Kirk Crew, Refugees Retell Vietnam Rescue Saga
Members of the Le family were excited, and nervous. They were moments away from being reunited — after 35 years — with sailors and officers from the USS Kirk. They'd always wanted to thank the ship's crew for its kindness when they were refugees fleeing South Vietnam.
This past summer, the Le family heard an NPR story about the Kirk, a small escort destroyer. The Kirk's crew spoke about how they'd been haunted by the death of an infant they'd tried to save. That child was their son, Bao Le.
The Le family now knew how to contact the crew that had helped them. There were telephone calls and e-mails and then a chance to meet face to face.
So in late October, the family and the crew gathered in Pensacola, Fla. The parents, Loan and Pierre Le, and their children — daughters Kimsa Hoang, Kimmy Le, and Kim Penridge and her husband, Andrew, and the youngest of the Le children, son Alex — flew in from Texas. Members of the Kirk's crew had come from around the country for a showing at the Naval Air Station, Pensacola of a new documentary about the Kirk's Vietnam mission.
Before the two groups reunited, the Le family sat down with NPR to talk about their story. Pierre Le unfolded a pink piece of paper. It is his son's death certificate, issued by the U.S. Navy. The cause of death: "cardiopulmonary arrest" due to "gastroenteritis" and "pneumonia." At the bottom it gives the precise location where Bao Le's body was buried at sea. Not the South China Sea, off the coast of the Philippines, but: "At 14 degrees, 34 minutes North Latitude and 119 degrees and 26 Minutes E Longitude."
Loan Le had also brought a photo of Bao Le, the only photo that exists. "I was very proud of him because as you look in the picture, he was very handsome," she said. The photo, in browns and whites, is about the size of an index card. And the boy in the white shirt is in mid-movement, as if he's ready to jump into someone's arms. There's an impish smile forming on his lips.
Just weeks after that photo was taken, Saigon fell. It was the spring of 1975. The Le family, desperate to get out, squeezed onto a South Vietnamese ship.
The NPR series told the forgotten tale of the Kirk, which had started one of the greatest humanitarian missions in the history of the American military. In the spring of 1975, as Saigon fell and the Vietnam War ended, the USS Kirk was chosen to go back to Vietnam, by itself, on a mission to rescue the remnants of the South Vietnamese Navy, to prevent those ships from falling into the possession of the North Vietnamese.
Those 30 South Vietnamese ships, trailed by scores of fishing boats, were packed with more than 20,000 refugees, including the Le family, desperate to leave Vietnam.
The Kirk started the rescue and was then joined by other Navy ships. The flotilla escorted the South Vietnamese ships to the Philippines.
During the crossing people soon became sick in the cramped ships. Stephen Burwinkel, the Kirk's medic — in the Navy he's called a hospital corpsman — went from ship to ship attending to those with dysentery, dehydration, diarrhea and other illnesses.
Bao Le had gotten violently sick with cramps and fever, so Loan Le and her infant were moved from a South Vietnamese ship to the Kirk. The captain gave up his stateroom to the mother and son. At first Burwinkel was able to revive Bao Le, giving the child a massive dose of penicillin.
But the boy's fever returned. "I have a very bad feeling that he, he wouldn't survive," said Loan Le. She recalled holding him, massaging him, telling the boy she loved him and praying for him. "I pray, I say, 'Please, God help him. He's my only son.' "
But on May 6, the boy died. He would be one of only three people to die during the weeklong evacuation. Bao Le was also the youngest. The ship's logs said he was 9 days old. But that was wrong. He was 1 year and 9 days old.
Loan Le recalled her desperation when the Kirk's crew told her what she most feared, that her son had died. "I was hysterical. And I say, 'Let me see my husband and my children, first. Because I don't want to be here by myself. I want to tell them, I have to tell them,' " recalled Le, wiping away her tears.
Chief Engineer Hugh Doyle was sent over to the Vietnamese ship to get the father and the three Le daughters and bring them to the Kirk. He was moved to find that the Les' three children were about the same ages as his own back home in the U.S. Daughter Kimsa, the oldest, was 7; the next, Kimmy, was 5, and Kim was 4. Doyle recorded cassette tapes and sent them home to his wife. In one he described telling the father his son had died.
"He asked me does his wife know. So I told him, I said, 'Yes, your wife knows. She knows and she's very sad.' And all the way back in the boat, he was saying, he says, 'When we left Saigon we were six,' there were six people in his family. And he kept shaking his head and he said, 'And now we are five. It is very sad, very sad.' "
Pierre Le has vivid memories of the respectful funeral the sailors held for his son on the fantail of the USS Kirk.
"I remember that was at night. A chilly night, even as it's in summertime. And I still remember there's a moon, too. And I see that there are many soldiers in a line up there. I don't know if I can call it a coffin or not. But, you know, it's the body of my son was wrapped under two flags: the Vietnamese flag and the American flag."
Pierre Le recalls that someone played taps. His son's body was on a board and, as the board tipped, the body slid into the dark South China Sea.
For middle daughter Kimmy, her brother's burial at sea is her first memory — stamped and stark in her mind.
"I'm sure my parents told us that my brother died," she says. "But I don't think I grasped that. And I remember the funeral. And I remember when he went over. I remember running towards the edge of the boat. And I remember standing there looking down. And I remember [thinking]: 'How come no one is going to get him?' " she recalls.
She remembers, too, how one of the sailors scooped her up and took her to another part of the ship and gave her candy.
A few days later the flotilla of ships arrived in the Philippines and the Le family was taken to a refugee camp in Guam. The Kirk's crew would visit the Le family, bringing food and candy and once, even a projector and showed the film The Towering Inferno.Later, the Les resettled in Hawaii. Pierre resumed his career as an architect and now runs a family financial service firm. The family moved to Texas. Another child, Alex, was born.
A Thank You After 35 Years
Bao Le's death at sea was something the family would barely talk about. The children saw how sad it made their parents when they raised the subject or asked questions. But the children grew up knowing the family hoped one day to thank the crew of the Kirk.
And now, in a Pensacola restaurant, they do just that.
As the family walks into the restaurant the sailors of the Kirk come over to greet them. There are hugs and tears. Hugh Doyle introduces himself to Kimmy and then to her father. Pierre.
"Hi. I'm Hugh. I think I met you when you were a little tiny girl. Do you remember getting onto the boat?"
Pierre is finally able to say the words he has been holding on to for 35 years.
"Thank you very much for helping my family. For taking care of, good care of my family."
Then he spots Capt. Paul Jacobs and breaks into a smile.
"Let me say hi to the captain. I remember his face. You're the captain. See I cannot forget you."
Jacobs clearly remembers Le and gives him a hearty handshake.
"I can't forget you, either. That was a long, long time ago."
They linger for hours over lunch. The crew members from the Kirk talk about how they'd come home from war, about their careers and family since. The Le family talks about how they became Americans, about their careers and family since.
And they talk about the tragic death that brought them together long ago.
When they finally leave the restaurant it is almost time for a reception and showing of the film at the Pensacola Naval Air Station. Jan Herman, a historian with the Navy's Bureau of Medicine and Surgery, has put together the documentary to tell the story of the Kirk's humanitarian mission. For the Le family it is a chance to see and hear the larger story of the journey from South Vietnam to the Philippines.
But just as the film is about to begin, the retired Capt. Jacobs calls Loan and Pierre Le to the front of the theater. They are clearly surprised as they make their way down to where Jacobs stands at a podium. They hold hands as he speaks.
Jacobs says the crew decided to make a proclamation about their son Bao Le and put it on a plaque to honor his death on the USS Kirk.
Jacobs pauses with emotion as he reads the words on the plaque. "Bao Le is now and forever more an honorary crew member of the good ship USS Kirk. Though on board for just a tragically short time, Bao Le's impact on the entire crew of Kirk was profound. ...
"He fought a good fight, struggling in vain to defeat pneumonia. And when he left us during that arduous sea journey to freedom, he left behind hundreds of his shipmates who were deeply saddened and heartbroken by his death.
"Many years have slipped by since that epic time yet Bao Le's Kirk shipmates still remember him for his valiant struggle to live. But also as a symbol of the struggle of the tens of thousands of his Vietnamese countrymen who accompanied him on that journey to freedom on the South China Sea."
The family is touched by the plaque and its words. They each speak of how the day's events had closed the circle for them, even perhaps making it easier in the future to talk about Bao Le.
For Kimmy Le, who was the 5-year-old watching a funeral she did not understand, the day has given her the chance to do something she had been thinking about since high school.
"I guess the yearning of finding them was to let them know that what they did made a difference. And I wanted them to see where we are now, you see, how happy we are here living in the U.S. And I wanted to say thank you and I wanted them to see we all grew up. And here we are."
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