"Operation Babylift" Was A Controversial Mission To Fly Thousands of Orphans Out of The Vietnam War

Over two intense weeks in April 1975, some 2,000 children were airlifted out of Vietnam for their safety at the end of the Vietnam War. It was called "Operation Babylift," and it came about as a directive from President Ford after the North Vietnamese Army captured Saigon. Ford designated a chunk of a "special foreign aid children's fund" to fly these babies out of Saigon – at great risk to the babies and the crew.   

"Operation Babylift" was an amazing effort to get these children to safety, but it came with its own perils. Crash-landings, murky legal statuses, controversy, and unsafe conditions enveloped the operation. The first plane out of Saigon, a U.S. C-5 cargo plane, had to crash-land, killing many on board, including the babies flown from Saigon that were on it. Luckily, at the end of the day, it can be said that a few thousand children were saved, and that, if anything, makes the operation a success. 

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  • The First Flight In The Operation Crash-Landed, Killing Nearly 100 Children

    Sadly, the very first flight of the operation ended in tragedy, when the pilot was forced to crash-land the C-5 after the cargo doors malfunctioned. On April 4, 1975, Bud Traynor maneuvered the malfunctioning plane into a rice paddy field in a "fierce impact."  

    Chief medical officer Regina Aune recalled that the cargo doors blew out, and she "could see the South China Sea through the hole in the back."

    The crash was fatal for 78 children and 50 adults, most of whom perished because they were in the cargo area – because there wasn't enough room for them in the passenger section of the plane. When the plane crashed, it split apart, and the cargo area holding the children and adults "was crushed."  

  • The Planes Were Filled With Over Twice The Amount Of Babies They Could Reasonably Carry

    The Planes Were Filled With Over Twice The Amount Of Babies They Could Reasonably Carry
    Photo: National Archives / via Atlas Obscura/No restrictions

    One of the reasons that first flight was so fatal was because there were children in the cargo area. This was due to the fact that American operatives were stuffing the planes full of South Vietnamese babies – more than the aircrafts could reasonably hold.

    To make Operation Babylift work, the children had to be secured with cargo straps, and a flight attendant remembered putting bassinets underneath seats. Jim Trullinger, a man doing research in Vietnam, was forced to evacuate the country on one of these overcrowded flights, and recalled:

    "There were no baby carriers, so we just had to use seat belts tightened around the babies. There were so many babies that there was no place for me to sit."   

  • The Flights Were Perilous For The Children, Who Often Did Not Have Enough Food Or Blankets

    The Flights Were Perilous For The Children, Who Often Did Not Have Enough Food Or Blankets
    Photo: Defense Intelligence Agency / YouTube / Standard YouTube License

    According to History Net, the number of children on board was so high that "milk, food and medicine were always in short supply." The exact number of children on a given flight was up to each pilot, and they sometimes crammed so many children on the planes that they just lined the floors with blankets and secured the babies to these with cargo straps. The children were so crowded in, they filled "every available space."

  • There Were Older Children, Too, Who Weren't So Keen On Leaving Their Home Country

    There Were Older Children, Too, Who Weren't So Keen On Leaving Their Home Country
    Photo: National Archives / via Atlas Obscura/No restrictions

    Despite the best of intentions, Operation Babylift did end up taking some older children away from their homes. According to Kathy Manney, writing for History Net:

    "As for the older children, Babylift was the crucible that shaped their lives. Already they had seen more adversity in their short lives than most adults, and they seemed to be feeling a cloak of desolation settling around their shoulders. Some of the older children wanted to know when they could go back to Vietnam, possibly to grandmothers or foster parents who had been caring for them. Those who wanted these children to have a better future had taken them from the only life they had ever known."

  • It's Possible That Not All These Children Were Orphans

    It's Possible That Not All These Children Were Orphans
    Photo: US National Archives and Records Administration / Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

    Part of the controversy surrounding Operation Babylift was that it wasn't exactly clear how many of these children were actually orphans. As the operation continued, volunteers began questioning how many of them had families back in Vietnam. Jane Barton, a translator, recalled that she spoke to a few of those rescued "who said they were not orphans."

    This led to the still-lingering question: did the United States "steal" these children? A few lawsuits were filed after 1975 that tried to reunite those adopted in the US with their families in Vietnam. Some adoptees have formed relationships with their biological parents, while others are still searching, returning to Vietnam as adults to "connect with their roots."   

  • The Chaos Continued Even After The Planes Landed In America

    The Chaos Continued Even After The Planes Landed In America
    Photo: Golden Gate NRA, Park Archives and Records Center / via Atlas Obscura/No restrictions

    Many of the flights out of Tan Son Nhut airport in Vietnam landed in San Francisco, CA, and the conditions at the Presidio (then an army base) were far from ideal. Many of the children were sick with pneumonia and dehydration, and there was no real leadership. Michael Howe, who was the the president of the volunteer organization that helped these children, remembered:

    "There was really no one in charge and in some way it’s kind of a misnomer to call me or anybody else a leader—we were there doing what we possibly could do in an environment where we really weren't quite sure what to do, bottom line." 

    There often weren't enough mattresses for all the children, and some slept on blankets stacked on the floor. Some people even tried to steal babies from the area, feeling they were "promised" an adoptee.