It was a picture-perfect Arkansas afternoon. The parade marched down the small town's major artery, smack past the police station and city court offices. No backstreets for this celebration. It was the annual Veterans Day parade, and the sleepy bedroom community just north of Little Rock turned out for the sights.
The fancy cars were there. The mayor was there. Even the firetrucks went by slowly. One of the Young Miss Arkansas ladies waved at the crowd. And smiled so nervously we had to wonder if she was used to the attention.
The marching band from Sylvan Hills High School played a martial tune for the crowd. Motorcyclists went by with American flags waving in the wind. Little kids snacked on Halloween candy and some of the goodies tossed from the firetrucks.
But this wasn't what the holiday was about. It was about the USS Kirk.
At the end of April 1975, the city of Saigon was falling. It would soon disappear from the maps completely, when it was renamed Ho Chi Minh City. The North Vietnamese People's Army was moving in fast. The United States was about to lose its first war.
The brass came up with a brilliant name for a humanitarian mission: Operation Frequent Wind. You can keep the jokes to yourself. Because you probably remember seeing it, if you're of an age. The helicopters taking off from rooftops in Saigon, with people clamoring to get themselves and their families aboard--that was Frequent Wind. It was harrowing stuff, and some of us are old enough to remember this nation's first permanent retreat, running from defeat, never to return. Somehow we knew it then.
But there were friends to save. Allies who'd worked with the Americans. They'd be lined up and shot by the Communists. They knew it. We knew it. The Communists knew it. How get them to safety?
As the Viet Cong displayed their flag over the presidential palace, helicopters filled with people--small "d" democrats--lifted off. But where to go? Helicopters can only go so far.
Many pro-American Vietnamese gathered on an island called Con Son. But they couldn't go much farther. They were trapped. The United States Navy was heading east in what can be described in exalted military terms as fleeing. The American brass, and spooks, worked to destroy any South Vietnamese ships that might fall into enemy hands, making the trap that much worse. The few remaining American ships still around the Vietnam coast were making ready to bug out, too. After a little business first.
There is a famous story about the helicopters that kept landing on the USS Kirk, dropping off people of all sorts. Military types. Capitalists. Educators. Their wives and children. All of them friends of the United States, who didn't have the means for a first-class ticket to San Francisco.
The USS Kirk didn't have room on its deck to house empty helicopters, so once the birds were out of fuel and useless, the crew pushed them into the water.
One large Chinook came into the airspace with a load of refugees, but that particular helicopter was much too big to land. So its refugees were literally tossed out onto the ship's deck. The pilot--and there is video of this--guided his big helicopter over the water, away from the ship, and jumped out. The helicopter crashed over the pilot, and he was rescued.
The story of the USS Kirk doesn't end there.
The ship reached Con Son about daylight on May 1. Its captain, Jake Jacobs, looked out over the harbor and saw a flotilla of old ships trying to . . . escape to . . . anywhere. But the ships were in terrible shape.
We're not certain if he was following orders to the exact degree, but Captain Jacobs sent his engineers onto the boats to make them sail-worthy. (Some of them had folks in the lower quarters bailing water with their shoes.) There is no telling how many people were on board the makeshift escape boats--some boats towing others, some attached to others by nails and wood--but one estimate said 30,000 souls were teetering on the leaky boats/life rafts.
"They were rusty, ugly, beat up," a machinist's mate told NPR for a special story. "Some of them wouldn't even get under way; they were towing each other. And some of them were actually taking on water and we took our guys over and got the ones under way that would run." They made course for the Philippines.
The story of the USS Kirk doesn't end there--part II.
The president of the Philippines--the famous, or at least infamous, Ferdinand Marcos--had recognized the new Communist government of Vietnam. The ships technically belonged to his neighbors back in Saigon. The Americans were told to send them back.
The Americans decided that the ships were American after all, on loan to their allies in South Vietnam, so they lowered the South Vietnam flags and ran up Old Glory--once they found enough flags to do so. And parked in the Philippines anyway, thank you very much.
Tens of thousands of American allies and their families were saved, in a week that might have been the low point for American foreign affairs in 200 years.
We don't know what happened to the USS Kirk. Last we heard, another Chinese government--the one in Taiwan--had bought it and renamed it. We hope it sails in blue waters this very day.
But today isn't a holiday about boats. It's about the men on board them.
When we celebrate Memorial Day to kick off summer, that's the day to remember the dead who sacrificed for the country. Today we remember not just those who died in the military, but all those who served. Whether on a boat, in a tank, on foot, or in a plane.
It's too bad the first time many folks will think about today's holiday is when the mail doesn't come. Or maybe when they see the Bank Closed sign. Today shouldn't just be a day off for government workers.
But in a way it's their own fault--the veterans--that this holiday is much quieter and isn't given the due of a New Year or Fourth of July or a Valentine's Day. The country is just so . . . secure. Thanks to veterans. The enemy is still out there, and always looking for an easy target, but there's not much danger of his invading this country and planting a flag.
Today we celebrate all those who kept that from happening. And who rescued our allies from Vietnam waters and politics. And who jumped out of an airplane in Europe, in war and in peace. And who might have taken flak from a anti-aircraft gun in Korea, or flak from a drill sergeant at Fort Sill.
We get the feeling most veterans wouldn't trade a quiet salute and a thank you for firecrackers and hoopla anyway. Instead of making a big fuss, they'd rather the rest of us just enjoy the marching band from Sylvan Hills High School playing a martial tune for the crowd, motorcyclists going by with American flags waving in the wind, and little kids snacking on Halloween candy or some of the goodies tossed from the firetrucks . . . .
Editorial on 11/11/2019
Print Headline: Veterans Day 2019