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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Im Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And Im Melissa Block.

Yesterday, we brought you the story of one of the most extraordinary humanitarian missions in the history of the U.S. military. It's a story that had long been forgotten, lost in the bitterness over the Vietnam War.

It begins when Saigon fell, in April of 1975. The crew of a small U.S. Navy ship, the destroyer escort USS Kirk, got orders to protect U.S. Marine helicopters as they evacuated the last Americans and thousands of Vietnamese allies. But that wasnt the Kirk's most daring mission.

Correspondent Joseph Shapiro, with NPR's investigative unit, interviewed more than 20 eyewitnesses and pored over hundreds of documents, to tell the history of the Kirk.

Here's the second part of his report.

JOSEPH SHAPIRO: As the evacuation of Saigon was winding down, the USS Kirk got a strange order to head back to Vietnam, and to go alone. It was just before midnight the night of April 30th, 1975.

And there was one more thing: The Kirk would be taking orders from a young civilian.

Mr. RICHARD ARMITAGE (Consultant, Pentagon): I was put on a small boat and transferred from the Blue Ridge over to the Kirk. And it was then, it's the middle of the night.

SHAPIRO: Richard Armitage had just turned 30 that week. He was on assignment from the secretary of Defense. He came aboard wearing a borrowed blue sport coat.

Mr. ARMITAGE: I went into the officers' mess, and Commodore Roane was there along with Captain Jacobs. And Commodore Roane said: Young man, I'm not used to having strange civilians come aboard my ship in the middle of the night and give me orders. I said, I am equally unaccustomed, sir, to coming aboard strange ships in the middle of the night and giving you orders. But steam to Con Son. And so they did.

SHAPIRO: Con Son was the site of a notorious South Vietnamese prison. Now, its harbors were the gathering point for what was left of the South Vietnam's navy.

Armitage needed the Kirk to save those ships. It was a plan he'd put together with an old friend, Captain Kiem Do, a senior Vietnamese navy officer.

Captain KIEM DO (Former Deputy Chief of Staff, South Vietnamese Navy): Mr. Richard Armitage, he come and he told me that we need a plan to evacuate the Vietnamese navy. I said no way, because it would be very dangerous for us.

SHAPIRO: Armitage had been a Navy intelligence officer, assigned to Vietnamese units. He got fluent in the language, but he'd quit the Navy in protest when the Nixon administration signed the Paris Peace Accords. That agreement, two years earlier, ended direct U.S. military involvement.

Armitage thought the U.S. had sold out the South Vietnamese. Years later, Armitage would be Colin Powell's top deputy at the State Department. But as the South Vietnamese government was falling, he'd returned as a civilian with an assignment from the Pentagon to save navy technology.

Mr. ARMITAGE: To keep it from falling into the hands of the enemy. And if you can get it out to Thailand, good. But if not, sink it, scuttle it. Do what you need to do.

SHAPIRO: The U.S. wanted those Vietnamese ships kept away from the Communists. But Captain Do had warned Armitage they'd be saving a lot more than the ships.

Capt. KIEM: I told him, I said that, well, our crew would not leave Saigon without their family so therefore, there would be a lot of people. He keep silent on that subject. He didn't say yeah. He didn't say no. So I just take it as a - acknowledgement.

SHAPIRO: In the Kirk's radar room, Jim Bondgard(ph) was on duty.

Mr. JIM BONDGARD (Crewman, USS Kirk): So anyway, all of a sudden: Plot us a course for Con Son Island. Said, where the heck is Con Son Island?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BONDGARD: I didnt know what it was. Just pulled out a chart, and we figured what, you know, plot where we're going to go - and off we went. And all of a sudden, the fleet is over here, fading off of the scope. And we're going this way. And Im going, uh, we're heading back to Vietnam, guys...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BONDGARD: ...by ourselves. At that point, we knew something was really going to be weird.

SHAPIRO: The Kirk reached Con Son just as the sun was coming up.

(Soundbite of 1975 tape)

Mr. HUGH DOYLE (Chief Engineer, USS Kirk): All these ships were out there, and they were just packed to the gills with evacuees.

SHAPIRO: Hugh Doyle was the Kirk's chief engineer. He made cassette tapes to send home to his wife. Today, they're one of the best records of what happened. Theyve never been heard publicly until now.

(Soundbite of 1975 tape)

Mr. DOYLE: Peasants, navy people, fishermen, everything. They had come and they all had gathered, from all up and down the coast, they had all gathered at Con Son Island.

SHAPIRO: Some records say there were 20,000 people on those ships. Historians for the U.S. Navy use the number 30,000. They were crowded on more than 30 Vietnamese navy ships, a couple of dozen rickety fishing boats, and a few large cargo ships. One cargo ship was so heavy, it was sinking. People below deck were bailing out the water with their shoes.

The passengers had to be moved to another ship, crossing over on a narrow wooden plank.

Mr. STEPHEN BURWINKEL (Hospital Corpsman, USS Kirk): A young woman wasnt moving fast enough or panicked or whatever, and she stopped.

SHAPIRO: Stephen Burwinkel saw what happened next.

Mr. BURWINKEL: And this guy behind her pushed her - and pushed her down.

SHAPIRO: The woman fell into the ocean, then was rescued.

Mr. BURWINKEL: And I thought, oh, boy, we're going to have trouble here. This Vietnamese lieutenant did not hesitate. He went right up the back of that guy, took his gun out and shot him in the head, killed him, kicked him over the side. Stopped all the trouble right then and there.

SHAPIRO: It was up to the crew of the Kirk to keep order. The Kirk's mechanics got engines running on rusted ships. The crew supplied food and fresh water. And Burwinkel went from ship to ship to check on the sick and injured. He was the Kirk's medic. In the Navy, it's called a hospital corpsman.

Mr. BURWINKEL: One mother, I remember, brought me her baby. And I thought the baby was - quite frankly - dead.

SHAPIRO: The child, a boy just a week old, was listless but alive. He had pneumonia.

Mr. BURWINKEL: I didnt know what to do, really. I had some penicillin with me. Of course, I was aboard the Vietnamese ship. You know, I gave it this massive dose of penicillin, thinking, well, it's either going to be right or wrong - and the child was going to die anyway.

SHAPIRO: Only the child didnt die, as Burwinkel had expected. The corpsman's desperate treatment had worked. But a couple days later, as Burwinkel was making his rounds, he got an urgent call to come back to the Kirk.

Mr. BURWINKEL: Said, I think the baby is dead. I said, what do you mean? The child was doing fine.

SHAPIRO: The baby had choked on formula. It was a freakish accident.

Mr. BURWINKEL: And because of his compromised condition, it was just too much for his system, and he died of cardiac arrest. And I remember we had a - excuse me just a minute. We had a funeral for him, a burial at sea. It's very emotional. Still brings back emotions that I'd rather not have.

SHAPIRO: The crew gathered the child's father and three siblings for a funeral on the Kirk. The captain said a prayer; a bugler played "Taps." The child's body was wrapped in a yellow and red South Vietnamese flag, and dropped into the ocean.

The ship sailed to the Philippines. Of the 20 to 30,000 refugees escorted by the Kirk over six days, only three died.

Hugh Doyle, recording a cassette to his wife, thought it was extraordinary, given the grim living conditions.

(Soundbite of 1975 tape)

Mr. DOYLE: You should see the sicknesses. You know, some of these small ships, with thousands of people on them, have widespread conjunctivitis - you know, in the eyes. They have diarrhea, dysentery - basic malnutrition, dehydration.

SHAPIRO: The Kirk became a maternity ward for five pregnant women, close to giving birth. Captain Paul Jacobs moved them into the enlisted men's lounge. Jacobs, who knew how to take charge but keep things light, too, checked on them often. His message was clear, even though he addressed them through a Vietnamese interpreter.

Mr. PAUL JACOBS (Captain, USS Kirk): So I take this wrench, and I rap it against the bulkhead: Do you realize that if one of you has a baby on board, thats a U.S. citizen, thats your meal ticket to the United States? But it got them laughing and got them thinking about what could happen. See?

SHAPIRO: Lan Tran was 18 years old, the wife of a Vietnamese military pilot.

Ms. LAN TRAN: They put me in the big room with other - four pregnant women and their family. The next morning, captain come over and knock the door and then smiling and say: Hey, hurry. Hurry up, lady. Because he want a baby named after USS Kirk. Okay? So...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. LAN TRAN: He said, hurry.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. LAN TRAN: They treat us very kindly and took good care of us.

SHAPIRO: The next day, other U.S. Navy ships joined the escort. But it's clear from the daily logs for the ships that the crew of the Kirk took the lead. After sailing four days, the ships were getting close to their destination in the Philippines. That's when Captain Jacobs got word that President Ferdinand Marcos was blocking their entry.

Mr. JACOBS: The Philippine government wasn't going to allow us in, period, because these ships belonged to the North Vietnamese now, and they didn't want to offend a new country.

SHAPIRO: It was Richard Armitage and Captain Kiem Do who came up with a solution: to transfer ownership of the vessels.

Capt. KIEM: We talk back and forth, and then I propose a solution that we will raise the American flag and lower the Vietnamese flag as a sign of - transfer the ship back to the United States. Because during the war, those - ship are given to the Vietnamese government as a loan, if you want, from the United States, to fight the Communists. Now the war is over, we turn them back to the United States.

SHAPIRO: Officers from the Kirk were sent aboard every ship to take command from the Vietnamese captains.

Mr. RICK SAUTTER: Their country was gone. Our job was to treat it with dignity.

SHAPIRO: Rick Sautter was one of those officers from the Kirk.

Mr. SAUTTER: That was the last vestige of South Vietnam. And when those flags came down and the American flags went up, that was it, because a Navy ship is sovereign territory. And so that was the last sovereign territory of the Republic of Vietnam.

SHAPIRO: Captain Kiem Do.

Capt. KIEM: Thousand of people on the boat start to sing the national anthem when they lower the flag. And they cry, cry, cry.

SHAPIRO: Thuy Hugo, a young teacher, was on one of the ships.

Ms. THUY HUGO: And we knew that we are - no longer belong to that. And we all cry, singing our national anthem.

Ms. THUY: (Singing in foreign language)

Ms. THUY: And also stand still to salute and raise up the American flag, which is - that's the flag that save our life.

SHAPIRO: The Vietnamese military officers took off their hats, ripped the stripes off their uniforms, and threw them into the sea. On May 7th, the ships were allowed into Subic Bay. For the refugees, there'd still be a long ways to go. They'd take other ships to Guam. Eventually, most resettled in the United States.

Mr. DOYLE: I dont know what youve been reading in the news. I dont know how much of a play this evacuation of the Vietnamese navy is getting. But sorry -the whole thing was kind of cool in the way we did it.

SHAPIRO: What Hugh Doyle and the men of the Kirk didn't know was that there'd been no coverage in the U.S.

Mr. DOYLE: I heard that there was a comment made by Radio Hanoi the other night about an American destroyer who flagrantly stole the Vietnamese navy.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DOYLE: If you saw that comment, that was USS Kirk. We were the ones that grabbed it.

SHAPIRO: It was the USS Kirk that grabbed the South Vietnamese navy, and started the rescue of 20,000 to 30,000 refugees on a humanitarian mission that was forgotten - until now. Joseph Shapiro, NPR News.

BLOCK: You can see video and photos of the Kirk, read a timeline of its mission, and hear more tales from the sailors and refugees, at npr.org.

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