Launched in September 1971, the destroyer escort USS Kirk (FF-1087), with a compliment of 18 Officers and 267 Enlisted, sailed the high seas of the Indian Ocean, South America and much of the Pacific Ocean, including the waters off Vietnam.
She was a warship in every sense: an efficient, deadly fighting machine with the mission of hunting down, pursuing and destroying her submarine prey. Yet her finest hours were spent tending pregnant women, soothing terrified little children, and saving the lives of tens of thousands. This is the incredible story of a brief episode in the early years of the long life of USS Kirk.
Decades of American involvement in South Vietnam came to an end on April 30, 1975 when North Vietnamese troops entered the deserted streets of Saigon on foot, trucks and fighting vehicles. North Vietnamese 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 fall of the Saigon almost all American civilian and military personnel in Saigon were evacuated, along with tens of thousands of South Vietnamese likely to punishment, perhaps even death, for working with the Americans, 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-with one exception.
That night Commander Paul Jacobs, the captain of the USS Kirk, got a mysterious order to head back to Vietnam from the commander of the evacuation mission – Operation Frequent Wind (the final phase in the evacuation of American civilians and “at-risk” Vietnamese). Adm. Donald Whitmire told Jacobs to go back to rescue the Vietnamese Navy since most of them will probably be killed if they didn’t. And there was one more thing, the admiral told Jacobs: He’d be taking orders from a civilian.
Thirty year old Richard Armitage came aboard the Kirk late at night and met with Jacobs and Commodore Donald Roane, commander of the flotilla of Navy destroyers in the officer’s mess. He told the two officers they 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, a U.S. Defense Attaché in Saigon and former Naval Officer, felt the U.S. had sold out the South Vietnamese so he didn’t tell his bosses at the Pentagon there would be refugees on those ships. He feared the American authorities wouldn’t want them.
The Kirk steamed through the night to Con Son, reaching 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. 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.
The Kirk sent its engineers to some of the boats and 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. Another destroyer escort, the USS Cook, helped out as the ships were leaving Con Son.
As the flotilla headed out to sea on the way to the Philippines, other Navy ships came in and out of the escort. 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 in what has been called one of the greatest humanitarian missions in the history of the U.S. military
The crew worked tirelessly and professionally, showing as much heart and dedication as any group of people you’ll ever find. They treated the Vietnamese refugees with respect and dignity at a time when they needed most in leaving their country at the end of a long and brutal war.
The Kirk’s sailors kept busy providing food, water and medicine to people on the South Vietnamese ships. 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 presented the government in Manila with a diplomatic predicament. The government of Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos, one of the first to recognize the Communist rulers now in control of a single Vietnam, insisted the ships now belonged to the North Vietnamese and they didn’t want to offend the new country.
Armitage and his South Vietnamese friend, Capt. Do, came up with a solution that Marcos had to accept. Since the Americans only loaned the ships to the Vietnamese government to fight the Communists, they would lower the Vietnamese flag and raise the American flag as a sign that the ships were back in the hands of the United States.
Following a frantic search to find 30 American flags, 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.
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
Information for this article were drawn from USS Kirk websites and an NPR one-hour documentary entitled “The Lucky Few: The Story of USS Kirk.” The film can be seen at http://digitalcitizen.ca/2011/04/30/the-lucky-few-the-story-of-uss-kirk-complete-film/
There is also a book written by Jan K. Herman called “The Luck Few. The Fall of Saigon and the Rescue Mission of The USS Kirk.”