USS Kirk: Leadership Amidst Chaos, A Legacy of Survival

Abigail Wiest
Sacred Heart Catholic School
Hattiesburg, MS

I chose my topic of the U.S.S. Kirk because I had a deep interest in the fall of Saigon.  I had heard about this topic in class, and it instantly grabbed my attention. So, I proceeded to research the Kirk and its crew, and I realized that their unique story perfectly related to this year’s topic of leadership and legacy.

There were several aspects of conducting my research. I had done a reading fair project on a book about the Vietnam War, which began my fascination with the subject. After this, my class began another book on the Vietnam War detailing the fall of Saigon, and listened to a radio series about the U.S.S. Kirk, which helped my interest grow.  My next step was watching documentaries on the topic, visiting the online Texas Tech Archive, and accessing the U.S.S. Kirk website. These sources helped me further my knowledge about the Kirk and gave me vital information for my documentary.  In all of these sources, though, Vietnamese voices were largely absent.  Hoping to add the legacy of the survival of the Vietnamese refugees to the story of the Kirk, I worked through family contacts in the New Orleans Vietnamese community and located two of the major Vietnamese actors in the drama that was the fall of Saigon.  I was able to interview Colonel Toan Nguyen, who saved two families by flying his helicopter to the Kirk, and Captain Kiem Do, who led 30,000 South Vietnamese refugees to safety with the help of the crew of the Kirk.  These interviews were critical, original primary sources that completed the story of the Kirk and brought the entire project together.

I decided to present my research as a documentary because of my past experience with the technology as well as my passion for film making and film editing. I had created many films in the past, including advertisements for a 5k race, projects in class, and a state winning documentary for National History Day in 2014. These past experiences helped focus my project this year.  I also chose this category because I find it interesting and fulfilling to make history come alive on film.

My project relates to the topic of leadership and legacy in many ways. As Saigon fell, military leaders, exemplified by Captain Paul Jacobs and the crew of the Kirk, Colonel Toan Nguyen, and Captain Kiem Do, became humanitarian leaders.  The Kirk and its crew exhibited great leadership by helping save hundreds of South Vietnamese civilians aboard a swarm of helicopters in the middle of the South China Sea. Working with Captain Kiem Do, the Kirk next labored to save 30,000 people aboard a desperate South Vietnamese armada. Tens of thousands of survivors who went on to form vibrant Vietnamese expatriate communities across the United States stand as a living legacy and testament to the leadership of the crew of the U.S.S. Kirk.



Annotated Bibliography

Primary Sources

Interviews

Do, Kiem. Author’s interview with Captain Kiem Do of the South Vietnamese Navy, who led a flotilla of ships carrying nearly 30,000 South Vietnamese refugees from Saigon as the city fell in 1975. 31 May 2015.

This interview that I was privileged to conduct with one of the main Vietnamese figures involved in the evacuation of Saigon gave me an invaluable primary source regarding the flight from Saigon, the role of the USS Kirk, and the legacy of war for the Vietnamese refugee community.

Doyle, Hugh. Interview with Chief Engineer of the USS Kirk. Web. 11 March, 2015. http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=129475773.

This taped letter that Doyle sent home to his family provided a dramatic, first hand account of the landing of refugee helicopters aboard the USS Kirk that helped to make the desperation of the Vietnamese helicopter pilots more clear.

Jacobs, Paul. Interview with Captain of the USS Kirk. Web. 10 March, 2015. http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=129475773.

This interview provided a dramatic, first hand account of the actions of the USS Kirk making clear the integral role of the captain in the story.

Nguyen, Nho and Nguyen, Ba. Interviews with two Vietnamese refugees rescued by the USS Kirk. Web. 12 March, 2015. http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=129475773.

This interview with a Vietnamese refugee couple provided a valuable primary source that told the story of their rescue by the USS Kirk and of their subsequent refugee experience.

Nguyen, Toan. Author’s interview with Colonel Toan Nguyen of the South Vietnamese Air Force. 31 May 2015.

This interview that I conducted with Colonel Toan Nguyen, who flew one of the South Vietnamese helicopters that landed on the USS Kirk during the evacuation of Saigon, provided a primary source for the role of the USS Kirk in the evacuation of Saigon and of the drama of the events that took place at that time. It also provided key insight into the lives of the Vietnamese refugees.

Pham, Van. Author’s interview with one of the leaders of the New Orleans Vietnamese expatriate community. 31 May 2015.

This interview that I conducted with Van Pham, who fled South Vietnam at age 15 aboard a shrimp boat as Saigon fell, helped provide valuable context for the actions of the USS Kirk and of the experience of the fall of South Vietnam and later of life in the United States for members of the younger generation.

Sautter, Rick. Interview with Air Officer of the USS Kirk. Web. 11 March, 2015. http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=129475773.

This interview provided a dramatic, first hand account of the actions of the USS Kirk with special emphasis on the landing of helicopters on the small flight deck.

Film

The Saddest Day: 30 April 1975 (The Fall of Saigon). Web. 12 March 2015. Primary source film footage of the fall of Saigon and accessed on YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mcQoQDkhbYw.

This source provided important footage and photos of the Vietnamese refugee experience utilized in the documentary and helped to provide valuable context for my National History Day documentary film.

Vietnam Saigon Evacuation. Web. 12 March, 2015. Film produced by Independent Television Network (UK) and accessed on YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3AiyFF9qOls.

This source provided valuable primary film footage and photos of the fall of Saigon used in the documentary that dealt especially well with the helicopter evacuation from Saigon.

Secondary Sources

Books

Butler, David. The Fall of Saigon: Scenes from the Sudden End of a Long War. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1985.

This book contained a vivid, personal portrayal of the end of the war in Vietnam that helped to frame my research.

Herman, Jan. The Lucky Few: the Fall of Saigon and the Rescue Mission of the USS Kirk. Washington, DC: Naval Institute Press, 2013.

This book provided the background story that helped to initiate my research into the story of the USS Kirk for my documentary.

Lai, Thanhha. Inside Out and Back Again. New York: Harper Collins, 2013.

My history class read this book about the fall of Saigon and the Vietnamese refugee experience. It was reading this book that began my interest into the fate of Vietnamese refugees and began my work on this documentary.

Wiest, Andrew. The Vietnam War, 1956-1975. London: Osprey Press, 2014.

This book served as a general resource for facts on the Vietnam War for my documentary.

Films

Last Days in Vietnam. Web. Film produced by PBS on the fall of South Vietnam and accessed on YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EWXNXcGvT6830 May 2015.

This film provided important photos, and historical context that helped me to revise the documentary that I had already created for National History Day. It was an especially valuable source for film footage.

The Lucky Few: The Story of the USS Kirk. US Navy Medicine and Support Command. 2010.

This documentary on the story of the USS Kirk provided valuable background, film footage, and pictures for my own documentary on the subject. The film was among the first major sources produced on the USS Kirk and did much to reclaim what had been in many ways a forgotten story.

Websites

Anaheim Blog. Web. 20 May, 2015. http://www.anaheimblog.net.

This site provided information and images on Janet Nguyen, a Vietnamese-American politician, which helped to provide valuable context regarding the successes of the Vietnamese community in the United States.

Fall of Saigon Bittersweet for Vietnamese Refugees. Web. 13 March, 2015. http://www.kpbs.org/news/2010/apr/29/fall-saigon-bitter-sweet-vietnamese-refugee/.

This website, which included interviews with and pictures of Vietnamese refugees, helped me by providing information on the experience on the Vietnamese émigré community in the United States.

The Fall of Saigon Marines Association. Web. 14 March, 2015. http://www.fallofsaigon.org.

This site provided information and photographs documenting the fall of Saigon from the perspective of the United States Marines.

The Hero Pilot of Vietnam. Web. 10 March, 2015. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2766001.

This article helped provide background information and photographs for the documentary, especially concerning the helicopter evacuation of civilians.

How to Steal a Navy and Save 30,000 Refugees. Web. 11 March, 2015. http://www.historynet.com/how-to-steal-a-navy-and-save-30000-refugees-in-the-process.htm.

This website contained valuable information on the role of the USS Kirk especially concerning the rescue of 32 South Vietnamese naval vessels.

Le Xuan Nhuan. Web. 22 May, 2015. http://lexuannhuan.tripod.com.

This site provided information and images concerning Le Xuan Nhuan, a Vietnamese-American poet and writer.

Mai Quinh. Web. 21 May, 2015. http://maiquynh.com.

This site provided photos of Maggie Q, a popular Vietnamese-American actress and star of Divergent.

NavSource Naval History: Photographic History of the US Navy. Web. 12 March, 2015. http://www.navsource.org.

This website provided several images of the USS Kirk, its memorabilia, and its crew, which were vital to the making of this documentary.

Ocean Doctor. Web. 22 May, 2015. http://oceandoctor.org.

This website provided images of the Vietnamese community in the United States.

Refugee Sponsorship Training Program. Web. 21 May, 2015. http://www.rstp.ca.

This website provided insight and images on the Vietnamese refugee population in North America.

Trung Tam Phat Giao Chua Viet Nam: Vietnam Buddhist Center. Web. 21 May, 2015. http://www.vnbc.org.

This website provided information and photographs about the vibrant Vietnamese community in Sugar Land, Texas.

The USS Kirk: Valor at the Vietnam War’s End. Web. 10 March, 2015. http://www.npr.org/series/129580052/the-uss-kirk-valor-at-the-vietnam-war-s-end.

This website was invaluable to providing a host of information and images utilized in this documentary. It proved a special treasure trove of still photographs of the Kirk.

US Navy. Web. 21 May, 2015. http://www.navy.mil/.

This site provided information on and photos of Commander H. B. Le, the Vietnamese-American commander of the USS Lassen, a guided missile destroyer.

USS Kirk: Su hy sinh cua Hai Quan My cuu nguoi Viet ti nan. Web. 13 March, 2015. http://www.nguoiviet.com/absolutenm2/templates/viewarticlesNVO.aspx?articleid=128922&zoneid=3#.VQub47-aLwI.

Although I was unable to read most of this article, it provided context and especially pictures regarding the Vietnamese experience of the events surrounding the USS Kirk.

USS Kirk: The Untold Story. Web. 11 March, 2015. http://usskirk.com.

This site serves as a central clearing house for information on the USS Kirk and for many personal stories provided by the veterans themselves. The information and pictures gained here were of central importance to my documentary.

Vietnamese New Year Celebrations. Web. 12 March, 2015. http://www.nola.com/festivals/index.ssf/2015/02/vietnamese_new_year_celebratio.html.

This website provided important background on the Vietnamese community in New Orleans, a community in which many of the USS Kirk refugees reside.

Westminster Chamber of Commerce. Web. 23 May, 2015. http://www.westminsterchamber.org.

This site provided information and images concerning the largest Vietnamese community and memorial in the United States.

(Return to July 2015 Table of Contents)


AbigailAbigail Wiest is a student entering the 8th grade in Sacred Heart Catholic High School in Hattiesburg Mississippi.  A straight A student, Abigail has received many academic awards, including regional and state recognition in the Academic Competition for Excellence and the Duke TIP Program.  Abigail’s documentary “USS Kirk: Leadership Amidst Chaos, A Legacy of Survival” took first place honors in the National History Day competition in Mississippi.

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