The Vietnam Operation Babylift during April, 1975 was an extraordinary humanitarian effort in which US military and civilian unsung heroes came together to evacuate over 2,500 Vietnamese War orphans to the United States and several other countries during the final weeks of the Vietnam War. This was just a part of the overall effort.
by Patricia Johnson Mulder
It was Easter Sunday in 1975, and life for Charlotte Behrendt became a series of events because of one phone call. Charlotte, twenty-eight years old, the only daughter of Edward J. Daly, listened to the anxious voice of Maria Eitz. She sounded alarmed and worried about the orphans in her care. Maria, a dedicated organizer of the Friends For All Children, an orphanage in Boulder Colorado, expressed to Charlotte her fears about the orphaned children in Saigon. DaNang had recently fallen to the Vietcong. Maria asked Charlotte for help in getting the orphans out of this now very dangerous place. There were over five hundred and fifty children in this orphanage. Maria and parents waiting in the United States for the children felt that they were in danger of being killed by the conquering forces.
A few weeks earlier, Ed Daly had sent the World Airways planes in to give supplies to the orphanage. Now, more help was needed. Maria asked Charlotte if she could do anything to get the orphans out of South Vietnam and to safety in the United States. Charlotte told Maria to stay on the line, while she placed a Trans-Pacific phone call to her father, Edward J. Daly. As Maria, Charlotte and Daly talked, hope for rescuing the orphans became a reality. Daly was already in Saigon working on other missions involving getting rice to hungry people in Phnom Penh. Daly did not hesitate a moment. Every minute counted. As soon as he hung up the telephone, Daly began to make plans for the rescue.
On March 27th, Daly had already cabled President Ford and Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger. His message was urgent.
“A human slaughter of massive proportions is imminent in Cambodia and South Vietnam.”
Daly never received a message back from his cable. Therefore, he decided to take on the responsibility of helping save hundreds of lives. It did not matter to Daly how much it would cost to save the children.
Daly had been a busy man. He had a previous charter commitment in Oakland, which gave him only two days to assemble a flight crew, food medicines, and anything else necessary for a successful, safe operation. Apparently, the government seemed nervous about his undertaking, but it did not make Daly lose his focus. He wanted to help the orphans and checked his schedule log for available pilots. He wanted to handle this emergency quickly and professionally for the safety of the orphans and his crew.
Daly pulled one of his planes off the Rice Lift in Cambodia. Captain Bill Keating flew to Phnom Penh the morning of April 2, unloaded his forty-five tons of rice, and was back in Saigon before noon. It was then that Captain Keating and Captain Kenneth Healy (pictured below) discovered that they were assigned to fly five hundred and fifty orphans to the United States.
They would not be alone on this flight as volunteers were willing to help. On this flight, four doctors and seventeen European, American and Australian nurses from the orphanage wanted to accompany the children to safety. As Daly sat in his hotel room, used now as his office, he counted the hundreds of dollar bills that lay on the desk in front of him. Rescuing people had become a part of his life and he enjoyed the planning process. Daly had already instructed his pilots and on many occasions flown with them to rescue men, women and children refugees from DaNang. In fact, from March 24 through March 26, 1975, World Airways rescued over 1000 refugees from DaNang to Saigon and Na Trang, using three 727 aircraft under a sub-contract with Air Vietnam, who then terminated the contract, as they felt that DaNang was too far out of control.
On the 28th, Daly spent the day urging both Vietnamese and United States government officials to somehow provide crowd control at DaNang and he would continue to fly out refugees on his own. (A detachment of United States Marines was suggested – and laughed at). Talks continued until past midnight, when Daly and Healy, unsuccessful in their quest, went back to their hotel to get some sleep.
At five a.m., Daly called Healy’s room and said, “I don’t care if the __ will help or not. If you will fly to DaNang with me, we will move more refugees on our own.”
Healy said, “Sure.” So they went to work.
Three crews were alerted in order to use all three 727 aircraft. It was decided to operate the flights 30 minutes apart so that only one plane would be on the ground at DaNang at a time. Daly and Healy took the first one. Captain Don McDaniel the 2nd, and Captain Dave Wainio the 3rd. This flight was on March 29, 1975.
On arrival at DaNang, all looked calm, and the control tower advised that everything was under control. Upon landing, all hell broke loose, and Healy immediately radioed the other two aircraft to turn around. At that time many refugees did everything to board the last plane out of DaNang. There were soldiers running behind the 727 as it taxied slowly down the runway trying to get aboard. Some even ran up the rear stairs into the cargo compartments and wheel wells. World Airways made a daring escape with a plane severely damaged by hand grenades, thrown by soldiers in an attempt to stop the plane. The crowd was out of control so Daly told Captain Healy to take off. The plane was overloaded by 20,000 pounds. There were 360 people aboard a plane which is designed to carry 105. The baggage compartments were loaded with people. Some of the problems during the flight included, the rear stairway remained partially extended for the entire flight, the main wheels would not retract, and the lower cargo doors were open. The plane had to fly at 10,000 feet because of lack of pressurization. Fuel consumption was three times greater than normal.
When they finally landed at Saigon the fuel tanks were almost empty. This flight was later referred to by CBS News as “The return flight from hell.” Now, Daly had another rescue to prepare for. He looked at Jan Wollett, she was standing near his desk awaiting instructions. Jan saw her boss counting the money to help buy supplies. She was a flight attendant who was also scheduled to take part in the rescue of the orphans. She smiled as she took the money from Daly and was sent to buy supplies needed for the flight.
It was about 8:30 a.m..Wednesday morning of the flight. Jan searched Saigon for pens to secure the orphans during the flight. Unfortunately, she was met with coldness and uncooperative people. No one wanted to help her buy supplies such as blankets, milk, and baby food which were essentials to keep the children comfortable. Most disappointing of all was that the Red Cross refused to supply anything. They had been advised by the U.S. Embassy that Daly’s plan to fly orphans was a hazard. So Red Cross officials stayed out of the evacuation plans completely, it was evident that these officials did not understand the importance of saving the children.
The clock was ticking away without even a handful of supplies for the orphans. Jan was still looking for other help when she thought of Father Roberts, who had said Mass for the crew of Plane 691 on Easter Sunday after they escaped on the last flight out of DaNang. Jan was happy to meet with Father Roberts again and explained what she needed. The Father knew about the black market and believed he could get blankets for the children. Jan gave him five hundred dollars, and he quickly left for the inner city of Saigon.
Later, Jan was told by some of the doctors and nurses that the U.S. Embassy had just received a delivery of a thousand cases of baby food. “Food for the children. Thank you.” Jan thought. She telephoned the Embassy. It was almost noon and no one there would help her. The cases of baby food would never reach the orphans.
An invisible cloud of despair seemed to fill the afternoon air. The flight was to depart at 3:30 p.m. on April 2nd, Saigon time, Jan tried one last place. She telephoned Foremost Milk Company in Saigon and they agreed to help. After a few hours, they arrived at Ton Son Nhut with four hundred quarts of donated milk for the orphans. Jan was extremely happy. “I only buy Foremost Milk now,” Jan said later, during an interview with reporters.
Soon after, the milk was aboard the plane, Father Roberts arrived at the gates of the airfield, with purchased blankets. But, he was refused entry. The officials on duty at the gates gave no explanation to Father Roberts who was disappointed that his treasure went unnoticed by the officials. He knew the World Airways crew understood when they saw him walk away with an armful of blankets.
The crew now had to focus on the aircraft. Kenneth Healy and Bill Keating spent the rest of the day getting the plane ready for flight. It had no seats, but the crew was able to create a safe, comfortable interior. Cargo pallets were locked to the floor with mattresses and blankets on top; netting was wrapped around each and fastened to the pallets, bassinets were tied to the cargo netting. The final touches included blankets and pillows. The older children could crawl and hold on to the strong netting. The idea of a huge padded playpen would make the long flight more comfortable than having seats.
The overhead compartments had been removed, thirty to forty portable bottled oxygen tanks were tied to the side of the plane in case of an emergency. Two lavatories remained in front and two in back.
Jan discovered another hero during the rush to prepare everything for the orphans. Ken Kaizer, station manager for the Flying Tigers, and a colonel in the U.S. military were both able to ask the commissary for soft drinks, baby food, fruit, cookies, medical supplies and other edibles, which were delivered to the aircraft. Time was running out.
At around 1:00 p.m., Daly and Margaret Moses, deputy director of Friends For All Children, and her assistants, arrived at Tan Son Nhut, with sirens and Vietnamese police. The exit visas were approved. All was going well until Margaret received a phone call warning her that the plane was unfit. With her two companions, Margaret examined the airplane and her two companions agreed that the plane was unfit. Margaret was outvoted. She was still willing to go, but never flew on a World Airways flight. When Daly discovered the source of the warning to be from USAID, who was determined to stop the flight.
“If they could only see the airplane, they would realize that it was fit.” Daly said.
There were thirty-one adults and three doctors to handle the five hundred and fifty orphans. But, the USAID still insisted that the plane was “antiquated and unsafe” and USAID did not have time to come out and inspect the airplane. Jan and Daly knew that USAID and orphanage officials did not understand the way the cargo plane is set up with pallets, blankets and everything. It was perfectly safe. There is one adult for every ten children and we can more than evacuate them in this emergency. The orphans would be very well protected in the World Airways plane.
The final result of this delay ended by World not flying out the five hundred and fifty orphans after all. (At least not at this time.) The World Airways crew were all extremely disappointed. But, Daly had the desire to find more orphans to take out of Saigon. Daly telephoned Mary Fisher, whose husband was in Saigon as the pastor of the Seventh Day Adventist Church. Daly told Mary that he needed babies and nurses. Mary was elated. She knew of six babies in the Seventh Day Adventist Orphanage who had been adopted and had papers to prove it. They just needed transportation to the United States. Mary even had Myma Fisher, a nurse, who was her husband’s niece.
As the miracles continued, Mrs Fisher, along with four girls and two boys, ranging from ages two to fourteen months old, arrived at the airport. The eyes of the children were bright with anticipation. And then from nowhere a young girl appeared and asked one of the crew.
“Are you flying orphans to the United States?”
“Yes.” A flight attendant said, smiling.
“Do you have room for more?” she asked, looking hopeful.
“Hell, Yes? Get them here.” Daly said, with happiness in his voice when he overheard the conversation.
Daly went with the young girl to the home of Mr. and Mrs Clark. Tom and Sharon Clark were co-directors of Friends of Children of Vietnam. At 7:30 p.m. Daly knocked on their door assuring them that if they could get the children from their orphanage in an hour, they were flying to the United States.
The excited couple drove twenty miles outside of Saigon to pick up the children. Daly went back to the airfield and waited for them to return. In the meantime, he inquired about the length of time it took to get exit visas. Only five orphans had all their travel papers in order. Daly’s determined attitude and inquiry, prompted the South Vietnamese officer to make a telephone call. Soon after permits were delivered to the gate.
At 8:50 p.m. the World Airways crew and their compassionate leader Edward J. Daly, were all ready to go. But, no orphans arrived. The crew waited patiently. The sky began to darken. The wind was still. All eyes were watching the entrance to the airport. Then the telephone rang. It was the South Vietnamese ordering Daly to leave. The airport was on full alert. It was ordered that all nonmilitary personnel had to leave to prevent sabotage by infiltrators who might pose as airport workers or other disguises. All seemed hopeless as night approached when the crew saw headlights beaming toward them. The minibusses carrying fifty-eight orphans, Dr.& Mrs. Hildebrand, who was also a doctor, two other doctors, and several nurses. They had their orphans. It was time to go.
Dr. Hildebrand unloaded the minibusses quickly and went straight to the gate. It was a blessed moment when the officials helped the group on to the plane without checking names. But, the uncertainty wasn’t over yet. The South Vietnamese Immigration officers boarded the plane and began throwing people off. Jan watched as they separated an eleven-year-old boy from his three-year-old brother. Then two others were thrown off. The crew was desperate to do something. The officials tried to separate a mother and her infant child. Several times the mother was pushed out of the door of the airplane, with her child in her arms. Within moments the mother rushed onto the plane with her baby crying in her arms. The voices outside grew louder, and the mother was frightened. This time she tried to hand her baby to Captain Healy, who was aware of her desperate need to at least save her baby. Healy looked into the eyes of the mother and at the baby bundled up carefully in a warm blanket. Within seconds the woman and her baby disappeared. The officials did not miss her. Later in the flight, when the devoted mother and her child were found in the crew lavatory, Healy had only one thing to say about what might have happened, when a flight attendant discovered this mother quietly holding her baby.
“I have no idea, how they got there,” Healy said, with a small smile.
After an hour of this very tense situation involving who would stay on the plane ended. The doors finally closed. Pilots Keating and Healy secured the cockpit for takeoff. They checked all the instruments and buckled their seat belts. The plane waited for clearance from the tower. Suddenly, the lights were turned off on the runway and the tower went off the air. The pilots could see activity ahead of them at the far end of the airport. The Vietcong appeared to be taking over the airport. Captain Healy and Captain Keating started the engines and pulled onto the runway. They knew that it was time to start moving the airplane, and moved slowly down the runway. In the last moments before takeoff, the tower came alive with an announcement.
“You’re not cleared for takeoff. Stop! Stop!”
But, the World Airways DC-8, was airborne. Healy and Keating were not going to stop their airplane. The precious orphans, crew and passengers depended on them to fly them to safety. The pilots stared out their cockpit window into the vast black sky. A few stars dotted the sky as they continued to fly the airplane toward Freedom. Later, Captain Healy had a comment about the message from the tower. He somehow neglected to press the microphone button when attempting to respond to the tower. This resulted in “communication failure.” Healy said, when asked by the news media.
“One of my greatest memories of this flight, happened when we were three or four hours out of Manila. I decided to go back and go down the steps to see how the doctors and the nurses were doing. Some of the infants were crying. I heard the voices of the crew. I never got down the stairway. By then the crew had changed diapers on each one of the infants, about three times. The plane was a nursery. I just thought I would let them continue what they were doing. Everything appeared alright. The air had a very strong odor of baby poo. But, I felt so good to know that the orphans were being cared for, no matter how much the plane smelled. Apparently, the people down there working with the orphans were getting accustomed to the aroma. I decided that I wasn’t going any further,” Healy, said smiling.
Prior to departure to Los Angeles, Healy had a phone call from the Commander of the Military Air Transport Service at Scott Field, Illinois. There was some discussion about which way to fly the orphans to Los Angeles. The Commander on the other end of the telephone had given new flight instructions.
The General said that he wanted this plane to go into Honolulu for fuel. I told him that it would keep the babies in route much longer with an extra stop. The most logical thing and easier on the babies is to take them direct to Los Angeles,” Healy said.
“Your plane cannot make that flight non- stop,” the Commander replied.
“Well, it certainly can,” Captain Healy said, with confidence.
“Captain, just what makes you think you can get that 747 from Clark AFB to Los Angeles non-stop?” the Commander asked.
“Well, I guess because about thirty days ago, I took this same aircraft non-stop from Singapore to Oakland California,” Healy said.
There was a short silence. “Captain, you are cleared to go non-stop to Los Angeles,” the Commander said, realizing that Captain Healy knew what he was talking about.
“Thank you Commander,” Healy added. Healy then filed his flight plan direct to Los Angeles.
Upon arrival at Los Angeles, Healy had a problem with the officials who were trying to triage the orphans again. Healy thought that it was terrible for the orphans, some in cardboard bassinets lying on the pavement, and exposed to a cold ocean breeze. The orphans were not used to cool climate weather and were not dressed for the cool wind blowing across the airport. Finally, after a great deal of unnecessary triage, the orphans were ready to continue their journey to freedom. Many families were waiting to adopt these precious children. This mission had been more complicated by the fact that many of the young babies were sick, and there were some newborns. One premature baby died en route to the United States.
Sunday, April 13, Daly still wanted to get more orphans out of Saigon. He was not successful and two of World planes left Saigon for Japan. He could not get permission to bring out any more orphans. The Military Airlift contract was terminated; the rice lift funding ran out. But, then Daly met Father Robert Crawford, who had an orphanage for crippled children in Saigon. A miracle had happened by April 21, for the entire orphanage of 305 children and adults were evacuated. World Airways flew the orphans from Saigon to their new home in Oregon. The last group of orphans were flown out of Saigon to Oakland April 25. Saigon fell on April 30.
Daly and his entire crew were heroes to many saved orphans. World Airways had made four flights and rescued a total of more than 850 orphans. Sometime later, a letter arrived for Captain Healy. It was from the FAA, asking Healy to explain why he broke so many regulations while flying in Vietnam. Healy considered the letter very carefully. He thought about how he flew refugees out of the collapsing cities of mainland China, in 1948-49. He broke a few rules then too. He tried to save as many lives as he could, whenever he has been requested to do so. Captain Healy responded to the FAA charges honestly with his letter:
“I acknowledge receipt of your letter dated December 19, 1975, signed for you by Mr. John H. Bowers. I am quite conversant with the Federal Air Regulations and fully understand them and I’m also aware that the flight records at World Airways offices in Oakland are correct with respect to the flights I made in Vietnam. I believe that this information has been fairly well known and no attempt what-so-ever has been made to hide the facts. The situation in Vietnam in March 1975, was a rapidly deteriorating war that was falling at such a rate that most of those, even on the spot did not realize its seriousness. There were thousands, upon thousands of desperate refugees attempting to leave DaNang in any way possible. I elected to fly into these conditions in an effort to relieve what-so-ever suffering I could in the final hours of this terrible Vietnam war. It is my feeling that what I did was right and that were the circumstances repeated, I would be forced to follow the same course of action. If there is anything further that you desire, please advise.” Kenneth W. Healy Vice Pros. Dir. of Operations.
The FAA’s response: “We have decided not to take any further action on this matter at this time.”
Captain Healy, has never heard any more about this matter. In the eyes of the children, as the years move swiftly by, kindness is never forgotten. One of the orphans grew up and wanted to meet Captain Healy and others who flew him to freedom. A day that he will never forget.
One morning Captain Healy was in his office? at World Airways in Oakland. A young man entered. He stood in front of his desk, and asked Healy a question. Their eyes met.
“Do you remember me? he asked.
“No.” Healy said, shaking his head.
“I am one of the orphans on your flight. You saved me and many others. I am here to say Thank you.”
Captain Healy stood up and shook the hand of this young man who knew him. Healy remembered the many orphans who survived a terrible situation because of the aviation discovery of airplanes. He turned his attention back to his visitor.
“You are welcomed. Would you like a cup of coffee.” Healy said, smiling.
“Yes. Thank you.”
For an hour, the two of them talked about how freedom had changed the young man’s life. Long after the young man left. Captain Healy knew that saving this young man and others like him, was worth the danger. Healy sat down in his chair. He wondered if he would ever do it again. It took just a second for him to think about it. Yes, if the need was there, I would do it all over again, if I were still flying airplanes today.
This article originally appeared on http://www.vietnambabylift.org/
A special “Thank You” to Lana Mae Noone, who contacted me about publishing this article and who provided all the information and links about this event and those listed below.
Vietnam veterans, former South Vietnamese Navy officers, adoptees and families were all brought together to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the last babylift flight from Saigon. Click below to read the article and view additional photos of the event.
“Children of the April Rain,” by former National Archives employee Bill Doty, 77, is a play which tells the story of Operation Babylift, in which infants and small children were flown from Saigon, now Ho Chi Minh City, to new homes in America and other developed countries as communist forces closed in on the South Vietnamese capital after the withdrawal of U.S. forces. Tragedy marred the start of the operation with the April 4, 1975, crash of an Air Force C-5A Galaxy transport nearTan Son Nhut Air Base, Vietnam, that killed 138. Military and civilian aircraft eventually flew more than 3,000youngsters to new families overseas. The play, which has received standing ovations at each staged reading, has been called inspiring, enjoyable, and deeply emotional. There’s no fee for the production.
Here is the link for more information about this play:
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