Flight Attendant On Saigon Evacuation: You Wanted 'To Help Every Child'

Apr 28, 2015
Originally published on April 29, 2015 6:44 am

NPR — along with seven public radio stations around the country — is chronicling the lives of America's troops where they live. We're calling the project "Back at Base."

It was known as Operation Babylift.

In the days before the fall of Saigon on April 30, 1975, Vietnamese children were taken out of the country and flown to the U.S.

Some were the children of U.S. service members and some were orphans. But there were others that may have had parents who were still alive, so the program was controversial.

Two days before the official Babylift was launched, there was a first flight out, with 57 children on board a World Airways DC-8 cargo plane.

Jan Wollett, one of the attendants on that flight, believes what they were doing that day was right.

"You wanted to be able to help every child. You wanted them to have a good life. We felt we were taking them from a possible bad life to maybe a good life," she says.

On April 2, 1975 — just weeks before the city would fall — Wollett and the flight crew were in Saigon at the airport bar. They had been told they couldn't carry passengers that day, and on short notice the crew was told that it was carrying children out of Vietnam.

Wollett lined the floor of the plane with blankets because it had no seats. During takeoff, every adult had their arms around the youngest children, she says. Wollett says she used cargo netting to secure the others in her charge.

"The ones that were older would snuggle close to you, but they could hold on and I'd put their little bodies underneath so they would always be protected," she says.

Because the World Airways flight wasn't sanctioned, it didn't have clearance to take off. As the plane taxied, Wollett remembers the tower screaming at the pilots to return. The runway lights went dark, but she says the pilot pushed on.

"He hit every light he had on the Stretch 8, and we barreled down a dark runway and took off," she says.

At first, Wollett says, many of the children were overwhelmed.

"They were just darling or they were very scared. And you'd hug them and hold them and tell them it was going to be OK," she says.

Once airborne, she says, they turned the plane into a giant play pen.

"Especially when the sun came up and it was daylight and they could see out and see the ocean, and every once and a while you might see a ship and they'd get all excited," Wollett says. "So they were kind of enjoying whatever they could, and we were loving them. So it was pretty great."

After a brief stop in Yokota, Japan, the flight took off for Oakland International Airport.

It was late when Wollett and the crew tried to corral the children back under the cargo netting for landing.

Thanh Jeff Ghar was 12 at the time. He remembers stepping off the plane into a sea of reporters and TV lights.

"When I got out of the airplane, first thought was 'My, it was cold.' It was freezing cold," he says. "You know, going from 80, 90 degrees in Vietnam to Oakland in April, it was very cold."

The next day, President Ford announced that the U.S. would officially begin to evacuate orphaned babies and children from Saigon.

Tragically, the first official flight crashed shortly after takeoff.

Gahr says he knows that some of the people involved in the Babylift flight were torn over whether evacuating the children was the right thing to do.

But he's not.

Gahr, an engineer who designs planes for Boeing, says as an orphan in Vietnam he never would have had the opportunities he's had here in the U.S.

"There are thousands of children out there who went through the same way and have the same appreciation for what was done for them," he says. "I really want them to know that they did a wonderful thing."

By the time the government ended Operation Babylift in May, 1975, more than 3,000 children had been evacuated.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

We have a story now from the waning days of the Vietnam War. In the days before the fall of Saigon, which was 40 years ago this week, Vietnamese children were flown to the U.S. in what was known as Operation Babylift.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Some were the children of U.S. service members; some were orphans. But some may have had parents who were still alive, and that made the program controversial.

MONTAGNE: Two days before the official Babylift launched, 57 children ended up on a World Airways DC-8 cargo plane. We have the story now of that first flight out. Patricia Murphy from member station KUOW in Seattle spoke to one of the flight attendants.

PATRICIA MURPHY, BYLINE: Jan Wollett believes what they were doing that day was right.

JAN WOLLETT: We wanted to be able to help every child. You wanted them to have a good life. We felt we were taking them from a possible bad life to maybe a good life.

MURPHY: Wollett and the crew were in Saigon at the airport bar. It was April 2, just weeks before the city would fall. They'd been told they couldn't carry passengers that day. The plans changed on short notice. The crew was told it was carrying children out of Vietnam. Wollett lined the floor of the plane with blankets because it had no seats. During takeoff, every adult had their arms around the youngest children. Wollett used cargo netting to secure the others in her charge.

WOLLETT: The ones that were older would snuggle close to you, but they could hold on, and I'd put their little bodies underneath so that they would always be protected.

MURPHY: Because the World Airways flight wasn't sanctioned, it didn't have clearance to take off. As the plane taxied, Wollett remembers the tower screaming at the pilots to return. The runway lights went dark, but Wollett says the pilot pushed on.

WOLLETT: He hit every light he had on the Stretch 8, and we barreled down a dark runway and took off.

MURPHY: At first, many of the children were overwhelmed.

WOLLETT: They were just darling, or they were very scared. And you'd hug them and hold them and tell them it was going to be OK.

MURPHY: Once airborne, Wollett says they turned the plane into a giant playpen.

WOLLETT: Especially when the sun came up and it was daylight and they could see out and see the ocean. And, you know, every once in a while you might see a ship, and they'd get all excited. So they were kind of enjoying whatever they could, and we were loving them. And so it was pretty great.

MURPHY: After a brief stop in Yokota, Japan, the flight took off for Oakland International Airport. It was late when Wollett and the crew tried to corral the children back under the cargo netting for the landing.

THANH JEFF GAHR: My name is Thanh Jeff Gahr.

MURPHY: Gahr was 12 at the time. He remembers stepping off the plane into a sea of reporters and TV lights.

GAHR: When I got out there, my first thought was, my, it was cold. It was freezing cold. You know, going from 80, 90 degree in Vietnam to Oakland in April, it was very cold.

MURPHY: The next day, President Gerald Ford announced that that the U.S. would officially begin to evacuate orphaned babies and children from Saigon. Tragically, the first official flight crashed shortly after takeoff, killing about half of the roughly 300 onboard. Gahr says he knows that some of the people involved in the Babylift flights were torn over whether evacuating the children was the right thing to do. But he's not. Gahr's an engineer for Boeing today. He designs planes. He says as an orphan in Vietnam, he never would've had the opportunities he's had here in the U.S.

GAHR: There are thousands of children out there who went through the same way and have the same appreciation for what was done for them. I really want them to know that they did a wonderful thing.

MURPHY: By the time the U.S. government ended the Babylift operation in May 1975, more than 3,000 children were evacuated. For NPR News, I'm Patricia Murphy in Seattle. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.