By Stacy Nguyen
Northwest Asian Weekly
In 2009, retired U.S. Navy Commander Paul Jacobs and Navy historian Jan Herman went on <!–more–>a Vietnamese television show in Virginia. They explained that they were seeking out a South Vietnamese Air Force (VNAF) pilot who ditched a CH-47 Chinook and survived, after transporting and unloading his family, passengers, and crew members onto the USS Kirk on April 29, 1975.
In 2009, Miki Nguyen was at work when an e-mail from his mom, Nho, came through.
“The e-mail—it was forwarded on, forwarded on, forwarded on,” said Miki. “In the e-mail, it said the U.S. Navy was looking for this pilot that performed this ditch. … I read the e-mail all the way to the bottom and was thinking, ‘What?’”
Miki, who currently lives in Redmond, was only 6-and-a-half years old when his family escaped Vietnam after the fall of Saigon.
Now a father with three children of his own, he still remembers many things vividly from that day nearly 40 years ago.
He responded to the e-mail and within minutes, he was sent photos of the Chinook above the Kirk, of the Chinook’s rotor blades exploding in the water after the ditch, and of his dad, stripped down and wet in a shirt and underwear, sitting in a small rescue boat among crew members of the Kirk.
Miki described getting the photos as exciting, though eerie. He and his family suddenly had tangible evidence of a part of their lives that had previously only been contained in their memories.
Humble beginnings, loss of country
Miki’s father, Ba Van Nguyen, was the eldest of a large brood, born into a farming family in the countryside, on the outskirts of Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City). Ba grew up tending cows and oxen. That would’ve been his life story if not for his mother.
“It was her will — her determination — to raise her family above and beyond being simple farmers. She did everything she could to put all her kids to school and moved to the main city (Saigon).”
In his youth, Ba witnessed the end of the First Indochina War, which saw France, Vietnam’s colonizer, driven out of Vietnam primarily by the Viet Minh, the communist independence-seeking coalition formed by Ho Chi Minh. Vietnam was partitioned on July 21, 1954, split geographically and along political ideologies. The tensions spilled right into the Second Indochina War, better known in the West as the Vietnam War.
Ba joined the South Vietnamese Air Force. He received formal training in the United States in 1962.
“I grew up on a military base,” said Miki, “at Bien Hoa [Air Base], about 45 minutes south of Saigon. I grew up playing around in the barracks. It was just a common everyday thing to see military guns and big bullets where we were at. I remember flying with my dad, going on these helicopters.”
At the end of April 1975, the fall of Saigon — the end of the war — was imminent. North Vietnamese forces attacked the capital and seized control. The city suffered heavy artillery bombardment. Tensions were thick in the days leading up to the capture of the city. U.S. military and civilian personnel and tens of thousands of South Vietnamese civilians were evacuated from the city.
Ba waited for a significant amount of time before escaping. It was a complicated decision.
“But he said, hey, I have to take care of my family now. I can’t wait around for additional orders from the military,” said Miki.
Ba sent his wife, Nho, to his mother’s house in Saigon and had her wait there with the children. He told her that if she hears him coming, be ready.
The U.S. Ambassador to Vietnam gave orders for the evacuation of 7,000 at-risk Vietnamese by helicopter — Operation Frequent Wind. Over the next two days, Americans transported South Vietnamese citizens out to sea around the delta of the Saigon River and boarded them on waiting ships. Among these ships was the USS Kirk (FF-1087), which was a small warship designed to hunt submarines — not a vessel meant to carry out humanitarian missions.
Escape to sea
The morning of April 28, 1975, Miki heard the loud rotors of his dad’s Chinook kicking up wind. This sound came after a night of hearing bombs drop onto the city.
“By that time, my dad heard on the radio that basically all military personnel on the South Vietnamese side — they all ran. There was no more chain of command. It had broken down. … By that time, it was chaos. My dad used to say by that time it was like the Wild West — every man for himself. You had your horse, and you rode off with it.”
Ba took a Chinook, which, like most helicopters at that point, had been ravaged. It was low on fuel and low on supplies. Ba, a co-pilot, and several crew members went around getting family and loved ones, to get out of the hot zone. There were about 15 to 20 people on the plane.
Even in 1975, Saigon was densely packed. Landing a Chinook proved difficult, but there was a small soccer field in front of Ba’s mother’s house.
“My immediate family all ran out. My dad’s brothers and sisters didn’t know what to do, but my mom had to be with her husband. My aunts and uncles didn’t know what their lives were going to be, so they reluctantly stayed.”
The next morning, on April 29, after reconvening at Bien Hoa, Ba flew the Chinook south. He had heard U.S. radio communications and knew that U.S. ships were on the ocean. He decided to take a chance and head out to sea, where, extremely low on fuel, they found the Kirk.
Ba approached the Kirk slowly, taking care not to show signs of aggression, as the crew members on the warship held guns. He hovered and circled a few times, giving them the indication he was low on fuel and needed their help. Taped on one of the Plexiglas portholes of the helicopter was a photo of his daughter, Miki’s sister Mina, who was less than a year old at the time, to let the American personnel know that there was a baby on board.
Initially, the crewmembers of the Kirk waved the Chinook away. The Kirk was a small ship with one flight deck. Trying to land a Chinook, which was the largest helicopter in the South Vietnamese inventory, would’ve been disastrous.
Eventually, the crew waved the Chinook in. The wind, the waves, the noise was oppressive. It took considerable skill on Ba’s part, and faith on the part of the Kirk’s crew, to hover the Chinook over the fantail of the ship. The Chinook was about 13 feet above the deck, enough for its rotors to clear the Kirk.
“My dad told a co-pilot to open the passenger side door. I looked down and there were a bunch of crew men below ready to catch us. So we jumped.”
“My mom basically had to drop my baby sister,” Miki said. “The guy below caught my baby sister. … It was really difficult for my mom. She was holding onto to the door in one hand. Then she jumped, then my baby brother, then I went — and on and on. Then finally the co-pilot gave my dad a thumbs-up. So my dad told his co-pilot to take a hike and his co-pilot jumped, too.”
The crew of the Kirk ushered the refugees inside the ship as Ba, low on fuel, with nowhere to put the Chinook, flew the helicopter in the other direction.
“As a 6-and-a-half year old boy — the last thing I saw before the door closed behind us was my dad flying away. The crew took us down into the ship to make sure we were OK.”
It was about 2:51 p.m. It was another 20 minutes before Miki saw his dad again.
“What happened in those 20 minutes was amazing.”The events that transpired were recorded by Hugh Doyle, chief engineer of the Kirk.
This is a story that Ba has told and retold to his friends and family over the years.
“What he did was he went about 50 yards out,” said Miki. “He took off his jacket, his gun, his gear. He basically went down to his shirt and underwear and hovered the Chinook a few feet off the water. He kicked the door open on his left hand side, with the helicopter stick in the middle. He used his right leg to push the stick so the copter would lean right, and he leaned left. The Chinook flipped to its side and my dad dropped out in the opposite side, into the water, so that his head wouldn’t get chopped off. He tried to dive a few times until he was successful (because of salt water buoyancy).”
The Chinook’s blades exploded into shrapnel when it hit the water, with some sharp pieces as long as 15 feet. The helicopter settled on top of where Ba was . That was why it was imperative to dive deep. Miki reports that pilots had attempted that ditch before, but none had survived.
Ba resurfaced and saw a raft heading toward him with Kirk crew members. They asked him a few questions. Twenty-four hours later, on April 30, they were transported to a larger ship.
Soon after that, they landed in Camp Pendleton in San Diego.
In the two days preceding the fall of Saigon, the Kirk saved about 200 refugees. The ship eventually went on to save 20,000 to 30,000 refugees in total.
Ba and his wife both ended up working at Boeing, Ba as a technician. When he got older, he told his son he didn’t miss flying.
He never caught the names of the Kirk crew members. They never got his name either. Over the years, Ba wondered about them — mostly, he wanted to thank them — and he got the opportunity in 2009, when Miki connected with the U.S. Navy.
By that point, though, Ba had been ill with Alzheimer’s for a few years and struggled with lucidity.
Ba passed away last year — with a certain kind of closure.
In summer 2010, 35 years since they first met, Ba and his family attended a reunion, held in a suburb of Washington, D.C., of the USS Kirk crew members, including the ex-captain of the Kirk, Capt. Jacobs.
By then, Ba was in a wheelchair and his Alzheimer’s was bad, according to Miki. The Kirk crew members honored Ba with an Air Medal for his bravery in saving his family and crew. The Nguyen family did their best to express their thanks in Ba’s stead.
“So, toward the end, it got really emotional,” said Miki. “We don’t know exactly what happened, but something was triggered in my dad. He was sitting in his wheelchair. He actually pushed himself up above his wheelchair. And I’m thinking, ‘What is he doing? Sit back down.’ But he nudges me out of the way. He stands up among his, you know, brothers, and he gives a salute to everyone, as if to say, ‘Thank you.’” (end)
The Nguyen family’s story was featured among other stories in Rory Kennedy’s documentary, “Last Days in Vietnam,” which premiered at Sundance on Jan. 17.
Stacy Nguyen can be reached at email@example.com.