Jan K. Herman’s The Lucky Few: The Fall of Saigon and the Rescue Mission of the USS Kirk (Naval Institute Press, 192 pp., $39.95) is a unique story of the final days of the Vietnam War. The remarkable thing about this book is why the story Herman tells has been overlooked for so many years.
Perhaps our collective national denial kept this event hidden for so long, shrouded by the nation’s sole military loss. As Herman puts it: It “most likely had to do with America’s mood in 1975. The national nightmare of Vietnam was over and it was time to move on.”
This neglected story has finally surfaced in this comprehensive yet brief book. Perhaps with the passage of nearly forty years are we now able to look more objectively at this earth-shattering event that took place during one of the nation’s most troubled periods. Though it’s doubtful all of us will ever be able to come to terms with what occurred in Vietnam in 1975, this book provides an opportunity for readers to see things from a different perspective.
The difficulty with The Lucky Few—aside from the connection with defeat and tragedy—concerns the manner in which the collapse of the Republic of Vietnam occurred and its extensive media coverage. The lucky few were those fortunate enough to board U.S.-supplied helicopters, the ones that were nearly all scuttled once their overcrowded passengers were offloaded. Said passengers were mainly South Vietnamese top military and political leaders and their families.
With the description of the loss of each million-dollar aircraft, it became increasingly more difficult for this reader to make sense of the war’s final chapter. That may be the point, however, that was lost in the chaotic ending. That is, war is always senseless, a complete breakdown of the greatest of all human abilities, an unwillingness to compromise.
The USS Kirk was a 400-foot escort destroyer commissioned in the early 1970s and deployed to the Western Pacific with the Seventh Fleet to operate in the Tonkin Gulf. With a crew of more than two hundred, this Knox Class warship performed normal naval support duties under the command of a remarkable leader, Commander Paul Jacobs. In this final episode of the war his effective leadership would result in a successful evacuation mission. Familiar with all aspects of naval command, Jacobs was a leader who led by example, developing a trust with his crew through rigorous training.
“The gift of leadership, it seemed, was in Paul Jacobs’ genes,” Herman writes. Jacobs “worked very hard to keep the crew as a team and the crew responded very well to him.’”
Moreover, this destroyer (aka “tin can”) was an agile man-of-war, versatile and quick, but built with a single shaft and screw. More common twin-screw ships were easier to maneuver and more forgiving, especially during rescue work. Jacobs therefore trained his crew relentlessly. It made a difference when the need arose.
With exacting detail, the author tells the story of the collapse of South Vietnam in April 1975, disclosing the valiant efforts of U.S. naval forces to evacuate both military and civilian personnel. As communist forces moved south, an escape plan was devised that included removing as much military equipment as possible to offshore Navy vessels.
Under the direction of former Navy man Richard Armitage, then a civilian operating with the Department of Defense, the plan was devised quickly, designed to use any available naval vessels—carriers, escorts, support ships. Though Armitage is described much like the unhinged Captain Kurtz in the film Apocalypse Now, he devised the plan to land Huey and Cobra helicopters on nearby ships, unloading personnel, and preventing the North Vietnamese from seizing aircraft and equipment.
Helicopters landed, unloaded, and then jettisoned. In addition to airborne evacuees, the Vietnamese Navy with its former U.S. warships pitched in to help. In all, more than 30,000 refugees eventually arrived in the Philippines through the efforts of the Navy and ships including the Kirk.
To this destroyer veteran, The Lucky Few is fascinating, though it was difficult to revisit that time of sadness and misfortune. The author has done an outstanding job researching details of day-to-day shipboard life, recalling things that I have not given a thought to in many years.
Lastly, he neatly connects surviving refugees and rescuers, revealing many happy endings. I highly recommend this book, believing that enough time has finally passed to allow us to see another amazing triumph of the human spirit.