The tin can sailors of the destroyer escort USS Kirk (DE-1087) are quick to point out that their primary mission—the “bottom line” of antisubmarine warfare—had been to hunt and kill. The Kirk’s legacy, however, is bound up in compassion and mercy; the little DE was an integral part of the rescue of tens of thousands of refugees.
The Kirk was one of 46 Knox-class destroyer escorts. She was commissioned on 9 September 1972 at Long Beach, California. Events during the ship’s second western Pacific cruise, beginning in March 1975, indelibly marked her and her crew.
The Vietnam War by this time was no longer an American conflict, and the South Vietnamese were in dire straits. The People’s Army of Vietnam was rapidly advancing and would soon threaten Saigon. Evacuation of nonessential U.S. personnel began as early as late March.
The destroyer escort, accompanying the carrier USS Hancock (CVA-19), which had offloaded her combat wing in Pearl Harbor in exchange for the 25 helicopters of Marine Heavy Helicopter Squadron (HMH) 463, arrived in the Gulf of Thailand on 11 April to join in the evacuation of Phnom Penh, Cambodia. The next day, in an orderly operation that took less than 24 hours, all 289 evacuees were flown to safety at U-Tapao Air Base, Thailand.
Soon after the DE, another destroyer escort, and the Midway (CVA-41) moved to Singapore at midmonth, their port visit there was abruptly terminated. Events in South Vietnam were approaching a crescendo of panic. Twenty-six ships of Task Force 76, including the Kirk, converged on the South China Sea for Operation Frequent Wind—the evacuation of Saigon.
On 29 April, with North Vietnamese forces entering Saigon, U.S. Ambassador Graham Martin ordered the capital’s evacuation. Over the next two days, 7,000 “official” evacuees were flown from the embassy in Saigon and Tan Son Nhut Air Base outside the city to ships offshore.
Unofficial refugees also arrived by air. Desperate aircrews with ubiquitous Bell UH-1 Huey helicopters ferried families and friends to the flight decks of U.S. Navy warships. The Kirk handled evacuees from 16 South Vietnamese helicopters, which all safely landed aboard in what were often their first at-sea landing attempts. As there was no room for more than one small helicopter at a time, each was summarily dumped over the side after unloading. One, a Boeing CH-47 Chinook, was too large to land on the destroyer escort. As it hovered over her stern, dozens of passengers jumped into the waiting arms of bluejackets. The pilot then crashed the CH-47 into the sea and was rescued by the DE’s whaleboat.
In all, the Kirk rescued 200 refugees and two U.S. Marine pilots. The Marines were flying the last helicopter out of Saigon, an AH-1J Cobra gunship that provided aerial coverage for the evacuation force. Out of fuel, the crew made an approach to the DE but saw that the last helicopter to land there had fouled her deck. The Cobra waved off just as its engines flamed out. It auto-rotated into the sea about a half-mile from the destroyer escort; the crew was rescued by the ship’s whaleboat.
As the U.S. fleet steamed away from Vietnam, the Kirk was tagged with a mysterious order to return. Admiral Donald Whitmire, commander of Operation Frequent Wind, ordered the ship’s captain, Paul H. Jacobs, to Con Son Island, about 50 miles off Vietnam’s southern coast, “to rescue the Vietnamese navy. We forgot them. And if we don’t get them or any part of them, they’re all probably going to be killed.”
Jacobs had to deliver Richard L. Armitage, a civilian on special assignment from the Secretary of Defense, to the Republic of Vietnam Navy (RVNN) Chief of Naval Operations’ flagship. Armitage, a former Navy officer with three combat tours in Vietnam with the Brown Water Navy, later became Deputy Secretary of State in the George W. Bush administration.
Several weeks before Saigon fell, Armitage had met with Captain Kiem Do, RVNN deputy chief of staff, to plan the rescue of its ships when the government surrendered. Kiem warned Armitage that they would be saving more than ships. The crews would not leave without their families. “There will be a lot of people,” he told the American.
Arriving at Con Son Island early on 1 May, the Kirk found “scores” of RVNN ships, fishing boats, and other craft jammed with refugees—at least 20,000 of them. The U.S. Navy Medical Department believes there were 30,000.
Many vessels were in bad shape. The Kirk’s crew did what they could to repair those that were seaworthy and transfer people from others that were to be abandoned. Thirty-two ships were selected for the voyage to freedom.
The Kirk’s surgeon, corpsmen, and crew tended to the civilians. By and large, “[t]he refugees were in pretty good shape. . . . These were the upper crust of Vietnamese society” and were not suffering from typical diseases endemic in Vietnam.
But there were other issues—chief among them pets. Captain Jacobs had been ordered to get rid of all the animals. “They wanted me to take pets from the kids and throw the animals over the side.” He instructed his executive officer to “Tell the powers that be that the action is done, and then don’t do a goddamn thing!” Had he followed that order, “I would have had a riot on my hands.”
On 2 May, the ragtag navy began its 1,012-mile trek to Subic Bay, the Philippines. The Kirk joined the remainder of the other seven ships of the escort force. The Pacific crossing was “extraordinarily” calm and peaceful.
The fleet arrived off Subic Bay on 6 May; however, diplomatic issues rose to the fore. One condition of entry was that all the Vietnamese ships and their refugees had to be disarmed. Confiscating literally thousands of small arms from the ships took a full day. All magazines and ready service lockers were emptied of their ammunition, which was dumped over the side. Fixed guns and launchers were disassembled and their operating mechanisms deep-sixed.
The most serious condition, however, was that the Republic of Vietnam (RVN) no longer existed, and the Philippine government had recognized South Vietnam’s new communist government. The ships could not enter under the RVN flag. So, at noon on 7 May, the Vietnamese crews gathered at attention on their respective ships, struck their colors, and raised the Stars and Stripes, “officially” returning the ships to the U.S. Navy list. The RVNN was no more. Two Kirk crewmembers were sent to each of 21 of the vessels to assume U.S. command. Later that day, the 32 ships entered Subic Bay.
Retired Commander Hugh J. Doyle, a lieutenant on board the Kirk during her Vietnam deployment, has high praise for the DE’s 275-man crew: “I will always remember the incredible energy, ingenuity, professionalism, and teamwork of our young crew. But most of all, I will always remember their human decency and the deep compassion.”
Armitage said he “envied” the officers and men of the Kirk. The ship’s rescue of tens of thousands of refugees was “one of the greatest humanitarian missions in the history of the U.S. military.”
The Kirk, later redesignated as a frigate (FF-1087), continued to serve until she was decommissioned on 6 August 1993. After being struck from the Naval Vessel Register on 11 January 1995, she was sold to Taiwan on 29 September 1999, and she continues to serve as the ROCS Fen Yang (FF-934).