The Vietnam war was just ending. North Vietnamese troops (the NVA) had descended upon South Vietnam and seized its capital, Saigon. The US military was frantically trying to evacuate Americans as well as South Vietnamese refugees.
Off the coast of South Vietnam, the USS Kirk was patrolling the waters looking for NVA aircraft and boats that might attempt to shoot down U.S. helicopters transporting evacuees to aircraft carriers awaiting them at sea.
The USS Kirk started picking up several dots on its radar screen. Those dots turned out to be Huey helicopters flown by South Vietnamese pilots. The pilots had taken it upon themselves to rescue their family members and anyone else they could. They flew out to sea hoping to find a U.S. Navy vessel they could land on. A bunch of them found the Kirk.
But the Kirk was a destroyer, not an aircraft carrier. There was room for only one chopper to land. The ship’s Captain, Paul Jacobs, decided he would allow one chopper to land. But he soon realized that the other choppers were waiting to land as well and would likely run out of fuel if they didn’t. So the decision was to push each helicopter off the ship once they were emptied of all occupants. So one by one, a helicopter would land, the occupants would disembark and twenty to thirty Kirk crew members would push a helicopter into the sea.
Meanwhile, the distinct sound of a Chinook helicopter was heard in a Saigon neighborhood. It was being flown by a South Vietnamese pilot named Major Ba Nguyen. He landed the helicopter on a soccer field in front of his mother’s house. His family members were all at the house, including three young children all under the age of seven. Everyone got onboard and Nguyen headed for the ocean. All he knew was that there were US Navy ships out there somewhere and which direction he might find them.
The crew of the USS Kirk had just finished rescuing the occupants of eight Huey helicopters when Nguyen came upon the ship with his Chinook. He approached the ship in an apparent attempt to land, but the ships crew waved him off. The Chinook, being one of the largest helicopters ever built, was far to big to land on the Kirk.
Nguyen came around a second time and this time hovered over the rear of the ship. He had to keep the chopper high enough that the rotor blades wouldn’t strike the Kirk’s flight deck, but low enough that passengers could jump out without getting hurt too badly (about 10-15 ft up). He also had to keep the chopper moving laterally, because the Kirk was not stationary. Kirk crew members stood below and caught passengers as they jumped out of the helicopter.
Once everyone was out, including Nguyen’s co-pilot, Nguyen was alone and faced with the decision of how to ditch the helicopter. He flew the helicopter a safe distance from the Kirk and hovered just a few feet above the ocean waters. He had to keep the helicopter in that position while he removed his holster and flight suit and open the emergency door. He then had to simultaneously thrust the helicopter to the right while he jumped out the left side to avoid the helicopter crashing on top of him. He also had to think about getting as far under water as he could to avoid being struck by the rotor blades as they broke against the water and became projectiles.
After the shrapnel settled, crew members of the Kirk immediately began diving off the side of the ship and swam toward Nguyen.
Including the Chinook, a total of fourteen helicopters full of people were taken aboard the Kirk that day. There were no deaths and no injuries. Over one-hundred people were rescued, including Ba Nguyen.