Crew members push a Huey helicopter into the ocean to make room on the Kirk's small deck for more incoming crafts carrying Vietnamese refugees.
Crew members push a Huey helicopter into the ocean to make room on the Kirk's small deck for more incoming crafts carrying Vietnamese refugees. Craig Compiano
The USS Kirk carried out one of the most significant humanitarian missions in the history of the US military. Yet the story went untold for 35 years.
To uncover the forgotten story of The Lost Rescue NPR producer Sandra Bartlett and I, both from NPR's Investigative Unit, interviewed more than 20 American and Vietnamese eyewitnesses and participants in the events of late April and early May of 1975.
We studied hundreds of documents, photographs and other records—including many never made public before.
One of the best records comes from the several hours of cassette tapes that Hugh Doyle, the ship's chief engineer, made to send home to his wife Judy and their three young children.
When Doyle had a spare moment, he'd return to his stateroom and sit on his bunk, or at a small pull-down desk, and record his observations about what he'd just seen.
The tapes are being heard for the first time. (Doyle ended a career in the Navy to take care of Judy when she developed Multiple Sclerosis. For several years before her death, Judy was unable to talk. The tapes that she'd sent her husband later became a comforting way to hear, and remember her voice, for Doyle and his children.)
I first heard the Kirk story from Jan Herman, historian of the US 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.
One reason the Kirk crew started holding reunions was that their story was unknown and, for awhile, even denied by the Navy. Several years ago, the Pentagon started to offer the Vietnam Service Medal to all troops who'd taken part in the helicopter evacuation of South Vietnam.
But when the officers and men of the Kirk applied for the medal, they were told there was no record that the Kirk was even there. That helped fuel the desire to tell the story. Other factors included the simple passage of time and seeing the way Americans were now supportive of troops returning from other wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
When Stephen Burwinkel, the Kirk's hospital corpsman, returned home in 1975, he told only his wife about the Kirk's humanitarian mission. For years he didn't even tell his brother, Greg. When Burwinkel went into the Navy, his younger brother was "a McGovernite, very much opposed to the war" and the two "almost came to blows one night over the Vietnam War."
But over time Stephen felt comfortable telling Greg more about the Kirk's mission in those last days of the Vietnam War. On the morning that Shapiro and Bartlett arrived in Pensacola, FL to interview Burwinkel, he received an e-mail message from his little brother. "He said, 'I am very proud of you for what you did,' and to hear him say that, 20 years ago he would never have said that."