Friday, June 27, 2014

Left Behind: The Children of War Part II - Operation Babylift

The War Winds Down- New Problems Arise
Not all Babylift children were babies.

History will record that the American war in Vietnam ended in 1973 with the signing of the Paris Peace Accords on January 27. Much controversy swirled around negotiations which carried on for 5 years (from 1968-1973), prolonging the war for Americans, which did not truly end until April 30, 1975- 2 years and tens of thousands of lives later. Meanwhile there were thousands of children living on the streets and in orphanages throughout the south. The official list of "sanctioned" orphanages was extensive. Most were operated by religious organizations while some were charitable foundations such as the world renowned Pearl S. Buck Foundation.

The status of many of these children varied and many stories are told today regarding how they came to be living in orphanages. Indeed, some were the sad result of murdered parents caught in the choke hold of war, while others were the product of families far too burdened to care for them. Still others were surrendered to these facilities by mothers who recognized that neither they or their children, some fathered by non-Vietnamese, would survive long in a society that looked down upon the children of mixed-races.

Babylift Children Were Adoptees

The thousands of babies and children who were a part of the US government-sanctioned 
Operation Babylift were previously assigned to adoptive families around the world. As conditions in South Vietnam deteriorated, humanitarian agencies appealed to the US government for the hasty evacuation of these soon-to-be adopted orphans. Many thousands, however, would be left behind.

The American President 

Gerald R. Ford, formerly Vice-President under Richard M. Nixon announced, on April 3, 1975 that arrangements were being made to transport thousands of refugees to safety. Communists in the North had launched major offensives into the northern part of South Vietnam causing thousands of people to flee further southward, crowding cities and creating a huge humanitarian crisis. 

USAF C-5A Galaxy Lifts off from Saigon
April 1975

Part of a Press Release outlining the President's directive:
"I have also directed American officials in Saigon to act immediately to cut red tape and bureaucratic obstacles preventing these children from coming to the United States.
"I have directed that C-5A planes and other aircraft , especially equipped to care for these orphans during the flight, be sent to Saigon. I expect the flights to begin within the next 36 to 48 hours. These orphans will be flown to Travis Air Force Base and other bases on the West Coast and cared for there." 
Complete, Official White House Press Release a

The South Falls

On March 30, 1975 Da Nang, South Vietnam's second largest city is overrun by North Vietnamese troops and captured. By the middle of the following month, Saigon was under attack. The chaos and panic had begun. Rumors abounded that the North Vietnamese army was rounding up anyone who had ties to the Americans and that they, most likely, would be killed. Fear ran through the many orphanages in the south where stories had reached them that the children and their caretakers, particularly those children fathered by Americans awould be slaughtered on site. Thousands of frightened people were pouring onto American bases and many of them left out on US helicopters heading for aircraft carriers waiting offshore. While Air Force planes collected and transported civilian American citizens and others to Clark Air Force Base b in the Philippines, to Thailand and other locations. Finally, on April 30, 1975 Saigon falls to the North.
North Vietnamese tank rolls into grounds of Presidential Palace
Saigon April 30, 1975

In the midst of all this, President Ford's initiative to carry orphaned children, some of them fathered by American military and civilian contractors, had been active. Flights were scheduled to depart from Tan Son Nhut Air Base and conditions were rapidly deteriorating. There were an estimated 70,000 orphans flown out of Vietnam. Thirty flights were planned to carry babies and children to safety. A week of "official" flights was scheduled while numerous private chartered and loaned planes also ferried orphans away from Vietnam. The Australian RAAF contributed several Hercules aircraft and crew- Royal Australian Air Force Aids Babylift
RAAF air crew comfort babies before take-off during the 2nd
airlift of orphans from Saigon's Tan Son Nhut AB

As Panic Sets in Tragedy Strikes

On the second day of the Babylift flights on April 4 1975, a huge US Air Force C-5A Galaxy transport experienced mechanical failure over the South China Sea, forcing it to attempt a return to Tan Sohn Nhut Airbase in Saigon. The aircraft carried 300 kids and dozens of adults. The plane was unable to land safely, skidding across the runway and into a dike where it fell apart. There were 170 survivors, most of them badly injured. The decision was made to carry on with the flights as there were thousands of children yet to evacuate with the situation deteriorating and unstable. On the same day as the crash, a chartered Pan American Airways 747 hired by Holt International carrying 409 children and 60 adults took off. According to the website Adopt Vietnam 1200 children were moved out of South Vietnam by air in the 24 hours after the C-5A crash.

Pilot, Crew and others Discuss the Crash of the USAF C-5A
Video: Pilot, Crew, and People on Ground

Eyewitness to History: BROCK TOWNSENDc Bin Hoa AB 1967-75
A civilian employee shares his memories of the Babylift and the crash of the C5a
Vietnam Babylift: My Personal Story

US Air Force Flight Nurse Dies in C-5A Crash Captain Mary Therese Klinker lost her life on that day. She is one of the eight American military women listed on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall

Children peer from the Windows of
giant aircraft that will carry them across the sea.

Next Up: Controversy follows the Babylift while Congress debates allowing Amerasians to emigrate.

a From the official White House Press Release April 3, 1975, Office of the White House Press Secretary, San Diego, California copy of which is taken from the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library, Grand Rapids, MI www.fordlibrarymuseum
b <>. The Vietnam Center, Texas Tech University
c All quotes, photos and links attached to BROCK TOWNSEND are by permission of the subject.

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