Kirk Crew, Refugees Retell Vietnam Rescue Saga Crew members from the USS Kirk and a family they helped revisit a Vietnam War story of survival and loss.
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Kirk Crew, Refugees Retell Vietnam Rescue Saga

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Kirk Crew, Refugees Retell Vietnam Rescue Saga

Kirk Crew, Refugees Retell Vietnam Rescue Saga

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Mary Louise Kelly.


And I'm Melissa Block.

Now we have an unexpected chapter to a story we brought you this summer, about a forgotten episode from the closing days of the Vietnam War. In 1975, a small Navy ship, the USS Kirk, was sent back to Vietnam to rescue refugees. It was one of the greatest humanitarian missions in the history of the U.S. military.

KELLY: In our story, the ship's medic recalled how he had cared for a gravely ill Vietnamese baby. Stephen Burwinkel revived the boy with a massive dose of penicillin, only to find out the baby died suddenly a few days later.

Mr. STEPHEN BURWINKEL (Former Medic, USS Kirk): 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 was very emotional. It still brings back emotions that I'd rather not have.

BLOCK: Well, the family of that infant heard our story. And it gave them a way to find the crew. They'd always wanted to thank them. Last month, they got the chance to do that in person.

KELLY: But first, correspondent Joseph Shapiro of NPR's investigative unit sat down with the mother and father, their four children and a son-in-law.

Ms. LOAN LE: We need lots of Kleenex. The only man I remember is this man.

JOSEPH SHAPIRO: The Le family was excited. They were nervous. They were moments away from being reunited, after 35 years, with sailors and officers from the USS Kirk.

Loan Le brought a picture in a frame. It's the only photograph left in the world of her son, Bao Le. Ms. L. LE: I was very proud of him because, as you look in the picture, he's very handsome. He has black, long lashes. His lips are, you know, like a girl's lips, and so, so handsome.

SHAPIRO: In the brown and white photograph, the boy is in mid-movement, almost jumping out of the frame. There's an impish smile forming on those handsome lips.

Not long after that photo was taken, Saigon fell. It was the Spring of 1975. The Le family, desperate to get out, squeezed onto a South Vietnamese ship. That's where the baby got violently sick with cramps and fever.

Ms. L. LE: I have a very bad feeling that he would not survive. I just lie there with him and massage him. I talk to him, you know, I say I love him. And you know, I pray. I pray. I say, please, God help him. He's my only son.

SHAPIRO: Loan Le and her sick baby were moved from the South Vietnamese ship to the USS Kirk.

The Kirk had returned to Vietnam, by itself, to escort the Vietnamese ships crammed with refugees. The Kirk's two corpsmen came by with their kits of medicine. But the boy died.

Ms. L. LE: I was hysterical. And I say, let me see my husband and my children first, because I don't want to be here by myself. I want to tell them. I have to tell them.

Mr. HUGH DOYLE (Former Chief Engineer, USS Kirk): What I did, though, I took the boat and went over to this Vietnamese LST where the father and the three sisters were, three little girls.

SHAPIRO: Hugh Doyle was the Kirk's chief engineer. He recorded cassette tapes home to his wife. And he talked about finding the rest of the Le family and the father.

Mr. DOYLE: He asked me, you know, does his wife know. And, so I told him. I said, yes, your wife knows. She knows and she's very sad. All the way back in the boat, he was saying, when we left Saigon, we were six - six people in his family, he says. And he kept shaking his fist and he said, now we are five. He says, it's very sad. Very sad.

Mr. PIERRE LE: Yeah, I say that. When we left Saigon, we were six. Now, we are five.

SHAPIRO: Pierre Le is the father. He remembers vividly the funeral for his son on the fantail of the USS Kirk.

Mr. LE: I remember that was at night, a chilly night, even as it's in summertime. And I still remember there's a moon too. And I see that there's many soldiers in a line up there. And then, I don't know if I can call it a coffin or not, but, you know, it's - the body of my son was wrapped under two flags: the Vietnamese flag and the American flags.

SHAPIRO: The ship's logs say the boy was nine days old. But that was wrong. Bao Le was a year and nine days old. Cause of death: Cardio-pulmonary arrest due to pneumonia and gastroenteritis.

Mr. LE: And I still remember that they played a song that they normally play, you know, at cemetery.

(Soundbite of song, "Taps")

Mr. LE: (Singing) Den-den-den. Do-do-do. Do-do-do. Do-do-do. Do-do-do.

SHAPIRO: The child's body was on a board. It tipped. And the body slipped into the dark South China Sea.

Kimmy was the middle of the three Le girls. She was 5. Her brother's burial at sea is her first memory stamped and stark in her mind.

Ms. KIMMY LE: I'm sure my parents told us that my brother died. But I don't think I grasped that. And I remember the funeral. And I remember when he went over. I remember running towards the edge of the boat. And I remember standing there looking down. And I remember, how come no one is going to get him?

SHAPIRO: The Le family was taken to a refugee camp in Guam, then they resettled in Hawaii. The mother would never again walk into an ocean without breaking into a rash. The father resumed his career as an architect. Another child, a son, was born. The family moved to Texas.

Bao Le's death at sea was something the family would barely talk about. But they always wanted to thank the crew of the Kirk. They didn't know how, until now.

Mr. DOYLE: Hi, I'm Hugh.

Ms. K. LE: Hi.

Mr. DOYLE: I think I met you when you were a little, tiny girl.

Ms. K. LE: Thank you so much.

Mr. DOYLE: I was the boat - do you remember getting onto the boat?

Ms. K. LE: Oh, yeah. Yeah, I remember.

SHAPIRO: They meet with hugs and tears at a restaurant in Pensacola, Florida. Several of the crew have come here for a showing of a new documentary about the Kirk. The Le family flew in from Houston.

(Soundbite of conversations)

Mr. LE: Thank you very much for helping my family. For taking care of, good care of my family. Yes, let me say hi to the captain. I remember his face. You're the captain.

Mr. PAUL JACOBS (Former Captain, USS Kirk): Yes.

Mr. LE: See, I cannot forget you.

Mr. JACOBS: I can't forget you, either, sir. That was a long, long time ago.

Mr. BURWINKEL: Steve Burwinkel.

Ms. K. LE: Hi, I'm Kimmy.

Mr. LE: He's the doctor.

Ms. L. LE: We survived through your kindness.

Mr. BURWINKEL: Well, that was part of...

SHAPIRO: They linger for hours over lunch. The crew from the Kirk talk about how they came home from war, about their careers and family since.

The Le family talks about how they were immigrants who became Americans, about their careers and family since. And they talk about the tragic death that brought them together long ago.

Mr. BURWINKLE: (Unintelligible) went back today, doesn't matter?

Ms. L. LE: (Unintelligible)

SHAPIRO: On this night, at the Pensacola Naval Air Station, there's a ceremony to celebrate the Kirk's role in rescuing 20,000 to 30,000 Vietnamese refugees. And then there's a surprise for the Le family.

Mr. JACOBS: I'd like to have Mr. and Mrs. Le come down here, because we have a special award.

(Soundbite of applause)

SHAPIRO: Paul Jacobs was the Kirk's captain. He presents a plaque that honors the child.

Mr. JACOBS: Bao Le is now and forever more an honorary crew member of the good ship USS Kirk. Though on board for just a tragically short time, Bao Le's impact on the entire crew of Kirk was profound.

SHAPIRO: The crew of the Kirk never forgot the death of the baby boy they tried to save. And Kimmy Le says her family never forgot the crew of the ship that saved them.

Ms. K. LE: I guess the yearning of finding them was to let them know that what they did made a difference. And I wanted them to see where we are now, you see? How happy we are here living in the U.S. I wanted to say thank you to them. But I also want them to see that we all grew up, and here we are.

Joseph Shapiro, NPR News.

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