Saving the Vietnamese Orphans: The Story of Operation Babylift

United States Representative Scott Tipton of Colorado entered a formal recognition of President Ford for his humanitarian efforts with Operation Babylift into the Congressional Record (see below). 


March 16, 2014

Vietnamese orphanages were swelling with “Bui Doi” (which means “dust of the earth), the Amerasian children of American servicemen.  These children were castoffs, embarrassing and burdensome to their, often single, mothers. 

I met Bob at Mt. Garfield Middle School several years ago.  He was an aide at the time for a boy with profound physical disabilities due to Cerebral Palsy, but who had normal intellect, so Bob helped him from class to class and acted as a working pair of hands so the boy could access the means of his education.  Bob and I struck up a conversation during a break from by substitute teaching duties in a “resource” room at the middle school.  He revealed a most intimate and painful memory to me, a relative stranger, because I suppose he felt that I would understand.  He told me of how, on April 4th 1975, he had been a flight engineer on a C-5 Galaxy that crashed horrifically into a rice paddy outside of Saigon. Allen ‘Bob’ Engles was a survivor of the crash of the initial Operation Babylift flight that had taken the lives of 78 Vietnamese orphans, numerous civilian aid workers, and Air Force crewmen.

The words “Operation Babylift” had a muted familiarity to me. I was 13 years old at the time the United States Military was forced by the 94th Congress to pull out of Southeast Asia.  But my interest grew and Bob described to me an event which would come to be known as one of the greatest humanitarian efforts of the 20th Century.  And now, 10 years after my first encounter with Bob Engles, I am writing a book about that bold and compassionate undertaking 37 years ago; a dangerous evacuation, called Operation Babylift, that tragically cost the lives of 78 orphans in a terrible accident, but which ultimately saved thousands of children from near-certain death at the hands of the Communists who were overrunning South Vietnam.

In March of 1975 the Democrat majority in the 94th Congress voted to halt ALL aid to the governments of Cambodia and South Vietnam.  The Paris Peace Accords had dissolved into chaos and the Communist North Vietnamese and their guerrilla surrogates in South Vietnam, the Viet Cong, were defying its terms.  Though many Democrats in Congress felt certain that American withdrawal would bring an end to the conflicts in Southeast Asia, the military leaders and Henry Kissinger, a national security adviser under President Ford, understood that wholesale slaughter would result as the Communists overtook South Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. Vietnamese orphanages were swelling with “Bui Doi” (which means “dust of the earth), the Amerasian children of American servicemen.  These children were castoffs, embarrassing and burdensome to their often single mothers.  The orphanages also had to deal with children who were placed there by families impoverished by the ongoing war, as well as children whose parents were dead.

There were thousands of these children, from infants to teenagers, in the Vietnamese orphanages which received the support of numerous international agencies, including Holt International and the United States Catholic Conference.  The Communists were emboldened with the American withdrawal and Saigon was under almost constant shelling.  The situation was becoming deadly for the orphans and their caretakers.

On April 3, 1975, President Gerald R. Ford announced his plan to get the orphans, many of whom had American fathers, out of Vietnam on military cargo planes in Operation Babylift.  Bob Engles would the very next day board a C-5A cargo plane with 243 Vietnamese orphans on board. Operation Babylift was neither deterred nor slowed with the tragic crash of the C-5.  Flights into Tan Son Nhat Airport resumed almost immediately.  Aid workers from various international agencies, the Red Cross, civilian wives of American servicemen and officers and others worked day and night to identify, document, place, and move the orphans out of the Vietnamese orphanages.  These children were transported on cargo planes as well as commercial jet aircraft.  They were fed, tended and accompanied on their overseas flights by nurses, Air Forces personnel, civilians, and volunteers who had joined the effort from all parts of the globe.  Many of the babies had a few days respite at Clark Air Base in the Philippines where they rested and received medical attention and vaccinations.  From there the Vietnamese orphans were taken to Australia, North America, France, Great Britain and many other countries where they were readily adopted by waiting families.

Operation Babylift was surpervised by the Military Air Command, but there were unofficial humanitarian flights that had been arranged by civilians which also transported orphans out of Saigon.  A number of American civilians used their own time and resources to coordinate flights for the children as well.  By then end of April, 1975, thousands of Bui Doi, ethnic Chinese, Vietnamese, and Cambodian children were saved through the efforts of Operation Babylift. Bob Engles is an inspiration to me.  He survived the C-5 crash and went on to raise a family and become an ordained minister.  His compassion and love for children was evident to me through the kind and patient service he rendered to the boy with Cerebral Palsy.  But Bob Engles is also living history.  He is the flesh, blood, heart and memory of an era in our near past that has been tarnished by forgetting and falsities.  Bob Engles inspires me for another reason. His story, and the stories of all of the orphans, their adoptive families, and the thousands of individuals who assisted with or were in some way touched by Operation Babylift, deserve to be told to the biggest audience possible.

President Gerald R. Ford is sometimes treated harshly by the grinding political history of his short tenure.  But President Ford deserves to be memorialized as a man of limitless compassion who defied many in government as well as activists who opposed the relocation of the orphans on completely specious grounds, to carry out one of the greatest humanitarian efforts of the 20th Century. The book that I published is about children  for children.  “Saving the Vietnamese Orphans” chronicles the events of Operation Babylift and names many of its individual heroes.  It is a story book with vivid and exciting illustrations.

“Saving the Vietnamese Orphans,” not unlike “Little Bird Dog and the Big Ship,” is a history lesson, a window into an important time in America when heroes were many, but their praises were few. I hope you will join me now, and in a few months when the book will be available to purchase, in remembering Operation Babylift, and “The Heroes of the Vietnam War.”  These stories must be told.

By Marjorie Haun 9/1/13

  1. Elizabeth Merrill-Brodeur

    I was 10 and living in Saigon with my family. I will never forget this day. My parents rushed to the air field to assist any way that they could. The one thing I recall is that there were some people that were on the plane and chaperoning or escorting with the children that were not known by friends/family to be going on that plane. There was a lady that lived above us in our compound were no of her friends or family even knew she was going. I know this because we had a Vietnamese maid who was very good friends with her maid and I was there in her apartment when all of this occurred. I wish I knew more on this subject – the part that some people gave no word to any one that they were leaving on this plane.

  2. Bette James

    Marjorie Haun–Thank you for this marvelous article. I am currently putting together information about the journey of the orphans through their stops on the way to the mainland. At Clark AFB and each stop from there on, there was a huge response by volunteers to care for the children and send them on their way. It was, as you know, a monumental effort. I have friends who adopted one of the children and who volunteered in Honolulu when the flights went through there. It is a part of our history that needs to be recorded. I plan to give your children’s books to my grandchildren. Again, my thanks.

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