Operation Babylift Is Largest Rescue Effort in History
It was a sparkling late afternoon in April 1975. Abruptly the news flashes raced across the base: A U.S. Air Force C-5A Galaxy transport plane carrying 243 Vietnamese orphans had gone down shortly after leaving Tan Son Nhut airfield, near Saigon. Air Force officials feared sabotage.
Only a few of the adult passengers, including some U.S. Embassy personnel covertly leaving Vietnam, managed to make their way to the limited oxygen masks. The overcrowded transport plane should have been carrying no more than 100 children, rather than the 243 who had been loaded aboard. With enormous difficulty, the pilot managed to turn the plane around and crash-land two miles south of Tan Son Nhut, skidding 1,000 feet into a rice paddy. Nurses, volunteers and crew aboard, many injured themselves, did all they could to save as many children as possible.
The news reached Clark almost instantly. Operation Babylift had just gotten started when the crash occurred. Although there were conflicting reports of the casualties, more than 130 people died, including at least 78 children. Many Americans came to regard the crash as just one more in the long series of heartbreaking incidents during the ill-fated war in Vietnam.
At the time of the crash, various groups had been working frantically to shuttle the infants out of the country before it fell to the invading NVA. With this tragedy, the mission was severely disrupted, but it continued. Reports differ, but in the 24 hours that followed, possibly some 1,200 children, including 40 of the crash survivors, were evacuated on other planes. As the evacuation continued, the growing panic in the streets of Saigon and the constant rocket attacks turned the loading of the infants and children into a safety nightmare.
Adult participants wondered if the plane they were boarding would get off the ground. And if it did, would it then be shot down? Two armed military security police officers rode shotgun on nearly every subsequent evacuation flight.
Prior to the fatal C-5A crash, New York’s Cardinal Terrence Cooke had sent a plea to President Gerald Ford for federal support and an immediate waiver of immigration red tape for more than 4,000 children living in Catholic orphanages in South Vietnam. With South Vietnam’s reluctant agreement, the order for Operation Babylift had come from the U.S. president, who told the press: I have directed that C-5A aircraft and other aircraft especially equipped to care for these orphans during the flight, be sent to Saigon. It’s the least we can do.
As Saigon fell, President Ford ordered all in-country U.S. orphans to be airlifted out for asylum and adoption. Although he allocated $2 million for the operation, many flights were made in aircraft not outfitted to carry passengers. Nonetheless, more than 2,000 babies and children were flown out by military and smaller private chartered planes and eventually adopted in the United States. Another 1,300 were adopted in Canada, Europe and Australia.
When that first flight crashed, the rest of the C-5A fleet was grounded temporarily. That only added to the pressure on the mission and the workload at Clark Air Base, which more than doubled. All flight-line and ground crews immediately went to high-alert status. The usual turnaround ground time for C-130 and C-141 aircraft was eight hours. On high alert it shrank to three hours. With C-130s coming in at the rate of three per hour after dark, an air traffic control nightmare developed. The logistics of the operation was staggering, and the cycle was nonstop. Often the flight crew members ran close to the maximum flying time or crew rest limit.
Because of the differences in aircraft capabilities, the C-141s flew during daylight hours and the C-130s flew at night. The C-141 required a longer runway for landing and takeoff. The C-130 was capable of short-field approach and takeoff, meaning it could land by diving to the end of the runway when it was directly overhead, and it could take off with less than 2,000 feet of runway.
The aircrews had orders to evacuate as many infants and children as they could. The exact number for each lift was left up to the discretion of the urgent visa to vietnam individual pilot. The children were loaded aboard in any way possible, until the plane was full. Often, Vietnamese mothers with Amerasian children were still attempting to get their children aboard as the paratroop doors were closing, trusting their children to an uncertain fate.
Frequently, aircraft cargo straps were used to group and secure all passengers during flight. Each pilot gave his loadmaster instructions on how he wanted the plane loaded. On board, milk, food and medicine were always in short supply. During the brief turnaround time at Clark, every aircraft required a cursory cleaning. Ground maintenance crews sometimes resorted to firehoses to flush out the aircraft, leaving them open to air-dry before the next outbound flight.
American military personnel had fathered most of the children being airlifted out of Vietnam. Some of the infants on the crashed C-5A are believed to have come from the Hoi Due Anh Orphanage. The majority were children whose only support came from overseas agencies.
During this time, our family had been living at Clark, where my husband, a career Air Force sergeant, was stationed as a C-130 crew chief. We were not scheduled to return to the United States for some months. With the radio and TV news flashes, the Stars and Stripes newspaper stories, word of mouth reports and my husband’s stepped-up work schedule, the scope of Operation Babylift became very evident. Our two children were attending schools on the base, which gave me the latitude to volunteer to help.
Even before the first plane carrying the Operation Babylift evacuees touched down at Clark, a plea for help was broadcast on Armed Forces Radio and Television. The emergency task force to provide humanitarian assistance, shelter and nurturing care needed all the volunteers it could get. There was an especially acute need for volunteer military wives to help support the massive operation, not only with child care, but also administrative work, such as keypunch data entry.
While thinking of those precious lives, my maternal instincts instantly kicked in and I remembered once hearing a quotation from English essayist Sydney Smith: It is the greatest of all mistakes to do nothing because you can do only a little.
The Operation Babylift evacuees began to arrive from Tan Son Nhut, some with their Vietnamese names on a bracelet around one wrist and the name and address of their prospective American parents on the other. The U.S. Air Force housed all of the children in a base gymnasium that had been set up for their care. Military bunk mattresses were spread across the floor of the large room. A separate area for infants had cribs, changing tables, disposable diapers, ointment for diaper rash, Q-tips, bottles and food-warming equipment, as well as rocking chairs to soothe restless children. There I met and spoke with the Catholic sisters who had fled Vietnam with abandoned children who had been left in their care.