Operation Babylift: Background information when reading Butterfly Yellow

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Butterfly Yellow

by Thanhha Lai, Daniel Suarez

Butterfly Yellow by Thanhha Lai, Daniel Suarez X
Butterfly Yellow by Thanhha Lai, Daniel Suarez
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    Sep 2019, 304 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Rory L. Aronsky
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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

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 September 2019 edition.

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