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.