The USS Kirk. Archival Navy photo

By Leonard Novarro

A single moment. A split-second decision. That’s what it took to change the lives of 30,000 Vietnamese.

Capt. Paul Jacobs, skipper of the USS Kirk, was steaming away from Vietnam as the capital, Saigon, was about to fall to the communists, when he got this order from his commander, Adm. Donald Whitmire: “We’re going to send you back to rescue the Vietnamese Navy. We forgot ‘em.”

And back Jacobs went, to lead the largest rescue effort ever undertaken by the United States.

Paul Jacobs with rescued Vietnamese.

Returning to a small island off the coast of South Vietnam on May 1, 1975, Jacobs and his crew encountered hundreds of ships and boats anchored offshore. Richard Armitage, a Defense Department attache who was later to become deputy Secretary of State under George W. Bush, working with his South Vietnamese counterpart, Capt. Kiem Do, had assembled whatever naval assets they could so they wouldn’t fall into North Vietnamese hands.

By the time word had gotten out, dozens of small craft, including cargo ships and fishing boats, crammed to the edges with civilians trying to escape, had joined them at Con Son Island, off the coast. As the Kirk reached the island, 30 South Vietnamese navy vessels and all kinds of small craft not knowing what to do next were waiting.

For Jacobs and his crew, the mission was clear. His boss, Admiral Whitmire had told him: “If we don’t get them or any part of them, they’re all probably going to be killed.” Thus began the largest humanitarian effort in the history of the United States.

That four-day event and journey to the Philippines will be commemorated by the Asian Heritage Society on Sept. 1-2 at the Veterans Museum and Memorial Center in Balboa Park, where Jacobs will emcee the San Diego premiere of the Navy documentary “The Lucky Few,” about the experience.

Help save the USS Kirk. Contact the Asian Heritage Society at 619-521-8008 or 2920 1st Ave. (G), San Diego, CA 92103

Many of the boats in the flotilla were on the verge of sinking during the voyage. One, in fact, did. And as passengers shuffled from one boat to another to be saved, one man pushed a woman overboard because she was moving slowly. Seeing that, a South Vietnamese Army officer came up behind him and shot him in the head. It averted any further chaos.

There are other stories within the big story — of a baby born during the escape and another baby dying. Of a South Vietnamese officer maneuvering his Chinook helicopter over the deck of the Kirk until his family, including a 6-year-old son, could jump or be tossed to crewmen on the deck because the chopper could not be landed. And of smaller helicopters being tossed overboard into the sea to make room for incoming waves of refugees.

To allow a large helicopter like the Chinook to land “would endanger everyone and probably kill my crew,” said Jacobs. So after the pilot’s family got out, jumping to the deck or being thrown there, the pilot put the helicopter into a spin and jumped out as he ditched it into the sea. Miki Nguyen, the boy, has written his own book, “My Father, the Badass,” and plans to be at the San Diego event, as will many rescued refugees, crew members and other Vietnam veterans commemorating the event.

After the war, the Kirk was leased to the Taiwanese government but may be scuttled to make way for newer ships from the United States. Jacobs, who is bringing a replica of the Kirk to lead the discussion after the film, will discuss efforts to bring the ship back to the U.S.

“We cannot let this piece of history die,” said Rosalynn Carmen, president of the Asian Heritage Society and hostess for the event. “We know several members of the crew, who were at the Asian Heritage Awards last year, and, of course, many Vietnamese living in San Diego were part of that rescue effort.

“It will be like a family reunion.”

Leonard Novarro is co-founder of Asia Media America and the Asian Heritage Society. He is a frequent contributor to Times of San Diego.