Operation Babylift was the name given to the mass evacuation of children from South Vietnam to the United States and other countries (including Australia, France, and Canada) at the end of the Vietnam War (see also the Fall of Saigon), from April 3–26, 1975. By the final American flight out of South Vietnam, over 3,300 infants and children had been evacuated, although the actual number has been variously reported. Along with Operation New Life, over 110,000 refugees were evacuated from South Vietnam at the end of the Vietnam War. Thousands of children were airlifted from Vietnam and adopted by families around the world.
With the central Vietnamese city of Da Nang having fallen in March, and with Saigon under attack and being shelled, on April 3, 1975, U.S. President Gerald Ford announced that the U.S. government would begin evacuating orphans from Saigon on a series of 30 planned flights aboard C-5A Galaxy cargo aircraft.
Service organizations including Holt International Children's Services, Friends of Children of Viet Nam (FCVN), Friends For All Children (FFAC), Catholic Relief Service, International Social Services, International Orphans and the Pearl S. Buck Foundation petitioned the government to help evacuate the various orphans in their facilities in Vietnam. In their book, Silence Broken, Childhelp (International Orphans at the time) founders Sara O'Meara and Yvonne Fedderson chronicle their request from Lieutenant General Lewis William Walt to help with evacuations and finding homes for the Asian-American orphans.
The operation was controversial because there was question about whether the evacuation was in the childrens' best interest, and because not all the children were orphans.
A C-5A Galaxy 68-0218 flew the initial mission of Operation Babylift to bring Vietnamese orphans to the US in the few remaining days before the Republic of Vietnam fell. The C-5 departed Saigon-Tan Son Nhat Airport shortly after 4 p.m. on April 4, 1975. Twelve minutes after takeoff, there was what seemed to be an explosion as the lower rear fuselage was torn apart. The locks of the rear loading ramp had failed, causing the door to open and separate. A rapid decompression occurred. Control and trim cables to the rudder and elevators were severed, leaving only one aileron and wing spoilers operating. Two of the four hydraulic systems were out. The crew wrestled at the controls, managing to keep control of the plane with changes in power settings by using the one working aileron and wing spoilers.The crew descended to an altitude of 4,000 feet on a heading of 310 degrees in preparation for landing on Tan Son Nhut's runway 25L. About halfway through a turn to final approach, the rate of descent increased rapidly. Seeing they couldn't make the runway, full power was applied to bring the nose up. The C-5 touched down in a rice paddy. Skidding for a quarter of a mile, the aircraft again became airborne for a half mile before hitting a dike and breaking into four parts, some of which caught fire. According to DIA figures, 138 people were killed in the crash, including 78 children and 35 Defense Attaché Office Saigon personnel.
When American businessman Robert Macauley learned that it would take more than a week to evacuate the surviving orphans due to the lack of military transport planes, he chartered a Boeing 747 from Pan Am and arranged for 300 orphaned children to leave the country, paying for the trip by mortgaging his house.
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The Vietnamese adoptee-run nonprofit, Operation Reunite, is using DNA testing to match adoptees with their Vietnamese families.
"Operation Babylift: The case of the disappearing orphans," by Helen Jacobus. Cover story of the New Statesman (London), May 11, 1984. pages 8-10; and follow-up story, "Mother Courage of Vietnam finds son in UK," by Jane Thomas, New Statesman, July 20, 1984, page 4.
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