In April 1975, as South Vietnam was being overrun and rapidly crumbling, a massive military and civilian humanitarian effort was carried out in Southeast Asia. Bette Milleson James has put together a heart-warming, compassionate account of that amazing and unprecedented feat in Angels Flying Out of Hell: The 7,000-Mile Journey of the Operation Babylift Orphans (Blueline Publishing, 248 pp., $24, paper).
With the end of South Vietnam imminent, nurses, doctors and workers at orphanges loaded infants and young children into anything that could transport them to Tan Son Nhut Airport. Many of the children were racially mixed—half Vietnamese and half American—which in Vietnamese culture meant they were looked down upon and destined to be shunned and discriminated against.
The first flight out of Saigon on April 2, 1975, was a World Airways DC-8 jet that landed in Oakland, California, with 57 orphans. Government officials accepted the children without the normal paperwork. The next day President Gerald Ford, an adoptee himself, authorized Operation Babylift, a massive effort to save more children. This allowed U. S. Air Force aircraft to transport refugee children into the United States without visas and other red tape.
Two days after the announcement, the first Babylift flight, a C5A Galaxy, crash- landed shortly after takeoff. Tragically, 135 passengers and crew lost their lives. Initally, suspicions pointed to sabotage. However, subsequent investigation revealed that while climbing at 23,000 feet, an explosive occurred when the rear ramp and pressure door blew out, severing all flight control cables to the tail and several aft hydraulic systems.
The official investigation of the crash attributed the survival of anyone on board to Capt. “Bud” Trayner’s unorthodox use of power and his decision to crash land the plane while he still had it under some control. Traynor received the Air Force Cross for “extraordinary heroism and airmanship while engaged in a humanitarian mission.”
As a result of that tragedy, the C5A Galaxy was not used again. Other aircraft, such as the Air Force C-141 Starlifter, became the planes of choice as Operation Babylift gained momentum in the coming weeks.
Surprisingly, critics emerged from divergent sources. Some antiwar activists claimed Operation Babylift was a “political ploy” using orphans, and that the airlifts were “stealing Vietnamese children.” Some in the adoption industry griped about skirting official procedures. Ralph Nader’s health research group charged that some orphans brought to the U. S. were carrying hepatitis and other bacterial diseases. This was later proved untrue by the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta.
The last Babylift flight to leave Saigon came on April 27. How many orphans were left behind is unknown. Of the children who made it out, some 2,700 came to the United States; 1,300 went to Canada, Australia, and Europe.
James’s tribute to the hundreds of volunteers and military personnel who made Operation Babylift possible has been a long time coming. Few know what a massive undertaking it was to give the gift of a better life to those Vietnamese orphans. Bette James has combined history and personal accounts to present a most remarkable story of compassion and heroism.
—James P. Coan