Posing for a picture at the reception honoring the crew of the USS Kirk and their lifesaving mission as Saigon fell are, from left: Vice Admiral Adam M. Robinson Jr., Surgeon General of the Navy and Chief of the Navy’s Bureau of Medicine and Surgery; Micheal Foster of Decorah; and Capt. Paul Jacobs of the USS Kirk. Micheal is the son of Kent and Karen Foster of Decorah. (Kent Foster photo)
His passion for an event that happened decades ago not only earned Micheal Foster of Decorah high marks for a National History Day project, it also helped him forge friendships with some unsung heroes of the U.S. Navy.
His connection to those heroes has grown to include a retired Navy captain, a Pentagon official, a machinist mate, Navy medics and more.
It all started when Foster, an eighth-grader at Decorah Community Schools, and his mother were driving down the road listening to National Public Radio. The radio program told the account of a U.S. Navy ship and its crew who set to work saving Vietnamese refugees at the end of the war.
It was a tearful story, and one they had never heard before.
Foster's driving desire to understand the happenings in Vietnam at the close of the war, eventually took him to California on a journey to meet those brave forces.
He asked some tough questions, and the answers helped him turn a little-known event in history into a full-blown project.
The story unfolds
The unfamiliar tale reveals the story of how the USS Kirk led one of the greatest humanitarian missions in the history of the American military.
It was late April in 1975. Saigon had fallen and refugees were fleeing for their lives.
The USS Kirk, a Navy destroyer, had been assigned to Vietnam on a mission to prevent any South Vietnamese war ships from falling into the hands of the North Vietnamese.
The mission would take a sudden turn. Ultimately the Kirk became a safe haven for scores of refugees from South Vietnam.
Paul Jacobs, the captain of the Kirk, received an odd order. He was told to take the Kirk and its crew of more than 250 officers and men, to the island of Con Son, where their real adventure began.
His orders came from Richard Armitage, then a young civilian official with the Pentagon. Armitage was dispatched to the Kirk with "civilian" orders that the ship should return to Vietnam to rescue the South Vietnamese.
It was near the island of Con Son where the crew found refugees desperate to get out of Vietnam. There is no exact count of how many people would be saved, but some records report there were 20,000 to 30,000 people in all.
"The refugees were jumping onto the flight deck of the Kirk," Foster said. "There are stories of the men on the ship actually catching babies being thrown in midair by their mothers from Huey and Chinook helicopters."
Foster said crew members actually pushed one helicopter after another into the ocean, in an effort to make room on the small ship deck for more incoming aircrafts carrying more refugees. It has been reported that some 16 helicopters entered the ocean during the rescue effort.
Once the refugees were safe on board, the mission of the Kirk would be a challenging one.
The crew began to help smaller vessels of the South Vietnamese, all on their way to freedom. The Kirk's officers found those numerous remaining ships needed repair to become seaworthy.
With the dedicated help of crewmembers, the ships were fixed, and the refugees were provided with rice, water and necessary medicine for the six-day journey to the Philippines. The vessels were packed with between 20,000 and 30,000 refugees, all with little or no belongings.
The USS Kirk was later joined by other Navy ships in the rescue.
The ship eventually escorted 30 other ships and more fishing boats to the Philippines. The Kirk led the flotilla out to sea, and the crew busied themselves treating the sick and injured, many of them babies and children.
Of the thousands of refugees involved in the rescue effort, only three died during the voyage.
As the flotilla of ships, fishing vessels and the USS Kirk approached the Philippines, the Kirk's captain got some bad news. The presence of South Vietnamese vessels in a Philippine port would present the government in Manila with a diplomatic predicament.
"The Philippine government wasn't going to allow the ships in," Foster said.
"They wouldn't allow the ships in because they belonged to the North Vietnamese now and they (Philippine government) didn't want to offend the new country," Jacobs, the captain, recalled.
Foster said Armitage and his South Vietnamese friend, Capt. Do, came to a quick solution to continue their mission.
They raised the American flag as a sign of the transfer of the ships back to the United States.
The search to find 30 American flags was not as easy, but the idea worked, and the ships were allowed into the bay.
For the refugees involved in this story, their journey would be a long one, and their travels would take them to Guam and later to a resettlement program in the U.S.
For the sailors aboard the Kirk, the rescue mission was soon over, and it was a satisfying conclusion to their assignment. But their stories were virtually untold until now.
Projects such as Foster's do much to spread the word about the heroic efforts of this Navy crew after the end of a controversial war.
Proud of this young man
Foster has earned the respect of his school, his family and hundreds of crewmen from the USS Kirk.
Janelle Keune, his teacher at Decorah Schools, said she had never seen a History Day project take off with this magnitude.
"It's amazing that he's heard from so many dignitaries and made so many contacts while working on this project" she commented.
"It was a unique project for Micheal to undertake," she continued. "This event in history isn't even mentioned in Wikipedia (the online encyclopedia site)."
Fosters' family echoed her sentiments.
"For our generation, the Vietnam War was controversial," commented Foster's mother, Karen. "And to have this story come to light for this next generation is important ... and that's why he wants to carry the story on."
As Foster learned more about the project, he began making telephone calls. The calls were not only answered, but the crewmen aboard the Kirk embraced his interest in the story.
"We have adopted him," said Capt. Jacobs, in a telephone interview from his home in Maine.
"I am amazed at what Micheal has done," he continued. "I wrote him a letter when he first expressed interest in the project, and I encouraged him."
One of Jacobs' letters to Foster included his commanding officer cap as a keepsake.
"I encouraged him to travel to the West Coast to view the documentary film 'The Lucky Few,' which details the story," Jacobs continued.
Foster and his dad, Kent, traveled to California last spring, where they became part of the ceremonies celebrating the 36th anniversary of the fall of Saigon. In trips to San Diego, Los Angeles and Garden Grove, Foster was introduced to crewmen and survivors of the mission. The young eighth grader also was asked to speak before the group, discussing his work on the National History Day project.
The Fosters had an opportunity to view the new documentary film about the mission and participated in a recognition ceremony for the crew of the USS Kirk, where Foster earned applause and received memorabilia from the historic effort. Among the numerous keepsakes he was presented was a Navy Surgeon General coin.
An avid history buff, young Foster said the project has taught him a lot.
"This experience has given me a renewed respect for this part of history," he said, "and it's given me a look into this era in history, and the chance to see it from a humanitarian aspect."
The experience Kent Foster shared with his son during his journey of discovery has been a memorable one.
"I feel incredibly lucky that Micheal has turned this school project into what is and will be a life changing experience," Foster noted. "It has shown him that he can effectively communicate with all ages and receive equal respect from people senior to him ... and more importantly I believe what he has learned about an era that we usually don't talk about gives him a different outlook on people and life."
Foster continued, "After meeting those who saved and those who were saved, he has a deep respect for our armed forces and freedom."
The fact that this young man from Iowa would be interested in the story of the USS Kirk was important to its officers.
"He is an amazing young man," Capt. Jacobs continued.
Foster said he hopes to continue telling the touching story of the USS Kirk and the 1975 mission, later titled Operation New Life.