Operation Babylift: 78 Vietnamese Orphans die in plane crash at the end of the Vietnam War.
Above Photo: An assistant tries to console a fearful child on one of the Babylift flights.
Towards the end of the Vietnam War, in early 1975, the orphanages of South Vietnam and especially Saigon, were overcrowded with children.
Some of the children were from American soldiers’ relationships with Vietnamese women who either couldn’t cope or who feared what would happen to them when the North Vietnamese took Saigon.
Other children had been orphaned in the increasingly bitter fighting between north and south, and others had simply been separated from their families in the fog of war.
Others had been abandoned because of their injuries or through the dire poverty of their families.
Humanitarian organisations petitioned US President Gerald Ford to help with the orphan problem, and he responded by announcing an airlift of South Vietnam’s orphans.
Called “Operation Babylift” this programme saw thousands of ‘orphans’ flown out of South Vietnam in the final months of the Vietnam War, intending to be adopted in the US, Europe and elsewhere.
On April 4, 1975, the first Babylift flight, a large Air Force C-5A Galaxy transport plane, took off from Tan Son Nhut airport in Saigon, carrying 330 adults and children.
The children were crammed into the large Air Force plane in much the same way you see the babies and children in the photographs accompanying this article, which were all taken on different kinds of planes during Operation Babylift.
The plan was for the plane to fly to Clark Air Base in the Philippines, where the first group of orphans would be transferred to charter flights to various destinations.
Unfortunately, shortly after takeoff, when the plane was over the South China Sea, locks on the rear loading ramp failed, causing the cargo door to explode open, temporarily filling the cabin with fog and debris.
The blowout severed control cables in the plane and caused hydraulic systems to fail.
The pilot and copilot attempted to regain control of the C-5, and performed a 180 degree turn in order to return to Tan Son Nhut airport in Saigon.
With skillful flying, they were able to bring the plane down to 4,000 feet and they commenced their approach to the airport. Everything indicated a difficult landing as things stood, but the pilots were hopeful of bringing it down without injury to their passengers.
While turning on its final approach, the plane suddenly descended rapidly and the pilots fought for control, but despite their efforts, the plane crashed in a rice paddy, skidded for a quarter of a mile, became airborne again for another half mile, managed to make it across the Saigon River, then hit a dike and broke up into four pieces.
The fuel caught fire, setting the wreckage ablaze.
Survivors fought to get out of the wreckage, although many of the children were trapped inside, too small to even appreciate what was happening to them.
The crash site was in a muddy rice paddy near the Saigon River, far from the nearest road and fire engines were unable to get to the site.
Helicopters, including some flown by Air America pilots, quickly arrived to rescue the survivors, and South Vietnamese soldiers were deployed around the site, which was close to an engagement with the Viet Cong the previous evening.
Out of over 300 people on board, the death toll included 78 children, 35 Defence Attache Office employees and 11 U.S. Air Force personnel. There were 175 survivors.
All of the surviving orphans were eventually flown to the United States.
The dead orphans were cremated and are believed to be interred at a Catholic cemetery in Pattaya, Thailand, which lies close to U-Tapao airbase.
Although sabotage was initially suspected, it proved a difficult crash to investigate, mainly because plane parts were looted from the crash site. The U.S. Air Force paid a bounty for parts from the wreckage, having to buy them back from locals.
When the rear doors were eventually recovered from the South China Sea, investigation determined that some of the locks weren’t working.
Maintenance records showed that locks had been cannibalized for spares then subsequently improperly refitted so that not all the door locks were engaging correctly.
Also, the flight crew confirmed that they had encountered difficulty closing the doors before take-off. As the air pressure differential increased with altitude, the few locks that were working correctly were unable to bear the load and the door failed, leading to the crash.
Operation Babylift was almost certainly born out of well-intentioned humanitarian concerns. But given many of the thousands of children flown to the US and elsewhere weren’t actually orphans, problems began when South Vietnamese refugees arrived in the US after the war, asking to take back their children who they’d entrusted to aid agencies to get them safely out of the country before the North Vietnamese took Saigon.
To this day there are Aid Agencies trying to use DNA sampling to match children flown out of Saigon during this operation with their biological families, although many thousands of properly orphaned children were adopted into loving homes around the world.
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© Peter Alan Lloyd
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