62nd AW Remembers Operations Babylift, New Life

  • Published
  • By Erin Lasley
  • 62nd Airlift Wing History Office

Forty-five years ago, Military Airlift Command (MAC) carried out one of the most heart lifting and heartbreaking airlifts in Air Force history. As with many airlifts during and after the Vietnam War, the 62nd Military Airlift Wing (MAW) played a major part.

In April 1975, North Vietnamese communist forces advanced into South Vietnam and pushed towards Saigon, sending thousands scrambling to leave the country. On April 3, 1975, U.S. President Gerald Ford announced military and civilian planes would transport hundreds of Vietnamese and Cambodian orphans from Southeast Asia to the U.S. The operation became known as Operation Babylift.

The first military Babylift flight ended with heartrending tragedy on April 4. A C-5 Galaxy assigned to the 60th MAW at Travis Air Force Base, California, took off from Tan Son Nhut Air Base in Saigon with more than 300 passengers, 230 being orphans. Fourteen minutes into the flight, an explosive decompression blew out the rear cargo doors and damaged flight controls in the tail. Though the pilot tried to return to Saigon, the loss of steering forced him to crash land at about 269 knots in a marsh two miles short of the runway at Tan Son Nhut. During the impact and skidding, the cargo compartment totally disintegrated. In all, 138 people died in the crash, including 78 orphans. The Air Force grounded C-5s, but continued to operate with C-141 Starlifters and C-130 Hercules.

Due to Operations Babylift and New Life (the evacuation of Saigon), MAC put three 62nd MAW crews on Bravo alert on April 18 and the first crew left home on April 22 in route to Clark Air Base, Philippines. It is interesting to note, the first 62nd MAW aircraft (C-141 50243) to return to McChord Field carrying South Vietnamese orphans on April 29, was also the first McChord aircraft to land in Hanoi in 1973 to return U.S. prisoners of war during Operation Homecoming. On board this historic aircraft were 65 children, all under the age of five, and their escorts. More children would arrive at McChord in the following days.

Spouses and children of McChord personnel volunteered to assist with the arrival of the children and even cared for them before they were placed with their new families. Those who could, donated clothing, food, toys and money to aid with the orphan program. Even the McChord Brownies Troop pitched in and collected clothing and food.

From April 4 to May 6, MAC airlifted 1,794 Babylift passengers while another 884 orphans flew out of South Vietnam on private, non-contract planes. Most of these children found homes in the U.S. Out of the more than 2,500 children flown to the U.S., the 62nd MAW airlifted more than 400.

During this special airlift, the 62nd MAW also participated in Operation New Life, flying South Vietnamese refugees out of Saigon and to various locations around the world. Many Vietnamese who fled from Saigon worked for U.S. agencies or belonged to families of those who did and feared 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. Some New Life refugees came to McChord where, once again, families volunteered to collect food, clothes and other items. These volunteers also helped bridge communication gaps with immigration authorities and assisted with paperwork, shopping and finding new homes.

By the end of Operation New Life, more than 130,000 Vietnamese refugees traveled from Pacific island camps to the U.S. Though the numbers are uncertain, it is estimated MAC assets airlifted more than 50,000 of these refugees to the U.S. 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.

Sources: 62 MAW 1975 History

“Operation Babylift & New Life” Daniel L. Haulman, Air Mobility Command Museum