Operation Babylift: 78 Vietnamese Orphans die in plane crash at the end of the Vietnam War.

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.

Babies in a Vietnamese orphanage during the Vietnam War

Babies in a Vietnamese orphanage during the Vietnam War

Towards the end of the Vietnam War, in early 1975, the orphanages of South Vietnam and especially Saigon, were overcrowded with children.

Anoother Vietnamese orphanage.

Another Vietnamese orphanage.

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.

More Vietnamese orphans during the war.

More Vietnamese orphans during the war.

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.

Potty time and lunchtime combined at this Vietnam War-era orphanage.

Potty time and lunchtime combined at this Vietnam War-era orphanage.

Others had been abandoned because of their injuries or through the dire poverty of their families.

Another petrified child on a Babylift flight.

A frightened child on a Babylift flight.

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.

Children board a Babyilft flight.

Children board a Babylift flight.

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.

Child being bottle-fed by a serviceman on a Babylift flight.

Child being bottle-fed by a serviceman on a Babylift flight.

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.

More unhappy orphans on board a Babylift flight.

More unhappy orphans on board a Babylift flight.

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.

Children aboard a Babylift flight. Note their artificial legs.

Young casualties of War: Children aboard a Babylift flight. Note their artificial legs.

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.

More children packed onto a Babylift flight.

More children packed onto a Babylift flight.

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.

Given the presence of the two small children being protected by the man at the back, and the open doors, it is possible this photograph was taken during the incident. I have been unable to ascertain this.

This photograph is from a National geographic re-enactment.

The blowout severed control cables in the plane and caused hydraulic systems to fail.

Inside one of the Babylift planes.

Inside one of the Babylift planes.

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.

Children in boxes, strapped into their seats on a Babylift flight.

Children in boxes, strapped into their seats on a Babylift flight.

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.

More Babylift babies in boxes.

More Babylift babies in boxes.

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 crash site.

The crash site.

The fuel caught fire, setting the wreckage ablaze.

A closer view of the crash site.

A closer view of the crash site.

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.

Some of the wreckage burned fiercely.

Some of the wreckage burned fiercely.

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.

The crash site after the fire was put out.

The crash site after the fire was put out.

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.

Sifting through the debris of the C-5 crash.

Sifting through the debris of the C-5 crash.

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.

Some of the rescued survivors.

Some of the rescued survivors.

Another rescued child from the crash.

Another child rescued from the crash.

All of the surviving orphans were eventually flown to the United States.

Some of the less fortunate child victims.

Some of the less fortunate child victims.

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.

Sleeping orphans on another babylift flight.

Sleeping orphans on another Babylift flight.

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.

More babies on a Babylift flight.

More babies on a Babylift flight.

When the rear doors were eventually recovered from the South China Sea, investigation determined that some of the locks weren’t working.

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Maintenance records showed that locks had been cannibalized for spares then subsequently improperly refitted so that not all the door locks were engaging correctly.

Another Babylifter.

Another Babylifter.

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.

Assistants try to keep children on a flight entertained.

Assistants try to keep children on a flight entertained.

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.

More restless children on a Babylift flight.

More restless children on a Babylift flight.

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.

Children crowd the windows of a Babylift flight about to land in the USA.

Children crowd the windows of a Babylift flight about to land in the USA.

See the trailer for our new film, M.I.A. A Greater Evil. Set in the jungles of Laos and Vietnam, the film deals with the possible fate of US servicemen left behind after the US pulled out of the Vietnam War.

For POWs left behind in Laos during the Vietnam War, see:

See also: http://peteralanlloyd.com/the-vietnam-war/a-visit-to-the-grave-of-78-orphans-killed-at-the-end-of-the-vietnam-war/

© Peter Alan Lloyd

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2 Comments

  1. Keith Cable

    That’s one of ten saddest stories I’ve ever read. My heart goes out to those poor little souls.

    Reply
  2. Kath Johnston

    The horrors of war are truly devastating, and I weep for these beautiful children, both those lost, and those who survived. May God bless them all.

    Reply

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