Reprinted with permission from
This was first presented at the 2005 30th Anniversary Symposium of the Last Flight Out sponsored by the Pan Am Historical Foundation and World Wings International.
The month of April never goes by that I don’t think of them…the children, the babies, and the refugees. All of us who flew for Pan Am in the Pacific back in 1975 heard the stories—from inbound pilots, in quiet conversations with fellow flight attendants on layovers, and from down line station managers in Hong Kong, Manila or Saigon. Some of us participated in the history ourselves through the luck of the draw with our flight assignments. These were the stories of Operation Babylift and the Fall of Saigon, and it’s been 38 years since it all happened.
I’ve wondered especially about the kids. Although Pan Am had been bringing out infants and children from Saigon for several years, the numbers dramatically increased in the months prior to April, culminating in the airlifts of World Airways and the chartered Pan Am 747 known as Operation Babylift. They would come to be known as The Golden Children by those staying behind, who imagined them walking on shimmering streets paved with gold in the far-off fairy land of America
One of these children, Mike Frailey, began his journey to America in the middle of the night as he lay sleeping with his fellow adoptees. “I have terrifying memories of my last night in Saigon as the city fell,” says Frailey. Fifty-seven of us older kids and I were asleep. All of sudden, we were awoken by the adults in a rushed manner, saying, ‘Get dressed! We are leaving!’ Of course, I barely knew any English, so that is my mental interpretation of what they said. We put on our clothes and shoes, and they rushed us to a van waiting outside with a military escort and flashing lights everywhere. We lived on the outskirts of Saigon at that time, so the ride was roughly 45 minutes over potholed roads. We were tossed around like puppets. I recall being so scared, yet excited.”
“We arrived at Tan Son Nhut Airport with lights blaring in our eyes and cameras everywhere. We got onto this huge plane (World Airways) and rushed on board to find that it was only a cargo plane with no seats, just cargo straps. Can you imagine the fear that was in the air with us 57 kids and scared adults? All of sudden, the Vietnamese military police stormed onto the plane. They were checking papers…they pointed to one of my friends, Thanh, who was 14 years old, and dragged him off of the plane. Children older than nine couldn’t leave the country because we were ready to be soldiers then. This poor kid was way older and looked it.”
For many like Mike, there was uncertainty about these earliest memories from so long ago. Did they actually take place, or were they just the stuff of dreams? Where were they born and how did they come to be adopted? Frailey speaks of dedicated individuals like Cherie Clark and Ross Meador of the Friends of Children of Vietnam (FCVN) who saved his life, then talked him through it years later when he got in touch to try and make sense of it all:
“I grew up in Missouri and would not be in contact with anyone from Vietnam for 33 years. I lived life with memories of having another life, yet I had no way to verify where those memories came from. The other life was like a dream—or should I say a nightmare?”
“I now know that Ross Meador was the person who woke us up that night and put us on the plane. I can’t even describe our first conversation when we got back in touch. My last memories were of waking up, the van ride, and then taking off in that cargo plane. I’d lived 33 years with these memories, and I was beginning to wonder if they weren’t a figment of my imagination until I got to talk with Ross. I described what I thought had happened that night as best I could. And Ross said, yes, that’s what happened. I wept in relief that I didn’t just imagine it all.
“…For so many years, I celebrated the day I arrived (in America) either alone or in a conversation with my father. I am from Da Nang originally. I was picked up by Cherie Clark, an American nurse who came to help and started an adoption agency-orphanage (FCVN). She was in the heart of the mix of getting us kids out. Cherie found me at the Sacred Heart Orphanage in Da Nang, which was right on the ocean near the famous ‘China Beach’. I remember seeing soldiers often and playing with them on the beach. I suppose that was their way of coping with the insanity of the war. Even though the Americans brought a war that changed the course of my life and so many others, and even though we have horrific memories of war events and the scars from being wounded…I always had fond memories of the soldiers who played with us. They didn’t scare me. I recall the soldiers always giving us things. We liked seeing them.”
Like many of his fellow adoptees, Mike has had a successful life. Now in his forties, he served his adopted country in the Air Force, married, and had a long business career as a marketing representative with a major corporation. He went back to Danang a few years ago, visited the Sacred Heart Orphanage, and was able to obtain his birth records. While he was not able to find any immediate family, he has been able to trace distant cousins who also came to the United States. And like other adoptees, he keeps in touch through social media sites and attends reunions. Sidelined from work recently by a series of foot operations that he attributes to wearing improper shoes made of tire treads in his early childhood, he paused to reflect and consider what to do with the rest of his life. He has since decided to leave his company and work on projects that give back to the country that saved him, even though it took his parents from him.
While I learned many lessons while flying for Pan Am, none were more important than those of the spring of 1975. On this 38th anniversary of Operation Babylift, I salute individuals like Ed Daley of World Airways, Bob Macauley of AmeriCares (who mortgaged his house to charter the Pan Am 747), Ross Meador and Cherie Clark of FCVN, and the countless others who worked to save Vietnamese children and remain in touch with them, even to this day. In spite of our failure as a nation to properly evaluate getting involved in Vietnam and in spite of the pain that this war caused, some of our citizens tried to make something good come out of it by embracing the conflict’s youngest victims. We may make mistakes as a country, but as individuals we have heart—and I think this heart is part of what makes America unique.
This spring, as we recall the events surrounding Operation Babylift and the Fall of Saigon, our soldiers are returning home from other wars. Let us honor the memories of those who died, help the ones who come back, and do what we can for the children. As with Vietnam, it’s the only way history will ever make sense. In his book, The Cat From Hué, John Laurence writes: “…Now I understand. After all the hate, all the violence, all the cruelty, now the legacy of the Vietnam War has to be love. Is there an alternative? If making war is about violence and death, the unmaking of war has to be about love and life.”
While many of The Golden Children will always struggle with their identities, adoptees like Mike have discovered the very truth of which Laurence writes: that home and family exist wherever you both give and receive love. Let us all bear that in mind as we remember April.
Rebecca Sprecher is a co-author with Paula Helfrich of Flying: A Novel, available at Amazon.com and Barnes and Noble.com.
To read more Operation Babylift stories
Clipper Crew Notes:
Robert McCauley was a successful American businessman who as his success grew, focused more on philanthropy. In 1968 he founded the Shoeshine Foundation to help Vietnamese children orphaned by the war. In 1975 after the crash of the C-5A, when he learned that it would be more than a week before the military Operation Babylift flights could resume, he contacted numerous airlines. Only Pan American had a plane available for charter. He mortgaged his home to pay the $250,000 charter fee.
Working through World Vision Bertha and Harry Holt first began adopting children after the Korean War. They also founded an adoption agency in the United States.
This was not the first babylift operation for Pan Am! Just after the Korean War (1950-53) there was also a surge of international adoptions. B.A. Walters, a Pan Am Stewardess for 37 years recalls working that babylift flight.
“The children were coming from Korea through Tokyo, but they all got the measles and had to remain in Tokyo for three weeks. Then they flew from Tokyo to Honolulu where I picked up the flight. There were two nurses aboard and I asked for additional help. One of the traffic gals in Honolulu volunteered and came aboard with us. She literally stayed in the galley the entire trip heating bottles. There were only two outlets to use on board the aircraft to heat bottles. The babies took up the entire tourist section, and we still had passengers in first class to serve. I don’t remember if the passengers in first class were actually aware of what was happening in economy! Some of the babies were only six months old. When we arrived in Los Angeles we taxied to our spot, and I stepped out with a baby in my arms, but then the authorities decided that area didn’t allow the press adequate access, so back inside we went. We taxied to another part of the airport. There te press met the flight, along with TV personnel and Roy Rodgers and Dale Evans, who adopted a little girl I think. I only worked that one flight, and I didn’t think anything of it really, it was just part of the job and of working for Pan Am.”