Operation Babylift Last Flights out of Saigon
Interview by Allison Martin
Cherie Clark, former director of FCVN in Vietnam, recalls the events during Operation Babylift
What encouraged you to be become involved in adoption in Viet Nam in the early 1970's?
Cherie Clark: We were in the process of adopting two of our own children from Viet Nam in the early seventies. When it became apparent that our paperwork was going nowhere I went to Viet Nam to attempt to bring them home. During that time I was asked as an RN to join the efforts of one other nurse taking care of about 200 babies, all were tiny newborns and some ill. It was a nightmare. But it opened my eyes to the needs, as literally van loads of children would arrive.
I was able to leave with my own children in 1973 and escorted back five other children. I traded in my Pan Am ticket for a free escort ticket, at the request of Margaret Moses (who later died in the plane crash) so she could use the money to buy milk for the babies in their care.
It was in Margaret's words, "a salvage operation." We were literally picking up babies and trying to keep them alive long enough to place them for adoption. Children were being abandoned at a frightful rate. Poverty, lack of stability and the war - all contributed. The number of half American children was lower in those days. Although three of my kids are half black, they were somewhat older.
You participated in the first and last flights of the Babylift. Could you describe them?
Cherie Clark: The first airplane that I left on was relatively organized. This was just following the crash. My kids and I were in seats that were military style, strapped along the side of the plane in sling sort of seats. The babies were all in cardboard boxes and strapped in with a long white heavy strap. Boxes and boxes of babies. I was holding my kids, one was Dan who was critically ill and also holding a baby who I had with me from the day it was born. A military doctor attempted to remove both my son and this baby from me. I was terrified and angry. This was the first flight.
The last flight that I left on, April 26th - the last Operation Babylift flight, was a nightmare. We could not pull the buses near enough to the plane because there were constant, incoming rockets. The airport that families arrive in now when they come to Saigon was a military nightmare. Rockets were falling all around us. If you look at the tarmac in some places the patches are still there.
We were held up in the fire station right at the airport. We waited there in 100 degree temperature for hour upon hours. For a time, I was separated from our group. We waited to board the flight for about ten hours. Many babies died during that time as we sat waiting for the chance to take off.
We were loaded onto a military plane. Just simply ducking, running and carrying children. There were 18 adults and 180 babies on board. We simply laid the babies on the floor of the aircraft and sat next to them and cared for them. Minutes before we took off, the over-stressed soldiers who were standing at the back of the plane (many who had no idea they were even going to end up in Viet Nam for the evacuation) shoved off all of the boxes carrying milk and water and medicine for the babies.
In the air we were told that we were flying to Guam...ten hours away. I pleaded with the captain - a scared, fierce looking man (who I now know was a guy from New Jersey in the reserves who was just scared to death). I held an almost dead baby in his face. Screaming over the roar of the non-insulated airplanes, I told him they would all be dead if we could not land at Clark Airfield because they had thrown away all of our supplies. The last words I recall hearing were, "Sir, that baby really is dead" and then we re routed to Clark Air Force Base. It was a long and deadly flight. Caring for babies, watching them die. That was it.
One of the earliest flights out was struck by tragedy. I understand you had friends on board that flight and almost went on it yourself.
That was "our flight." The headlines in the city where I lived said, "FCVN Flight Crashed in Saigon, Fate of the Clark Family Unknown." Because they were angry with us over the World Airways flight, they bumped us from that flight.
My dear friends and babies I had carried from the provinces died that day. I loved them so much. I cannot resolve that pain in my life. So useless. Dead so quickly. A teacher of my children, a Sister who was suppose to help on our flight but decided to leave... I went to the hospital and stood around helpless. Seeing just bodies and trying to see if I could recognize anyone. I came back to our house covered with blood and mud. I don't remember this but my kids have the image etched in my mind.
What advice would you have for adoptees who are trying to find out more about their personal history?
I think for many of the children there is information and we have been able to provide that for a large number. I also think there is a larger group of kids who must come to terms with the reality that they are simply not going to be able to find out anything else. Coming to terms with that loss of history has to be taken within the context of what was going on. This was one of the prices of a dirty war. I have gone to the cemetery in Cu Chi and saw so many people who died during those last days. I have seen the wall in D.C. and realized how senseless was the loss of soldiers who died during those final days. This is the tragedy and sorrow of war. For many of those who were infants in the last days there simply is no answer. I always try to remind children that keeping an infant alive is not by chance. If for some reason they were able to survive then it wasn't by chance. It wasn't a miracle. It was because someone was there working very hard to keep them alive.
Could you describe the events you participated in, during the time of the Babylift?
Cherie Clark:The very first plane was ours. It was an authorized flight by the government of Viet Nam. We were told that we could put our children on a chartered flight being taken out by Ed Daly, at that time the President of World Airways. This was the 3rd of April. We had only hours to prepare the children so we sent the assigned older children, mostly half American from our toddler and older children's center. I was not on this plane.
I was able to gather up some people (such as LeAnn Thieman) to help take care of our babies. We got the other kids ready to leave the following day. The US Government canceled that flight as they were upset about the previous airlift. (While it was authorized, they were upset with Ed Daly and we caught the flack of it. They accused me of sending the babies out on a "risky" flight.) We did send 70 children to Australia that day (the 4th of April), the same time the US government plane crashed.
The following day, the 5th of April, I put our kids on the plane with LeAnn Thieman and all of IMH's staff members.
I returned to a nearly empty center. I was numb with pain over the death of my friends the day before and had no idea what to do about my own staff. I had some children that were too critically ill to travel. I also had my four bio kids with me who were 7 years old (Ron works here in Hanoi), 6 years old (Dan lived and worked in Thailand with ODP for five years), 3 years old (Beth), and 2 years old (Brian lives and works here in Hanoi).
I had sent my own adopted kids out on a flight before the airlift, terrified that I would not be able to get them exit visas and with no clue of an airlift in the works. They had only Vietnamese passports. People were storming the embassy and passport offices. Anyone who left Viet Nam was considered a "traitor" so they were not giving exit visas. My children (although only children) were caught in this mess until we managed to get visas for them.
The following day I promised my staff that I would return for them but I had to fly my bio children to safety. We flew out on a babylift flight (not our kids, although I did take two of our babies who had been too ill to fly). I met up with our staff and children at Clark Air Force Base.
Now that my kids were safe, I expressed my desire to return to Viet Nam. However, I was persuaded that I needed to return to the States to help identify the children - many who left with ID bracelets that had been cut off - and also to help physically to care for the children. My own son Dan was extremely ill and was on IV's from the Philippines to Hawaii on a medivac flight. I stayed in California identifying kids, while I sent my children to Illinois.
I then flew back to the Philippines with two other staff members, Sister Teresa Le Blanc (who has written at length about this experience) and Ross Meador (who is mentioned in LeAnn's book, "This Must Be My Brother"). We made it to the Air Force base but were refused a place on the flight to Saigon. They were taking America's out of Viet Nam not into it. We flew to Hong Kong and were able to get onto a "semi authorized" flight with a handful of people flying to Saigon.
We had no entry visas and simply walked across the airfield. The city was under total curfew as the Presidential Palace had been bombed that day. Cambodia was falling; our staff was terrified. We were hearing of mass murders throughout Cambodia and perhaps in the Northern provinces.
In my absence 80 children had come in from Centers to us and then sent out by airlift. These children were from people that we had worked with - who were escaping from the provinces that had fallen in the central areas of Viet Nam. All of the children and sisters were known to us and all were orphans. Meanwhile the Government of Viet Nam was in chaos with many high officials leaving. We were told that there would be no more orphan airlifts. We still could not get our staff out. We opted to stay behind no matter what. Our Center meanwhile was filling again. Sisters were rushing to us and bringing kids that had been hidden and brought out. Many were half American. Somehow in a three week period we had 180 children for the last babylift.