Sunday, July 22, 2012

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.

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