Sunday, July 22, 2012

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.

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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.

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