CASTINE — Paul Jacobs was mystified when he learned in 2013 that Ethel Kennedy, wife of the late Democratic Senator Robert F. Kennedy, wanted to meet him.
“I’m a damn Republican from New England,” he recalled thinking at the time. “What does she want to meet me for?”
Jacobs ended up meeting Kennedy, and an hour-long lunch turned into a several-hour conversation. He calls the experience “one of the highlights” of his life.
Ethel Kennedy, in fact, had heard about Jacobs from her daughter, filmmaker Rory Kennedy. The younger Kennedy had met Jacobs while working on her documentary film “Last Days in Vietnam,” which was released last year and is now set to premiere on PBS Tuesday, April 28, at 9 p.m.
Jacobs was in command of the USS Kirk in the spring of 1975, the time period the title of the film references. The Navy ship was part of an American fleet stationed off the coast of South Vietnam as part of Operation Frequent Wind, the final evacuation of Americans from Saigon.
Though the last U.S. combat troops had left the country two years earlier, there were still Americans in Vietnam in April of 1975: diplomats and other civilian personnel, plus Marines assigned to protect them. As North Vietnamese forces quickly closed in on the capital city, Jacobs and his crew on the Kirk ended up having a front-row seat to what became an expedited evacuation.
The path that brought him there started in Downeast Maine, where he attended grammar school in Steuben and high school in Milbridge, graduating from the latter in 1955.
He went to Maine Maritime Academy, where his father, George Jacobs, was an engineering instructor. The younger Jacobs graduated in the summer of 1958 with a degree in marine engineering and a plan to work in the Merchant Marine. When he got a draft notice in the mail, however, those plans changed.
“I decided I’d rather be an ensign in the Navy than a private in the Army,” said Jacobs. That proved to be the beginning of a 26-year career in the Navy.
Jacobs rose through the ranks and assumed command of the Kirk in June of 1974. Upon arrival off the coast of Vietnam, Jacobs said the ship’s job was twofold: to help direct American helicopters evacuating personnel in and out of Saigon and to “shoot down any aircraft or small boats trying to intercept the exodus.”
It was during this time that Jacobs said the ship witnessed a “massive mass of helos [helicopters] flying over us,” and they weren’t part of the American evacuation. The decision was made not to shoot at them, however, which proved fortunate.
“Thank God, because they were just South Vietnamese trying to escape on any aircraft that would fly,” said Jacobs.
On the website for the USS Kirk Association, www.kirk1087.org, a history of Operation Frequent Wind said the “ragtag remnants of the South Vietnamese Air Force” were, on their own initiative, “ferrying their terrified families and friends into the unknown.”
The helicopters headed for larger ships such as aircraft carriers first, but eventually one landed on the Kirk. That wasn’t part of the original plan — “We weren’t supposed to be taking on anything,” said Jacobs — but as helicopters ran low on fuel and places to land, it became a necessity.
As more helicopters hovered and waited to land, space became a problem. The first helicopter was pushed out of the way and stored, but when a second one landed there was not a place to put it. Jacobs was forced to make a decision.
“I said, ‘Push that one over,’” he recalled.
All told, the Kirk took on a total of 16 Vietnamese helicopters and close to 200 pilots and passengers. Others followed the lead of the second copter to land and were pushed overboard once empty.
Years later, Jacobs was pressed on the point of who had given him permission to push the helicopters over the side. His response reflected his roots.
“Listen, I grew up in New England, and guys up there don’t ask for permission,” Jacobs recalled saying. “They just do the right thing.”
A 17th helicopter — a tandem-rotor CH-47 Chinook — was too large to land, so the pilot hovered over the deck while his passengers jumped, or were dropped, to sailors waiting on the deck below.
Hugh Doyle was the Kirk’s chief engineer in 1975, and in a recording he made at that time, he described the surreal scene of watching sailors “catching babies like basketballs!”
The Chinook pilot then carefully ditched the giant helicopter in the ocean, jumping out to be recovered safely by Kirk sailors. That pilot, Major Ba Nguyen, was recognized for his “exceptional airmanship” by the USS Kirk Association in 2010 in what Jacobs described as an emotional ceremony in Arlington, Va.
It turned out dealing with the helicopters was just the first part of the Kirk’s experience, however. Jacobs was prepared to head to Subic Bay in the Philippines when he pulled alongside his command ship and found out plans had changed. The Kirk’s new mission: rescue the South Vietnamese Navy.
Vietnamese naval ships, fishing boats and many other crafts had congregated off the coast and were jammed full of 30,000 civilian refugees along with their crews.
“There’s no way to describe what a ship looks like when it has 2,000 people on it when it’s designed to hold 200 crew,” said Jacobs.
The Kirk and its crew worked to pick up refugees from smaller, unsafe boats and to distribute food, water and medical help to passengers on board the ships.
The Kirk’s job was to escort the 32 ships deemed seaworthy enough hundreds of miles across the open ocean waters of the South China Sea to Subic Bay. Over the course of a week, crews from the Kirk helped deal with issues ranging from mechanical to medical to meals aboard the crowded Vietnamese ships, which successfully made the journey.
In some cases the issues came onboard the Kirk. The ship’s association’s website tells how a compartment on the ship was “converted into a makeshift maternity ward” for pregnant women who were among the refugees.
Jacobs said there is “a tremendous bond, even to this day” between Vietnamese who made the journey and members of the Kirk’s crew. One of the pregnant women was so moved she gave her daughter the middle name Kirk. Jacobs stays in touch with the daughter and was invited to her wedding.
After seeing the Vietnamese ships safely to the Philippines, the Kirk took part in exercises off of Japan and Korea. When they saw the refugees again after that, Jacobs said the crew — though they had had no liberty since leaving San Diego, and could have spent their money and free time in any number of ways — went ashore and “pretty much cleared out the commissary” and gave what they bought to the refugees.
“I think America needs to know what these people did,” said Jacobs of his crew.
The Navy produced an official documentary about the Kirk in 2010 called “The Lucky Few.” Jacobs believes producers of “Last Days in Vietnam” saw that film, which led to the inclusion of the Kirk’s story in the newer movie. Though it hasn’t been a familiar story before now, outside of Navy circles, Jacobs believes that will change.
“I think it’s going to be widely known once Rory gets done with this movie,” he said.
In talking with Jacobs, it is clear the reason he believes it is important for the story to be told is because of how the men who served under him — many of whom were in their late teens or early 20s at the time — performed 40 years ago.
“What they did was incredible,” he said. Though he now lives in northern Virginia, Jacobs maintains his family’s home in Castine and travels to Maine in the summer.
The respect and admiration Jacobs has for his crew is reciprocated by the men who served under him on the Kirk. Doyle, the engineer who recorded his experiences, was a lieutenant in 1975.
Of the 20 years he spent in the Navy, onboard four different ships, Doyle said Jacobs was “by far the very best commanding officer” he had and that the Kirk was the best ship.
“Kirk was the best because she had the best captain,” said Doyle. “He was ‘Big Jake’ to his Kirk crewmen, who held him in universal high esteem.”
Seeing “Last Days in Vietnam”
The Academy Award-nominated documentary film “Last Days in Vietnam” will premiere on PBS on Tuesday, April 28, at 9 p.m. The two-hour broadcast is part of the “American Experience” history series, and is part of what Maine Public Broadcasting Network calls “a slew of Vietnam War programs” airing at the end of April.
That timing coincides with the 40th anniversary of the fall of Saigon and the end of the Vietnam War. Other programs (and airtimes) include: “My Lai” (also part of the “American Experience” series, Tuesday, April 21, at 9 p.m.), “The Draft” (Monday, April 27, at 9 p.m.), “Dick Cavett’s Vietnam” (Monday, April 27, at 10 p.m.) and “The Day the ’60s Died” (Tuesday, April 28, at 8 p.m.).