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Holt Flight to Freedom - Operation Babylift

By Andrea Warren

Holt's airlift of orphans from Vietnam during Operation Babylift.

Long would learn much later that the giant Pam Am 747 was almost the length of a football field. The crew had stocked the airplane with diapers, formula, milk, and changes of clothing for their youngest passengers. There were even coloring books, crayons, and other art supplies to entertain the older children. The gallery was ready to serve everyone hamburgers when it was mealtime.

The flight carried 409 children and sixty adults. To care for al the children, the escorts had divided up the rows, and they spent the entire sixteen-hour flight attending to the children's needs.

"Fortunately, older children like Long could look out for themselves," says John Williams, the Holt administrator who was on the plane. "I was caring for ten babies by myself, with an occasional assist from the flight crew, so there was rarely a moment's rest. But it was happy work. We were so relieved to be on our way and to have all the children with us, though we were very distressed by what was happening back in Saigon."

Mostly, Long stayed in his seat because the aisle, which had thick red carpet, was always congested with staff and escorts rushing back and forth. Once a flight attendant took him on a brief visit to the luxurious upstairs lounge, where normally passengers could dine at tables set with linen cloths. For this special Operation Babylift flight, it had been turned into an intensive care medical unit. Volunteer doctors and nurses attended to the many children who were sick or who needed special hydration during the trip. All the medical equipment amazed long. Isolettes held babies hooked up to tubes and machines. One toddler had a broken leg, and an older child was being treated for a severe burn.

Back in his seat, Long passed the time playing with his toy cars and making art projects for his new parents with the supplies given to him. He tried to sleep, but felt too excited. All those babies and all that crying! At any time, so many of them were wet, hungry, or just wanted to be held.

After fie hours in the air, the plane landed on the island of Guam, n the Pacific Ocean, to refuel and change crews. When the governor of Guam came on board to greet them, the Holt officials realized for the first time what big news Operation Babylift had become. Everyone in the world, it seemed, was interested in the children and were concerned about their safe evacuation from Saigon.

The crash of the C-5A focused the world's attention of the plight of the orphaned children of South Vietnam. In the Untied States, adoption agencies - whether or not they had any connection with overseas adoption - were flooded with calls. Not understanding that nearly every child was spoken for, good-hearted people stepped forward to help, offering to take the children. A toll-free number was set up in Washington, D.C., to handle the inquiries. At times, more than a thousand calls a minute were turned away by busy signals.

Three other flights also left the same day as Long's - another chartered Pam Am jumbo jet and two military transport planes. Together the four planes carried nearly nine hundred children to new lives in the United States. Forty of the children were survivors of the C-5A crash the day before. Another 263 children left Saigon that some day bound for Canada and Australia. By the time Operation Babylift ended, 2,242 children would be airlifted from Saigon as part of the U.S. government's pledge that all the orphans with homes already waiting for them would be evacuated from Saigon. It as the first time in history that the U.S. government had participated in such a project, working alongside agencies like Holt. The Holt Pan Am 747, with Long aboard, brought out Operation Babylift's single largest group of children.

This is an excerpt from Andrea Warren's Escape from Saigon. Copyright protected.