Reprinted with kind permission from
Joyce Wertz Harrington, R.N.
“We cannot forget the living while mourning the dead.” These were the words of President Gerald Ford coming over British radio in Hong Kong on Saturday morning, April 5, 1975. I was getting ready to leave for the U. S. Embassy where a group would leave for Saigon to assist in an airlift flight of orphans.
How did I find myself here? In 1973 I had graduated from an Associate Degree nursing program. The following school year I was taking classes towards a Bachelor of Science degree while working as a school nurse at a private Christian college in the northern California Napa Valley area. A year ago I accepted a volunteer position as an instructor at the Hong Kong Adventist Hospital School of Nursing in Tsuen Wan (located in the New Territories section of Hong Kong). At 23, I had just recently made the decision to stay on for a second year.
Friday evening, April 4th, I received a phone call at 4:45 p.m. from Dr. Robert Dunlop at our sister hospital on Hong Kong Island. He asked “How would you like a free trip home?”
I assumed he was teasing and laughingly answered, “Who are you, Santa Claus?”
“Seriously, the U. S. Embassy has put out a call for fifteen to twenty American women with current re-entry visas who are free to escort a planeload of Vietnamese orphans to the U. S.,” was his reply. Dr. Dunlop had been asked to be the doctor on board and to bring some RN’s with him. There would be a free return ticket to Hong Kong afterwards, but I would have to let him know my decision by 5:30 p.m.
I made a quick call to the Nursing School director. Next week was test week for Winter quarter, followed by Spring Break. Miss Howe urged, “Don’t pass up an opportunity like this! I’ll oversee your tests for you next week.”
When I called Dr. Dunlop back at 5:00 p.m. he said they had already closed out the list but had put my name on it.
Stunned, I listened to a report of the C-5A cargo jet that had crashed the day before, killing many children and adults in an airlift similar to the one I was about to leave on. An explosion had blown off a door of the plane shortly after takeoff and it had crashed while attempting to return to the airport. The only details that I heard before leaving for the Embassy was that sabotage could not be ruled out, but the airlift would continue.
At the U. S. Embassy we were told that due to the escalating situation around Saigon, the list had been narrowed down to only ten RN’s. Americans evacuating out of Vietnam would assist with escorting the children. Our final group consisted of Dr. Dunlop and three nurses from Hong Kong Adventist Hospital, the Ambassador’s wife, and five other RN’s. We were bussed to the airport where a donated Pan Am 747 was prepared to leave.
As we lifted off from Hong Kong, a somber sense of uncertainty about what would take place next filled the air. Once we were airborne a stewardess announced, “In view of the circumstances, I feel it would be appropriate to ask Dr. Dunlop to say a prayer for our safety,” and handed him the mike. Soon we were busily concentrating on setting up bassinets and supplies, trying not to worry about what would happen next.
During my year in Hong Kong I would only catch bits and pieces of information from British radio about what was considered primarily an American war in Vietnam. Basically I was just aware that the Viet Cong were at the outskirts of Saigon, and that many were attempting to evacuate or escape any way they could.
For security reasons, on touchdown in Saigon, our plane was kept out on the runway where the babies were brought for loading. In a whirlwind the plane door was opened, letting in a rush of warm, humid, tropical air and people. Holt International personnel brought in boxes full of case files and medical records for all of the children. A steady stream of babies and children quickly loaded. Each one had a white ID band on one arm with its Vietnamese name and case number. On the other arm was a band with the adopting parent’s name, matching case number, and color coded for a final destination of Seattle, Chicago or New York. The final count was 409 orphans, 300 of which were under a year and a half old. There were bassinets in seats, under seats and in aisles.
I was overwhelmed as I watched the endless flow of little ones pouring into the plane filling every available space. Some were even being handed over by their mothers. Many were obviously not full Asian. I guessed they probably had American GI fathers. I could only wonder how many families on both sides of the Pacific were being impacted by this one planeload of children. Would we ever know what happened to any of them?
My responsibilities were in first class where the babies who were in need of scheduled medications or closer watching were located. The first baby I took care of was so tiny and fragile. It looked like a preemie, but according to the name band was about four months old. It was in respiratory distress, poor color and showing signs of dehydration. Soon it was transferred upstairs to the VIP lounge, a.k.a. ICU unit, for IV’s and closer monitoring. Later I heard that it was dropped off in Guam with meningitis and didn’t survive. Often I’ve wondered: Who was this baby? How did it end up on our plane? What family was anticipating its arrival? Why couldn’t it have hung on just long enough for the help and future waiting on the other end?
None of us got any sleep during the thirty hour-long flight to Seattle. We had to keep our watches set to Saigon time to ensure maintaining medication and feeding schedules. When I would start to nod off while feeding a baby, someone else would kindly remind me that there were many more that still needed attention. How I longed just to be able to cuddle even one precious little one, letting it sleep in my arms for the rest of the trip!
As would be expected under the circumstances, there was a certain amount of unavoidable confusion. For example, finding another baby in the bassinet when I tried to replace the one I had.
Also, at each of our stops in Guam and Honolulu, we were restocked with a different formula. My heart went out to the babies who were in unfamiliar surroundings with disrupted routines and then subjected to formula changes. No wonder so many had diarrhea by the time we reached Seattle. Many also had heat rash from the plastic bassinets. A few had also broken out with chickenpox in route. But, in spite of these challenges, I must commend and thank Holt International for the over all organization. That is what made this flight a success.
I got off in Seattle to fly down to San Diego for a brief visit with my parents before returning to Hong Kong. My mother later sent me some articles about the flight.
Fifteen years later, in 1990, NBC aired the movie “The Last Flight Out” and I read some articles about the airlift and fall of Saigon. Again I wondered: What ever happened to all of those children?
When I saw the May 2000 Reader’s Digest cover and began reading the feature story my heart skipped several beats. Here was an update on how some of OUR BABIES were doing!
I can’t begin to describe how it feels to look back on what seemed, at the time, to be a brief side trip and get a glimpse of the bigger picture from many different angles: the adoptees, the adoptive parents, other volunteers on the babylifts.
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“As I look back 40 years and remember that event it fills me with emotion. Karen Ryan was one of the stewardesses on the flight and she is the author of the one year anniversary article printed by Readers Digest in 1976. In 2000 Readers Digest contacted her again and offered to locate some of the orphans on her flight so she could meet them. There was a Vietnamese Adoptee reunion in Seattle in 2001 and I met Karen then. I was fortunate to meet two other children then, as well, that were on our flight. Another girl, who was a survivor of the C-5A crash, was on a flight into San Francisco that arrived the same day. It was such a tragedy and so heart breaking. No one knew the cause at the time but it was later found to be a failed bolt on a cargo door. When the plane crashed almost the entire lower cargo level was wiped out, only one or two passengers from that area survived. Those who survived were on the upper level.
I have often wondered what the future held for these children or what happened to them after the flight. At the time I definitely had the sense that something huge was happening, but no one knew what the impact would be. It was very important to me to know what happened to them afterward. One baby I cared for I thought looked like a preemie, but her name tag said she was four months old. She was dropped off in Guam. Very little was said of the children after the babylift. It wasn’t until the 25th year reunion in 2000 that the children were interviewed because now they were old enough. Since then, a large network has developed with everyone working together. There is also a large DNA project, which provides free testing to those Vietnamese who are looking for their children. As a result of the DNA project there have been some surprises. One girl in Orange County California had been told she was half American. However, through the DNA project she learned she was full Vietnamese. Amazingly at the same time there was a man from Vietnam trying to find his missing daughter. His DNA was a perfect match for hers! He had been serving in the South Vietnamese Army. His wife had some personal difficulties coping while he was away and she had taken their children to a local orphanage intending to pick them up later when she could get things together again. But it didn’t happen. The father was desperately trying to track down the children. Since the DNA match was confirmed he has been skyping back and forth with her and they just met in person the first weekend of April this year. She was there for the 40th anniversary celebration. It sounds like it was very good reunion, and the father wasn’t trying to make an imposition, he was just so happy to know his daughter was alive and well. There is a good movie called “Daughter from DaNang”, which is about a family’s experience of reuniting that didn’t end as nicely.
There was every imaginable reaction to Operation Bablift and some negative press as well. Two years ago I went to Dana Point, CA where Vietnam Veterans focused on a commemoration of the babylift. The stories were from every angle. One man was a medical officer on board and I believe in the lower cargo level of the flight when it crashed. He barely survived, and still suffers from his injuries. The pilot of the ill-fated flight was there too, and spoke to everyone. The crew did their heroic best to safely land the plane but it was not meant to be. If my memory serves me I believe the name of the pilot on our babylift flight to Seattle was Dan Hood and he later adopted a child from the babylift as well.
There weren’t only orphans on our flight. The two Vietnamese women I mentioned in the previously published article worked at a hospital in Saigon. They felt very threatened by the Viet Cong, so they put on nurses uniforms because they knew the uniforms gave them the air of authority. Right after they delivered children, they stowed away on our plane. As we approached Seattle, John Williams from Holt and Dr. Dunlop told them “when we get off the plane do not look at any cameras, keep your head down. The U.S. will gladly accept you, but we don’t want to jeopardize your families back home.”
It was an amazing experience. There are several Facebook groups by adoptees where I am able to keep in touch. I find it very rewarding to be able to see and hear updates about our shared moment in history.
Joyce Wertz Harrington