Following on the heels of my post about First Lieutenant Sharon Ann Lane, I wanted to write about the heroism of another group of women at the end of the Vietnam War.
In the spring of 1975, commercial aircraft leaving Saigon were filled to capacity. The military, out of necessity, began offering seats on cargo planes to American civilians in an effort to get them out of the country.
But there was a special group of civilians, not quite Americans—yet. Vietnamese orphans, who had families eagerly waiting to adopt them in the United States.
Orphanages in South Vietnam were suffering gravely from a lack of basic medical supplies and food, and aid workers were scrambling to try to get as many orphans back to the United States as they could. The problem was transportation.
USAID (Unites States Aid to International Development) eventually came through and promised three Medevac flights for the orphans to be sent from a base in the Philippines.
But the day after this promise was made, April 4th, 1975, aid workers were told that one of the world’s largest planes was to be sent instead—the C-5A cargo plane. President Gerald Ford had heard about the plight of the orphans and authorized the use of the giant plane for what was soon termed “Operation Babylift.”
The plane was massive—six stories high. Under normal circumstances, it carried helicopters and tanks. It was not suited to carrying passengers. For this reason, aid workers decided that only children three years of age and older would be sent out on the C-5A, because only they could be properly secured.
Twenty-two infants were sent, however. They were chosen from among the very strongest, and were secured in the seats of the troop compartment of the plane.
Fifteen minutes after take-off, as the plane was approaching its cruising altitude, the back doors blew out. The pilot was skilled enough that, despite a lack of rudder control, he was able to turn the plane around and head back to Saigon. But he was unable to control his rate of descent, and the plane impacted in a rice paddy outside Saigon at 350 mph.
Approximately 130 passengers and crew were killed, including an estimated seventy-three children and thirty-eight women. All of the women who died worked for various U.S. government aid agencies at the time of the flight, with the exception of Laurie Stark, who was a teacher, and Captain Mary Therese Klinker, an Air Force flight nurse assigned to Clark Air Base in the Philippines.
The goal of these women was to get a group of orphans to loving homes in the United States, and they died in service to that goal. They should be remembered for their heroism. And the children should be remembered, too, for the lives they could have lived here in the States, after spending their early years in a country marked by war.
I was three years old in 1975, and I’m adopted. Were I born in another place and in other circumstances, I could very well have been on that plane.
To the women and children of Operation Babylift: we remember.
Mary Ann Crouch
Theresa Drye (a child)
Mary Lyn Eichen
Captain Mary Therese Klinker
Doris Jean Watkins