DAYS OF RECKONING: Commemorating the largest humanitarian effort ever undertaken –The rescue of 32,000 Vietnamese by the USS Kirk at the end of the Vietnam War
By Leonard Novarro
Asian Heritage Society
It was an unpopular war.
Unlike World War II, the so-called “good war,” and Korea, the “necessary war,” Vietnam, for many, was something best forgotten. Just too many things went wrong.
But one of the things that did go right was the rescue of 32,000 Vietnamese, led by the USS Kirk, during the closing days of Vietnam.
Right before the fall of Saigon April 30, 1975, Paul Jacobs, captain of the USS Kirk, off the coast of Vietnam, was told to return his ship to the coast to rescue what was left of the South Vietnamese navy as Saigon fell to the communists. When they got to Con Son Island, off the coast, on May 1, thousands of South Vietnamese fleeing the country, with no place to go, awaited in craft ranging from rickety fishing boats and cargo scow to navy ships flying the South Vietnamese flag – in essence, anything that floated.
Against all odds and threats from the new communist regime of Vietnam, the Kirk, with ingenuity, determination and skill, led this flotilla of the dispossessed on a six-day odyssey to safety. For the thousands of Vietnamese saved by this largest humanitarian effort ever undertaken by the U.S., thousands of South Vietnamese, instead of dying, being abandoned or facing prison, were able to start new productive lives in America as part of the largest refugee group to be taken in by the U.S. More than 1.5 million Vietnamese made their way to the U.S. over the next 15 years – by evacuation, small boats, and later by crossing into Thailand and Cambodia, and being sponsored by relatives.
This historic event, unheralded until recent years, will be commemorated and the crew of the USS Kirk honored Sept. 30 in a special ceremony, including individual congressional commendations for crew members by U.S. Rep. Duncan Hunter, as well as city and county proclamations, from 10 a.m.-3 pm, at the Veterans Museum and Memorial Center, 2115 Park Blvd., in Balboa Park, San Diego. Memorabilia from the period and from Vietnam and a replica of the USS Kirk will be on display. Attendance is free of charge.
The following day, on Oct. 1, at the nearby Museum of Photographic Arts, the celebration will continue with presentation of the documentary “The Lucky Few” by Jan Herman, about the rescue and exodus. Crew members, Vietnam veterans and members of the Vietnamese community, many of them rescued by the Kirk, will participate in discussions and be available to answer questions from the audience. Showing of the movie and panel discussion runs from 10 am-1 pm. Doors open at 8:30 a.m.
Saturday’s ceremony will be attended by a range of dignitaries, including congressional, county and city officials, as well as members of the Vietnamese community of Southern California and a host of other local government representatives and Vietnamese community leaders. The following day, the Asian Heritage Society and USS Kirk Association, will host showing of the documentary about the event and a discussion afterwards with Capt. Paul Jacobs, crew members and members of the Vietnamese community who were part of the rescue effort. The public is invited to attend both days.
Rosalynn Carmen, president of the Asian Heritage Society, this “a rare and wonderful opportunity for teachers and students to learn history from the people who made it – both crew and those they rescued – before they are gone, as happened with veterans of other generations. Now students can learn history firsthand from the people who made it – both the crew and many of those they rescued and guided to safety,” Carmen added.
Anyone interested in supporting the event with sponsorships or tax-deductible contributions is invited to call the Asian Heritage Society at 619 521 8008, inquire by email to firstname.lastname@example.org or write to Asian Heritage Society, 2920 1st Ave. (G), San Diego, Ca. 92103. The Asian Heritage Society is a 501 c (3) charity; all contributions are tax deductible.
On May 7, 1975, to keep the navy ships from falling into communist hands, and to honor the request by the Philippine government to lower the South Vietnamese flag, Jacobs ordered the American flag raised in its place on all navy ships. All ships flying the American flag, loaded with refugees, and all boats accompanying them were allowed into Subic Bay. For the refugees, a new journey had begun. As for the crew, government official Richard Armitage, who helped develop the evacuation plan for Americans and South Vietnamese, remarked later that he “envied” them. “They weren’t burdened with the former misadventure of Vietnam,” he said.
(For further information on this historic event and the two-day commemoration, call Len Novarro at 619.521.8008.)