by Karen Ryan
Our crew climbed onto the crew bus in Hong Kong that fourth day of April, after a particularly long day of flying from Delhi via Bangkok, long because we had to avoid the war raging in Vietnam. We had all seen the news reports of Da Nang falling that spring of ’75; desperate Vietnamese clinging to the wheels of ascending (and retreating) U.S. jets, only to fall to their deaths. But Vietnam was not on my radar that day, only a long, hot bath at the hotel and the pleasure of heading towards home next day. Then, a telegram from head office was handed aboard. We all sunk into the cheap bus seats in shock and exhaustion as it was read:
“Scheduled pattern cancelled. Depart April 5 for Saigon to pick up orphan charter. 295 infants, 100 children between 2 and 12 years, 60 escorts—5 doctors—10 nurses. Place infants two per bassinet under middle seats. Use only Zones C-D to insure constant surveillance…”
At the Hong Kong Hyatt we watched television footage of the smoking wreckage of a U.S. Air Force C-5A which had crashed that very day on takeoff from Saigon with 328 babies aboard, almost half of whom perished. We went to bed that night not knowing if that plane had been shot down but we knew that “high sources” had given South Vietnam only days until they would be engulfed by the army from the North.
Next morning we boarded an empty, spotless 747, a crew of nine stewardesses (three had declined), three pilots and 10 volunteers from Hong Kong. The 90 minute flight was busy as we put together cardboard bassinets, filled cartons of baby bottles with formula (oh, if we had only known about lactose intolerance!) positioned barrels of clothing and bags of diapers for the mind boggling number of infants we were soon to deal with. Upstairs, where the wealthy dine on lobster and cherries jubilee, our team of docs and nurses were uncoiling IV tubing, syringes and setting up a serious ER.
Like a Boeing test pilot, our Captain dive bombed for the runway at Saigon’s Tan Son Nhut airport and taxied past the smoking wreckage of the giant C-5A. No other U.S. jets were on the ground. We parked far from the terminal and watched as several battered buses pulled up to our ramp, little faces looking up at us in our six story, climate controlled majesty of a jet. Then we opened the door. The torrent of heat was intense and quickly overwhelmed our air conditioning. And the onslaught of little bodies being carried up the ramp and trust into our arms brought tears to our eyes. All we could do was lay them on seats or in bassinets under the seats and turn around and take the next bundle of hot and crying child. I have never seen so many very ill and malnourished babies; some looked to be at death’s door. Then came the older children, a few on crutches, others so very sad and upset. The roar of outrage at their situation reached a high crescendo as we frantically tried to sort out who needed to go to the front for immediate medical attention, while also trying to secure the cabin for takeoff. After less than an hour of ground time, we roared straight up and out of there, spreading our arms over as many babies as we could; FAA rules be damned.
As the cabin cooled down, babies were fed and exhausted calm overtook many of them. We had hot meals for the older children who we served while dodging midget bodies crawling in the aisles and took innumerable tackles from small torsos wanting a hug not a hamburger. Babies found their thumbs and grew quiet as the vibration of the engines lulled them to sleep now that their tummies were full of warm milk. (It would be the next leg of this historic flight where it would become clear milk did not agree with many of them.) We constantly peeked into bassinets to make sure each baby was still breathing. I froze as I flashed my light on each little back, waiting for what seemed like hours to see a ribcage move with the breath of life.
Five hours later, I heard the familiar whine of the engines as we descended to Guam. I couldn’t even imagine how we would cope if anything went wrong with this landing but the pilots set us down like a feather. It was 3 a.m. and 12 hours since we had first boarded that spotless 747 in Hong Kong. A grim, fresh crew came aboard and observed the littered plane w/ sleeping little bodies everywhere. Then, a child whimpered, a tiny hand reached for manicured fingers and the grim faces flushed with tenderness. And we departed, people changed forever.
After reaching our home bases of either LAX (Los Angeles) or SFO (San Francisco) in the next few days, we were all ordered to quarantine ourselves for a month because of the various diseases we were exposed to. It was during this enforced indoor stay that I wrote about my experience with Operation Baby Lift. In May of 1976 Reader’s Digest published it. I received letters from all over the world thanking me and many were from adoptive parents telling me about the progress their children were making. I treasured them. I quit flying in 1978 when the commute from Missoula Montana, where I was now living, was getting to be tough, plus our planes were getting blown up in the Middle East with some alarming regularity. It seemed time to move on.
Out of the blue, Reader’s Digest found me in 1999—no easy task as I had dropped my maiden name for my husband’s name. We were raising a son and ranching in Montana. I was asked: Did I know what happened to those babies? I had not a clue although I had certainly thought of them often over the years—and my box of letters after the ’76 article had disappeared in one of my moves.
“We’ll, find out,” said the editor, “and let’s do an article for the 25th anniversary of the fall of Saigon and end of the Vietnam War.” I didn’t even know there was a group of former Pan Am flight attendants who called themselves World Wings International and had chapters around the world that met regularly. I thought all my memories and experiences of the most glamorous job in the world were meant to be my memories only. But find them I did, and these amazing former Pan Amers guided me to Holt Adoption agency out of Eugene Oregon who orchestrated much of Operation Baby Lift and the adoptions of the children. World Wings welcomed me into their fold and also put me in touch with other flight attendants who shared that historic flight with me. I was also honored to meet Al Topping, who was Pan Am’s station manager in Saigon in ’75 who was largely responsible for cutting through South Vietnam government red tape to fill our big birds with these littlest of chicks. He also managed to smuggle aboard quite a few of our local Pan Am employees and their families, at much risk to himself.
I am now very close to many of these very sharp, witty and wonderful young Americans who made up Operation Baby Lift. It led to some very emotional reunions and my picture on the cover of the May 2000 issue of Reader’s Digest (oh if my folks had been alive for that!). A tearful reunion on Good Morning America with three of the adoptees, a long piece on CNN’s Paul Zahn show and several newspaper and magazine articles about our flight from Saigon followed. I truly had my fifteen minutes of fame.
And what about the families who adopted these children in need? I call them The Quiet Moral Sea: In the midst of this controversial war that tore at the social fabric of the U.S., at a time when Americans were largely segregated, they took in a child of unknown origin and the child became theirs, completely.
As they grew up, these children certainly suffered hurtful racism from the most ignorant among us. Most of them had no close relationships with anyone of Asian descent until the first adoptee reunion was held in 2000 when the youngest of them were turning 25. They now meet regularly and have formed several groups that offer mentoring to young adoptees of different racial backgrounds and they offer support to each other. Many of them have been back to Vietnam, if not to trace roots long eradicated by lack of paperwork, to at least get a feel for their country of birth. Some have found family members. These kids have contributed much to the melting of racial lines in our western societies.
Although that day of flying for the world’s greatest airline was probably the most unglamorous of my nine year career with Pan Am, it will always stand out as the most rewarding.