In April 1975, communist forces took over South Vietnam and Cambodia (Kampuchea). Khmer Rouge troops entered Phnom Penh in the middle of the month, just after Marine Corps helicopters evacuated the last U.S. citizens in an operation called Eagle Pull. As North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces closed in on Saigon and the South Vietnamese government began to collapse, tens of thousands of refugees sought to escape the country. Thousands fled by sea, riding in small boats to Navy ships in the South China Sea or in ships to the Philippines and beyond. Thousands more escaped by air.
The Vietnamese refugee airlift, the largest aerial evacuation in history, encompassed a series of overlapping operations that are difficult to separate: Babylift, New Life, Frequent Wind, and New Arrivals. In these operations, the Air Force, working with the Navy and private contractors, flew more than 50,000 refugees from southeast Asia to islands in the Pacific Ocean and eventually to new homes in the United States.
President Ford announced Operation Babylift on April 3 at a news conference in San Diego, California. U.S. cargo planes would transport hundreds of Vietnamese and Cambodian orphans from southeast Asia to the United States. The president of World Airways, Ed Daly, originated the idea, and the U.S. ambassador in Saigon, Graham Martin, advocated the use of Air Force aircraft in addition to commercial contract airliners. The Agency for International Development and private adoption agencies helped to sponsor the airlift.
Operation Babylift began with tragedy. On April 4, a C-5 Galaxy from the 60th Military Airlift Wing, which had just delivered howitzers to Tan Son Nhut AB in Saigon, loaded more than 300 passengers—including at least 230 orphans—for a flight to the Philippines. About 14 minutes into the flight, as the plane climbed to 23,000 feet, an explosive decompression blew out the rear cargo doors and damaged flight controls to the tail. Capt. Dennis Traynor tried to fly the disabled plane back to Saigon. Unable to steer precisely, he was forced to crash-land in rice fields about five miles from Tan Son Nhut. Miraculously, more than half of the passengers survived, including 149 orphans. The Air Force grounded the C–5s, but continued the operation with other cargo planes.
Operation Babylift lasted from April 4 through May 6. Participating organizations included the 60th, 62d, and 63d Military Airlift Wings and the 514th Military Airlift Wing (Associate), which flew C–141 Starlifters; the 374th Tac Alft Wg, which flew C–130 Hercules airplanes; and the 9th Aeromedical Evacuation Group, which used C–9s to airlift some of the C–5 crash victims to safety. Air Force cargo planes carried 949 Vietnamese orphans from Saigon and Cambodian orphans from U Tapao, Thailand, to U.S. bases in the Philippines and Guam. They later flew through Hickam AFB, Hawaii; McChord AFB, Washington; and Norton and Travis AFBs, California, to reception centers in California, Washington, and Georgia.
The Military Airlift Command airlifted 1,794 Babylift passengers. Another 884 orphans flew out of South Vietnam on private planes not under military contract. Most of the more than 2,500 refugee children found homes in the United States.
Closely related to Operation Babylift was Operation New Life, which evacuated Vietnamese from South Vietnam just before the government’s collapse. The Thirteenth Air Force helped to coordinate Air Force airlift efforts under a single theater airlift manager, Brig. Gen. Richard T. Drury. Air Force cargo planes airlifted more than 50,000 passengers from Saigon in 375 Operation New Life flights. Between April 4 and 28, C–141 Starlifters from the 60th, 62d, 63d, 437th, and 438th Military Airlift Wings airlifted refugees out by day, while C–130s from the 374th and 314th Tactical Airlift Wings evacuated Vietnamese by night. There were 161 New Life C–130 missions, which transported 20,834 passengers from Saigon to the Philippines the last week in April. At first, the cargo planes flew the refugees to U.S. bases in the Philippines, but when President Ferdinand Marcos set limits on the number of refugees in his country, the Air Force flew the evacuees on to Guam and Wake, where they were processed for further travel to the United States.
Babylift and New Life overlapped. A 514th Military Airlift Wing (Associate) C–141 flown by Maj. Wayne DeLawter carried 189 orphans from Saigon to Clark AB in the Philippines. Immediately after unloading the passengers, the Starlifter boarded 250 other Vietnamese refugees for a flight from Clark to Guam. The mission lasted 19 hours.
During April, the Navy set up 13 Vietnamese camps on Guam. Refugees also found temporary shelter at Andersen AFB. By air and sea, almost 112,000 refugees traveled through Guam on their way to the United States, with at least 70,000 arriving by air. The island sheltered as many as 50,430 at a time. When Guam filled with refugees, a newer processing camp on Wake Island went into operation.
Many Vietnamese who fled from Saigon had worked for U.S. agencies or belonged to families of those who did and feared that the new government would threaten their lives. Others sought to escape because they did not want to live under a communist system. Still others were wives or children of U.S. citizens who had served in South Vietnam, either in the military or as civilians.
At the end of April, Operation New Life faced increasing dangers as enemy forces approached closer to the center of the South Vietnamese capital. On April 24, gunfire damaged a C–130 as it flew over the Saigon area. Two days later, both a C–130 and a C–141 were hit by bullets near Tan Son Nhut AB. On April 27, the C–141 flights out of Saigon ceased. When communist artillery hit and set on fire a C–130 on the ground at Tan Son Nhut on April 28, Hercules flights out of Saigon also ended.
When Operation New Life concluded, it had compiled a record of 201 C–141 flights and 174 C–130 sorties. Two C–130 missions evacuated Vietnamese refugees from Vung Tau on the coast, but other flights took escapees out of Saigon.
On the last two days of the Saigon siege, April 29 and 30, helicopters offered the only air escape route from South Vietnam. Navy and Marine Corps CH–46 and CH–53 helicopters carried out most remaining U.S. and Vietnamese refugees, but nine Air Force helicopters—seven CH–53s from the 56th Special Operations Wing and two HH–53s of the 40th Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Squadron—took part in Operation Frequent Wind.
The U.S. helicopters airlifted more than 6,000 passengers out of Saigon on April 29 and 30, including over 5,000 Vietnamese. Of 662 helicopter sorties, the Air Force flew 82. The helicopters shuttled between the besieged capital and U.S. ships in the South China Sea, including the aircraft carrier USS Midway. The 21st Special Operations Squadron, a unit of the 56th Special Operations Wing, carried 1,831 evacuees to the carrier. When the Midway became overcrowded, the squadron also moved 804 refugees from the carrier to other Navy ships in the flotilla.
More than 73,000 evacuees fled by boat from South Vietnam to the Philippines in April. Between April 29 and May 9, MAC C–141s and C–130s transported more than 31,000 Vietnamese refugees from the Philippines to Guam. The 196 flights comprised 61 by C–141s and 135 by C–130s. Between April 30 and May 14, C–130s carried 21,570 refugees from the Philippines to Guam. The 374th Tac Alft Wg flew most C–130 missions, supported by a squadron rotating from the 314th Tac Alft Wg, based in Arkansas. Air Force refugee airlift flights to Guam, at times suspended because of overcrowding, concluded on May 17.
The temporary refugee camps in the Philippines, Guam, and Wake demanded tremendous quantities of relief supplies to feed and shelter the thousands of Vietnamese who fled to them, not only by Air Force airlift but also by U.S. Navy vessels and commercial airliners under MAC contract. During the spring of 1975, MAC transported 8,556 tons of cargo to the camps, including beds, mattresses, blankets, tents, rations, evaporated milk, baby food, and insecticides. Delivered primarily by C–141s of the 437th and 438th Military Airlift Wings, most cargo went to the main refugee camps on Guam and Wake. Riding aboard many of the 414 Air Force flights were thousands of relief workers, including medical personnel, cooks, bakers, and engineers.
The last Vietnamese evacuation airlift operation, New Arrivals, transported tens of thousands of refugees from temporary camps on Pacific Ocean islands to the United States. The 60th, 62d, 63d, 436th, 437th, and 438th Military Airlift Wings and the 314th Tac Alft Wg employed C–141s, C–130s, and C–5s to airlift refugees from the Philippines, Guam, and Wake through Hickam, Norton, Travis, and McChord AFBs to processing centers at Eglin AFB, Florida; Fort Chaffee, Arkansas; Camp Pendleton, California; and Fort Indiantown Gap, Pennsylvania. Between April 29 and September 16, the Air Force flew 251 military missions in support of the New Arrivals operation. Commercial planes under contract to MAC flew 349 other flights for the operation.
Fort Chaffee lacked adequate runways for the Arkansas-bound refugees, so they landed at nearby Fort Smith and rode buses to the Fort Chaffee processing center. In 15 days in May, 73 commercial and 123 military flights transported 24,560 passengers to Fort Smith. Some Vietnamese riding on Boeing 747s landed at Little Rock AFB and transferred to smaller military aircraft that could land at Fort Smith.
More than 130,000 Vietnamese refugees traveled from the Pacific island camps to the United States in the spring and summer of 1975. How many rode aboard Air Force planes is not certain, but there were probably more than 50,000, as many as had flown from Southeast Asia to the Pacific islands in Operation New Life.
The Vietnamese evacuation airlift operations demonstrated the utility of a single theater airlift manager, the effectiveness of integrating strategic and tactical airlift resources, and above all, the critical contribution of ground support personnel to mission success. The airlift operations also exposed weaknesses in emergency airlift evacuation procedures, aircraft structures, and diplomatic relations.
Airlift could not transport all of the refugees who sought to escape as communist forces took over South Vietnam in the desperate spring of 1975. Thousands of people who sought escape were left behind, but the airlift did carry tens of thousands to freedom.
Aloha – I was a Sgt assigned to 15th ABWg, Hickam AFB during Operation Babylift – On April 27th I received the call that our PERSCO (Personnel In Spt of Contingency Opns) team was being deployed – we didn’t know where we were headed and thought we’d be headed to ‘Nam to assist with Operation Frequent Wind – but instead we landed on Wake Atoll (aka “Island”). We were assigned TDY to Det. 4 15 AB Wg and little did we any of us realize what was awaiting us and at least for myself, personally, it was a life altering experience to say the least.
Wheels down we disembarked and headed to base – you couldn’t help but see hundreds, more likely nearly 1,000 (+) Vietnamese people lined up awaiting transportation and being screened by Security Police personnel. We settled into what we believed were going to be our quarters – they were air conditioned barracks and very comfortable. That was to be very SHORT LIVED (lol!) – as our NCOIC SMSGt (Keim) rushed in as we were settling into these very “plush” rooms to let us know – HEY GUYS – WRONG BARRACKS!! We were immediately placed into our ‘proper’ quarters – rooms which were about 12’x12′ – NO AC (lol) – and water was rationed 24hr ‘on’ / 24 hrs ‘off’ – I say all that to Thank ALL My Brothers and Sisters who served In Country In ‘Nam who didn’t have the ‘luxuries’ we had – or those serving today in Middle East – THANK YOU ALL FOR YOUR STRENGTH, YOUR ENDURANCE, AND YOUR PERSERVERANCE – and OF COURSE – FOR YOUR SERVICE! We WERE Blessed to have those barracks – though today I am very ‘sensitive’ to people who neither shower or especially refuse to change their socks on a regular basis – We literally squeezed 8 guys per room – and some – well, ’nuff said.
No sooner had we settled into our quarters when SSMSgt rounded us all up and ordered us to the chow hall where we met some of the nicest group of civilian personnel. Most all of the civilian workers who did support duties (i.e.- cooks, groundskeepers, carpenters, etc.) were Filipinos – sadly, though, after we’d returned home from Wake we had learned that nearly half of them who we’d met were killed in a plane crash on their way home for their own R&R. We got to know them very well – especially being that I am a native born Hawaiian and I am also part Filipino and I have a lot of friends and family who are Filipino – and the guys on Wake – well, they welcomed us all – but, I felt a special bond with them – like family.
Anyways – a very long story short – there are so many stories I could share – but, two stand out – a 15 year old boy bringing his family through the processing line – they were amongst the ones we knew as the “boat people” because they escaped ‘Name on their fishing boats. This boy was placed in charge of his group (mostly family) of 35 people because he spoke the best English of them all – his father was killed while they were escaping – the ‘Cong chased them down with their gun boat and blasted the groups fishing boat with a couple of rockets – dad was killed, a very small baby (@ 6-8 weeks old) had his face smashed in by shrapnel – and what we’d discovered after this brave young man had got his entire group through the processing line (taking names; billeting; medical assistance; etc.) – this young man dropped like a log right in front of us. We could smell something rotten – without details, he had shrapnel in his legs and the wounds were infected. Though they’d managed to get on board a destroyer – because of the massive number of “boat people” clambering to board our ships – a decision was made to hold of medical treatment until they arrived at port – Wake island. The outcome – the AWESOME MASH personnel not only saved this boys life as well as that of the baby, but SAVED HIS LEG! PRAISE GOD!
Another story – was a little girl who came off the C5 by herself – NO parents or family anywhere to be found – she was 5 years old! Her name was “Tet”. At first she wouldn’t talk with anyone – but, and I believe it was GOD who ordained and orchestrated it – she felt comfortable with me – “Tet” looked so much like my own little girl in Hawaii. That’s how we found out her name – and her age – I asked her, in Vietnamese both – and she answered me. Long story short – I wanted to take her home with me back to Hawaii and I think our SMSgt knew it, because he had me go for chow – and leave the girl with them. When I got back to our processing center – “Tet” was gone. I never saw her again. I looked for her, but, never found her.
In short, that period of time which began in April 27, 1975 – changed my life forever! I am now an Ordained Minister and have a whole new perspective on what it means to APPRECIATE WHAT YOU HAVE AND BE WILLING TO FIGHT FOR IT! ESPECIALLY OUR FREEDOMS – These people lost EVERYTHING! I Will Continue to Do My BEST to ENSURE THAT DOESN’T HAPPEN TO MY CHILDREN, GRANDCHILDREN – AND YES (I have 5 of them..) GREAT-GRANDCHILDREN.
I know that’s a mouthful – but – it’s a story I don’t often get to share, let alone a story not many wish to hear- Mahalo (thank you) for allowing me the chance to share – And GOD Bless You All! Aloha!
Don’t know the whole story but am familiar with the baby lift at the beginning. There was a call for volunteers to board planes going to Nam on a weekend to remove children. I stupidly volunteered (didn’t realize the Air Force wouldn’t allow me to do so). The WA plane flight was canceled because of rocket attacks at the airport.
However, as a pediatrician at Tachikawa AFB, we received the second plane load of children following that first crash. Adult survivors were frightened that we’d remove survivors from the crashed plane on this second flight and hid them in various places on the plane when it landed at Yokota AFB. Cpt. Bill, another peds , did a review of all children and removed 4 of them to be sent to me at Tachi hospital. I still have photos. One was a little girl supposedly destined for France. The reason all other flights were then switched to Guam was because when Cpt. Bill identified a child with chicken pox, the Japanese authorities on the plane thought he said Small Pox and therefore refused to allow future flights to land from Vietnam onto Japanese soil.
I was a leader of a 8 man Blue Ribbon Maintenance team and we were flying in a C-141 returning from to Norton AFB from an other mission late Apr ’75, when all of a sudden the A/C banked east. In a few minutes the A/C commander came down into the cargo bay and told us that we had been diverted to Fort Smith Arkansas and nothing else.
When we landed the plane taxied up and stopped and he told us to grab our tools and bags and get into a Air National Guard truck that was waiting for us, so we did. The plane closed its doors and flew away. We were taken to a building and were told that refugees were being evacuated and they would be coming, and coming fast. It was our responsibility to marshal these military and commercial aircraft in, block them, put power to them, handle any maintenance problems, unload luggage bay and assist the refugees, young or old, should they need it. We would direct them to a hangar where the ANG would watch them until the Army would come and transfer them to Camp Chaffee. We divided up and worked 12-hrs shifts. After a week or so our Norton MAW sent about a dozen reinforcements, which was a blessing. In the beginning, lots of military planes, but soon the load shifted to the larger commercial aircraft.
Early on the refugees seemed to be in better shape than the ones that followed that only got off the plane with the clothes on their back and blood stained clothes in a few cases. It was the most heart wrenching yet rewarding month I’ve ever spent in my life. You read the number of flight and over 25,000 refugees in about 30 days.
I took the time to tell this story for two reasons, First – America as a country has a wonderful heart and second – I wanted to tell the story of 8 Air Force Blue Ribbon Maintenance Technician and the reinforcements that did everything from parking the planes to turning the refugees over to the local ANG. Without this story which doesn’t touch the surface, would go unsung. Seems like there is no record of our key contribution and as the Team Lead, my guys left it all out on the Fort Smith Airport Tarmac.
Forty-five years ago in April ’75 I was working as an army medic at the Pacific refugee camps. My unit came from Ft Meade, MD. I saw things there I never saw again and did things there with my brothers and sisters of Medical Corps that I was never trained to do. Bless all that came through the camps and those that worked so hard so far away from home to help others. We have our own history, our own medal, and we are still proud.
Ronald, reading your comment lead me to document and experience that I had with my Blue Ribbon Aircraft recovery team in Apr of ’75 at Fort Smith AR. God Bless. Rick
I was working for Schaefer Ambulance Service from Los Angeles, made 2 Trips to Norton AFB on Operations Baby Lift to Transport babies 2 Different Hospital First load went to Childrens Hospital Los Angeles, 2nd Trip UCLA Hospital West Los Angeles
What a wonderful story John Spade and Chau Mai. Made me tear up. I was stationed at Little Rock AFB after the airlift operation, but the stories that were told made me proud to be an American and a sister to all people in the world.
I was an aircraft mechanic, E-4 Sgt at the time all hell broke lose in 1975. First help I gave was to a baby. The Baby was handed to me as a boy…ooops it was a girl. Her name was Whin Nguyen (sic) Cute kid. She ate some white fish and rice. I came back the next day and took care of her again. I lost a friend on the C5 that crashed after explosive decompression. Donny Deon ( that’s how I knew him) has his name on the wall in DC. He was a real nice guy. He had just cross trained into the C5 loadmaster program from the recyp engine shop across from the prop shop where I worked.
Things changed when the refugees and CIA folks came in from all over various places in indochina. I tried to make their stay at Clark comfortable. Even went down town and bought a basket of BALUT and other foods that were simliar to what the vietnameese ate.
Mr. Spade, I was just shy of 4 years old when I arrived in Ft Chaffee, Arkansas as a Vietnamese refugee along with my parents and 3 siblings. My baby sister also called “Whin” was only 1 month old. My father worked for Air America and very fortunately for us, we left one day prior to the day of The Fall of Saigon. According to my father, we flew on an Air America C-47 transport to U Tapao, Thailand, spending 2 nights there and then boarding an Air America C-141 Starlifter (or a C-130) to Anderson Air Force Base in Guam. After 2 nights’ rest there, we hopped on a TWA DC-10 bound for Fort Chaffee (actually landing in Ft Smith Municipal Airport just as described above!) on May 3rd of 1975. It was a “10,000-mile journey to freedom” as my father put it. As I read your comment recalling how you helped that Vietnamese baby girl by feeding and caring for her and how you brought a basket of balut eggs to those refugees as comfort food, I welled up in tears. It is honorable soldiers like you and your departed friend Donny along with so many kind and compassionate American people here in the States who took us in with open arms that make this country so great because of its generosity. You all helped us get on our feet to start a life anew here. I can never repay the debt for your service in fighting for our freedom in Vietnam 40 plus years ago. After reading this site, I now realize that the military aircraft folks are the unsung heroes of that war. To pull off those very complex MULTIPLE airlift operations spread out through the pacific is beyond impressive. I and my family salute you for your honor, service, and courage in the Vietnam War. Without the aid of men and women like yourself during Operation New Life in America, I would not have been able to enjoy this, the greatest land of freedom and opportunity. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.
Chau Mai it was me and my Air Force Blue Ribbon Team that blocked your planes in and helped you off at Fort
Smith Air Port. We helped with the luggage if needed and assisted if help was needed with the young or elderly or even wounded. The local Air National Guard Unit hosted you until the Army from Fort Chaffee was ready to take you to the camp. It was busy for us and quite challenging, but you were welcomed with the loving hearts that we have for all people in need in times such as that was. God Bless, richard