Finding Virtue in Vietnam

Rory Kennedy brings her award-winning documentary ‘Last Days in Vietnam’ to Nantucket.

The Vietnam War will forever be viewed as an American policy debacle, whose victims included the psyche of an entire nation. The very mention of the word Vietnam still conjures images of burning villages, napalm-ravaged hills, domestic protests, and returning veterans who were often vilified for their service. However, documentary filmmaker Rory Kennedy, the youngest child of the late Robert Kennedy, has shed a rare but bright light on a war that was among the darkest periods in American history.

Screen Shot 2016-01-17 at 3.09.53 PMWinning the Audience Choice Award at this year’s Nantucket Film Festival, Kennedy’s ninety-six-minute film Last Days in Vietnam reveals a side of the war that demonstrated a level of valor and nobility seldom associated with the Vietnam War. In collaboration with PBS’s American Experience, Kennedy assembled never- before-seen footage of the evacuation of Saigon that demonstrates the humanity of American soldiers in a way that allows the viewer to begin to wonder how many other acts of selflessness and bravery throughout the conflict had been lost in the clouds of dissension around the war.

“When they came back from this war, the heroes of our story were treated badly and even spit upon…there wasn’t room for heroes,” Kennedy said outside the second screening of her film at the Nantucket Hotel this past June. “Now with the fortieth anniversary of the fall of Saigon this April, I think we have an opportunity to look back with some distance and a bit of wisdom… to see the war on a more nuanced, complex level and recognize the individual acts of courage.”

Kennedy’s film includes the most remarkable evacuation scenes imaginable, whereby American soldiers help evacuate South Vietnamese from the hands of North Vietnamese, thus risking their own lives to save soldiers and citizens from another country. The scenes showed in graphic detail American helicopters flying South Vietnamese from the US Embassy onto naval ships as the North Vietnamese encroached. Pilots flew through the night, evacuating as many South Vietnamese as possible.

“You really have a sense in the film of this kind of wave of history working against people who are there in Saigon on April 30, 1975,” Kennedy said. “Up against that tsunami of history, there are these extraordinary acts of courage, and of people working against the tide of that wave.”

Some of the most extraordinary acts of courage were witnessed from the decks of the USS Kirk. The 438-foot Kirk had been deployed strictly to escort the other naval ships that were receiving U.S. helicopters evacuating Americans and South Vietnamese from the U.S. Embassy in Saigon. Suddenly, helicopters not associated with the evacuation mission began appearing in the sky. The aircraft were being flown by South Vietnamese pilots who were fleeing the country with their family and friends aboard. With nowhere else to land, the captain of the USS Kirk went against protocol and allowed the pilots to land on his deck. After each helicopter safety landed and its passengers were taken on board, the crew of the Kirk then pushed the aircraft into the sea to make room for the next helicopter to land. One after another, helicopters were dumped into the ocean, as a stream of choppers touched down on the ship’s deck, and hundreds of South Vietnamese were saved.

Just when the scene couldn’t possibly get more dramatic, a massive Chinook military copter pounded in towards the USS Kirk. Too big to land on the deck, the South Vietnamese pilot deftly hovered the Chinook above the Kirk and one by one tossed family members out the door of the helicopter into the arms of seamen below, saving each of their lives. The pilot then maneuvered the helicopter away from the ship, turned it on its side, and dove into the ocean as the craft exploded in the sea. Everyone aboard the Kirk stood transfixed until the pilot rose up from the ocean and swam to safety. The scene was just one of the many acts of selfless bravery and ingenuity that resulted in saving the lives thousands of South Vietnamese.

“My father ran his ’68 presidential campaign because he wanted to get out of Vietnam, so I think Vietnam was personally in my ether… I had an appreciation of the war to some degree at a pretty young age,” Kennedy said. “I was recently asked about my family’s commitment to public service and if there was any connection to this film in that respect, and the answer is absolutely yes.” She continued, “There’s no better testament to a commitment to public service than putting your life on the line and protesting or going against the law because you believe something is wrong. That’s what these people did, and I think that’s very consistent with the values I was brought up with.”

For more information on future showings, visit www.LastdaysinVietnam.com.

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