"Vietnam helped me realize who the true heroes really are in this world. It's not the home-run hitters."
— Baseball slugger Willie Stargell
The fall of Saigon in late April 1975 marked the end of the Vietnam War, ensuring Communism across the country.
The USS Kirk was an American Naval ship assigned to help evacuate the South Vietnamese Navy as well as thousands of Vietnamese refugees.
The USS Kirk is in the news again these days because a rescued family has organized a reunion for those involved in one of the great humanitarian missions in U.S. military history.
The reunion is set for April 12 in Garden Grove, Calif.
Weldon Kirk — no relation to the ship's namesake, Adm. Alan Goodrich Kirk — hopes to attend that reunion. He was a sonar technician onboard the USS Kirk and wrote about the history he witnessed in a series of letters to his parents, Dottie and Emery Kirk of Clovis.
"These people are scared, sad, hungry, nervous, but most of all relieved to be away from the war zone," Kirk wrote in his first letter, published in the Clovis News Journal on May 21, 1975.
Two days later, he reported:
"One of the refugees … said his wife and child were shot down as they were running toward the helicopter to make their escape. He had to leave their bodies sprawled on the runway.
"It is a terrible grief for these people to abandon their country and their loved ones, to know they can never return as long as the Communists have control.
"The refugees who did manage to survive … are very scared and uncertain as to what their future fate will be. I feel sorry for them and wish I could do more but it will be up to the people wherever they go to help them gain a foothold on a new life."
Weldon Kirk spent several years growing up in eastern New Mexico, first as a student at Clovis' Marshall Junior High, then, in 1969-71, at Eastern New Mexico University in Portales.
Now retired and living in Chesapeake, Va., he likes to joke that he only joined the Navy because it agreed to name a ship in his honor.
"I'm only joking," he reiterates, making certain no one gets the idea he was some kind of hero.
He was just an average American boy, thrust into a life-saving role by fate, accepting it humbly. He's donating his written memories to a website dedicated to the USS Kirk — www.kirk1087.org — so that new generations might know what happened in that far-away land most of us will never see.
"This ends our role in South Vietnam. It wasn't pleasant and sometimes it was downright scary but it was well worth the effort," he wrote his parents.