40 Years Later – Operation Baby Lift Crash Survivors Reunited

All photos Courtesy of Phillip R. Wise

Sgt. Phillip Wise was a young man from Flint, Michigan who enlisted in the United States Air Force right out of Southwestern High School and was sent to fight in Vietnam over 40 years ago.   Sgt. Wise was in Saigon when South Vietnam was being overrun by the Viet Cong forces and President Ford started evacuation of American citizens.   One of the plans that they used as a cover for this evacuation, so not to alarm their host country, was Operation Baby Lift.

Operation Baby Lift was an operation where American citizens were paired with a Vietnamese “orphan” – often a mixed race baby fathered by American Servicemen.  There was a lot of controversy at the time about removing these children from their homeland because some of them were not truly orphans, but had been placed in with aid workers because of poverty or fear.  There had been rumors that the Viet Cong were dousing these mixed race babies with gasoline and setting them on fire.  The fear was very real, but they did not desire to be separated from their children forever.

In Vietnam, poor families would sometimes place children in orphanages if they could not feed them. But in such cases, parents did not intend to give them up, and would often visit their children. Many parents, especially of Amerasians, were concerned about their children’s safety. In some cases, parents put their children on a Babylift plane, and later left Vietnam themselves as refugees, with the intention of finding their children later. “Many of [the adoption records] lacked the consents from the parents,” said Miller. When Mai Thi Kim brought her daughter Hiep (Heidi Bub) to the Holt Adoption Agency in Danang, she was given no papers whatsoever.  (Source: PBS)

In a Smithsonian article, “Children of the Vietnam War,”  one of these children explained about the fear of those days and what Vietnamese mothers did to hide and protect their children.  “My mother burned everything,” says William Tran, now a 38-year-old computer engineer in Illinois. “She said, ‘I can’t have a son named William with the Viet Cong around.’  Read more of this Smithsonian article here.

Based on these fears and an increasing shortage of food and supplies, coupled with the need to evacuate American citizens, Operation Baby Lift began on April 4, 1975 and immediately encountered tragedy.

On the afternoon of Friday, 4 April 1975, C-5 68-0218, making the first flight of Operation Babylift, departed Tan Son Nhat Air Base for Clark Air Base in the Phillipines. Once this flight arrived in the Philippines, the first group of orphans were supposed to be transferred to charter flights and were expected to land in San Diego.  Many never made it.  Sgt. Phillip Wise was in the cargo area of this plane.

Within minutes of take off, at 23,000 feet in the air, the locks in the rear loading ramp failed, and the cargo doors sprung open.  The cabin decompressed explosively and the plane started pitching, the pilots were able to control it the best they could until they crash landed in a rice paddy, breaking into pieces and catching on fire.  In the end, 78 children, 35 Defense Attache Office workers and 11 U.S. Air Force Servicemen were killed.

Sgt. Phillip Wise survived.  Retired Sgt. Wise was the only surviving servicemember in the cargo hold when the plane went down.  He tells his story in his book, Fragile Delivery.  Read excerpts from and purchase his exceptional book here.

In the 40 years since the crash, Sgt. Wise has been working tirelessly to help reunite families separated by Operation Baby Lift and more broadly the Vietnam War.   Today he is in Saigon again, to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the crash of the C5 Galaxy – the first flight of Operation Baby Lift.   The featured picture of this blog post is of Sgt. Wise with two of the surviving orphans, now adults, at the crash site at the unveiling of the 40th anniversary memorial.

Phillip Wise at the Crash Site with Survivors at the 40th Anniversary

Phillip Wise at the Crash Site with Survivors at the 40th Anniversary

The lingering issue of Operation Baby Lift is the reunion of the “orphans” and their families.  In addition to Ret. Sgt. Wise, there are several agencies that work to help toward this endeavor using various methods including DNA testing.  Due to the economic climate of Vietnam during wartime and present, there is an urgent need for DNA kits to be donated to some of the lost family members.  Servicemembers and mothers are approaching their latter years and reunions are becoming less and less likely.  Therefore the need for assisting these families to be reunited is URGENT AND IMMEDIATE.

Free Spirit Festival , to be held Saturday, August 8, 2015 at The Robin Hood in Clifton Reynes Buckinghamshire,ENGLAND MK46 5DR, is a music festival that will welcome acts like   Tony Hill, Mad Mods and the Englishmen, The Bighead,  Kastaphor and many more will be playing.  Bands are being added daily, so “like” Free Spirit’s Facebook Page to keep up to date.

A little bird tells me that they have some big headliners that will be publicly announced on May 1st.

Free Spirit raises money for Operation Reunite and Father Founded.  Please consider donating to one of these organizations, as I mentioned already, but it bears repeating, the need is URGENT AND IMMEDIATE.

The tireless efforts of people like Ret. Sgt. Wise, the Free Spirit promoters, Operation Reunite and Father Funded will reunite as many of these fractured families as possible.  But today we pause and remember those who will not be able to be reunited.

 “Those 144 souls lost 40 years ago today on that fateful first flight of Operation Baby Lift.  RIP”

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About sjwoods318

Mother of six children - five girls and one boy; wife; community organizer, family chauffeur, philosopher, trans-racial adoptee, Deadhead, person of mixed racial heritage, artist, poet, writer who loves to swim, read, and run around with my family.
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