USS Kirk crewman with Vietnamese baby
A USS Kirk crewman with a Vietnamese baby. Photo by Hugh Doyle

By Leonard Novarro

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.

The USS Kirk
The USS Kirk. Archival Navy photo

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.

On May 7, 1975, to keep the Vietnamese 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 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.

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 Rep. Duncan Hunter, as well as city and county proclamations, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., at the Veterans Museum and Memorial Center in Balboa Park. Memorabilia from the period and from Vietnam and a replica of the USS Kirk, recently transported cross-country by former crewman Steven Dunn, is on display in the veterans museum. 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 a.m. to 1 p.m. Doors open at 8:30 a.m.

Rosalynn Carmen, president of the sponsoring Asian Heritage Society, said 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.”

Anyone interested in supporting the event with sponsorships or tax-deductible contributions is invited to call the Asian Heritage Society at 619-521-8008 or inquire by email at The Asian Heritage Society is a 501 c(3) charity and all contributions are tax deductible.

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