As refugees fled Saigon in the last, desperate days of the Vietnam War, a South Vietnamese helicopter hovered inches above the water beside the USS Kirk, a warship turned lifesaver.
The pilot had dropped his terrified passengers onto the Kirk’s deck. Then he maneuvered next to the ship, rolled the chopper to the right and dove left into the South China Sea as its blades exploded into the water’s surface.
Bill Cutler, a young gunner’s mate aboard the Kirk, dumped his gear into his shoes and jumped in after him.
“It was a spur of the minute decision,” the Mooresville veteran said this week. “I knew what had to happen.”
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The moment crystallized one of the greatest humanitarian missions ever undertaken by the U.S. military: the Kirk’s role in rescuing 30,000 Vietnamese refugees near the war’s end in 1975. The event, which was all but forgotten until recent years, will be commemorated this weekend in San Diego.
Cutler, 63, a Philadelphia native who’s a fourth-generation Navy veteran, will be there alongside many of his former shipmates and some of the Vietnamese they saved. The event comes as filmmaker Ken Burns’ 10-part documentary on the Vietnam War airs on PBS.
“There was a feeling of pride at being able to help them out, but a sense of sorrow too because you see what they’re going through in having to leave their country to save themselves from being slaughtered by the Viet Cong,” he said. “There was an overwhelming sense of respect for all of what they were going through.”
The Kirk was a year-old “hunter-killer” built to protect aircraft carriers from submarines, when Cutler boarded it right out of boot camp in 1973. He’s now a long-haul trucker.
In early 1975, the Kirk had helped evacuate Americans from Cambodia, which fell before Vietnam. In April that year, the ship provided cover as U.S. helicopters evacuated 7,000 “official” refugees from Saigon.
Nobody expected what happened next. “It went from a combat mission to a rescue mission in the blink of an hour,” Cutler said.
Scores of South Vietnamese helicopters, carrying the families and friends of their pilots, also took to the air.
“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, told National Public Radio in a 2010 story.
Cutler reveres Jacobs, who was expected to be at this weekend’s commemoration. “We did whatever it took to get the job done,” he said. “The reason we were that way is because our commanding officer trained us that way.”
Many of the Vietnamese choppers headed toward the large Navy ships on the horizon. But the Kirk also had a small flight deck and radioed the helicopters, according to a history by the Kirk’s alumni association.
One finally landed, then a second. As helicopters crowded the Kirk’s deck, sailors began pushing emptied choppers overboard to make room.
Among the incoming helicopters was the twin-rotor Chinook that was too big to land on the ship. Sailors caught babies like basketballs as the chopper hovered over its fantail.
When the pilot finally ditched, Cutler was among four or five Kirk sailors who dove in after him. A Navy boat picked them up after saving the pilot, who won deep admiration for his piloting skill.
Years later, Kirk’s alumni association found the pilot, Ba Nguyen, and his family living in Seattle, NPR reported. The Nguyens attended a crew reunion outside Washington, D.C., in 2010.
Over two days in 1975, the Kirk took in about 200 refugees from 16 helicopters. But its work was not over.
A refugee flotilla
The next mission was to extract as many South Vietnamese navy ships as possible. But scores of fishing boats and cargo craft packed with refugees also greeted the Kirk at Con Son Island, off the Vietnamese coast.
Operation New Life moved the 30,000 Vietnamese refugees from their boats to the Philippines and eventually to the U.S.
The Kirk supplied food, water and medical supplies, and its crew helped repair damaged Vietnamese ships loaded with refugees, then escorted them to the Philippines.
Cutler and his Kirk mentor, Thomas Dixon, boarded some of the Vietnamese ships to make repairs and to transfer refugees off them. With nowhere to sleep on the Vietnamese ships, he and Dixon “basically leaned up against something for an hour or two” to nap.
The Kirk’s first-class petty officers’ mess became a maternity ward. Cutler remembers crew members working around the clock.
The disoriented refugees streaming aboard had no idea what lay ahead of them. The U.S. sailors, Cutler said, didn’t know whether enemies were among the refugees until an interpreter parsed their dialects.
In San Diego on Saturday and Sunday, in events sponsored by the Asian Heritage Society, Cutler expects to be among about 80 Kirk shipmates and some of the Vietnamese refugees. His role will be to pipe Capt. Jacobs “aboard” to the event by blowing a boatswain’s pipe.
Society president Rosalynn Carmen calls it “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.”
The Kirk, meanwhile, was decommissioned in 1993. Cutler said it is to be taken out of service by the end of 2018. The ship’s alumni hope to raise money to return it to San Diego as a floating museum.