JBSA-Lackland, Texas —
On April 4, 1975, just a few weeks before the fall of Saigon and end of the Vietnam War, the first military flight of “Operation Babylift” out of Saigon on a C-5 cargo aircraft, crashed right after take-off. There were close to 300 hundred people on board, mostly children under the age of two that day, only a little more than 170 people survived the crash 41 years ago.
Retired Col. Regina Aune and three guests visited the 433rd Airlift Wing Dec.19, to tour a C-5M Super Galaxy aircraft and to recount the day of that terrible crash. In the group was Aryn Lockhart, one of the orphaned babies, who survived the deadly crash.
The group was hosted by Col. Thomas K. Smith, Jr., 433rd Airlift Wing commander.
“Operation Babylift” was a combined effort between the United States, Canada, Australia and France to mass evacuate more than 3,300 refugees from South Vietnam.
According to the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library & Museum, when President Ford was faced with mounting evidence of the imminent fall of South Vietnam, he authorized the evacuation of thousands of Vietnamese orphans (many fathered by American military personnel) to the United States.
A then, Lt. Regina Aune was on the first military aircraft to Vietnam to bring the refugees to the United States. As the medical crew director on that mission, she was charged with taking care of all the passengers, mostly babies on that ill-fated flight.
During the tour, Aune recalled how the children were bedded down in the overhead troop compartment of the aircraft. While walking through the aircraft, she took the group back through the day of the flight, while Smith explained the workings of the C-5 and the mission of the 433rd AW.
She went on to describe what she heard right before the crash, and seeing the cargo doors blew, and watched as a crew member got sucked out with them. Aune told the group, she remembered seeing the South China Sea through the hole in the back in the back of the aircraft. When the aircraft finally came to rest, it was torn into two parts.
Although wounded, Aune and the other crew members carried the surviving children off the aircraft. Aune was honored for her actions that day with the Cheney Award, recognizing her act of valor, “In a humanitarian interest performed in connection with aircraft.” At that time, she was the first female to ever receive the award.
Lockhart doesn’t remember the crash or the aftermath; she was too young, and only remembers what was told to her by her adopted parents.
After growing up, she set out on a quest to find something about the crash and her journey to the U.S. During her search, she found Aune, by simply doing an Internet search. Together they have become friends and have written a book entitled “Operation Babylift: Mission Accomplished.”