Living history

05.12.13

Vietnam War Orphans From Operation Babylift Reunite

Participants in Gerald Ford’s famous 1975 evacuation have found each other on Facebook and are set to reunite this summer.

It may have been 38 years ago, but Col. Dennis “Bud” Traynor says April 4, 1975, is seared into his memory. Despite the traumatic details, he talks of the day matter of factly. He was 31 years old at the time, an Air Force captain passing through the Philippines. The war in nearby Vietnam was growing more dire daily when President Gerald Ford ordered the evacuation of orphaned and surrendered babies from the besieged, divided country. And that morning when he was called to duty, Traynor was, as he says, “just the next pilot in the pinball machine.” His would be the first of 30 flights of Operation Babylift, as it came to be called, that were ordered between April 4 and April 16. Two weeks later, North Vietnamese forces conquered Saigon. But his Lockheed C-5A Galaxy didn’t have the smooth ride that Traynor had planned.

In Saigon, he packed the plane, the world’s biggest model at the time, with evacuees. The littlest ones were belted in upstairs, a few to a seat, with a pillow and milk or juice. But shortly after takeoff, the rear doors blew out, two hydraulic systems went down, and the captain was forced to crash-land the aircraft in a nearby rice paddy. Traynor crawled to the ground from the pilot window to help pull the injured from the wreckage. Within four minutes, emergency rescuers had arrived at the scene to gather the 176 survivors, but another 138 children and adults died in the crash. The younger ones, as it would turn out, constituted most of the survivors, as the older kids had been assigned to the lower level, which was mostly destroyed.

Lana Noone was one mother on the receiving end of Operation Babylift. After several miscarriages, Noone decided to adopt, and when her agency suggested a baby from Vietnam, she didn’t hesitate. At the time, adopting from abroad was almost unheard of. “We got caught up in history,” Noone remembers. “A friend says we changed the complexion of the United States.” But the program quickly stagnated as the war grew worse—no one wanted risk a flight over Vietcong airspace. That is, until World Airways President Ed Daly heard of the babies’ plight.

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Baby being carried off plane by President Ford. (Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library.)

Colonel Traynor may have captained the first Operation Babylift, but Daly ordered the first trip, inspiring President Ford to allot $2 million to the program and make it a national priority. Daly, whom Noone describes as “the swashbuckling type,” sent in a cargo aircraft on his own accord (and without authorization), to transport 57 children from Saigon to Oakland. A few days later, Operation Babylift was born, and despite its tragic beginnings, the U.S. succeeded in evacuating more than 3,300 babies, 2,500 of whom went to American homes.

The Noone family finally got their daughter, but Heather was a sickly baby and the prognosis wasn’t promising. She died just a month after her arrival. The night before her death, Noone made a promise to her that Operation Babylift would not be forgotten. Even as they mourned, the Noones agreed to take in another child—the very last baby taken from Vietnam, and the very last baby up for adoption. Today, Jennifer is 38 years old with a daughter named Heather, and recently moved back to her birth country for her husband’s job.

Noone has kept her promise to Heather. She has since authored a book about the operation, and co-written a script called “It’s 110 Degrees in Saigon and Getting Hotter.” But she’s found the best way to keep in touch with the scattered participants in Operation Babylift is online. She created a website, but it didn’t attract the community she hoped to build with survivors, so she built a Facebook group “Vietnam Babylift OBL,” which has connected more than 200 of those involved. “It’s like a town hall,” she says. “It’s very comforting and very immediate to people with very disparate lives.”

Noone laughs at the low-tech methods they previously utilized, like a phone chain the mothers-to-be built when they were waiting for the babies to arrive. Now they host virtual “coffee groups” over Facebook. “It was so hard to find them,” she remembers. “We’ve been in this vacuum for 38 years—for me this is all magic.”

Traynor has found a similar sense of community online. Without a manifest from the flight, he had no way of tracking the plane’s survivors. But through reunions and a trip to Vietnam in 2005, he has met a number of survivors. “I view them all as my second family,” he says. A few years ago, he opened the “C-5A Galaxy BABYLIFT Crash” page on Facebook, and pretty soon more than 200 survivors and family members had joined. They posted pictures and discussed the rescue effort. Traynor meticulously copies comments from the Facebook page and pastes them in a database on his computer to keep track of the stories.

In July, more than a hundred participants plan to gather in Dana Point, California, to meet their fellow Operation Babylift participants in person. Veteran’s association Torch 1975 will be hosting the event, officially titled the “President Ford Centennial Birthday & Operation Babylift Reunion Celebration 2013.” In attendance will be rescued babies like Nikki Logan, who was carried off the first successful babylift flight by President Ford himself. The moment was immortalized in a well-known photo, which she has two copies of—one in her office and a signed version at home. “Every day I look at it I know I have been given the opportunity of day-to-day life,” she wrote in an e-mail to The Daily Beast.

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Jennie Noone arrival on June 5, 1975. (The Noone Family)

The baby in that photo enthralled Noone, and she spent 38 years fruitlessly trying to identify her. After posting the photo in the Facebook group, Logan was tagged by friends in two minutes flat.

Logan, who went on to join the U.S. Marine Corps and is now a chef, says she’s amazed by the search for her identity. At a young age, she understood that she had survived a plane crash while other children had not. In the years since, she has met other survivors, who she describes as brothers, sisters, and best friends. “When we get together, there is always a special bond,” she explained. “We are forever molded and shaped into each others’ lives and that is a wonderful thing.”

But the questions about her past haven’t quieted in the last 38 years, especially about her mother. “Who is she? And why did she give me up as a child? This question taunts many of us,” she wrote. “We are orphans of war. We understand this, but yet it perplexes us.”

This summer in California, Traynor, Logan, and Noone will partake in a full reenactment, gala, and educational panels and discussions about those fateful 13 days. President Ford’s press secretary, Ronald Nessen, will deliver opening remarks, and those involved will get a chance to relive a very unique history. For the babies whose lives were permanently changed on that day, it’s a chance to dig up a personal history that, with a lack of records, is virtually impossible to find otherwise.

“Some have great interest in me because I was the guy who was flying the airplane and they are alive basically because I’m alive,” Traynor says. Others have struggled with learning about the past. “They haven’t wanted to relive that day.” Traynor, who spent another 20 years in the Air Force after the accident, has returned to Vietnam, but not to the crash site. He says it’s on his bucket list.

For the C-5A captain, April 4 started like any other day. “I showed up for work and did what I was asked to do,” he says. “I never would have known that day would be such a momentous occasion.”