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.
The First Flight In The Operation Crash-Landed, Killing Nearly 100 ChildrenPhoto: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain
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 CarryPhoto: 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
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 CountryPhoto: 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."