Dover event an echo of craft’s darkest day; 138 perished in Babylift crash at Vietnam War’s end
December 2, 2008
A crew member aboard an Air Force C-5 cradles one of the Vietnamese orphans who was being flown out of Saigon during Operation Babylift. The babylift plane’s 1975 crash, which killed 138 people, including 78 orphans, remains the worst crash in the aircraft’s history. Courtesy of John W. Leland, Air Mobility Command historian
By Elizabeth Redden, Delaware State NewsDOVER – Open arms greeted the children who boarded the first flight of Operation Babylift in Saigon 31 years ago.
A rapidly advancing North Vietnamese army, closing in on an enemy near the end of a war that has forever lacked closure, prompted the United States to launch a last-minute effort to airlift thousands of orphaned children out of South Vietnam for adoption.
The children were handed up a ladder to a colossal Air Force C-5’s troop compartment from person to person, rung to rung.
Medical crews strapped them into chairs – six across each grouping of three seats – filling up the plane’s top level before securing the rest of the children along a ledge in the cargo hold below.
The ones upstairs in the troop compartment – most of whom would benefit from a gruesome stroke of luck – didn’t cry at the explosion, Col. Regina Aune, chief of the flight’s medical crew, remembers.
They were too young to see the shining South China Sea out of where the back of the plane should have been.
But for Col. Aune, it was a vista too perilous to want to see once, too unforgettable to not see again and again.
Monday’s C-5 crash near Dover Air Force Base stirred memories of the most famous – and fatal – C-5 accident in the history of the military’s largest plane.
Four C-5s have crashed since the cargo fleet went airborne in 1968.
Thirteen of 17 aboard died in a 1990 crash at Ramstein Air Base in Germany, while all 17 passengers and crew survived the Dover crash.
The passengers in a 1974 crash in Oklahoma were even luckier, with nary an injury, according to aircraft historian John W. Leland’s account of the disaster.
But the April 4, 1975, crash of the C-5, lined with its cargo of infants, stands out.
John Nance, an aviation analyst for ABC News, said Monday’s crash bears some resemblance to the one 31 years ago near Saigon.
Both planes crash-landed short of runways during emergency returns, and Mr. Nance suggested the possibility that both crashes resulted in part from disabled flight controls.
The South Vietnam crash occurred more than two years after the signing of the Paris Peace Accord in January 1973, as the United States struggled to deal with a war “over, but not finished,” as political scientist and historian Dr. Samuel B. Hoff said.
By April 1975, North Vietnamese troops had violated the conditions of the accord and were rapidly moving south.
In the face of an impending communist takeover, President Gerald R. Ford called for the immediate airlift of 2,000 orphans out of South Vietnam, said Dr. Hoff, a professor at Delaware State University.
Some would challenge the mission, saying it was a tool to garner support for the sitting South Vietnamese government or squeeze more military aid out of Congress, Dr. Hoff said.
Others charged that airlifting the children perpetuated notions of American cultural supremacy or constituted a last-ditch effort to gain sympathy for the war.
History would show that many of the youngsters likely were not orphans, Dr. Hoff said, and were in fact children of South Vietnamese officials who feared for their offspring’s lives after a communist takeover.
“Either way, it was a humanitarian mission,” Dr. Hoff said.
“It had good intentions.”
A survivor’s story
Col. Aune, then a 30-year-old first lieutenant and newlywed stationed at Travis Air Force Base in California, had only recently returned to duty from a honeymoon that skipped along the California coast, from Carmel to Monterey to San Francisco.
A member of the 10th Air Medical Evacuation Squadron, she was told early April 4 she’d be leading a medical crew on a flight that afternoon.
The crew flew from Clark Air Base, in the Philippines, to Tan Son Nhut Air Base near Saigon, where they filled the plane with children.
The Air Force reports that 145 orphans and seven attendants were strapped into the troop compartment and 102 orphans and 47 others lined a ledge in the cargo hold downstairs.
Some children were only days old.
Col. Aune said she was based downstairs in the cargo compartment, but had climbed the ladder to get some medication.
While there, just a few minutes into the flight, the Air Force reports that an explosion blew off the plane’s pressure door, center cargo door and loading ramp.
Decompression filled the fuselage with fog and dust.
Most of the babies, Col. Aune reported, continued to sleep.
Air Force records said that Capt. Dennis “Bud” Traynor immediately turned back toward Saigon, where a crash landing in a rice paddy crushed the cargo deck, killing nearly everyone in that section.
A total of 138 aboard the doomed flight died, including 78 orphans.
With much of the impact absorbed by the cargo hold, the top of the plane skidded on the paddy “like a speedboat,” Col. Aune remembered.
“We were getting stung by the mud as we zipped through the rice paddies,” she said in a Thursday interview.
When it came to a stop, Col. Aune sprang into action, oblivious to the injuries she’d suffered.
Looking around, she saw a dead baby and a dead adult attendant, but almost everyone else was alive.
She helped carry 149 children to safety, according to the Air Force, and became the first woman to receive the Cheney Award, which recognizes a valorous act “in a humanitarian interest performed in connection with aircraft.”
It was only after grabbing a toddler by the seat of his pants to stop him from stumbling into the muddy water that she realized she couldn’t stand.
She said she can’t remember asking to be relieved of duty.
Col. Aune later learned that she had suffered a compressed vertebra in her back, a hole in her left leg, deep lacerations in her right arm, a broken right foot and lots of minor cuts and bruises.
Cut off from her seat in the doomed cargo hold after the explosion severed the ladder, she had to brace herself on the floor before the crash.
The impact threw her from one side of the compartment to the other end.
The crash stirred a vat of tensions during an already tense time.
“A lot of people said that kind of symbolized the futility of the war and the horror of the war,” Dr. Hoff said.
“A lot of people were assuming that everything was done in January 1973 when we signed the Paris Peace Accord and here we were again, seeing death and tragedy involving children.”
The building evidence that many of the children were never orphans led to a firestorm.
In material accompanying a film on the topic, “Daughter from Danang,” the Public Broadcasting Corp. reported that a class action lawsuit, ultimately dismissed, claimed the United States had an obligation to return the children to their families, many of whom had sent their young away under the duress of wartime.
“You often wonder whether the loss of life of the crewmembers and the children – was it worth it, in a way, was it a big mistake?” Col. Aune asked.
“I didn’t look at it that way. I’ve always believed the crewmembers that died didn’t give their lives in vain,” said Col. Aune, who now serves as chair of the Department of International Expeditionary Education and Training at Brooks City-Base in San Antonio.
About six years ago, she attended a reunion in Baltimore sponsored by three of the adoption agencies that handled the orphans.
She met three people who had survived the crash as children.
“Despite whatever obstacles they had to overcome, whatever difficulties they had to deal with as adoptees, it was their sense of hopefulness, their sense of gratitude to just have a chance to live a happy life or just have a chance of living at all,” she said.
“It confirmed for me that, indeed, as tragic as that event was, there was a lot of good that came from it.”
South Vietnam fell to communism April 30, 1975, just 26 days after the C-5 crash.
North Vietnamese troops overran the presidential palace in Saigon, now Ho Chi Minh City.
“The good news, if there is any, is there were apparently 29 more flights over the next week and a half,” Dr. Hoff said.
“They ended around April 14, and in fact, instead of President Ford’s target of 2,000, there were around 2,700 children that came to the U.S. Apparently 1,300 more were sent to Canada, various parts of Europe and Australia, for a total of 4,000 Vietnamese children.”
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Staff writer Elizabeth Redden can be reached at 741-8247 or firstname.lastname@example.org