Sunday, July 22, 2012

At War's End, U.S. Ship Rescued South Vietnam's Navy

Enlarge Hugh Doyle

The South Vietnamese fleet follows the USS Kirk to Subic Bay in the Philippines. The Kirk's final mission at the end of the Vietnam War was to bring the remnants of the South's navy to safety in the Philippines.

text size A A A September 1, 2010

Last of three parts

On April 30, 1975, North Vietnamese troops entered the deserted streets of Saigon. Tanks crashed through the gates of the presidential palace and soldiers hoisted the yellow and red flag of the Viet Cong.

Just hours before, the last Americans had been evacuated, rescued and flown on Marine helicopters to U.S. Navy aircraft carriers waiting off the coast.

The Vietnam War was officially over. Now those Navy ships were steaming away from Vietnam.

There was one exception. That night, the captain of a small destroyer escort, the USS Kirk, got a mysterious order to head back to Vietnam.

Enlarge Hugh Doyle

The Kirk reached Con Son Island, off the southern coast of Vietnam, on May 1, 1975. There, it was met by 30 South Vietnamese navy ships and dozens of fishing boats and cargo ships — and as many as 30,000 Vietnamese refugees.

South Vietnamese Navy: 'We Forgot 'Em'

Paul Jacobs, the captain, received the directive from Adm. Donald Whitmire, commander of the evacuation mission — Operation Frequent Wind. He was aboard the USS Blue Ridge, the lead ship of the Navy's 7th Fleet.

Jacobs recalls Whitmire's surprise message: "He says, '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.'"

The Kirk was being sent to an island off the Vietnamese mainland — by itself. And there was one more odd thing, the admiral told Jacobs: He'd be taking orders from a civilian.

Richard Armitage came aboard the Kirk late at night, wearing a borrowed sport coat. Years later, Armitage would become second in command to Colin Powell in the Bush administration's State Department. But on that last day of April 1975, he was on a special assignment from the secretary of defense. He'd just turned 30 that week.

Armitage recalls coming aboard the ship and quickly being escorted to the officer's mess where he met with Jacobs and Commodore Donald Roane, commander of the flotilla of Navy destroyers.

Video: A War, A Baby And Lasting Ties

Credit: Heather Murphy/NPR

"Commodore Roane said something like, 'Young man, I'm not used to having strange civilians come aboard my ship in the middle of the night and give me orders,' " Armitage recalls. "I said, 'I am equally unaccustomed, sir, to coming aboard strange ships in the middle of the night and giving you orders. But steam to Con Son.' And so they did."

Secret Plan To Rescue More Than Just Ships

Web Resources
Official web site of the USS Kirk FF1087 Association

The Kirk and its crew of about 260 officers and men were ordered to Con Son Island, about 50 miles off the coast of South Vietnam and not yet occupied by the North Vietnamese. Con Son was the site of a notorious prison. Now, its harbors were the hiding place for the remnants of the South Vietnamese navy.

Armitage had come up with the plan for them to gather there.

Armitage, a graduate of Annapolis, had been a Navy intelligence officer, assigned to Vietnamese units. He gained respect for the South Vietnamese as he worked alongside them and became fluent in the language. Then he resigned his commission and left the Navy in protest when the Nixon administration signed the Paris peace accords. That 1973 agreement between all warring parties in Vietnam ended direct U.S. military involvement in the war. Armitage felt the U.S. had sold out the South Vietnamese.

But as it became clear that the South Vietnam government was about to fall, a Pentagon official asked Armitage to fly back to Vietnam with a dangerous mission. His assignment: to remove or destroy naval vessels and technology so they wouldn't fall into the hands of the Communists.

A few weeks before Saigon fell, Armitage had shown up at the office of an old friend, Capt. Kiem Do, deputy chief of staff for the South Vietnamese navy. Together, they came up with the secret plan to rescue the Vietnamese ships when — as was becoming clear would happen — the South Vietnamese government surrendered.

Enlarge Courtesy Richard Armitage

In 1975, Richard Armitage was a 30-year-old civilian charged with a dangerous mission: to remove or destroy South Vietnamese naval vessels and technology so they wouldn't fall into the hands of the Communists. Later, Armitage would serve as deputy secretary of state from 2001 to 2005, under Secretary of State Colin Powell in the administration of George W. Bush.

Do remembers warning Armitage that they'd be saving more than ships.

"I told him, I said, 'Well, our crew would not leave Saigon without their family, so therefore there will be a lot of people,' " Do recalls.

He says Armitage remained silent. "He didn't say yes; didn't say no. So I just take it as an acknowledgement," Do says.

Armitage didn't tell his bosses at the Pentagon there would be refugees on those ships. He feared the American authorities wouldn't want them.

Neither Do nor Armitage, though, could predict how many refugees would turn up in Con Son.

Chaos At Con Son Island

The Kirk steamed through the night to Con Son and reached the island just as the sun came up on May 1. There were 30 South Vietnamese navy ships, and dozens of fishing boats and cargo ships. All of them were packed with refugees, desperate to get out of Vietnam.

The ships "were crammed full of people," says Kent Chipman, who in 1975 was a 21-year-old machinist's mate in the ship's engine room and today works at a water purification plant in Texas. "I couldn't see below deck, but above deck the people were just as tight as you could get, side by side."

There was no exact count of how many people were on those ships. Some historical records say there were 20,000 people. Other records suggest it was as many as 30,000. Jan Herman, a historian with the U.S. Navy Medical Department, who is documenting the story of the Kirk, uses the higher number.

The Kirk sent its engineers to some of the boats to get them started.

Interactive Feature

Forgotten Ship: A Lifesaving Mission As Saigon Fell

"They were rusty, ugly, beat up," says Chipman. "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."

One cargo ship was so heavy it was sinking. People below deck were bailing out the water with their shoes.

Stephen Burwinkel, the Kirk's medic — in the Navy known as a hospital corpsman — boarded that ship to check on the sick and injured. He saw a Vietnamese army lieutenant helping passengers leave the sinking ship, crossing to another ship, over a narrow wooden plank. As people pushed to get off the sinking ship, one man knocked a woman who stopped in front of him. She fell off the plank and into the ocean.

The woman was quickly rescued. But Burwinkel worried that the others on the ship would panic. He says the lieutenant acted quickly.

"This Vietnamese lieutenant did not hesitate, he went right up the back of that guy, took his gun out and shot him in the head, killed him, kicked him over the side. Stopped all the trouble right then and there," Burwinkel recalls. The shooting was shocking, he says, but it very likely prevented a riot.

Saigon, The Last Day

NPR Senior Foreign Editor Loren Jenkins witnessed the fall of Saigon. He wrote this essay in 2005 to mark the 20th anniversary.

Leading The Way Toward The Philippines

After fixing what could be fixed on the seaworthy vessels and transferring people from the ships that would be left behind, the Kirk led the flotilla of naval ships, fishing boats and cargo ships toward the Philippines.

The USS Cook, another destroyer escort, like the Kirk, helped out as the ships were leaving Con Son. The Cook's crew provided rice, and its corpsman helped Burwinkel and his assistant from the Kirk attend to the sick and injured, too.

As the flotilla headed out to sea, on the way to the Philippines, other Navy ships came in and out of the escort, according to Herman. Among those other ships were the USS Mobile, USS Tuscaloosa, USS Barbour County, USS Deliver and USS Abnaki.

But it's clear from the daily logs from the Kirk and the other ships that the crew of the Kirk took the lead.

"For me, the Kirk was ideal," says Armitage, who moved from the Kirk to the Vietnamese navy's flagship. "It could communicate with the rest of the U.S. fleet. They would go with us across to the Philippines and would be able to rescue any of the folks who might be in harm's way. Some had been wounded. Some were pregnant. All were sick after a while. And we needed a way to take care of those folks."

Enlarge Hugh Doyle

A boat brings Vietnamese refugees to the Kirk near Con Son Island. The U.S. ship undertook one of the greatest humanitarian missions in the history of the U.S. military.

The Kirk's sailors kept busy providing food, water and medicine to people on the South Vietnamese ships.

Burwinkel spent his time moving from ship to ship treating the sick and injured. With thousands of people — many of them babies and children — he had to work almost nonstop.

"When they gave me the meritorious service medal over all this, I quite frankly referred to it as my 'no-sleep' medal," says Burwinkel, who made a career in the Navy and is now retired and living in Pensacola, Fla. "I would go out there and do my thing and at dark we would come back to the Kirk and try to get a little bit to eat and make some rounds — gather my wits about me, resupply myself and get ready for the next day."

'Last Sovereign Territory Of The Republic Of Vietnam'

Of the some 30,000 refugees on vessels escorted by the Kirk over six days, only three died.

But as the flotilla approached the Philippines, the Kirk's captain got some bad news. The presence of South Vietnamese vessels in a Philippine port would present the government in Manila with a diplomatic predicament.

"The Philippine government wasn't going to allow us in, period, because these ships belonged to the North Vietnamese now and they didn't want to offend the new country," Jacobs, the captain, recalls.

The government of Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos was one of the first to recognize the Communist rulers now in control of a single Vietnam, and Jacobs was told the ships should go back.

Armitage and his South Vietnamese friend, Capt. Do, came up with a solution that Marcos had to accept.

Finding The Kirk's Story

The USS Kirk carried out one of the most significant humanitarian missions in U.S. military history. Yet the story went untold for 35 years. Correspondent Joseph Shapiro and producer Sandra Bartlett of NPR's Investigative Unit interviewed more than 20 American and Vietnamese eyewitnesses and participants in the events of late April and early May 1975. They studied hundreds of documents, photographs and other records, many never made public before — including cassette tapes recorded at the time by the ship's chief engineer.

Shapiro first learned of the Kirk from Jan Herman, historian of the U.S. Navy Medical Department, who says the Kirk's heroics got lost because, as the Vietnam War ended, Americans were bitterly divided over the war's course and cost. There was little interest in celebrating a mission that saved the lives of 20,000 to 30,000 refugees. Herman is working on a book documenting the story and a film documentary, which was shown when the Kirk crew met for a reunion in Springfield, Va., in July.

Do recalls the plan: "We will raise the American flag and lower the Vietnamese flag as a sign of transfer [of] the ship back to the United States, because during the war those ships are given to the Vietnamese government as a loan, if you want, from the United States, to fight the Communists. Now the war is over, we turn them back to the United States."

There was a frantic search to find 30 American flags. Two officers from the Kirk were sent aboard each Vietnamese ship to take command after a formal flag ceremony.

Rick Sautter was one of the Kirk officers who took command of a Vietnamese ship.

"That was the last vestige of South Vietnam. 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," he says.

"Thousands and thousands of people on the boats start to sing the [South Vietnamese] national anthem. When they lower the flag, they cry, cry, cry," Do remembers.

'High Point Of My Career'

On May 7, the ships flying American flags were allowed into Subic Bay.

For the refugees, it was just the beginning of their long journey, which took them to Guam and then resettlement in the United States.

For the sailors of the Kirk, ending the Vietnam War by rescuing 20,000 to 30,000 people was very satisfying.

"This was the high point of my career and I'm very proud of what we did, what we accomplished, how we did it," Jacobs says. "I felt like we handled it truly professionally and that was kind of a dark time."

Armitage says he "envied" the officers and men of the USS Kirk. The ship had not seen combat on its tour to Vietnam. But it ended with the rescue of tens of thousands of refugees, one of the greatest humanitarian missions in the history of the U.S. military.

Says Armitage: "They weren't burdened with the former misadventure of Vietnam."

35 Years On, Vietnam Heroes Reunited, Decorated

Crew members of the USS Kirk try to wave off a CH-47 Chinook carrying South Vietnamese refugees on April 29, 1975. But the helicopter's pilot, Ba Nguyen, was determined to unload his passengers, who included his wife and three young children.

text size A A A September 1, 2010

Second of three parts

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 army, 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 Chinook transport chopper, desperate to get away from Saigon.

Chipman waited 35 years to be reunited with Nguyen and his family.

The two men met again this summer at a reunion of the crew of the Kirk, held in a conference center in the Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C.

Interactive Feature

Forgotten Ship: A Lifesaving Mission As Saigon Fell

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.

'I Remember The Baby Coming Out'

In 1975, the Kirk, a destroyer escort, took part in Operation Frequent Wind, the helicopter evacuation of South Vietnam. As Saigon began to fall on April 29, 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.

And then, after the South Vietnamese government surrendered and the country was in control of the North — and as other U.S. Navy ships steamed away — the Kirk went back to rescue the remnants of the South Vietnamese navy, which were hiding near an island off the coast.

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 says.

Enlarge Jim Bongaard

This girl is one of 20,000 to 30,000 South Vietnamese refugees the Kirk rescued in a nearly forgotten story of courage and heroism. Now, Kirk crew members and a Navy historian are trying to change that.

Web Resources
Official web site of the USS Kirk FF1087 Association

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 says. "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.

"I remember the baby coming out," says Chipman, who was a 21-year-old Texan normally not on deck, but usually working deep in the ship tending to the engine. "But you know, there was no way we were going to let 'em hit the deck or drop 'em. We caught 'em."

That's how desperate things were for families such as the Nguyens. As Saigon fell, the Vietnamese pilot gathered his family 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 Kirk.

But the ship was too small and the CH-47 Chinook helicopter too large to land. So Nguyen hovered above the deck while his passengers — including his wife and three small children — jumped.

Enlarge Craig Compiano

Crew members push a Huey helicopter into the ocean to make room on the Kirk's small deck for more helicopters full of refugees.

Untold History From An 'Unhappy War'

The 260 officers and men on the Kirk did even grander things than that. When they returned to Vietnam to rescue the South Vietnamese navy, they found 30 ships, dozens of fishing boats and a few cargo ships with them. The ships were crowded with refugees, some 20,000 to 30,000 in all.

But it has been an untold history. It just wasn't something people wanted to talk about 35 years ago. Jan Herman, a historian with the U.S. Navy Medical Department, says people wanted to forget the Vietnam War.

More In The Series

Forgotten Ship: A Daring Rescue

"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," he says.

Herman, for one, is trying to change that. He is working on a film and a book about the Kirk. He first showed the film documentary at the recent reunion.

Of the 20,000 to 30,000 refugees the Kirk led to safety, about half were women, children and babies. The crew fed them, gave them fresh water and cared for the sick.

In the war, the ship never saw combat. The Kirk was a submarine hunter; its crew trained for warfare. So the sailors found it hard to think of their humanitarian work as heroic.

"It's certainly not something you go bragging about to your fellow warriors," says the Navy historian. " 'I diapered a baby today' — I'm not sure that's going to go over well, you know, at a bar when you're having a brew with a bunch of friends or colleagues."

Rescuing The Story Of The Kirk

It's not just the rest of the world that didn't know about the Kirk. The Navy didn't know either.

Several years ago, men from the Kirk applied for a new service medal that was being given to sailors who had taken part in the helicopter evacuation of Saigon. The Navy couldn't find a record that the Kirk was even there.

That bureaucratic mess was cleared up only recently.

Enlarge David Deal for NPR

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. In July, Kirk crew members honored Nguyen with an Air Medal, the award the U.S. military gives for heroic feats while flying. Though he is afflicted with advanced Alzheimer's, he saluted upon receiving the award.

So at this summer's reunion — and at the last one in 2007 — Vice Adm. Adam Robinson, the Navy surgeon general, showed up to present those service ribbons and to recognize the Kirk's humanitarian mission.

One way the crew of the Kirk is making its story known is by holding reunions. In part, bitterness over Vietnam has eased with time. And as troops fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq have made a happier return to the U.S., the men of the Kirk have begun to feel they can more safely tell their story.

And they simply want to know what happened to each other and to those they helped save.

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.

In Search Of A Vietnamese Hero

There were many joyous reunions at the July reunion, including those with Nguyen, the Vietnamese pilot, and his wife, son and daughter, who was thrown from the helicopter.

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.

Finding The Kirk's Story

The USS Kirk carried out one of the most significant humanitarian missions in U.S. military history. Yet the story went untold for 35 years. Correspondent Joseph Shapiro and producer Sandra Bartlett of NPR's Investigative Unit interviewed more than 20 American and Vietnamese eyewitnesses and participants in the events of late April and early May 1975. They studied hundreds of documents, photographs and other records, many never made public before — including cassette tapes recorded at the time by the ship's chief engineer.

Shapiro first learned of the Kirk from Jan Herman, historian of the U.S. Navy Medical Department, who says the Kirk's heroics got lost because, as the Vietnam War ended, Americans were bitterly divided over the war's course and cost. There was little interest in celebrating a mission that saved the lives of 20,000 to 30,000 refugees. Herman is working on a book documenting the story and a film documentary, which was shown when the Kirk crew met for a reunion in Springfield, Va., in July.

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.

'An American Story'

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.

Thirty-five years ago, 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.

David Deal for NPR

Paul Jacobs, captain of the Kirk, was first reunited with Lan Tran (left) and her daughter Tien Kirk, named after the Kirk, in 2005. Since then, the pair has formed close friendships with the crew members and other refugees. Here, they meet again at a reunion in July in Virginia.

"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.

Honoring Ba Nguyen

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.

After 35 Years, Unlikely Navy Caregivers Receive Recognition

On April 29, 1975, as Saigon was falling to Communist North Vietnamese forces, a small U.S. Navy destroyer escort ship, the USS Kirk, played a dramatic but almost forgotten role in rescuing up to 30,000 South Vietnamese. Here, a member of the USS Kirk's crew tends to a Vietnamese baby.

The men of the USS Kirk were trained as warriors, not as caregivers. So they didn't think of what they did more than three decades ago as significant.

But their rescue of 20,000 to 30,000 Vietnamese refugees, in the last days of the Vietnam War, is now being recognized as one of the most important humanitarian missions in the history of the U.S. Navy.

One of the first places to recognize the Kirk is the Navy's Medical Department. Vice Admiral Adam Robinson, the Navy Surgeon General, showed up at the July reunion of the Kirk's crew in Springfield, Va., to thank the officers and men from the small destroyer escort. That was a big step because, for several years, the Navy said it had no record that the Kirk was even present during the 1975 evacuation of Saigon.

Robinson's department deploys the Navy's hospital ships, the USNS Comfort and the USNS Mercy. The Comfort was sent to the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina five years ago and to Haiti after the earthquake there in January. Robinson says those missions showed the growing role for the Navy to carry out humanitarian work.

And it's that growing role that also led to Robinson's interest in the story of what the Kirk did 35 years ago. Robinson is sponsoring the work of Jan Herman, of the Navy Medical Department, to document the Kirk's mission in a film and a book.

Herman says the Kirk's story got "left in the dust" because of bitterness over Vietnam. When the war ended, Americans didn't want to hear stories about the war, he says.

But another reason, he says, is that the men themselves didn't think of what they did as significant. The Kirk, designed to hunt submarines, didn't see combat. When the ship's crew was ordered back to Vietnam — by itself, as the rest of the Navy was leaving — the men saw themselves as "just doing our job," says Captain Paul Jacobs.

The ship steamed to Con Son Island, where the last ships from South Vietnam's Navy were awaiting rescue. On board the 30-some Navy ships — and even more small fishing boats and rusted cargo ships — were an estimated 20,000 to 30,000 refugees.

"So here they are suddenly involved in this drama. It has nothing to do with firing torpedoes or guns," says Herman of the Kirk's crew. "It has nothing to do with any of that. It has to do with taking care of babies and feeding women and children. And I think for warriors, that doesn't come naturally. But they did it because it was something they had to do on the spot, and they did it. And they did it extremely well."

The ship escorted the refugees to safety, later meeting up with other U.S. Navy ships. About half the refugees were women, children and babies. The Kirk's crew fed them, gave them fresh water and cared for the sick.

But still, it wasn't something people talked about. "It's certainly not something you go bragging about to your fellow warriors: I diapered a baby today," Herman said.

That started to change when the men of the Kirk began to hold reunions. They would wonder what happened to the men, women and children they saved. They started to seek them out and when they found them — and heard the stories of their successful lives — the members of the Kirk crew began to understand that their humanitarian mission was as important as the military mission they'd been trained for.

To tell this forgotten story of the Kirk's rescue mission, NPR interviewed more than 20 American and Vietnamese participants and looked at hundreds of photographs and other records, many of which had never been made public before.

Children of the Vietnam War

Born overseas to Vietnamese mothers and U.S. servicemen, Amerasians brought hard-won resilience to their lives in America

They grew up as the leftovers of an unpopular war, straddling two worlds but belonging to neither. Most never knew their fathers. Many were abandoned by their mothers at the gates of orphanages. Some were discarded in garbage cans. Schoolmates taunted and pummeled them and mocked the features that gave them the face of the enemy—round blue eyes and light skin, or dark skin and tight curly hair if their soldier-dads were African-Americans. Their destiny was to become waifs and beggars, living in the streets and parks of South Vietnam's cities, sustained by a single dream: to get to America and find their fathers.

But neither America nor Vietnam wanted the kids known as Amerasians and commonly dismissed by the Vietnamese as "children of the dust"—as insignificant as a speck to be brushed aside. "The care and welfare of these unfortunate children...has never been and is not now considered an area of government responsibility," the U.S. Defense Department said in a 1970 statement. "Our society does not need these bad elements," the Vietnamese director of social welfare in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) said a decade later. As adults, some Amerasians would say that they felt cursed from the start. When, in early April 1975, Saigon was falling to Communist troops from the north and rumors spread that southerners associated with the United States might be massacred, President Gerald Ford announced plans to evacuate 2,000 orphans, many of them Amerasians. Operation Babylift's first official flight crashed in the rice paddies outside Saigon, killing 144 people, most of them children. South Vietnamese soldiers and civilians gathered at the site, some to help, others to loot the dead. Despite the crash, the evacuation program continued another three weeks.

"I remember that flight, the one that crashed," says Nguyen Thi Phuong Thuy. "I was about 6, and I'd been playing in the trash near the orphanage. I remember holding the nun's hand and crying when we heard. It was like we were all born under a dark star." She paused to dab at her eyes with tissue. Thuy, whom I met on a trip to Vietnam in March 2008, said she had never tried to locate her parents because she had no idea where to start. She recalls her adoptive Vietnamese parents arguing about her, the husband shouting, "Why did you have to get an Amerasian?" She was soon sent off to live with another family.

Thuy seemed pleased to find someone interested in her travails. Over coffee and Cokes in a hotel lobby, she spoke in a soft, flat voice about the "half-breed dog" taunts she heard from neighbors, of being denied a ration card for food, of sneaking out of her village before others rose at sunrise to sit alone on the beach for hours and about taking sleeping pills at night to forget the day. Her hair was long and black, her face angular and attractive. She wore jeans and a T-shirt. She looked as American as anyone I might have passed in the streets of Des Moines or Denver. Like most Amerasians still in Vietnam, she was uneducated and unskilled. In 1992 she met another Amerasian orphan, Nguyen Anh Tuan, who said to her, "We don't have a parent's love. We are farmers and poor. We should take care of each other." They married and had two daughters and a son, now 11, whom Thuy imagines as the very image of the American father she has never seen. "What would he say today if he knew he had a daughter and now a grandson waiting for him in Vietnam?" she asked.

No one knows how many Amerasians were born—and ultimately left behind in Vietnam—during the decade-long war that ended in 1975. In Vietnam's conservative society, where premarital chastity is traditionally observed and ethnic homogeneity embraced, many births of children resulting from liaisons with foreigners went unregistered. According to the Amerasian Independent Voice of America and the Amerasian Fellowship Association, advocacy groups recently formed in the United States, no more than a few hundred Amerasians remain in Vietnam; the groups would like to bring all of them to the United States. The others—some 26,000 men and women now in their 30s and 40s, together with 75,000 Vietnamese they claimed as relatives—began to be resettled in the United States after Representative Stewart B. McKinney of Connecticut called their abandonment a "national embarrassment" in 1980 and urged fellow Americans to take responsibility for them.

But no more than 3 percent found their fathers in their adoptive homeland. Good jobs were scarce. Some Amerasians were vulnerable to drugs, became gang members and ended up in jail. As many as half remained illiterate or semi-illiterate in both Vietnamese and English and never became U.S. citizens. The mainstream Vietnamese-American population looked down on them, assuming that their mothers were prostitutes—which was sometimes the case, though many of the children were products of longer-term, loving relationships, including marriages. Mention Amerasians and people would roll their eyes and recite an old saying in Vietnam: Children without a father are like a home without a roof.

The massacres that President Ford had feared never took place, but the Communists who came south after 1975 to govern a reunited Vietnam were hardly benevolent rulers. Many orphanages were closed, and Amerasians and other youngsters were sent off to rural work farms and re-education camps. The Communists confiscated wealth and property and razed many of the homes of those who had supported the American-backed government of South Vietnam. Mothers of Amerasian children destroyed or hid photographs, letters and official papers that offered evidence of their American connections. "My mother burned everything," says William Tran, now a 38-year-old computer engineer in Illinois. "She said, ‘I can't have a son named William with the Viet Cong around.' It was as though your whole identity was swept away." Tran came to the United States in 1990 after his mother remarried and his stepfather threw him out of the house.

Hoi Trinh was still a schoolboy in the turbulent postwar years when he and his schoolteacher parents, both Vietnamese, were uprooted in Saigon and, joining an exodus of two million southerners, were forced into one of the "new economic zones" to be farmers. He remembers taunting Amerasians. Why? "It didn't occur to me then how cruel it was. It was really a matter of following the crowd, of copying how society as a whole viewed them. They looked so different than us.... They weren't from a family. They were poor. They mostly lived on the street and didn't go to school like us."

I asked Trinh how Amerasians had responded to being confronted in those days. "From what I remember," he said, "they would just look down and walk away."

Vietnam 101: A Short Introduction


The Vietnam War occurred in present-day Vietnam, Southeast Asia. It represented a successful attempt on the part of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam, DRV) and the National Front for the Liberation of Vietnam (Viet Cong) to unite and impose a communist system over the entire nation. Opposing the DRV was the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam, RVN), backed by the United States. The war in Vietnam occurred during the Cold War, and is generally viewed as an indirect conflict between the United States and Soviet Union, with each nation and its allies supporting one side.

When was the Vietnam War?:

The most commonly used dates for the conflict are 1959-1975. This period begins with North Vietnam's first guerilla attacks against the South and ends with the fall of Saigon. American ground forces were directly involved in the war between 1965 and 1973.


The Vietnam War first began in 1959, five years after the division of the country by the Geneva Accords. Vietnam had been split into two, with a communist government in the north under Ho Chi Minh and a democratic government in the south under Ngo Dinh Diem. Ho launched a guerilla campaign in South Vietnam, led by Viet Cong units, with the goal of uniting the country under communist rule. The United States, seeking to stop the spread of communism, trained the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) and provided military advisors to help combat the guerillas. Causes of the Vietnam War

Americanization of the War:

In August 1964, a US warship was attacked by North Vietnamese torpedo boats in the Gulf of Tonkin. Following this attack, Congress passed the Southeast Asia Resolution which allowed President Lyndon Johnson to conduct military operations in the region without a declaration of war. On March 2, 1965, US aircraft began bombing targets in Vietnam and the first troops arrived. Commanded by General William Westmoreland, US troops won victories over Viet Cong and North Vietnamese forces around Chu Lai and in the Ia Drang Valley that summer. Americanization of the Vietnam War

The Tet Offensive :

Following these defeats, the North Vietnamese avoided fighting conventional battles and focused on engaging US troops in small unit actions in the sweltering jungles of South Vietnam. In January 1968, the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong launched the massive Tet Offensive. Beginning with an assault on US Marines at Khe Sanh, the offensive included attacks by the Viet Cong on cities throughout South Vietnam. Though the North Vietnamese were beaten back with heavy casualties, Tet shook the confidence of the American people and media who had thought the war was going well. The Tet Offensive


As a result of Tet, President Lyndon Johnson opted not to run for reelection and was succeeded by Richard Nixon. Nixon's plan for ending US involvement was to build up the ARVN so that they could fight the war themselves. As this process of “Vietnamization” began, US troops started to return home. The mistrust of the government that had begun after Tet worsened with the release of news about US soldiers massacring civilians at My Lai (1969), the invasion of Cambodia (1970), and the leaking of the Pentagon Papers (1971). Vietnamization of the Vietnam War

End of the War and the Fall of Saigon:

The withdrawal of US troops continued and more responsibility was passed to the ARVN, which continued to prove ineffective in combat, often relying on American support to stave off defeat. On January 27, 1974, a peace accord was signed in Paris ending the conflict. By March of that year, American combat troops had left the country. After a brief period of peace, North Vietnam recommenced hostilities in late 1974. Pushing through ARVN forces with ease, they captured the Saigon on April 30, 1975, forcing South Vietnam’s surrender and reuniting the country. The End of the Vietnam War

Vietnam War: Battle of Ia Drang

Battle of Ia Drang - Conflict & Dates:

The Battle of Ia Drang was fought November 14-18, 1965, during the Vietnam War (1955-1975).

Armies & Commanders

United States
  • Colonel Thomas Brown
  • Lieutenant Colonel Harold G. Moore
  • Lieutenant Colonel Robert McDade
  • approx. 1,000 men North Vietnam
  • Lieutenant Colonel Nguyen Huu An
  • approx. 2,000 men
  • Battle of Ia Drang - Background:

    In 1965, General William Westmoreland, commander of the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam, began utilizing American troops for combat operations in Vietnam rather than solely relying on the forces of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam. With National Liberation Front (Viet Cong) and People's Army of Vietnam (PAVN) forces operating in the Central Highlands northeast of Saigon, Westmoreland elected to debut the new air mobile 1st Cavalry Division as he believed its helicopters would allow it to overcome the region's rugged terrain.
    Following a failed North Vietnamese attack on the Special Forces camp at Plei Me in October, the commander of the 3rd Brigade, 1st Cavalry Division, Colonel Thomas Brown, was instructed to move from Pleiku to seek and destroy the enemy. Arriving in the area, the 3rd Brigade was unable to find the attackers. Encouraged by Westmoreland to press towards the Cambodian border, Brown soon learned of an enemy concentration near Chu Pong Mountain. Acting on this intelligence, he directed the 1st Battalion/7th Cavalry, led by Lieutenant Colonel Hal Moore, to conduct a reconnaissance in force in the area of Chu Pong.

    Arriving at X-Ray:

    Assessing several landing zones, Moore chose LZ X-Ray near the base of the Chu Pong Massif. Roughly the size of a football field, X-Ray was surrounded by low trees and bordered by a dry creek bed to the west. Due to the relatively small size of the LZ, the transport of the 1st/7th's four companies would have to be conducted in several lifts. The first of these touched down at 10:48 AM on November 14 and consisted of Captain John Herren's Bravo Company and Moore's command group. Departing, the helicopters began shuttling the rest of the battalion to X-Ray with each trip taking around 30 minutes (Map).

    Day 1:

    Initially holding his forces in the LZ, Moore soon began sending out patrols while waiting for more men to arrive. At 12:15 PM, the enemy was first encountered northwest of the creek bed. Shortly thereafter, Herren ordered his 1st and 2nd Platoons to advance in that direction. Encountering heavy enemy resistance, the 1st was halted though the 2nd pushed on and pursued an enemy squad. In the process, the platoon, led by Lieutenant Henry Herrick, became separated and was soon surrounded by North Vietnamese forces. In the firefight that ensued, Herrick was killed and effective command devolved to Sergeant Ernie Savage.
    As the day progressed, Moore's men successfully defended the creek bed as well as repelled assaults from the south while awaiting the arrival of the remainder of the battalion. By 3:20 PM, the last of the battalion arrived and Moore established a 360-degree perimeter around X-Ray. Eager to rescue the lost platoon, Moore sent forward Alpha and Bravo Companies at 3:45 PM. This effort succeeded in advancing around 75 yards from the creek bed before enemy fire brought it to a halt. In the attack, Lieutenant Walter Marm earned the Medal of Honor when he single-handedly captured an enemy machine gun position (Map).

    Day 2:

    Around 5:00 PM, Moore was reinforced by the lead elements of Bravo Company/2nd/7th. While the Americans dug in for the night, the North Vietnamese probed their lines and conducted three assaults against the lost platoon. Though under heavy pressure, Savage's men turned these back. At 6:20 AM on November 15, the North Vietnamese mounted a major attack against Charlie Company's section of the perimeter. Calling in fire support, the hard-pressed Americans turned back the attack but took significant losses in the process. At 7:45 AM, the enemy began a three-pronged assault on Moore's position.
    With the fighting intensifying and Charlie Company's line wavering, heavy air support was called in to halt the North Vietnamese advance. As it arrived over the field, it inflicted major losses on the enemy, though a friendly fire incident led to some napalm striking the American lines. At 9:10 AM, additional reinforcements arrived from the 2nd/7th and began reinforcing Charlie Company's lines. By 10:00 AM the North Vietnamese began withdrawing. With fighting raging at X-Ray, Brown dispatched Lieutenant Colonel Bob Tully's 2nd/5th to LZ Victor approximately 2.2 miles east-southeast.
    Moving overland, they reached X-Ray at 12:05 PM, augmenting Moore's force. Pushing out of the perimeter, Moore and Tully succeeded in rescuing the lost platoon that afternoon. That night North Vietnamese forces harassed the American lines and then launched a major assault around 4:00 AM. With the aid of well-directed artillery, four assaults were repelled as the morning progressed. By mid-morning, the remainder of the 2nd/7th and 2nd/5th arrived at X-Ray. With the Americans on the field in strength and having taken massive losses, the North Vietnamese began withdrawing.

    Ambush at Albany:

    That afternoon Moore's command departed the field. Hearing reports of enemy units moving into the area and seeing that little more could be done at X-Ray, Brown wished to withdraw the remainder of his men. This was vetoed by Westmoreland who wished to avoid the appearance of a retreat. As a result, Tully was instructed to march the 2nd/5th northeast to LZ Columbus while Lieutenant Colonel Robert McDade was to take the 2nd/7th north-northeast to LZ Albany. As they departed, a flight of B-52 Stratofortresses was assigned to strike the Chu Pong Massif.
    While Tully's men had an uneventful march to Columbus, McDade's troops began encountering elements of the 33rd and 66th PAVN Regiments. These actions culminated with a devastating ambush in the vicinity of Albany. Under heavy pressure and taking major losses, McDade's command was soon aided by air support and elements of the 2nd/5th which marched in from Columbus. Beginning late that afternoon, additional reinforcements were flown in and the American position was appearance during the night. The next morning, the enemy had largely pulled back. After policing the area for casualties and dead, the Americans departed for LZ Crooks the next day.

    Aftermath of Ia Drang

    The first major battle that involved US ground forces, Ia Drang saw them suffer 96 killed and 121 wounded at X-Ray and 155 killed and 124 wounded at Albany. Estimates for North Vietnamese losses are around 800 killed at X-Ray and minimum of 403 killed at Albany. For his actions in leading the defense of X-Ray, Moore was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross. Pilots Major Bruce Crandall and Captain Ed Freeman were later (2007) awarded the Medal of Honor for making volunteer flights under heavy fire to and from X-Ray. During these flights they delivered much needed supplies while evacuating wounded soldiers. The fighting at Ia Drang set the tone for the conflict as American forces continued to rely on air mobility and heavy fire support to achieve victory. Conversely, the North Vietnamese learned that the latter could be neutralized by quickly closing with the enemy and fighting at close range.

    Vietnam War: Battle of Hamburger Hill


    The Battle of Hamburger Hill took place during the Vietnam War.


    US forces were engaged in the A Shau Valley from May 10 to May 20, 1969.

    Armies & Commanders:

    United States
    • Major General Melvin Zais
    • approx. 1,800 men
    North Vietnam
    • Unknown
    • approx. 1,500 men

    Summary of the Battle of Hamburger Hill:

    In 1969, US troops began Operation Apache Snow with the goal of clearing the People's Army of Vietnam from the A Shau Valley in South Vietnam. Located near the border with Laos, the valley had become an infiltration route into South Vietnam and a haven for PAVN forces. A three-part operation, the second phase commenced on May 10, 1969, as elements of Colonel John Conmey's 3rd Brigade of the 101st Airborne moved into the valley.
    Among Conmey's forces were the 3rd Battalion, 187th Infantry (Lt. Colonel Weldon Honeycutt), 2nd Battalion, 501st Infantry (Lt. Colonel Robert German), and the 1st Battalion, 506th Infantry (Lt. Colonel John Bowers). These units were supported by the 9th Marines and the 3rd Battalion, 5th Cavalry, as well as elements of the Army of Vietnam. The A Shau Valley was covered in thick jungle and dominated by Ap Bia Mountain, which had been designated Hill 937. Unconnected to the surrounding ridges, Hill 937 stood alone and, like the surrounding valley, was heavily forested.
    Terming the operation a reconnaissance in force, Conmey's forces began operations with two ARVN battalions cutting the road at the base of the valley while the Marines and 3/5th Cavalry pushed towards the Laotian border. The battalions from the 3rd Brigade were ordered to search and destroy PAVN forces in their own areas of the valley. As his troops were air mobile, Conmey planned to shift units rapidly should one encounter strong resistance. While contact was light on May 10, it intensified the following day when the 3/187th approached the base of Hill 937.
    Sending two companies to search the north and northwest ridges of the hill, Honeycutt ordered Bravo and Charlie companies to move towards the summit by different routes. Late in the day, Bravo met stiff PAVN resistance and helicopter gunships were brought in for support. These mistook the 3/187th's landing zone for PAVN camp and opened fire killing two and wounding thirty-five. This was the first of several friendly fire incidents during the battle as the thick jungle made identifying targets difficult. Following this incident, the 3/187th retreated into defensive positions for the night.
    Over the next two days, Honeycutt attempted to push his battalion into positions where they could launch a coordinated assault. This was hampered by difficult terrain and fierce PAVN resistance. As they moved around the hill, they found that the North Vietnamese had constructed an elaborate system of bunkers and trenches. Seeing the focus of the battle shifting to Hill 937, Conmey shifted the 1/506th to the south side of the hill. Bravo Company was airlifted to the area, but the remainder of the battalion traveled by foot and did not arrive in force until May 19.
    On May 14 and 15, Honeycutt launched attacks against PAVN positions with little success. The next two days saw elements of the 1/506th probing the southern slope. American efforts were frequently hindered by the thick jungle which made air-lifting forces around the hill impractical. As the battle raged, much of the foliage around the summit of the hill was eliminated by napalm and artillery fire which was used to reduce the PAVN bunkers. On May 18, Conmey ordered a coordinated assault with the 3/187th attacking from the north and the 1/506th attacking from the south.
    Storming forward, Delta Company of the 3/187th almost took the summit but was beaten back with heavy casualties. The 1/506th was able to take the southern crest, Hill 900, but met heavy resistance during the fighting. On May 18, the commander of the 101st Airborne, Major General Melvin Zais, arrived and decided to commit three addition battalions to the battle as well as ordered that the 3/187th, which had suffered 60% casualties, be relieved. Protesting, Honeycutt was able to keep his men in the field for the final assault.
    Landing two battalions on the northeast and southeast slopes, Zais and Conmey launched an all-out assault on the hill at 10:00 AM on May 20. Overwhelming the defenders, the 3/187th took the summit around noon and operations began to reduce the remaining PAVN bunkers. By 5:00 PM, Hill 937 had been secured.


    Due to the grinding nature of the fighting on Hill 937, it became known as "Hamburger Hill." This also pays homage to a similar fight during the Korean War known as the Battle of Pork Chop Hill. In the fighting, US and ARVN forces suffered 70 killed and 372 wounded. Total PAVN casualties are unknown, but 630 bodies were found on the hill after the battle. Heavily covered by the press, the necessity of the fighting on Hill 937 was questioned by the public and stirred controversy in Washington. This was worsened by the 101st's abandonment of the hill on June 5. As a result of this public and political pressure, General Creighton Abrams altered US strategy in Vietnam from one of "maximum pressure" to "protective reaction" in an effort to lower casualties.