Forty years ago, Ba Van Nguyen was a tough guy. He would have looked right at home on an action film set. He was running from the North Vietnamese army with his wife and three young children. The family made an astonishing escape according to Hugh Doyle, the chief engineering officer aboard the ship that saw Nguyen at sea. The story of Nguyen’s escape has been told on The Last Days of Vietnam, a documentary. His heroics were also mentioned in the book The Lucky Few: The Fall of Saigon and the Rescue Mission of the USS Kirk.
What he did after his escape wasn’t covered in the documentary, but it was just as heroic. On April 29, 1975, he was one of thousands of South Vietnamese who were trying to flee the country. As a soldier, Nguyen faced execution if he was caught. He had to come up with a plan.
Nguyen moved his family into his mother-in-law’s house in Saigon, and he told his wife to start packing their things. He promised he would return in a CH-47 Chinook, which was the largest helicopter the South Vietnamese Air Force had. He said, “If you hear a Chinook coming, get ready,” then he left.
Nguyen’s eldest son, Miki, says in the documentary, “I knew my dad was coming.” Miki slept under his bed where he could hear machine guns and missiles going off as the North Vietnamese drew closer.
The next morning, the family heard the Chinook. Miki grabbed some clothes and milk for his younger sister Mina, and they ran to the Chinook. With the aircraft running low on fuel, Nguyen steered it toward the South China Sea where he had seen a US helicopter headed.
Once they were flying over the sea, Nguyen tuned in to the radio’s emergency frequency where he heard that the USS Kirk was there, and it had a landing deck. So that’s exactly where he steered the Chinook. On board the Kirk was Capt. Paul “Big Jake” Jacobs and his crew. He had orders to shoot down any unidentified aircraft that would threaten their evacuation from Saigon, but Captain Jacobs did not order the destruction of the Chinook.
There were many soldiers trying to get out of the country that day. Nguyen radioed the Kirk as he approached. Luckily for him, there was a sailor who spoke a little Vietnamese, and Nguyen was able to relay that he was running out of fuel and that there were women and children on board.
Nguyen told the sailor on board, “I must land or crash into the sea. Please help us.”
The crew of the USS Kirk tried to wave Nguyen away. The Chinook was too big for the landing deck of the Kirk, and if the Chinook’s blades got too close to the ship, it could tear into the ship and kill the passengers and crew.
Nguyen had a brilliant idea. He told the Kirk that he could hover above the deck while his passengers would jump out of the helicopter and into the arms of the waiting crew on deck. One wrong move and the whole operation could go horribly wrong. The women and children jumped first. The sailors were able to catch all of them, and no one was injured.
Then it was only Nguyen left in the Chinook. He had to fly a safe distance away from the Kirk, and he hovered above the water for about 10 minutes. Nguyen took off his flight suit and shoulder holster and managed to keep the aircraft stationary while undressing. He then rolled the helicopter to the right away from the Kirk and jumped off as it hit the water.
The impact was loud. It sounded like a train crashing, and the shrapnel were flying all over the place. The helicopter was upside down in the water with its wheels pointing up. The crew on the Kirk stared in silence. No one could see Nguyen.
After a while, someone spotted a head in the water. Nguyen was alive. He had managed to dive under the water when the Chinook crashed.
The crew clapped and cheered when they saw him, and they dispatched a motorboat to pick up Nguyen. When he got on board the Kirk, he was only wearing boxer shorts and a white floral shirt. He had lost the gold bars that were in his flight suit pockets.
The ship’s chief engineer, Doyle, said, “He wanted immediately to be reunited with his family.”
There is short video footage of Nguyen right after his escape. He was shown standing next to Captain Jacobs making small talk. Amazingly, he looked too calm and unruffled that it did not seem like he had just saved his family and barely escaped death.
The Kirk went on to save 30,000 South Vietnamese refugees. The South China Sea is known for its nasty winds and rough waves, but that day, it was calm. For several days, it remained that way, and they were able to do their rescue mission.
It was the end of a war, but much more than that, it was the end of that chapter of Nguyen’s life. He had his family, but he lost his country, his money, and everything else in his life. He had to start fresh.
The family moved to Seattle, and Nguyen found a job working as a technician for Boeing. He had to make his new life work, and he did it using the same resourcefulness and tenacity that he relied on to evacuate his family. A new life in the USA meant that he had to learn English. He worked as a janitor while going to school to learn electronics. The family received help from a sponsor through the Lutheran church, and six months after arriving in the United States, he took his family off government assistance.
The United States was a land of opportunity. Nguyen told his family that they would be American citizens within five years. He expected the best grades from his children, and of course, they would have to go to college. His children were trained like crew members. They would wake up early and do their household chores. He was very protective of his youngest daughter, the one who was only ten months old when they left their homeland. Mina eventually went on to earn a doctorate.
Nguyen loved his life. He liked fishing, playing the piano, and hosting karaoke parties. If his children ever complained, he would give them the speech:
“Your mother and I came to the United States with nothing but my drawers,” he would tell them. “Look at where we are today. We are not wealthy. But we are not poor.”
Nguyen retired from Boeing in 2000. At that time, his son Miki presented him with a meaningful gift. In a display case, he placed the red boxer shorts his father wore during their miraculous escape. Nguyen is a humble man, and he once told his family’s story to a Vietnamese-language newspaper, but he never disclosed that he was the hero pilot.
Captain Jacobs had often wondered who the pilot was. In 2009, he went on a Vietnamese television show and asked the viewers if they knew who that pilot was. One day, Miki received an e-mail asking about the Chinook pilot, and he responded that it was probably his father.
After many phone calls, Jacob and the crew of the USS Kirk held a reunion in Springfield, Virginia. They invited Nguyen. He was no longer the strapping young man who saved his family. Nguyen had developed Alzheimer’s and was confined to a wheelchair. He could no longer speak.
During the reunion, Nguyen’s wife steered his wheelchair. He was reunited with the sailor who had caught Mina as an infant. When Nguyen saw the sailor, his eyes welled up. He recognized Chipman, he knew who the sailor was.
Mina was standing beside her father. Chipman said of the reunion with the girl he saved, “I was proud. I don’t have children, but it was like seeing your long-lost daughter all grown up. She did well for herself.”
The reunion was a tribute to Nguyen. They showed the color film footage of the escape and the many photos taken by the Kirk‘s crew members on that fateful day. Nguyen’s children were able to see the footage and the photos. They had always known their father was a hero, but seeing the proof was unbelievable. It’s astounding to know that it was their father who had done the heroic act that seemed like something from a movie plot.
His son Miki understands that many of the South Vietnamese refugees who went on to live their life in the United States just wanted to forget their traumatic past. They all just focused on the future and surviving.
The children of the refugees grew up in the United States without really learning the impact of the family’s migration. They were in danger of losing their family history. The only difference is that the Nguyen family had photos and video of that day. Each refugee that comes to the US has their own colorful story.
Captain Jacobs read out a citation honoring Nguyen for his skills as a pilot and exhibiting “calm under extraordinary pressure.” His actions reflected well on South Vietnam and “are in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service.”
Nguyen was not able to respond from his wheelchair. A Navy officer bent down to pin the air medal for bravery on his jacket. Then he began to move in his chair. Nguyen slowly shuffled to his feet, straightened his jacket, looked at Captain Jacobs, and with his right hand trembling, he saluted. It was a small gesture to show that even if his body was failing, he understood the tribute.
Three years later, at the age of 73, Nguyen passed away in his sleep.