Wednesday, September 12, 2012
All Those Lies and All Those Dead Children:
An Insider’s Account of Operation Babylift
Jan Wollett as told to Larry Engelmann
[Jan Wollett was hired as a flight attendant by Edward J. Daly’s World Airways in early 1973. She’d previously worked as a secretary for the actress Jennifer Jones. Jan liked to travel and she thought working for World would give her the chance to make a living and see the world at the same time. In July 1973, after completing her training, she was assigned to World’s Asian service. On March 29, 1975, she was the head flight attendant on Daly’s flight on board a 727 to Danang to bring out the last South Vietnamese refugees trapped in the city by the advancing North Vietnamese Army. The flight was mobbed by South Vietnamese soldiers desperately trying to get out of the city. It limped back to Saigon with people in the wheel wells and the rear door ripped away. On the flight was Mike Marriott of CBS news who filmed the episode and helped make Daly and World both notorious and famous. But no sooner had that adventure ended than Wollett found herself at the center of another controversy – Operation Babylift – the plan to bring Vietnamese orphans from Saigon to the United States before the North Vietnamese Army captured the southern Capital. What follows is Wollett’s memory of Daly’s heroic efforts to bring out orphans, the opposition of the US Embassy in Saigon, and the news of the crash of an Air Force C5A that killed 75 orphans and their caregivers on April 4, 1975].
Even before we flew up to Danang there was this movement to do a baby lift which we had been discussing with the Stateside director for Save the Children. There were many many orphans in Vietnam who had exit permits and everything else and had been adopted in many countries and they were just waiting to be taken out. And after the flight to Danang, all of us were acutely aware that the days of Saigon were numbered.
Bruce Dunning (CBS news correspondent who was on the last flight to Danang) and I sat the night after the Danang flight having dinner at the top of the Caravelle Hotel and he told me the latest news dispatches from the states -- that the North Vietnamese were still fifty miles from Saigon and we kind of chuckled because we could sit there and watch the mortars going off right at the edge of the city. And I mused, "Isn't it amazing how we celebrate Easter here?" The difference between the reality and what was being told the people was really something.
So for the next days we worked very hard to line up the first baby lift flight for Wednesday and we were going to be bringing in more planes on Thursday, but we'd start out with one of the DC8s that was on the rice run to Cambodia.
And then what happened is we were all set up and the plane we were going to use to take the first group of children stateside was this DC8 and it was due in from Phnom Penh about 8 o'clock in the morning. The night before Mr. Daly (Edward J. Daly, President of World Airways, who was also on the last flight to Danang) gave me two thousand dollars and he said, "Jan, I want you out there to meet that plane and I want you to do anything you have to do to make it acceptable to take children." And I said, "Okay". And he said, "Take anything you need from any of the other planes. There will be more supplies coming. We've got a 727 coming in a day or so. We'll bring anything else we need from Yokota [Japan], so just take anything you need." So I said, "Okay, fine." And he said, "Anything you can't get, you buy." I said, "Fine."
I got out to Tan Son Nhut that morning and the 727 came in. Nguyen Thao, one of World's station chiefs, was already working on it. We tied down the cargo pallets and what we did was attach webbing all across the cargo pallets so that people could sit and put their bodies through the webbing and hold children, because we were not going to put seats on it. We could hold more children and more supplies keeping the cargo configuration. But there were four lavatories in the aft and there was one up in front, and we had a coffee maker installed, which is the way they do it on a cargo run when you convert it. There is just one coffee set up, but there were also ovens so we could warm anything.
We got as many life rafts as we needed from some other planes because we were supposed to take about two hundred children, most of them under the age of five. We had more than enough life rafts and I still went and got life preservers from other aircraft. I got extra fire extinguishers. I got the three different kinds. We got more first aid kits than we needed.
There were several nurses who were coming back with us who were Seventh Day Adventist nurses. I told them, we were going to need baby food, and one of the nurses told me, "The embassy just received two thousand cases the day before yesterday. I'm sure you can get some from the embassy."
So Bruce Dunning was out there helping us, and I said "Bruce could you go to the embassy and get them to give us the cases of baby food. If they won't give them to you, buy them even if you have to pay a dollar a bottle." I gave him five hundred dollars and I said, "Just buy them." And he said, "Okay, I'll be back."
Then I was running back and forth to the office and I got a hold of the manager of Foremost Dairy and I said we needed milk and he asked how much? I told him how many gallons I thought we'd need and I said we had to water it down a great deal with water and sugar because these children aren't used to whole milk, so bring -- I don't know -- fifty gallons or something like that. I knew we'd be going to Yokota and be able to get anything else we needed for the long part of the flight home.
We needed more blankets, so -- I can't remember who it was -- I think it was Father Conrad, a priest who was out there helping us -- I asked him, "Can you get me blankets?" And he said, "Yeah, I can go on the black market and get them." I said, "How much do you think it will cost for two hundred blankets? I've got about a hundred of them and I just want to have extra because the plane could get cold." And he said, "Oh, I can probably get them for five hundred dollars or less." I gave him a thousand dollars and said, "Father, get whatever you can get."
The hours passed and the first sign of big trouble was when Bruce Dunning came back and he was practically in tears. He said, "They wouldn't give me a jar. When they found out it was for the World plane they wouldn't give me a jar." And I said, "Oh, God, no!" And Pamela Kung, who was our flight attendant supervisor based in Yokota was out there and she was going to be on the flight also, and I told her about the food, and she said, "Well, I'll do what I can." So she was able to go to the restaurant at Tan Son Nhut and had them make a couple of hundred steak sandwiches or something like that. That's all they had there, some beef and steak and stuff. So she had them make about two hundred sandwiches. Then all of a sudden along comes the Foremost Dairy truck. God bless Foremost Dairy! He must have sent me five hundred gallons of milk and I said, "I don't need this much," but I took what I thought we needed and we battened that down.
Then a Catholic Priest, Father Conrad, returned and he had bought all the blankets and had gotten to the gates at Tan Son Nhut But when they heard it was for a World plane the truck was stopped and he was not allowed to bring the blankets to the aircraft.
This is what we were told. Apparently, Ambassador Graham Martin was not ready to admit that Vietnam was falling. Because Danang had fallen four hours prior to our trip up their from Saigon- - we found that out later -- he had decided that if a contract carrier of civilians was captured, and the crew were either killed or captured, there would be this big scream back in the States and we'd jump back into the war.
Now this is what we were told. It's never been documented. It's never been discussed. I've never seen it in print. We were not killed or captured. We made it back. And when we came back from Danang, we were heroes, and then all of a sudden Martin got so mad that we had survived, we were persona non grata in Saigon. World Airways was shit.
So that afternoon the children were supposed to start arriving at 3:30 pm by bus. And at three o'clock a guy from USAID came out and talked to Rosemary Taylor, the director of Friends for All Children. She was working directly with us on what we now called Operation Babylift. And he told Rosemary that the World aircraft was "not safe." And he said he'd been on it, which was a lie, because we'd had our own guards around the plane all day, and no one except World people had been on that aircraft.
And he told her we didn't have lavatories on board which was ridiculous. There were six. And that we didn't have enough life rafts and all of this. It was all a lie. A lie. It was all lies. Then he told her that the U. S. Government would provide a safe aircraft, so she should not send her children on the World plane.
Well, we were just devastated. Rosemary was the most devastated, because she was in a terrible position, because here it was, she knew we were okay. She'd been on board the plane. She had total faith in World, but here was the U.S. Government saying do not send your children on this aircraft, it is not safe. So she had to decide not to send the children.
There was an interview out on the ramp. Bruce was there and all of us were interviewed on how we felt about this and our anger. And that's on tape somewhere although I've never seen a copy of it, never seen any of that footage. I don't know what happened to it. I got mad and told them what I thought. It was unbelievable that our own government -- here we are Mom, apple pie, the flag, and all -- and they're lying about our own plane. So we all went all left and went to the restaurant very very depressed.
We had been told by the Embassy that we had to get out of Saigon by ten o'clock that night. Mr. Daly had to get out and a great deal of World had to get out. We could get out the rest of our equipment over the next days, but Mr. Daly and company had to be gone. So we were sitting there real depressed.
We already knew we were going to take a few children because a young girl of twenty-one or twenty-two, not much older than that, who ran a very small orphanage came up to me and she said, "I have some children. I understand you all are leaving to go to the States." I said, "Yes." And she said, "I have some children I'd like to send. They have their exit visas and everything and they've all been adopted." So I said, "See that man over there--and I pointed out Mr. Daly, who was now drinking quite a bit,--you go talk to him." So she went over and asked him if he'd take them -- I think she had fifty-four children--and he said, "Of course we'll take them. Don't worry. We'll send a truck for them now." But he was drunk and I'm sure she didn't believe him. So she left and we realized we didn't know where she'd gone. And we kind of realized that maybe she didn't believe it. But when we asked around somebody knew where her little orphanage was -- and Mr. Daly said to one of our employees, "You go get those children. I'll take care of the final exit visas." So I'm sure a great deal of money changed hands and we got exit visas for those kids. One of our guys got a truck and he rounded up some other people and they went and got the kids.
About eight o'clock that night we went out to the aircraft and waited for the children and we had six or seven nurses and a doctor.
Finally the truck arrived with the children. The children came on all wide-eyed and bewildered and didn't know what they were doing. We were all there to greet them. There were babies and children up to maybe -- most of the children were five and six and seven and maybe twenty babies under two. There was one boy who was with his brother and he was about ten.
Our pilot Ken Healy had started the engines and the Vietnamese came on and were questioning people. They grabbed this kid and said that they had to take him off, that he was old enough to be a soldier, and Mr. Daly offered to buy the child from them for a thousand dollars. The Vietnamese officials took the thousand dollars and Mr. Daly said to them, "Let us keep this child." And they took the child and the thousand dollars and got off the plane.
We had a woman hidden up in the forward lavatory. She had a baby with her. Charlie Stewart, the flight engineer, was able to stop them from going into the lavatory and finding her and taking her off.
So we buttoned up the plane and started taxiing. And they told us then that we were not allowed to take off with any children. But we continued to taxi and I guess the tower was talking to Ken, telling him, "You can't take off. You have no clearance to take off. DO NOT TAKE OFF! Stop your aircraft." But Ken just kept on taxiing. When we got down to the end of the runway they shut off all the runway lights. So Ken just flipped on every light on that DC8 and we barreled down the runway and were airborne. It was a wonderful wonderful feeling. There I was holding three little kids and there we were on our way home.
The children were really hungry. Some of them were sick. And some of them were so starving. Some were excited. And most didn't trust us. There was one little boy who sat with his baby brother, who was a toddler, and the little baby was kind of chubby, but the brother who looked to be about four--it turned out he was seven -- had these huge big eyes, so sad, never smiled through the whole flight. Anyway, he wouldn't let go of his brother. So I went over and sat with them.
We gave the children food--these sandwiches that we had. We cut them up and we had some juice and milk and we watered it all down. When the children would eat, they would grab it and hide it under their bodies and lay on top of the food. So I told the flight attendants -- I think there were eight to twelve flight attendants on board -- take the food away from them when you see them lying on it. But make sure that within two minutes you bring them new food. The idea was to let them see they didn't have to hoard and hide their food and stuff it down their clothes. There would always be more food.
Then we landed in Yokota and it was my understanding that in Saigon they scrambled the airwaves after we took off and so we didn't have good ground contact until we got close enough to Taipei for Yokota to pick us up. So we went into Yakota and of course you can't land at a military base unless you have an emergency if you are a civilian carrier carrying civilians, which we were. But we had our whole World base there and we knew we could get tons of supplies. So we declared an emergency. Everybody of course knew it wasn't true. We landed, and fire trucks raced along next to us with their sirens and everything and the kids were all wide-eyed. "What is this? Is this the U.S.?" "No, this is Japan, but we're going to get some gas for the plane and some other things," We told them.
The base commander came on board and greeted us all. Interestingly they had already contacted the FAA and they had had the FAA representative from Tokyo come out to say that the aircraft was not safe. He came on board too. Meantime all the World people there are loading blankets. They had three hundred blankets for us, food, baby food, you name it they had it. Marie Miller was responsible for this-- her husband Chet Miller was our station manager in Yokota -- what a wonderful lady! She had gone and gotten crayons and paper to give to the children. It was marvelous because we didn't have anything to entertain them, except to sing or hold them or rock them or whatever. And there were quite a few older children, so she brought them crayons and paper.
At that point Mr. Daly and his entourage got off and some of the flight attendants got off and some stayed on. I chose to stay on and Val Witherspoon and quite a few others did, too.
The FAA inspector had talked to the doctor and nurses and stuff and as he was getting off I asked, "Well, what do you think of our plane?" He said, "Looks safe to me. And I think it's one of the happiest flights I've ever seen." So he didn't follow what his superiors said, because they wanted the plane grounded.
We took off and now we were going to be flying into daylight so the children were more alert. We gave them crayons and they made wonderful drawings for us. They were terribly excited. But you could still tell that some were very scared. And there was this sweet little baby boy and his brother, and I kept trying to reassure them, and holding the baby.
We were airborne and flew I guess ten hours to Oakland. We arrived coming in over San Francisco. It was night and we could see all the glitter and lights of the city. It was a crystal clear night, no fog, and the kids were real excited and we were trying to hold them down when we landed. But they all wanted to look out the windows. And we all wanted to look out, too.
We landed at Oakland and taxied up to our hangar, and I remember looking out and there were all these klieg lights and stuff. They opened the door and Mr. Daly's daughter came on and welcomed us all back and said the Red Cross was there and people to take the children and everything had been arranged. And she said, "I'd like the working crew to get off." And none of the flight attendants moved. We weren't willing to let go of our children. Here there were doctors rushing on and tending to the children instantly anyway, and so finally she said, "You must get off the aircraft. Gather your things and get off. You have to go through immigration and customs."
I remember walking out onto the ramp and standing at the top of the stairs. There were bleachers set up and there were tons of people -- I guess a couple hundred people there in the bleachers, and at the base of the stair was a whole group of World Airways flight attendants-- maybe fifty or sixty of them. And as each flight attendant came out onto the chair they started cheering and screaming wildly. It was such a feeling of love. It was wonderful.
So we walked down and they said that they wanted us all in a news conference. But first we had to go through immigration and customs and then we'd be taken to the Hilton Hotel to speak to the press. So we went into the hangar and they had immigration and customs and the guys welcomed us back and gave us a cursory look and stamped our passports. I saw the Hilton bus parked a ways away in the hangar and I thought I would go put my suitcase over there and go to the news conference that was going to be in the cafeteria.
Then we went and had a news conference and I was interviewed. I watched myself the next night on one of the local San Francisco stations.
Then the next day the government sent Rosemary Taylor's orphans out of Saigon on their "safe" C5A and it crashed and killed them.
It was interesting. I called the next day from my sister's home after hearing about it. I called the State Department. I called the White House. I called everybody. I couldn't get through to anybody at all to lodge my total anger and disbelief that they had done this, and the lies that the government had told.
All those lies and all those dead children.