A trucker recalls the key role a U.S. ship played in rescuing thousands from South Vietnam.
It was late April of 1975.
Radio stations across the country were playing “Philadelphia Freedom” by Elton John.
George Foreman fought five men in one night as part of a televised exhibition about six months after losing the heavyweight boxing title to Muhammad Ali, and the Symbionese Liberation Army took kidnap victim Patty Hearst to a bank robbery.
At Tulane University in New Orleans, President Gerald Ford said, “Today, America can regain the sense of pride that existed before Vietnam. But it cannot be achieved by refighting a war that is finished as far as America is concerned.”
However, the president was wrong. America had one last role to play.
Seven days later, on April 30, more than 9,000 miles and an ocean away, the long and terrible story of the Vietnam War truly reached its end.
Saigon, South Vietnam’s capital, was in its death throes as the North Vietnamese Army slowly clawed its way into the final scrap of land under southern control. As the sound of explosions and small arms fire burst through a thick soup of heat and humidity, those events brought 20 years of American involvement in the south to an end.
And that triggered a long-planned effort by the U.S. military.
Signaled by an April 29 radio broadcast of Bing Crosby’s classic song “White Christmas,” Operation Frequent Wind began. Planes, ships and helicopters loaded past capacity rushed to evacuate the slowly falling capital.
A destroyer, the USS Kirk, waited offshore, ready to help.
On board the Kirk was Bill Cutler, who later became a truck driver for about three decades and an OOIDA life member. As events picked up steam on April 30, Cutler witnessed one of the most enduring symbols of that sad day.
“Every time a helicopter landed on the flight deck, we disembarked the personnel off, disarmed them and threw the helo over the side,” he said. “Each helicopter was loaded with eight to 10, maybe 12 refugees coming straight from Saigon. So you multiply that times 13 and then one CH 47 Chinook loaded with people also.”
The Kirk would soon lead one of the most important parts of the rescue, making Cutler and his shipmates witnesses to history.
However, the pace of events ramped up – and the die was cast for the last free parts of South Vietnam – much earlier.
Listen to Land Line Now’s podcast about the USS Kirk and the fall of Saigon.
The start of the end
In April 1975, OOIDA senior member Jon Osburn was serving as a Navy medic at the U.S. Embassy in Saigon, charged with the care of nonmilitary staff.
Osburn had already served two tours – one as a medic with a Marine combat battalion, the second with the “brown-water Navy,” the patrol boats and swift boats on the nation’s rivers. However, working in an embassy was a longtime goal, so he accepted the Saigon posting.
If he thought embassy duty was going to be a walk in the park, then April 30 was a big disappointment.
As the hours passed, Osburn said action became more and more frantic at the U.S. compound. More Americans and staff left, and people outside the embassy compound became more hostile.
They could hear explosions as the North Vietnamese Army inched closer and closer, and Americans and South Vietnamese forces blew up equipment, vehicles and munitions to prevent them falling into the North’s hands.
Osburn said the evacuation “just got more intense” with all of it funneling to the fleet offshore.
“We had a lot of ships off the coast … from frigates to multiple carriers, probably the largest concentration I’d ever heard of,” he said.
Among those ships was the Kirk. Along with Cutler, on board that day was Hugh Doyle, now the historian for the USS Kirk Association.
“When the evacuation started, it was a helicopter evacuation,” Doyle said. “The Marine Corps helicopters were cycling back and forth, from sea into Saigon, to pick up the official evacuees and bring them out.”
U.S. Chinook helicopters, designed to carry up to 50 people, conducted the main evacuation.
“They were planning on taking out somewhere in the vicinity of, I guess, about 7,000 people,” Doyle said, “but what they weren’t planning on was all the other helicopters that started swarming out.”
The unplanned evacuation
As the Kirk and other ships waited, South Vietnamese officers with smaller helicopters took off from areas still under southern control.
“Every guy that could get his hands on a helicopter” was in the air, Osburn said.
“There were stories of those helicopters landing in neighborhoods and picking up everybody in that neighborhood that wanted to leave,” he said. “People just grabbed what they could and went, because they had been told the stories of being retrained by the Communists … and it just scared the bejesus out of people.”
As the Chinooks left to rendezvous with waiting Navy vessels, the smaller choppers followed them. Osburn saw an apocalyptic, chaotic scene unfold.
“The sky was full of these smaller Hueys and even some Hughes helicopters,” he said. The smallest choppers were designed for five or six people, but Jon said “they were crammed full.”
In a couple of cases, Osburn saw people clinging to a chopper’s exterior as it flew out to sea.
“People were holding on … for their dear life,” he said. “I hope they made it, but we were over water … I don’t know how they did it.”
Hugh Doyle said the motivation of the escaping Vietnamese was obvious. Everyone knew what was coming.
“They knew that the end was there, so they just took a chance; they jumped in any helicopter they could find,” he said. The helicopter pilots “had their wives and children and their mothers and fathers, and they were just looking for some place to land.”
The embassy’s final chapter
Osburn was on the second-to-the-last U.S. military helicopter to leave South Vietnam.
He says the well-known photos of smaller choppers on the Embassy roof were not, in fact, the official U.S. military aircraft evacuating American staff. Those landed and took off from a parking lot, where Jon boarded the chopper that evacuated him.
As Osburn watched the surrounding skies from his chopper, it became increasingly obvious that things were not going according to plan.
“Smaller helicopters are landing on ships that aren’t designed to have more than one helicopter,” he said. “So these guys are taking South Vietnamese military helicopters and having to toss them over the side so they can get the next helicopter.
“You hear, ‘Mayday, mayday. I’m out of fuel,’ on and on – all kinds of stuff on the radio,” he added.
“We were kind of wired.”
Various media and historical accounts indicate U.S. efforts alone evacuated more than 1,000 Americans and 5,000 South Vietnamese citizens.
From the deck of the Kirk, the crew watched the situation unfold.
“We were watching these little helicopters fly over us heading much further out to sea,” Doyle said.
Larger ships, such as aircraft carriers, were up to 12 miles beyond the Kirk’s position.
“We had a flight deck, but it was only a flight deck that was able to take one helicopter at a time,” Doyle added. “All these Vietnamese helicopters started following them, and they were just looking for some place to land. It was completely impromptu.”
The Kirk’s captain and crew recognized help was needed – and fast. So like nearly all U.S. personnel that day, they took action.
One of the Kirk’s crew – a first class petty officer – spoke some rudimentary Vietnamese learned during a previous tour of duty.
“So we brought him up into our combat information center, and we started broadcasting that we had an open deck,” Doyle said. “We just broadcast the number of our ship – 1 0 8 7. We just said ‘land here.’
“He just kept repeating it in kind of pidgin Vietnamese, ‘land here, land here.’”
Finally, Doyle said, one of the Vietnamese pilots saw the Kirk, heard the message and came in for a landing. And suddenly, they had a new problem.
“As soon as he landed, other helicopters saw,” Doyle said. “So they all lined up, and we had about four or five helicopters, all waiting to land on our flight deck.”
However, the Kirk’s single chopper flight deck posed a problem as more helicopters arrived.
“So the captain made a decision to – once the people were safely off it – and just throw it over the side, which then cleared the deck for the next one to land,” Doyle said.
One helicopter – after off-loading passengers – went over the side prematurely with the pilot inside. Cutler kicked off his shoes and dove into the water after the still running chopper, saving the pilot’s life.
Evacuation becomes desperation
Meanwhile, the chopper carrying Osburn finally landed, putting him on board one of the aircraft carriers farther out. From that vantage, he watched as more helicopters arrived well into the night.
“They lit these ships up with every light possible – not to blind them but to get them there,” Osburn said. “The Navy medevac, the air-sea rescue helicopters … they were out, coming back, getting fuel and going back out, because there were aircraft not making it. There were aircraft having mechanical problems, aircraft running out of fuel, aircraft overloaded.”
Osburn saw helicopters meant to carry 12 people loaded with double that number.
“Basically, it was one or two guys flying with Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood in the back,” he said. “They were literally maxed out.
“What you had was your family, and you had your life, and it was time to go someplace that you’d never been before and start all over again,” he added. “And they were scared. Very scared.”
Osburn said that in many cases, it went far beyond scared.
“There were some incidences where we heard some gunshots, and it was somebody realizing that their whole world had just died,” he said, “and they didn’t want to live.”
One problem leads to another
As the Kirk became ever more crowded, the “too many helicopters” problem was quickly replaced by a far more serious one.
The destroyer was never designed to handle a significant number of civilians. Plus, the Vietnamese refugees left their homes with little to nothing, and what they did bring often went overboard with the helicopter.
Cutler says the crew made every effort to care for those refugees.
“We had to put up tarps for the people sitting outside. It was extremely hot, so we had to get them in the shade and get the food ready … and make sure that they were comfortable and well cared for,” he said.
The USS Kirk took its load of 200-plus refugees and rendezvoused with another ship more capable of caring for them. But their work that day wasn’t over.
Rescuing a Navy
The Kirk quickly found itself at the center of what has been called one of the most significant rescues in U.S. Naval history.
“We were directed to head south overnight by ourselves,” Doyle said. “We went down to Con Son Island, which was a small island off the southeast coast of Vietnam.
“What we didn’t realize at the time is that the remnants of the Vietnamese Navy, dozens and dozens of ships, were directed the previous couple days to go down to Con Son Island and rendezvous there.”
The Kirk led several other U.S. vessels assigned to gather the Vietnamese ships and take them to a U.S. base in the Philippines.
“When we arrived there we found that there was probably upwards of 50 ships,” Doyle said. “And when I say ships, some were destroyer-size, and some of them were really too small to even make it across the South China Sea.
“We … ended up with a total of 32 ships that were considered seaworthy,” he said. “The ships that were not going to go, that were going to remain behind, they took all their refugees and put them onto the ones that were going to go.
“And on those ships were 33,000 refugees.”
The Kirk and five other U.S. ships then started the flotilla on a seven-day, 1,600-mile trip to Subic Bay in the Philippines.
“They didn’t know where they were going,” Doyle said. “They just knew they were going east; they were going away from their home.”
Refugees were packed like sardines, shoulder to shoulder, on the ships’ decks. Some of the larger ships had 7,000 to 8,000 refugees aboard.
Worries about disease spreading and the fleet’s ability to feed the refugees weighed heavy on the Kirk’s captain and other commanders.
‘These young men were just actually magnificent’
Osburn says the U.S. Naval personnel taking in refugees did an incredible job. None seemed frightened, shaken or affected – from the top officers down to the medical personnel.
“They were like, ‘This is my job, I’ve got to do this’ – above and beyond professionalism,” he said. “Whether you were a corpsman, whether you were just a basic first aider, they were checking people out and passing people on. The triage started the moment you came out the side hatch of that helicopter; somebody was checking you or grandma or that baby or whatever out.”
That extended well beyond the medical personnel.
“Every chaplain that I saw was rocking and rolling,” Osburn said. “And when they could find a Buddhist priest, that poor guy did not get a break, because he was right there as the translator for his South Vietnamese people.
“There wasn’t anybody shirking their duty. Guys were working 18, 20 hours and literally hit the bunk, and four hours later, someone’s getting them up to go again.”
Doyle says it was the same on board the Kirk, which is even more amazing when you consider much of the crew’s relative lack of experience.
“We had 275 men aboard. Our average age was probably about 21 years old,” Doyle said. “I was 30. The captain was 38 years old. The oldest chief petty officer we had on the ship, I think, was 42, and he was the ‘ancient mariner.’
“If you do the math on that, we had a whole lot of 18- and 19-year-old, boys, really,” he said. “In fact, we had three 17-year-old kids. They called them kiddie cruisers. They were aboard with their parents’ permission.”
Those men, trained for combat, suddenly became caregivers, Doyle said, changing diapers and feeding babies.
“These young men were just actually magnificent. They really were,” he said. “Anything that needed to be done, these guys are standing in line volunteering to do – you know, rough, tough sailors, and all of a sudden, they’re big brothers and uncles to all these refugees.”
Once the Kirk arrived in the Philippines, its mission accomplished, the ship sailed on to other duties. The refugees, for the most part, were resettled in the United States. And history moved forward, as it always does.
It ain’t over till it’s over
Nearly 45 years later, the USS Kirk’s story is still not over.
“After we came back from Vietnam, which was 1977, no, ’76, we had received orders that she was going to be re-home ported in Yokosuka, Japan,” Cutler said. “I got orders off the ship at that time – myself and the other plank owners (the Kirk’s original crew) – to go elsewhere in the Navy.”
Cutler says the ship remained in the U.S. Navy until early 1989, when it was decommissioned and joined a different Navy.
“She is currently flying under the Taiwanese flag in the Taiwan Navy,” he said, sent there as part of a lend-lease program.
“After the lend-lease program, they actually purchased the ship,” he added. “So it’s in their care entirely.”
However, the Kirk veterans are extremely dedicated to the ship and its memory – and refuse to let the Kirk’s story end there.
Cutler and Doyle have been part of an effort to bring the Kirk back to the United States, make it into a museum, and help educate people on an important event in our recent history.
They set their goal and have started their effort, even getting the USS Kirk Association registered as a non-profit so they could take donations. Cutler said they contacted the Taiwanese Navy, letting them know of the association’s interest in the ship.
“It’s going to be a Mount Everest size mission to get this done,” he said. “The fundraiser is just going to be a small portion of it. We’re going to need a lot of media coverage. We’re going to need a lot of other people getting on board – influential people, like senators and congressmen and what not.
“Our main goal is to get the ship back to San Diego, so that our captain – Lord willing he’s still with us, and he is today – can stand on the bridge and sit in his chair one more time.”
Cutler said the Kirk crew from that era remain dedicated to their captain, Paul H. Jacobs, and executive officer, Richard McKenna, calling them, “Two of the finest officers the Navy’s ever produced.”
They remember how the two men led the crew in the rescue, and in the task that followed – feeding all the refugees while still running a Navy vessel in potentially hostile waters. It’s that commitment that Cutler said the crew still has, thanks to that leadership.
“It was an honor to serve under Capt. Paul Jacobs and Cmdr. McKenna,” Cutler said. “They trained us very well for the task at hand. They taught us not to give up. Always move forward, and never quit – until the job is done.”
However, as far as the restoration of the Kirk, Cutler will not see the job done.
On Jan. 2, along U.S. 59 near Hungerford, Texas, Cutler – who survived Vietnam, Navy service and 30 years behind the wheel of a truck – died as the result of a crash with another truck, which was going the wrong way on a one-way highway.
He was 65 years old. LL
Editor’s note: The USS Kirk Association is accepting donations toward the effort to repatriate, restore and display the vessel. You can learn more about the group, the ship and the effort at Kirk1087.org. Click on the “Save the Kirk” link to read more or donate.