Operation Babylift: Background information when reading Butterfly Yellow

Summary |  Excerpt |  Reviews |  Beyond the Book |  Read-Alikes |  Genres & Themes |  Author Bio

Butterfly Yellow

by Thanhha Lai

Butterfly Yellow by Thanhha Lai X
Butterfly Yellow by Thanhha Lai
  • Critics' Opinion:

    Readers' Opinion:

     Not Yet Rated
  • First Published:
    Sep 2019, 304 pages

    Oct 2020, 320 pages


  • Rate this book

Book Reviewed by:
Rory L. Aronsky
Buy This Book

About this Book

Operation Babylift

This article relates to Butterfly Yellow

Print Review

Vietnamese babies resting in Pan Am duffel bags on an airplaneIn April 1975, thousands of American troops, civilians and South Vietnamese refugees were frantically airlifted out of Saigon, representing the end of American military involvement in the Vietnam War. The images of the rescue were seared into the public consciousness.

The U.S. government felt that something good had to come out of all those years of conflict — a public relations nightmare — or at least, it had to look like something good had come. There were plenty of orphans in potential peril once South Vietnam was overtaken by the Viet Cong, and wouldn't their lives be better if they had a chance to start anew in the United States?

President Gerald Ford, acting on a plea from New York's Cardinal Terrence Cooke for federal support, ordered Operation Babylift, a plan to evacuate more than 4,000 children from Catholic orphanages in South Vietnam via military aircraft. (Ultimately, about 2,500 children actually made the journey.)

The logistics were daunting. Inside the aircraft commissioned for the operation, floors would be lined with blankets for the babies, and some were even secured by cargo netting. A Pan Am flight attendant remembers checking on babies in cardboard bassinets with a flashlight to make sure they were still breathing. The crews were determined to succeed, even after an early tragedy.

The first Operation Babylift flight used a C-5A Galaxy aircraft. Its cargo doors blew out not long after takeoff, ripping off a chunk of the tail and causing rapid decompression. The pilot, Col. Bud Traynor, found that control cables to the tail were cut off, and his efforts to pull on the stick to try to gain altitude did not help, as the plane continued to dive. He managed to stabilize it and turn back to Vietnam, but a crash landing was the only option. 170 survived, 128 died (78 children and 50 adults). After the crash, C-5A aircraft were temporarily grounded, and C-130, C-141, and DC-8 planes were pressed into service, all flying out of Clark Air Base in the Philippines.

Once the flights arrived in the United States, medical teams met them to examine the children for severe dehydration, skin infections, chicken pox, pneumonia and other maladies. The most serious cases were rushed by ambulance to hospitals. About half of the children were processed through San Francisco's Presidio military base, which had converted Harmon Hall, one of its larger buildings, into a care facility. An article in the San Francisco Chronicle from April 6, 1975 listed the supplies required by the facility, including 7,886 bottles of formula, 1,440 aspirin tablets, "at least" 10,000 disposable diapers, gallons of baby powder, and so much more.

Some controversies erupted from Operation Babylift, and a class-action lawsuit was filed in California against former President Ford, Henry Kissinger and others, alleging that many children were not orphans, and had been taken from South Vietnam against their parents' wishes. The lawsuit caused delays in processing citizenship for the children, who had entered the United States on temporary visas signed by Ford. The lawsuit passed through San Francisco's federal district court and the U.S. Court of Appeals, stretching on for four years as documentation was checked for all of the children to determine if they were actually orphans. The class-action suit was eventually dismissed, though some parents later sued on an individual basis.

Overall, Operation Babylift lasted nearly a month, with the final flight out of Saigon taking place on April 25th, three days before the evacuation of all remaining American personnel from Vietnam.

Operation Babylift flight, courtesy of the National Archives

Filed under People, Eras & Events

Article by Rory L. Aronsky

This "beyond the book article" relates to Butterfly Yellow. It originally ran in October 2019 and has been updated for the October 2020 paperback edition. Go to magazine.

This review is available to non-members for a limited time. For full access become a member today.
Membership Advantages
  • Reviews
  • "Beyond the Book" articles
  • Free books to read and review (US only)
  • Find books by time period, setting & theme
  • Read-alike suggestions by book and author
  • Book club discussions
  • and much more!
  • Just $45 for 12 months or $15 for 3 months.
  • More about membership!

Join BookBrowse

For a year of great reading
about exceptional books!

Find out more

Top Picks

  • Book Jacket: Beyond the Door of No Return
    Beyond the Door of No Return
    by David Diop
    In early 19th-century France, Aglaé's father Michel Adanson dies of old age. Sitting at ...
  • Book Jacket: Crossings
    by Ben Goldfarb
    We've all seen it—a dead animal carcass on the side of the road, clearly mowed down by a car. ...
  • Book Jacket: Wifedom
    by Anna Funder
    When life became overwhelming for writer, wife, and mother Anna Funder in the summer of 2017, she ...
  • Book Jacket: The Fraud
    The Fraud
    by Zadie Smith
    In a recent article for The New Yorker, Zadie Smith joked that she moved away from London, her ...

Book Club Discussion

Book Jacket
Fair Rosaline
by Natasha Solomons
A subversive, powerful untelling of Romeo and Juliet by New York Times bestselling author Natasha Solomons.

Members Recommend

  • Book Jacket

    This Is Salvaged
    by Vauhini Vara

    Stories of uncanny originality from Vauhini Vara, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction.

  • Book Jacket

    Devil Makes Three
    by Ben Fountain

    A brilliant and propulsive novel set in Haiti from the award-winning, bestselling author of Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk.

Win This Book
Win Moscow X

25 Copies to Give Away!

A daring CIA operation threatens chaos in the Kremlin. But can Langley trust the Russian at its center?



Solve this clue:

A M I A Terrible T T W

and be entered to win..

Your guide toexceptional          books

BookBrowse seeks out and recommends the best in contemporary fiction and nonfiction—books that not only engage and entertain but also deepen our understanding of ourselves and the world around us.