On this day in 1975, Gerald Ford approves “Operation Babylift.” Speed was of the essence! Rescue workers had been tasked with evacuating babies and toddlers from South Vietnam. Many of these babies had been fathered by American soldiers, and they would be in danger if Saigon fell and they were left behind. Others were orphans who simply needed help.
The mission got off to a tragic start when a fully loaded C-5 cargo plane took off with a faulty rear cargo door. That door malfunctioned a few minutes into its April 4 flight. The plane decompressed and began plummeting to the ground.
“[The malfunction] cut all control cables to the tail,” Air Force Captain Dennis “Bud” 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 aboard the aircraft that day. As the plane went down, she could see the South China Sea through the hole that had blown out of the back of the plane. “I remember thinking, this plane is crashing, and I am going to live through it, and I have to figure out how to take care of everybody once we finally come to a complete stop,” she later said.
She was true to her word, carrying babies and children out of the wreckage as soon as she could. 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.
Aune and others worked hard, pulling babies and young children to rescue helicopters. Aune was somehow still functioning in the face of 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. 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.’”
Primary Sources & Further Reading:
Cheryl Wetzstein, Operation Babylift orphan adoptees thankful 40 years after rescue from South Vietnam (Washington Times, April 15, 2015)
Matt Keller, Survivors remember ‘Operation Babylift’ plane crash (ABC San Francisco, April 16, 2015)
Nina Strochlic, Vietnam War Orphans From Operation Babylift Reunite (The Daily Beast, May 12, 2013)
Regina Aune & Aryn Lockhart, Operation Babylift: Mission Accomplished, A Memoir of Hope and Healing (2015)
Simon Parry, Orphan who survived Vietnam War plane crash that killed 80 babies makes emotional return to scene where he was found huddled with his twin sister (Daily Mail, April 3, 2015)
Tom Budzyna, Two AF nurses heroes of ‘Operation Babylift’ (Air Force News Service; March 12, 2013)