Operation Babylift - This Must Be My Brother
By LeAnn Thieman and Carol Dey
Aboard an Operation Babylift Plane
Carol and I entered the mammoth cargo jet for what we assumed would be a direct flight to the States. We noticed all but a few seats had been removed and had been replaced by long benches along the sides. Down the center was a row of about twenty cardboard boxes, each approximately two feet square. Two to three babies were lying in each box. A long strap was secured at one end of the plane. From there it was stretched over the boxes, then attached to the other end of the plane to hold the boxes securely in place. Several large, metal trash cans were at each end of the row with food, formula, and supplies for the trip. Toddlers and the older children sat with seatbelts on the long benches.. bewildered orphans strapped inside a flying boxcar.
We adults were instructed by the captain to find a seat and buckle the seatbelt for takeoff. I sat with Mitchell on my lap in one of the few seats near the cabin. An American man, his Vietnamese wife, and two small children sat next to me. The little boy appeared to be about two years old and had a cleft lip and sores on his forehead. His sister, a year or so older, had a few curlers in her hair and wore a flowered dress. It was easy to tell from their faces that they were afraid and confused.
As the captain prepared for takeoff, the sound of the engine's roar was nearly deafening. A panic came over me.
My blood raced and my breath stuck in my chest. Although no words were spoken, each escort must have known what the other was thinking. The last planeload of orphans leaving Saigon for America had blown up shortly after takeoff. It was still unknown whether it had been shot down or sabotaged.
In a country seemingly fated for tragedy, even that basic humanitarian mission had ended in doom. It was reported to be the fourth largest aircraft disaster in history.
Would history repeat itself?
My shaking arms gripped Mitchell close to me. He hugged me back as if to comfort me. The remembered image of the black, fiery cloud refueled the terror I had felt the day the plane had crashed.
I began to say the Lord's Prayer as the plane taxied down the runway. I knew that if I lived through the next five minutes, I would make it to Iowa. The motion of the plane lulled the infants to near silence. The adults sat statue-like. Only the engine's vengeful roar broke the haunting, threatening silence.
I felt the plane lift off the ground.
"Our Father who art in heaven..." Mitchell sat quietly on my lap, so trusting and unafraid. I glanced at the eyes of the volunteers around me and thought I saw the same tension and fear I felt. Carol sat diagonally across from me on the bench seat. I remembered her reassurance earlier and her firm belief that no one would shoot down a second plane. Her eyes smiled. "We'll be fine," she mouthed.
Finally the American captain spoke. "We are out of range of the Vietcong. We are safe. We are going home."
Whoops of gladness and relief filled the plane. I continued to pray, almost laughing .. this time in my own words, this time in thanksgiving. My heart was lighter, the weight of fear lifted from my chest and shoulders. I stood Mitchell on my lap to face me.
"We're going home, son."
Immediately the adults on board unfastened their seatbelts and hastened to tend to the babies. Several helpers were Air Force personnel. Many were Americans taking advantage of the opportunity to return home.
One burly man with salt and pepper hair began changing a diaper. His technique make it evident that it was a new experience for him. He admitted that he had never changed a diaper before and we laughed with him as he did it clumsily.
"His wife was killed in the FFAC crash a few days ago," someone whispered. What great courage he had to volunteer for a similar flight.
The commotion of loading and transporting babies had not allowed time to feed them. Now all ninety were awake and crying simultaneously. The formula was a perfect temperature and we propped countless bottles to re-hydrate the crying babies. We discovered we could feed all three babies in a box at the same time by placing them each on their side and propping their bottle on the shoulder of their box-mate. Some sucked the formula down in only minutes, while others needed more help. I cradled a baby girl on my folded legs and coaxed her to drink while using my left hand to feed another in my lap. Clearly she was too weak to suckle. Using both hands, I milked formula from the nipple to drop into her mouth. Although other babies demanded attention, I continued until an ounce was taken.
Older children instinctively joined in the work - and fun - as they held babies and bottles.
"Imagine what's going through the older ones' minds about now," Carol said. "I wonder if they understand where they're going and why."
"Most of them have learned to be afraid of these big military planes," added another male volunteer, "and now they're being put on one and flown away from everything they've ever known and loved."
"But what are the choices? Can you imagine what their lives would be like if they stayed in Vietnam?"
I looked at the little girl feeding a baby in her lap. She smiled proudly and I smiled back, trying to reassure her with my expression.
Ross pointed to a sign on the wall of the plane. It read Freedom Air."Appropriately named," Sister Therese nodded.
"For a lot of reasons," Ross said. "This cargo jet brought prisoners of war out of Vietnam in '73."
As the bottles emptied, we held the babies one at a time to burp them. By draping a diaper over a shoulder, we found we could each burp one baby while propping another's bottle with the other hand. Quickly, one baby was returned to its place in the box and another baby picked up for burping. A few of the men held them as if they were made of blown glass and barely tapped their backs.
"They won't break," teased Carol as she demonstrated the burping maneuver. The fellows laughed and followed suit.
"Oh, yuck! Look at you!" one man exclaimed as he wiped vomit from the back of his companion's shirt.
Ross' hands moved quickly as he expertly diapered, fed, and changed babies.
"You're making us look bad!" another man chortled.
"Experience!" Ross bragged.
The predicted diarrhea became a reality and we changed one diaper after another. The handsome burly man wrinkled his face as he dangled a dirty diaper between his thumb and index finger and took it to the assigned trash can. Sister Therese teased this was likely the most challenging work he had ever done. When he reapplied the diaper he stuck the two adhesive tabs together instead of to the diaper. Everyone laughed as he was reinstructed. The jocularity offered a welcome change to the continued sounds of crying.
Another bachelor said he felt the experience would qualify him as a good candidate for a husband. We all agreed to write him letters of recommendation.
Before long, the plane smelled of diarrhea and spit-up. The babies who had been so neatly dressed and groomed looked wrinkled and soiled. The volunteers were disheveled, but there was a merriment about it all. It was joyful work.
"London sent a Boeing 707 for 150 orphans," boasted one man with a British accent.
"I heard Australia flew out over 200," another offered.
"I can vouch for that!" Carol attested. "We were there and put some of our babies on that plane."
"The Vietnamese Embassy told me another sixty-three went to Canada and fifty more to West Germany," another lady shouted above the noise.
"And now 100 more!" Ross gloated.
This is what orphan relief was all about.
The efforts people had made for years were paying off.
Our flight attendant had been right. We were part of a plan that could make a difference in the world.
"As President Ford said when he announced the airlift, "This is the least we can do," said the man whose wife had died.
After nearly three hours of feeding, burping, and changing the babies, we were surprised when the pilot announced that we would stop in the Philippines to refuel. That didn't sound like a problem, but the news that we would be detained for each baby to have a medical checkup caused some complaining.
"Why don't they just let us get to Oakland as soon as possible where the babies can get care?" I muttered to a coworker. I felt a little selfish when I was reminded that some babies could be in critical condition if they were to wait until then.
We all acknowledged that the childrens' health had priority even over our eagerness to get home.