Twenty-one year old Texan, Kent Chipman, was serving aboard the USS Kirk when he saw the 10-month old baby dropped from the back of the Chinook helicopter hovering 15 feet above the fantail of the Kirk. "I remember the baby coming out," he recalled. "You know, there was no way that we were going to let them hit the deck or drop them. We caught them." "Catching babies like basketballs" was how another sailor described the scene.
The USS Kirk was a destroyer escort in the South China Sea in April 1975. Most of us have seen the iconic image of the "last helicopter" from the US Embassy in Saigon. Yet, there were many thousands more that took off from places across South Vietnam in search of the US Navy's 7th fleet and a place to land in the middle of the ocean.
"It looked like bees flying all over the place. And they were just going due east, trying to find someplace to land," said Paul Jacobs, the captain of the Kirk. The helicopters were packed with people and running low on fuel. The Kirk only had a small flight deck but still invited helicopters to land. None of the pilots had experience landing on a moving ship. The third helicopter to land cut off the tail of the second aircraft on the deck. Many more buzzed overhead searching for anyplace to land. The deck was full, so the ship's crew started pushing the helicopters overboard to make room for more to land. "We figured humans were much more important than the hardware." said Don Cox, an officer on the Kirk.
Among the helicopters gathered in the air around the Kirk was a twin rotored Chinook. It was too large to land on the Kirk and the sailors signaled to the pilot that he could not land. The Chinook was running on fumes at that point and could not risk trying to get to another ship. The pilot maneuvered the helicopter over the fantail and dropped its rear door. Immediately, passengers started jumping the 15 feet to the deck below. The pilot's wife dropped her three young children to the sailors below, including her 10-month-old baby daughter, caught by Mr. Chipman. Finally, the co-pilot jumped to the deck.
The Chinook pilot and the baby's daddy, flew the chopper about 60 yards away from the Kirk. He hovered for moment, rolled the aircraft to the left and jumped out the right hand side door into the water. The helicopter exploded when it hit the water. The men on the Kirk thought the pilot was surely dead until he breached the surface of the ocean a few seconds later. Cheers rang out from the sailors on the Kirk. Many of them dove into the water to to rescue him. Moments later, on the deck of the Kirk, he was reunited with his wife and three children.
The Kirk rescued 200 refugees from 16 helicopters over the next day and a half. It would go on to save between 20,000 to 30,000 refugees fleeing South Vietnam in boats (to read more about the Kirk, go here).
Why? What makes a mother and a father put their children in an overloaded helicopter and head out over the open ocean in search of a foreign navy fleet with no hope of return? Maybe we should ask John Mooney.
Ronald Reagan was fond of a letter he recieved in 1982 from Mr. Mooney, an American sailor serving on the USS Midway. The carrier was on patrol in the South China Sea and came upon a boat overloaded with men, women, and children. Their boat was slowly sinking and they had run out of drinking water. In a few days, everyone on board would have either drowned or died of thirst:
"As they approached the ship, they were all waving and trying as best they could to say, `Hello America sailor! Hello Freedom man!' It's hard to see a boat full of people like that and not get a lump somewhere between chin and bellybutton. And it really makes one proud and glad to be an American. People were waving and shouting and choking down lumps and trying not to let other brave men see their wet eyes. A lieutenant next to me said, `Yeah, I guess it's payday in more ways than one.' (We got paid today.) And I guess no one could say it better than that.
"Hello Freedom man!" We don't know whether any of the men and women that filled that overloaded boat and the helicopters that landed on the USS Kirk had ever read the Declaration of Independence. But, they most certainly knew what it meant, perhaps better than we do.
In 2010, the crew of the USS Kirk held a reunion and located the man who had flown that Chinook helicopter. His name was Ba Nguyen. He and his wife became American citizens and lived in Seattle where they both worked for Boeing. Mr. Nguyen, in a wheelchair now, came to the reunion with his family. The Kirk crew presented him with an Air Medal, presented by the US military to note heroic feats of airmanship. Mr. Nguyen's son, age 6 when he jumped from the helicopter, said "This is our story. . . . This is how we started in America."
This Fourth of July, take the time to make sure you and your family know how we started in America. Get a copy of the Declaration of Independence. Read it! Talk about it! Do you still hold these truths to be self-evident? Are you a freedom man? Pray that refugees fleeing oppression around the world will continue to call out to us "Hello Freedom man!" Pray that America continues to be a beacon of Freedom and Liberty to the world.
Happy Fourth of July!