By Diana Colson
The Sarasota Film Festival provided audiences with amazing windows into the world. Especially remarkable were the LEGACY OF VALOR films presented in partnership with the Patterson Foundation. LEGACY OF VALOR proved to be an unforgettable program of films examining the combat and post-combat experiences of American soldiers from WWI through Iraq and Afghanistan.
Over the 10-day festival, a wide array of rare and rarely screened fiction films and documentaries were shown—tales that showcased and honored our veterans. Films such as WINGS had been made almost ninety years ago, while others were more recently created. All brought to light the wartime experiences of the men and women who have served our country, giving audiences a greater understanding of the American experience
The full power of cinematic storytelling carried viewers into the chaos of war, victory and retreat. Perhaps the most compelling was Rory Kennedy’s stunning new documentary, LAST DAYS IN VIETNAM. Presented as the festival’s Opening Night Film, it chronicled the desperate final days in Saigon from the point of view of the Americans who were on the ground and overseeing the evacuation. On stage when the lights went up were a handful of men who were there when it happened: 4 Star Marine Corps General John F. Kelly and the Captain of the USS Kirk, Paul Jacobs—heroes whose decisive actions helped save thousands of lives. Joining them on stage were two local veterans, Randy C. Smith and Michael Sweeney, who had served as young marines at the time of the evacuation. Present too were filmmaker Rory Kennedy and her iconic mother, Ethyl Kennedy. Using archival news footage, never-before-seen Super 8 film, and interviews with soldiers and embassy staff, LAST DAYS IN VIETNAM was a brilliant full-length documentary.
As the North Vietnamese Army surged into Saigon, many South Vietnamese faced certain imprisonment or death. Desperate to escape, they sought refuge at the U.S. Embassy. With orders from the White House to evacuate only American citizens, our soldiers and diplomats faced a difficult dilemma: would they risk treason to save the lives of as many South Vietnamese citizens as possible?
The USS Kirk was a destroyer escort deployed to the U.S. Navy. The Captain was Paul Jacobs, a man I had the honor to
meet. The officers and crew of this modest ship were to save the lives of 30,000 stranded South Vietnamese, who were the real victims of the war.
For two days the crew of the USS Kirk patrolled the mouth of the Saigon River, watching as American heavy Chinook helicopters ferried 7000 “official evacuees” out to sea. These relatively fortunate few were headed for one of the waiting ships and aircraft carriers from the 7th fleet.
Realizing they were about to be left behind, hundreds of South Vietnamese Air Force pilots took it upon themselves to fill their battered Huey’s with fleeing strangers, friends and family. They flew past the USS Kirk, piloting their small, overloaded, shot-up, fuel starved helicopters to carry terrified refugees out to sea. No one expected helicopters to land on the USS Kirk, but ultimately they did.
Against White House policy, the USS Kirk landed 17 Huey’s on its decks, emptying each of its refugees, stripping it of useful equipment, and pushing it over the side of the ship so as to make room for another incoming helicopter. An overloaded Chinook also attempted to land, but was much too large for the deck. A desperate mother hurled her children from the helicopter into the arms of crewmembers on the deck 30 feet below. In an extraordinary shot, the amazing catch of her 12-month old infant was recorded by a sailor’s Super-8 camera.
Ultimately the crew of the USS Kirk saved almost 200 people, transferring them to larger ships. Their job, however, was just beginning. Now they were sent back to rescue what remained of the South Vietnamese Navy and their families. If those people were not rescued, they would probably all have been executed.
Captain Jacobs found a ragged flotilla of 32 ships of all sizes jammed with 30,000 people, some carrying four times their maximum capacity. USS Kirk led this crippled armada across 1000 miles of open-ocean to the Philippines where they ran into a brick wall. The Philippines had already recognized communist rulers as in control of a single Vietnam. Those communist leaders had reported that a US Navy ship had “stolen” their ships, and wanted them returned. President Marcos ordered Captain Jacobs to turn around and go back.
The officers of USS Kirk came up with a plan: they located 32 U.S. flags, and officially took custody of all the ships. When the Vietnamese flags came down, it was emotional for the refugees on board for it marked the end of South Vietnam as a country.
Now sailing under the Stars and Stripes, the Philippines allowed the battered armada into their waters. Refugees were soon transferred to other American ships, journeyed to Guam, and later dispersed into several military bases in the United States, where they received sponsorships from families all over America. These South Vietnamese refugees were now able to go on and begin a new life.
“This was the high point of my career and I’m very proud of what we did, what we accomplished, and how we did it,” says Captain Paul Jacobs.
No wonder filmmaker Rory Kennedy had invited this fascinating hero over to West Palm Beach some months earlier to meet her mother. The occasion was Ethyl’s birthday, and he brought two-dozen roses.