As the Vietnam War reached its tragic climax in the last days of April 1975, a task force of U.S. Navy ships cruised off South Vietnam’s coast. Their mission was to support the evacuation of American embassy personnel and military advisers. But the task force was also assigned to secure the safety of South Vietnamese who had “sensitive” military information in their possession and whose lives would be in danger once the North Vietnamese consolidated their inevitable victory.
The magnitude of a nation’s final collapse had suddenly become tangible. For days prior to the fall of Saigon, the by-products of the North Vietnamese army’s relentless conquest included thousands of panicked refugees trying to flee the country in anything that would float or fly.
“It was Dunkirk in reverse,” observed Paul Jacobs, commanding officer of USS Kirk during Frequent Wind, the operation that turned the destroyer escort into a haven for refugees escaping South Vietnam. Kirk’s officers and enlisted personnel—trained as warriors—instantly transformed their man-of-war into a humanitarian assistance ship. Desperation and suffering gave way to reassurance as crew members fed their unexpected and anguished guests, dispensed medical care, diapered infants, and provided hope to a dispirited people.
The Lucky Few focuses on one small U.S. Navy warship from that task force. Kirk took part in the rescue of not only the remnants of the South Vietnamese fleet, but also dealt with 32,000 refugees on board those ships. Although the Vietnam War ended in chaos and shame, the epic story of USS Kirk and her success in rendering humanitarian assistance under inconceivable circumstances reflects one of America’s few shining moments during this military withdrawal. Almost forty years later The Lucky Few brings to light this relatively unknown heroic tale in the South China Sea of a people caught up in the death throes of a nation and their subsequent passage to freedom.
Jan K. Herman served as the historian of the Navy Medical Department and as special assistant to the Surgeon General for thirty-three years. He also produced an hour-long documentary, The Lucky Few, which has gained international acclaim since its premiere at the Smithsonian in 2010. He is the author of Battle Station Sick Bay and lives in Takoma Park, MD.
- Watch Jan Herman’s “Shifley Lecture ” at the U.S. Naval Academy Museum on 12 February2014 ~
~ Praise for The Lucky Few
“Highly recommended contribution to American military and naval history shelves, particularly those with a focus on the Vietnam War.”
– The Midwest Book Review
"To this destroyer veteran, The Lucky Few is fascinating, though it was difficult to revisit that time of sadness and misfortune. The author has done an outstanding job researching details of day-to-day shipboard life, recalling things that I have not given a thought to in many years. Lastly, he neatly connects surviving refugees and rescuers, revealing many happy endings. I highly recommend this book, believing that enough time has finally passed to allow us to see another amazing triumph of the human spirit."
— The VVA Veteran
“Operation Frequent Wind and the last days of the Vietnam War have remained largely absent from the public eye—until now. What an irony that such a catastrophic war comes to a close with one of the U.S. military’s greatest humanitarian efforts of the twentieth century. Jan Herman has conducted tremendous research in The Lucky Few to illustrate the immense courage displayed by the men of the USS Kirk (FF-1087), which led to the successful rescue of over 32,000 South Vietnamese. Congratulations to the men of the USS Kirk and to all of CTF 76-1.”
—The Honorable Richard L. Armitage, 13th U.S. Deputy Secretary of State
“Jan Herman’s thoroughly researched and beautifully written account of the USS Kirk and her crew’s participation in the final days of the Vietnam War, the fall of Saigon, and the evacuation at sea of thousands of Vietnamese refugees underscores both the tragedy and the triumph of war. This book illustrates the dual purpose of our Navy—a weapon of war and also an instrument to provide humanitarian assistance and care anywhere and anytime. This story, lost until this writing, needs to be read by every American sailor and citizen. They will see first hand our Navy in action. They will also see the courage, compassion, and the stellar leadership of Captain Jacobs and his brilliant USS Kirk crew.”
—Vice Adm. Adam M. Robinson Jr., MC, USN (RET.), 36th Surgeon General of the U.S. Navy
“Jan Herman’s extensively researched and meticulously detailed account of the USS Kirk during the final weeks of the Vietnam War is a riveting portrait of heroic men in unheroic circumstances; it provides a fresh and essential perspective on this troubled chapter in American history.”
—Rory Kennedy, filmmaker