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
I usually write about ancient women on this blog—women from Classical times—because I’ve always felt like their contribution to history has been forgotten. But I recently came upon the story of another woman, a modern woman, whose story I think has also been forgotten. And I want to share her story with you because I think it deserves to be told.
Sharon Ann Lane. First Lieutenant in the United States Army. A nurse stationed at the 312th Evacuation Hospital, Chu Lai, Vietnam in 1969.
Sharon was born in 1943 in Ohio. She graduated from high school in Canton in 1961. After high school, she attended the Aultman Hospital School of Nursing, where she graduated in April of 1965. She worked at a civilian hospital before joining the U.S. Army Nurse Corps Reserve in April of 1968.
She received her army training at Fort Sam Houston in Texas, where all army nurses trained in the 1960s, graduating as a second lieutenant in June of 1968. Her first assignment as an army nurse was on a tuberculosis ward at the Army’s Fitzsimons General Hospital in Denver, Colorado.
On April 24th, 1969, she received orders sending her to Vietnam.
Sharon was sent to Chu Lai, the home of two army hospitals in the first half of 1969—the 27th Surgical Hospital and the 312th Evacuation Hospital. Sharon was originally assigned to the Intensive Care Unit of the 312th, but a few days later was moved to the Vietnamese ward. There, she cared for women, children, and the occasional POW. It was not an assignment most staffers wanted, but Sharon repeatedly declined offers of transfers to other wards.
In addition to her twelve-hour shifts on the Vietnamese ward, Sharon spent her off-duty time working with critically injured American soldiers in the Surgical Intensive Care Unit. According to those who served with her, she was “adored and respected” by everyone in the hospital.
Early on the morning of June 8th, 1969, the Viet Cong attacked the 312th with 122mm rockets. Sharon was just finishing up her night shift on the Vietnamese ward, when one rocket struck Ward 4—her ward. Sharon was struck with shrapnel in the chest and throat, and killed instantly. She was twenty-five years old.
Sharon was the only female American military member killed by enemy action in the Vietnam War.
Although seven other nurses died in Vietnam, their deaths were the result of accidents or illness. Sharon gave her life the way so many of her patients had—at the hands of the enemy.
Following her death, Fitzsimons General Hospital renamed its recovery room in honor of Sharon, and a statue of her was erected in front of Aultman Hospital, where she had been a nursing student. Roads in Denver, Colorado and in Belvoir, Virginia have been named for her.
Approximately five thousand nurses served in-country over the course of the Vietnam War, most living in tough conditions doing a brutal job. They have been dubbed “Angels of Mercy” for their work.
But Sharon truly is an angel, if you believe in that sort of thing. She would be seventy-four today, retired from a long career as a nurse, most likely. But instead, she lost her life at a young age doing hard work for a country that, at the time, had little in the way of gratitude.
Thank you, Sharon. And God bless.