Monday, March 24, 2014

Just Pictures of Children: Susan McDonald Remembers Operation Babylift

I am a registered nurse. I graduated from Loretto Heights College in Denver in 1970 and then nursed for about three years in Kentucky. The war in Vietnam was on television every night. I watched the stories of what was happening in Vietnam, and I often saw shots of children. I was interested in caring for children and so I became interested in going to Vietnam and working there.

I wrote to several addresses to get information on working in Vietnam. One of the people I wrote to at that time was Rosemary Taylor, an Australian woman who had been working in Vietnam since 1968. Rosemary had become interested in abandoned children in Vietnam and in finding homes for them and caring for them. She had worked at Phu My in a home for the homeless, and she took care of the children there. Then she set up her own facility to care for orphans and abandoned children. She worked through various Vietnamese agencies and the embassies in Vietnam to find homes for the children in many countries.

Rosemary answered my letter and indicated that I might be useful in working with the orphans. Air France let me have a ticket to Vietnam in exchange for an agreement that I would escort five children out of Vietnam when I returned. The date of my return was left open.

I had never been to Asia before. In fact, I had never been out of the United States. I went to New York and then I flew to Paris. I stayed in Paris for a few days with some friends and then flew on to Saigon.

I was not prepared for what I found when I arrived. I had grown up in the United States, which is a land of plenty, and my only acquaintance with something other than what we had in the United States was from television. And television just could not convey the truth of something that was outside the context of what I had experienced in the United States. I was just overwhelmed at first by the poverty. I remember seeing houses along the Saigon River and wondering if people actually lived in them. I think that later I saw things in a much different light. But my first impressions was clearly one of thinking, "This is really a poor country. There were people living along the river, and the river was also used as a sewer.

I lived right in Saigon and worked in a home called New Haven. It had been a French villa and it had been made over into a home for children. There were two French nurses still working there when I arrived. They wanted to work with other refugees, so I was to take their place. They stayed for only about two weeks after I arrived. There were about fifty toddlers in the house. This was the second or third such house that Rosemary opened. One of the houses was for toddlers and one for older children. There was one for babies, also. Later on I took care of newborns in our house, too.

I loved the work. I don't think I ever felt a moment of homesickness because the kids were always there, like a big family. Since they were toddlers, there wasn't any language barrier -- I could communicate with them just as with children of that age anywhere in the world.

One of my duties with the children was to buy food for the house. I would buy stuff at the market and then use blenders to turn it into baby food. There weren't any American-supplied baby foods for us. I bought carrots and other vegetables and meat and put it all in the blenders. At first I also bought chicken for the children, thinking that since it was the cheapest meat I could buy in the United States it would be the cheapest in Vietnam, too. But I found that chicken was really quite expensive. Fish and lobster were not as expensive. So I had to learn a few things about shopping and what was economical and what was not. People would give us food, too. One day someone gave us several cases of apricots, and so for several days we had apricots. And someone else gave us a case of jam, and that lasted for quite a while, too.

I got used to all of this and there weren't really any serious problems.

We drove down to towns in the Delta, to different orphanages there. We took them supplies and medicines. In those orphanages there were many children who had lost one parent. The other parent had then put them in the orphanage to be cared for. We didn't deal with those children except to see that they were immunized, had clothing and whatever supplies we could offer. The expectation was that some day the mother or the father would come and take them back. Those children, naturally, were not available for adoption. Any child, in fact, with any relatives -- cousins or aunts or uncles -- was not available for adoption. Our record-keeping was orderly. Since the children were abandoned we didn't have problems with people taking children from the orphanage. In fact, information regarding abandoned children was published in newspapers in hopes of finding relatives.

For the most part, the American Army was gone by that time. But Vietnam was still at war. It was an everyday sight to see jeeps and soldiers in the streets. There was also a curfew and you could not go outside after 11:00 PM. There was shelling at night. We could hear it. But in 1973 there was never any sense that the country was doomed or that time was running our or anything like that. I was there, in fact, with no definite term of stay and I never thought about having to leave at some future date.

I really liked what I was doing and I was treated very well by all of the Vietnamese. We hired all Vietnamese child-care workers. They were young Vietnamese women and they were called "Mother Care Nurses." We had one Mother Care Nurse for every five children in the house, unless a child was ill or needed special care. Then it was one nurse for one child.

We had a lot of children with cleft palates. They had been abandoned. I didn't know if the parents felt unable to cope with the disability or felt some superstition about them or what. But we had many of them. Those children caught respiratory diseases very easily unless they were fed very slowly and carefully. They had a hard time swallowing and we wanted to make sure that they didn't get any food in their lungs. So for those children there was one worker per child.

When the children with cleft palates were adopted abroad they had surgery to correct the problem. One of the reasons I decided I wanted to become a physician -- I am in medical school right now -- was to help children with cleft palates. I am hoping it will make a different in their lives.

We flew out the adopted orphans fairly frequently. That was difficult. I felt sad because they were leaving but we knew a loving home was best for them. I'd take some of them to the planes. It was hard for the child-care workers, too, because they'd gotten quite attached to the children, especially the children who had been with us for many months.

People who wanted to adopt the orphans applied through an agency, and then a home study was done. Our agency was based in Boulder, Colorado, and they made sure that the family wanting to adopt one of our orphans was able to take care of a child from another country and that the local community would be willing to accept that child, too. The United States, Australia, Sweden, Germany, Finland, France, Belgium, Canada, English, Italy, Switzerland and Luxembourg all accepted orphans from Vietnam.

Toward the end of 1974 a dramatic change started to take place. It was harder to get supplies, at first. And then the curfew got earlier and earlier. But nobody ever came to us and warned us that the end of the war was approaching. We were never told to prepare to close our facilities.

There was also trouble with getting orphans out of the country. The ministers in the government who worked with us seemed to change almost daily, and the new ministers didn't know the usual procedures. So we were working all the time with people we had not worked with previously -- the people who had worked with us previously were all leaving the country. We had difficulties regarding the children leaving on a World Airways jet. Then we had trouble getting papers for them to leave on the U. S. Air Force Orphan Airlift after that -- the C-5A. But finally we were able to get permission for the children who had passports to go on the flight. I think we put about 230 orphans on that C-5A.

Some of the children left for Australian about fifteen minutes before the C-5A left. I was at the nursery making sure the children were boarded on the proper flights. I did not go out to Tan Son Nhut -- Rosemary did that. And then she came back to the nursery. I remember she told me when she came back from the airport that the C-5A was such a big plane. We had understood that the children would be going on Nightingale planes -- which were medically supplied Army planes with cots. But the C-5A was a big cargo plane and Rosemary was feeling some anxiety about that.

She had been back only for a few minutes when I got a telephone call from the Seventh Day Adventist Hospital. The woman on the other end of the line said, "Could you send some child care workers out here? Your children are being brought in wounded."

So we got in a taxi, an old yellow and blue Renault, and went out to the hospital. We didn't say a word on the way out. We had no idea what had happened. I was thinking at the time, "Was it hit by something? Did it crash? Was it just an aborted takeoff? What happened?"

When we got to the hospital they were just beginning to bring in the living and the dead. Every kind of conveyance you could think of was bringing them in -- trucks, ambulances, jeeps and cars. And there were sirens sounding all around.

It was probably the most shocking experience of my entire life. I had friends on board the plane who died when it crashed. Adults. And there were children that I had cared for on the flight and they died, too. Just seeing their little bodies was like a scene right out of a nightmare.

I couldn't identify many of the children. I couldn't tell who they were. I did unzip a body bag or two but the sight was unbearable. So I sopped doing that. There had been secretaries from the Defense Attache Office on board the plane, too, and some of them were dead. I went through the hospital wards to see if there were any survivors I could identify.

In the context of what was going on at the time in Vietnam, the crash of the C-5A was not so unusual. The women who worked for us would get a phone call and then they would have to go out and identify the body of a husband or a son. And we saw many coffins. We saw them go by on trucks every day. So the crash fit in with everything that was going on all around us. If it had been an isolated event in a country that was a peace, perhaps then somehow it would have been different.

Some of the children from the nursery where I worked were among the living. One little girl I had cared for a long time had sustained a skull fracture and both of her hips were broken. I found her the next day in the hospital. She didn't know how injured she was. When I found her it made me happy and the happiness blended in with the shock of the deaths. In the next days I found other children from our home who had survived the crash.

There were a lot of people at the hospital after the crash. There were people from the Embassy and USAID and they offered their cars to take the children back to the nurseries. We stayed at the hospital until it was past dark, identifying the children and helping them leave.

I don't know if I was in such good condition at the time to decide how the children were. When I found some of them I was just so glad that they were breathing. I gave attention to their outward injuries -- cuts and things. But I wasn't really aware enough to do complete physical examinations on the survivors.

Many of the children left the next day on a chartered Pan Am flight. The children who were badly injured eventually got out. Homes were found for them.

By the end of the first week in April, we were aware that the end was near. The Embassy was interested in getting U. S. citizens out of the country. But I just couldn't leave the children and go. There was no one to take over the task of operating the nurseries, on one to see that they got the food and supplies they needed. And the child care workers weren't in a position to take on all of those responsibilities.

So I stayed until I was sure that there was transportation out of the country for the children. I left on the twenty-sixth of April. Two days before, the embassy personnel came by and said that there was a plane ready for us. The same thing happened on the twenty-fifth. But then on the twenty-sixth we did in fact leave with the children. And that was the end of the nurseries, too.

We left on a cargo plane, a C-141. We went to the airport on buses provided by the Embassy. I remember it was very hot that day. We tried to keep the children hydrated. I brought bottles to feed them with. I had very strong feelings at the time about leaving the Vietnamese people I had gotten to know and love. When I left the orphanage, the child care workers were still there -- they stayed there until all the children had left. Some of the workers came as far as they could and they helped us on board the plane. But then they stayed behind. They were very calm about what might happen to them later. They did not seem panicky at all at the time.

There were about 250 children with us when we left. They were from three of our nurseries. There were fourteen other adults on the flight, too. I sat on the floor in the back of the plane with the very small babies.

The doors on a C-141 are like a big clam shell. I had no fear when the doors started to close. We had boxes on the plane with maybe two children to a box. They needed a lot of attention, so I was thinking about the children. I remember some of my friends leaving the plane before the doors closed. Doreen Beckett, an Australian, left and returned to the orphanage. She stayed behind with Rosemary and with Ilse Edwald, from Germany. The three of them stayed to take care of the buildings and to see that the staff members were paid and that they had the letters of recommendation they might need in the future. So they were not on the plane with us and I did not know what was going to happen to them. I was thinking about them when the doors closed. There were lots of feelings mixed up in me at that moment. Rosemary, Doreen and Ilse finally left on the last day of April from the roof of the US Embassy by helicopter.

I really loved Vietnam. I loved the friends I had worked with from many countries. Leaving that way was so abrupt -- such an abrupt ending with all decisions made from the outside. I realized that this, suddenly, was the end of all of the work I had been doing. And I was not going to see many of my friends again for a long long time -- if ever again. And I would not see Vietnam again for a long time, either.

We flew out to Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines. It was a big relief landing there. The clam shell doors opened and I could see the line of people that seemed to stretch forever and they were to take care of the children. There was one person for each child and each baby on board. A doctor came to me and asked, "Who is the most ill here?" He wanted medical reports on the children. It had been so long since something like that had happened. I had forgotten what it was like. I had been in a country where children in the outlying orphanages were dying every day and where it was not uncommon for epidemics to strike the orphanages. And this doctor said, "Lost night we almost lost a baby." I remember getting all choked up because they really cared about the children and there was someone there to take care of the kids and there were ambulances to take the sick ones to the hospital. The children who were in better condition were taken to a gymnasium and mattresses were put on the floor. There were concession-like stands with baby food in the building.

The first night we spent in the gymnasium. Everything was very well organized. Every day the military had sixty children leaving for the U.S. on C-141s with seats and one escort for every two children.

I was in the Philippines for about seven days. When the last groups of children left, I went with them.

Back in America it was a different world. There was a lawsuit in California -- something about orphans who had been taken from panicky mothers in Vietnam. I felt angry about that because it was untrue. Some people were saying that the children we brought out were kidnapped. And I found that very hard to deal with because I had seen how the orphanages were and I knew how many orphans were left in Vietnam (over 24,000 in orphanages and over 150,000 cared for by Vietnamese families). In fact, there were women who, near the end, came to the gate of the orphanage to give us their children. But the administrators of our place, who was Vietnamese, talked to them and assured them that the Communists were not going to kill their children. And they were sent away.

It took me a long time to get my sensitivity back once I was in the United States again. I remember looking at sunsets or at a beautiful landscape or something really pretty and thinking, "Gosh, that's really beautiful." But I did not feel happiness and I did not feel sadness. I just felt a kind of numbing dullness.

My life changed dramatically after I left Vietnam. I took some children to Europe. I stayed with a family in England for a brief time and I went to France and stayed in the home of a man who had lost his wife and two children on the C-5A crash. Then I visited Ilse in Germany and the children who had been adopted there and in Finland.

I remember being on a train somewhere in Europe at that time and seeing a farmer plowing a field and I thought, "Not all countries are at war!" I had to keep reminding myself that the way it had been in Vietnam was not the way it was everywhere in the world.

But still I have dreams about the C-5A crash. In one dream a friend comes to me and says, "The plane crashed and the children were on it." Then I am at the crash site. In my dream I run toward the plane. There are little pieces of paper flying all over in the air. The air around the plane is filled with these little pieces of paper -- like snowflakes. So before I get to the plane I pick one of the pieces of paper out of the air. And on it is a picture of a child. Then in the dream I turn to the others at the crash site and I shout to them, "It's all right! There weren't any children on the plane. There were just pictures. Just pictures of children."

FORT GEORGE G. MEADE, Md. (AFNS) -- No matter how far women were kept away from combat roles, they were never far from harm and the opportunity to rise above and beyond the call of duty.

An explosion blew out a pressure door of a C-5A Galaxy as it took off from Tan Son Nhut Air Base, Vietnam, April 4, 1975, forcing it to make an emergency landing with 313 passengers and crew, including 250 orphans.

The plane was the first to depart in support of Operation Babylift, where American caregivers were paired with South Vietnamese orphans, most fathered by Americans, to evacuate them to the Philippines then to San Diego, Calif., where President Gerald Ford was ready to welcome them to the United Sates.

Capt. Mary Klinker, the flight nurse and 1st Lt. Regina C. Aune, a nurse, were on board to help safely secure the children for their passage to a new life.

Pilot Capt. Dennis "Bud" Traynor and co-pilot Capt. Tilford Harp heroically controlled the doomed aircraft, but the explosion and a crash landing changed the lives of all on board.

Aune was thrown the entire length of the upper deck as the crippled aircraft skidded a quarter mile in a rice paddy, became airborne approximately a half mile, then crashed into an irrigation ditch where it was torn into four pieces.

In the crash, Klinker became the last U.S. servicewoman to die in the Vietnam War and was posthumously awarded the Air Medal and the Meritorious Service Medal. Her name is listed on panel O1W, row 122 of the Vietnam Veteran's Memorial.

Aune helped carry 80 babies to rescue helicopters at the muddy crash site. When unable to continue, she asked the first officer she saw if she could be relieved of her duties, then passed out. It was later discovered she helped save these babies with a broken foot, a broken leg, a broken vertebra and numerous other injuries.

Aune became the first woman to be awarded the Cheney Award, which was established in 1927 to recognize an Airman for an act of valor, extreme fortitude or self-sacrifice in a humanitarian interest, performed in connection with aircraft, but not necessarily of a military nature.

In all, 37 medals were awarded to the crew or next-of-kin of the 11 Airmen killed in the crash. Those killed also included 35 Defense Attaché Office employees and 78 children.

Aune retired an Air Force colonel in 2007.

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