Although it doesn’t appear in statute books, one particular law has wide application nonetheless: the law of unintended consequences. Forty years ago this summer, the phenomenon known as “Watergate” was a breaking story. Operatives on behalf of President Richard Nixon’s re-election committee broke into the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee in Washington’s Watergate complex early on 17 June 1972. Their objective was to install bugging devices in order to acquire political intelligence. Because of a call from an alert security guard, police were able to arrest the intruders. What the Nixon administration initially termed a “third-rate burglary” had far-reaching unintended consequences. The resulting cover-up and congressional impeachment hearings forced Nixon to resign the presidency in August 1974.
There were international implications as well. In late 1972 Nixon’s national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, was negotiating with North Vietnamese diplomat Le Duc Tho to seek peace in Vietnam. President Nguyen Van Thieu of South Vietnam objected to the terms of the proposed settlement. To get him on board with ending the U.S. combat role, the Nixon administration made a secret agreement to provide air support in defense of South Vietnam should it be threatened by the North. In early 1973 U.S. forces withdrew. Two years later, the North Vietnamese were on the verge of total victory. The unintended consequence was that Nixon’s departure from office meant he was no longer able to honor the provisions of the secret agreement. The South Vietnamese were left to their own devices.
By late April 1975, ships of the U.S. 7th Fleet steamed offshore, forbidden to intercede militarily but able to rescue South Vietnamese who were fleeing in terror as their nation was overrun. One of those ships was the destroyer escort Kirk (DE-1087). Her unexpected role as a rescuer of displaced people has been movingly documented in The Lucky Few, a 2010 film by the Navy Medicine Support Command. Jan Herman, recently retired Bureau of Medicine and Surgery historian, has produced many articles, books, and videos that portray the history of Navy medicine. In this superb documentary, he demonstrates that the service’s humanitarian ethic extends well beyond those who are doctors, nurses, and corpsmen.
The American departure from South Vietnam left behind a host of operable helicopters. As the North Vietnamese converged on the capital city, Saigon, South Vietnamese pilots gathered friends and family and flew them toward the U.S. ships offshore. Commander Paul Jacobs, skipper of the Kirk, radioed that his ship welcomed refugees. UH-1 Hueys came in and landed on the small flight deck at the stern. After each debarked its human cargo, it was an obstacle, so the ship’s crew manhandled it over the side to make room for the next one.
All told, the Kirk brought in 14 helos in one day, but one was too big to land. When pilot Ba Nguyen approached in a CH-47 Chinook, the crew waved it off because its rotors would have shattered against the ship’s superstructure and filled the air with lethal debris. The pilot’s desperation spurred his ingenuity. He hovered over the destroyer escort’s stern, and the helo’s occupants jumped or were dropped. Eager hands caught the refugees. One of the catchers was Machinist’s Mate Third Class Kent Chipman. As he recounted in the film, “There was no way I was going to let that baby hit the deck.” The pilot then flew a short distance away and jumped into the water. He managed to escape injury as the helo disintegrated; the Kirk’s crew rescued him.
Amid the chaos, an American civilian named Richard Armitage arrived aboard the Kirk as a Defense Department representative. A former U.S. naval officer who had worked with the South Vietnamese, Armitage was charged with saving as much of the country’s navy as he could. And he had to do so on very short notice, because the speed of the North Vietnamese advance didn’t permit a leisurely withdrawal. About 30 South Vietnamese ships full of refugees rendezvoused near Con Son Island and began steaming slowly for Subic Bay in the Philippines. The Kirk served as the shepherd for the unlikely flock of survivors.
An individual who made a profound impression during the journey was the Kirk’s chief hospital corpsman, Stephen Burwinkel. He oversaw the makeshift pregnancy ward in the Kirk and made daily rounds of the other ships in the flotilla to treat a variety of ills. Along with the tangible treatments, he was able to instill something else—a sense that the U.S. Navy cared about thousands of people who had lost everything except their lives and now faced an uncertain future.
The advancing ships faced yet another problem. The Philippine government had officially recognized the new Vietnamese regime in the wake of the military takeover. The nation of South Vietnam no longer existed, so no ships under that flag would be permitted entry. The remedy was to decommission and demilitarize the ships. Members of the Kirk’s crew went aboard and took command. In each ship a solemn transfer ceremony enabled the South Vietnamese to retire with dignity. The refugees reached Subic Bay in safety, and thousands began their new lives.
One who literally began life was a baby girl, born soon after the Kirk’s rescue mission. Her middle name symbolizes the vital role that a U.S. warship played in enabling her future. She is Tran Nguyen Kirk Giang Tien.