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.