This Day in History: Tragedy marks the beginning of Operation Babylift

On this day in 1975, the first airplane in “Operation Babylift” departs from a South Vietnamese air field. Unfortunately, that C-5 cargo plane was doomed to crash mere minutes later. A rear cargo door malfunctioned, damaging the tail and causing the plane to decompress.

Air Force Captain Dennis “Bud” Traynor found himself in an unimaginable situation. The mission had started off normally enough. He was “just the next pilot in the pinball machine,” he would later say. Now, he was called upon to be a hero.

The transport was part of a plan to rescue babies and toddlers, most of whom had been orphaned during the Vietnam war. The fall of Saigon was just around the corner, and rescue workers needed to work fast. Many of the babies had been fathered by American soldiers, and they would be in danger if left behind.

In other words, Traynor’s plane was loaded with young children who needed refuge. And now that plane was plummeting toward the ground.

“[The malfunction] cut all control cables to the tail,” Traynor later said. “So I’m pulling and pulling and pulling, and my nose is going down further and further and we’re going faster and faster and faster, and I can’t figure this out.”

Miraculously, Traynor managed to stabilize the plane long enough to crash land with relative safety. But then the plane hit a dike and got thrown back up into the air. When it hit the ground again, it splintered into pieces. Portions of the wreckage caught on fire.

Air Force 1st Lt. Regina Aune was commanding the medical team aboard the aircraft that day. When the plane finally came to a stop, Aune and others began carrying babies and children out of the wreckage.

Aune is credited with helping to save 80 children. She pulled babies and young children to rescue helicopters despite her own massive injuries: a broken foot, a broken leg, and broken vertebra. She stopped helping only when she finally passed out from her injuries.

The scene must have been horrific. One survivor was only four years old at the time, but she later spoke of seeing a “flash fire.” She didn’t remember the plane that eventually took her to the States, but she did remember holding tightly to her adoptive father once she got there.

Two other survivors were 17-month-old twins. They were at first thought dead, and their new parents in the States were informed that they’d been killed. In an unbelievable twist, the twins were found more than 24 hours later. They’d survived, together, and were found clinging to each other in the middle of a rice paddy.

Thanks to the efforts of Traynor, Aune, and others, more than 170 of the approximate 300 people on board would survive the tragedy.

Operation Babylift had gotten off to a rocky start—nor would that be the end of its troubles. The rescue operation would later be criticized for removing children from their native land. In the end, though, thousands of children would be airlifted out of South Vietnam before Saigon fell. They would get medical care. They would be adopted by new families who would feed, educate, and love them. They would survive.

One of these children grew up and went looking for his birth family many decades later. He found his birth mother, still living in Vietnam.

“My mother kept apologizing to me—‘I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry,’” Michael Marchese recounted to a reporter. “I just told her, ‘There’s nothing for you to apologize about, for you basically saved my life by sacrificing, giving me up. I’m back. I’m alive. What you did worked.’”

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