RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Here's a Vietnam War story seldom told. Shortly after Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese and the last Americans left South Vietnam, a small, U.S. Navy warship headed back to rescue tens of thousands of refugees. Recently, the men of that ship - the destroyer escort USS Kirk - met for a reunion. They were reunited, too, with some of the Vietnamese people they helped save.
NPR's Joseph Shapiro interviewed more than 20 eyewitnesses, studied documents that tell the history of the Kirk, and attended that reunion, held outside Washington, D.C.
JOSEPH SHAPIRO: At the door of a ballroom, there's a man with a graying beard in a white sailor's hat. And even though it's summer, he wears the heavy wool, dark-blue winter uniform of the U.S. Navy. The man snaps to attention with a crisp salute when he spots who he's been waiting for: an old man in a wheelchair, being pushed down the hall by his wife and children.
The sailor's waited 35 years to be reunited with this man and his family.
Mr. KENT CHIPMAN (Former Sailor): Hello, sir. My name's Kent Chipman. You're the pilot of the big Chinook. Nice to meet you, sir.
SHAPIRO: Kent Chipman was once a sailor in the U.S. Navy. Ba Nguyen was a pilot in the South Vietnamese Army. On April 29th, 1975, as Saigon fell, they crossed paths for one brief moment. Mina Nguyen-Driver is the pilot's daughter.
Ms. MINA NGUYEN-DRIVER: In 1975, I was a 10-month-old, and I obviously don't remember anything - just because I was still a baby in diapers. But what my mom tells me, my parents tell me, is that they dropped me off.
SHAPIRO: That's not like drop off the baby at day care, or drop off the baby at grandma's house. What she means is that her mother dropped her - from a moving helicopter.
Ms. NGUYEN-DRIVER: And she just was like one, two, three, hallelujah, drop her. And just, you know, going for Hail Mary and not really quite sure as to if the folks below were going to catch me or not.
SHAPIRO: The folks about 10 feet below were that sailor, Kent Chipman, and his crewmates on the USS Kirk.
Mr. CHIPMAN: I remember the baby coming out. But you know, there was no way we were going to let them hit the deck or drop 'em. We caught 'em.
SHAPIRO: That's how desperate things were for families like Ba Nguyen's. As Saigon fell, the Vietnamese pilot gathered his family in his helicopter and flew away from the city. The only direction to go was out to sea. He was running out of fuel when he spotted a solitary ship below. It was the Kirk. But the ship was too small, and the helicopter too large, to land.
So, Nguyen hovered above the deck while his passengers, including his wife and three small children, jumped. The 260 men on the Kirk did even grander things than that. As the rest of the U.S. Navy was steaming out of Vietnam, the Kirk went back, by itself, and rescued Vietnamese refugees. But it's untold history. It just wasn't something people wanted to talk about 35 years ago.
Mr. JAN HERMAN (Historian, U.S. Navy): People put the Vietnam War - or at least wanted to put the Vietnam War - behind them.
SHAPIRO: Jan Herman is an historian with the US Navy. He's documenting the Kirk's great humanitarian mission in a film and a book.
Mr. HERMAN: It was a time to forget a very unhappy war, and to move on. And so the story of the Kirk, as good as it was, was kind of left in the dust. No one really looked at it.
SHAPIRO: The Kirk rescued and then escorted 20,000 to 30,000 refugees to safety. About half were women, children and babies. The crew fed them, gave them fresh water, and cared for the sick. In the war, the ship never did see combat. The Kirk was a submarine hunter; its crew trained for warfare. So the sailors found it hard to think of their humanitarian work as heroic.
Mr. HERMAN: It's certainly not something you go bragging about to your fellow warriors - I diapered a baby today, you know. I'm not sure that's going to go over well at a, you know, at a bar when you're having a brew with a bunch of friends or colleagues.
SHAPIRO: It's not just the rest of the world that didn't know about the Kirk; the Navy didn't know, either. Paul Jacobs, the captain of the Kirk, talked about that oversight at the recent reunion.
Captain PAUL JACOBS (USS Kirk): We have a bunch of officers, enlisted men, on board the Kirk that never got their Vietnamese Service Medal. So if you'd please come up here, I'm going to ask the admiral if he wouldn't mind pinning that on them.
SHAPIRO: Several years ago, men from the Kirk applied for a new service medal that was being given to sailors who'd taken part in the helicopter evacuation of Saigon. The Navy couldn't find a record that the Kirk was even there. It took until recently to clear up that bureaucratic mess.
Vice Admiral ADAM ROBINSON (Navy Surgeon General): The reason the Kirk is so compelling, the reason...
SHAPIRO: Vice Admiral Adam Robinson, the Navy surgeon general, has come to the reunion to give those service ribbons, and to recognize the Kirk's humanitarian mission.
Mr. ROBINSON: The reason that we are here tonight is to celebrate that ethos of service...
SHAPIRO: One way the crew of the Kirk is making their story known is by holding reunions like this one.
Mr. JACOBS: They want to find out what happened to the Vietnamese that they rescued, and the Vietnamese want to pay their respects to the people who rescued them.
SHAPIRO: Captain Jacobs says the men of the Kirk better understand the importance of what they did when they hear the success stories of the people they saved.
Mr. JACOBS: Do you remember when all the Vietnamese were assembled on the hill and the Kirk came steaming in there, and everybody was waving their arms.
Captain THANH PHAM: Sure, sure, I know. I know that. I remember in the morning...
SHAPIRO: Thanh Pham was captain of one of the Vietnamese ships crammed with refugees. He moved his ship behind the Kirk and followed for six days until they got to the Philippines. But the captains, Jacobs and Pham, had never met each other until this moment
Mr. PHAM: Even though I never have a chance to meet him before, he's very famous. I know him but I didn't...
SHAPIRO: There are many joyous reunions tonight. Like with Ba Nugyen, the Vietnamese pilot, and his wife, son and daughter who jumped from the helicopter.
Mr. JACOBS: Now, the last thing we're going to give the good skipper...
SHAPIRO: The Kirk crew had long forgotten the name of this helicopter pilot, but they never forgot his stunning airmanship. So last year, Captain Jacobs looked for him and tonight, the captain and his crew are honoring Ba Nguyen.
Mr. JACOBS: That, to me, is - what he did in 1975, to free those people, was above and beyond. Great job. Let's give him a hand.
(Soundbite of applause)
SHAPIRO: The old man is pushed in his wheelchair by his son, to the front of the ballroom. An officer from the Kirk pins an air medal on the man's sport coat. It's a version of the one the U.S. military gives for heroic feats while flying. The audience rises to its feet.
(Soundbite of applause)
SHAPIRO: It hasn't been clear how much Ba Nguyen understands. He has Alzheimer's. He doesn't speak anymore, but he frequently cries out.
(Soundbite of crying out)
Mr. JACOBS: Congratulations. Well done. Very well done.
SHAPIRO: Then, the old pilot struggles to get out of his wheelchair. His son hurries to his side and helps him up. Ba Nguyen lifts his shaking arm and brings it to his head in a salute.
(Soundbite of applause)
SHAPIRO: Joseph Shapiro, NPR News.
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MONTAGNE: You can see video and photos of the USS Kirk, read a timeline of its mission, and hear more tales from the sailors and refugees, at NPR.org.
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MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.