’s Story about
The Forgotten Ship, USS Kirk DE 1087
USS Kirk Crew Member stories of Frequent Wind
The USS Kirk Association
Michael Foster’s Page about the USS Kirk
Story in the Decorah News about Michael Foster.
Operation Frequent Wind – the evacuation of South Vietnam
In the spring of 1975, after the relatively straightforward evacuation of Cambodia (Operation Eagle Pull), a fleet of fifty U. S. Navy ships assembled just over the horizon east of the Mekong Delta and the city of Saigon. The evacuation of that infamous city was imminent. Nineteen of those fifty ships were “tin cans” – destroyers and destroyer escorts of a number of classes. USS KIRK (DE-1087) was one of those DEs, stationed just a few miles off the coast, in a roving station that brought her repeatedly within range of anticipated North Vietnamese guns.
The North Vietnamese and Vietcong had been systematically pummeling South Vietnamese forces up and down the length of South Vietnam. It was increasingly clear that the tide of war had turned and there was no hope that the South would prevail. So, after a number of false starts, and with NVA tanks charging into Saigon and nearing the United States Embassy, on the morning of 29 April 1975, the American Ambassador Graham Martin finally saw no other choice. He directed the start of Operation Frequent Wind – the helicopter evacuation of Saigon.
Frequent Wind was a carefully planned exercise, the goal of which was to quickly and safely transport over 7,000 American, Vietnamese, and foreign national personnel from Saigon to the decks of the aircraft carriers and large amphibious ships of Task Force 76, out over the horizon. In a very orderly way, the large Air Force and Marine CH-53 and CH-46 helicopters started shuttling between their flight decks and the courtyard of the American Embassy in downtown Saigon, and the Defense Attaché's compound near Tan Son Nhut Airbase. But the sound and sight of those waves of heavy-lift helicopters triggered a separate massive exodus of small Vietnamese Air Force (VNAF) UH-1 helicopters from all around the Saigon region. These swarming HUEY helicopters – loaded with the families and friends of their pilots – were a complete surprise to the ships on the horizon. They barged without communications or permission into the midst of the precise landing patterns of the carriers and amphibious ships. The situation quickly became chaotic, with small, overloaded HUEYs landing on any open spot they could find on those large ships. Tragically, a number of those small helicopters chose to ditch alongside the large American ships, with the loss of an unknown number of Vietnamese men, women, and children.
Meanwhile, close to the coast, well to the west of the carriers, USS KIRK continued to patrol her assigned sector, watching in wonder as many scores of grossly overloaded HUEYs passed overhead, searching to the east for a flight deck on which to set down. In KIRK’s Combat Information Center (CIC), the watch repeatedly broadcast in rudimentary Vietnamese on the emergency (guard) frequency, that KIRK (“ship 1087”) had an open, available flight deck. In spite of this open invitation to land, it was hours before the first VNAF HUEY turned abruptly inbound and set down on KIRK’s slowly rolling flight deck. And during the next few hours, and into the next day, KIRK continued to land these helicopters, giving safe haven to nearly 200 frightened Vietnamese men, women, and children. The eventual tally was seventeen helicopters, two ditched alongside KIRK (including a USMC AH-1J Cobra gunship, the last helicopter out of Saigon,) and fifteen safely landed on KIRK’s single, one-spot flight deck. In the hectic heat of the action, eleven of those UH-1 HUEY helicopters had to be thrown overboard, since there were at times three VNAF HUEYs on “short final,” waiting to land on KIRK’s single “spot” flight deck.
KIRK’s young crew went to work, busily hauling mattresses and constructing makeshift lean-to shelters on the open deck to protect their weary guests from the burning sun. Cooks on the mess decks quickly shifted gears from the usual “sailor fare” to cater to the needs of their Vietnamese guests, some as young as six months old. The following day, though, KIRK was directed to transfer all her refugees to another of the evacuation ships, as the task force commander had another more pressing task for KIRK.
Admiral Whitmire – CTF-76 – directed KIRK to rendezvous with the command ship, USS BLUE RIDGE (LCC-19) and take aboard a civilian Department of Defense agent. Mr. Richard Armitage was under orders to return to Con Son Island, off the southeastern coast of Vietnam, to rescue the remnants of the South Vietnamese Navy and deliver as many of the SVN ships as possible to the U. S. Naval Base at Subic Bay, in the Philippines. Nearly fifty South Vietnamese navy ships had gathered there during the previous days with their crews and their families. In addition, more than 30,000 Vietnamese civilians had also congregated at Con Son Island, having been systematically evacuated from throughout Vietnam during the previous months while escaping the rampaging North Vietnamese army. KIRK, with Mr. Armitage aboard, steamed throughout the night, arriving at Con Son Island at dawn. KIRK’s “four-to-eight watch” was greeted by the sight of a large number of SVN ships of varying sizes and types, some at anchor, most of them drifting, but a few underway, slowly steaming in the sheltered natural harbor of that small island.
Throughout the rest of that day – 1 May 1975 – KIRK’s engineers and hospital corpsmen went from ship to ship, determining the seaworthiness of each vessel, and treating numerous illnesses and injuries. By the end of the day, 32 of the more than 50 ships were determined to be sufficiently seaworthy to navigate the 1,000-plus miles to Subic Bay in the Philippines. One former USN landing ship – a 150-foot LSM with the SVN hull number HQ-402 – was sinking, so her thousands of refugees were quickly transferred to another SVN ship by crossing wooden planks between the two ships. Unfortunately, two of the refugees died in the transfer operation. HQ-402 then sank in over 200 feet of water.
Five more USN ships were then detached from the main force to assist KIRK in forming the escorting force for the escaping South Vietnamese Navy ships. USS COOK (DE-1083), USS TUSCALOOSA (LST-1187), USNS LIPAN (T-ATF-85), USS ABNAKI (ATF-96), and USS DELIVER (ARS-23) took station in the long, sprawling, slow moving formation – never more than 5 knots – steaming to the northeast and the safety of the Philippines. Together, the six American ships tended the considerable mechanical needs of the SVN ships, as well as the medical, and nutritional needs of their more than thirty thousand refugees.
During the long transit, five near-term pregnant women were brought onboard KIRK for care, and although none gave birth on board KIRK, at least one pregnant woman on USS COOK did. In spite of the appalling conditions onboard the grossly overcrowded 32 SVN ships, relatively few of the 30,000-plus men, women, and children required serious medical care, although there was at least one aerial medevac of a young, injured Vietnamese soldier. Sadly, two of the refugees – an infant and a teenage girl – died during the slow transit, and were buried at sea. Most fortunately, though, the combined Vietnamese and American formation was blessed with uncharacteristically calm seas throughout the week of the voyage. Had there been even the slightest storm at sea, the weather would have spelled disaster for the fragile refugees.
One day out of Subic Bay, the force commander (Commander, Destroyer Squadron Twenty-three) received the unwelcome news that the Government of the Philippines had formally recognized the communist regime of North Vietnam as the new, legitimate government of all of Vietnam. Ominously, the newly-recognized communist administration was demanding the return of the escaped 32 SVN ships in the formation. Complicating matters, the Philippine government was now denying entry of the former SVN ships – all “armed to the teeth” – into Philippine waters, flying the flag of the defeated Republic of Vietnam. After a tense twenty-four hours of high-level diplomatic negotiation, a simple solution was found: the ships would all be disarmed, and then returned to the ownership of the United States Navy, from which they had originally come so many years previously. Two U. S. Navy personnel – one senior and one junior – were dispatched from the USN ships to each of the 32 SVN ships to oversee the tedious chore of jettisoning all weapons and ammunition into the South China Sea, and then “reflagging” each formerly SVN ship back into the inventory of the United States Navy.
In solemn, but quickly assembled ceremonies, at exactly noon on 7 May 1975, the Vietnamese crews of all the ships fell into formation to witness the dignified final lowering of the gold and red-striped ensign of the vanquished Republic of Vietnam, and the raising of the “Stars and Stripes.” The 32 refugee ships were now legally warships of the United States Navy. Within hours, the formation steamed into the deep protected refuge of Subic Bay, and more than thirty thousand happy, relieved refugees began the next phase of their long escape to freedom – refugee camps in the Philippines, Guam, and the United States, with eventual resettlement in the USA as new citizens.
For the crews of the U. S. Navy escort ships, it was an unforgettable experience that will be remembered for the rest of their lives. For the thirty thousand-plus beleaguered – and at times terrified – refugees, it was literally the beginning of their new lives as American citizens.