This article originally appeared in the February 2009 issue of Vietnam magazine. We republish it on HistoryNet in honor of the 35th anniversary of Operation Baby Airlift in April 2010.
Charles Patterson earned the Silver Star, Bronze Star Medal and Purple Heart for his service in World War II. A graduate of Antioch College, he worked for the Urban League in Cleveland and earned a master’s degree in sociology and industrial relations from Case Western University. After additional graduate studies at the University of California in Berkeley, he served as deputy director of the Peace Corps for Africa and director of program development and operations. He joined World Airways in 1968 and retired as vice president and assistant to the president in 1985. Patterson was a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, the World Affairs Council and NAACP. He died at the age of 69 in 1994.
In early March 1975, Ed Daly, president of World Airways, received a telex from his daughter, Charlotte. She had been working in Oakland, California, for two charities, Friends For All Children and Save the Children. She told her father that the organizations had identified a number of orphans in Vietnam and found adoptive families for them in the United States. They had all the necessary papers, and now they needed transportation. “Is there anything you can do?” she asked.
At that time I was working for Daly as a jack-of-all trades, as vice president and head of public affairs at World Airways. We were in Vietnam, organizing refugee flights from Da Nang, which would soon be overrun by North Vietnamese Army forces. Chaos was spreading as it became more and more obvious South Vietnam was on the verge of defeat. Daly passed the telex to me and said, “See what you can do about this.”
I began working with the two organizations on a way to get the orphans out. After talking to the people who ran the charities, I told Daly: “We have this stretch DC-8 that has been flying rice to Phnom Penh. It is in cargo configuration, but it has to be flown back to the U.S. for a maintenance check. Why can’t we put the orphans on it?” Daly and I were on the same page."Hell yes,” he said, “we’ll turn it into a flying crib. We’ll get doctors and nurses and take all the kids!” At that point, he was talking about as many as 1,000 children.
So I began working closely with the groups, and I introduced those in charge of the children to Daly. I then organized World Airways people to get an orphan flight off the ground. Daly and I met with the South Vietnamese minister in charge of exit visas, and he assured us that there would be no problem, that the children were authorized to leave Vietnam.
As the clock ticked in Vietnam, everything had to be worked out fast. We got buses, and we lined up supplies and a medical team from the Seventh Day Adventist Hospital. We also found cardboard cribs and cargo nets to secure the children inside the plane. It wasn’t easy, but in a very short time everything was set and we were ready to go.
On April 2, I was in Saigon, thinking we were almost ready to take off. I visited some of the staging areas to see the children. It was pretty heartbreaking watching volunteers make decisions about which kids could go and which were too weak to make the flight. After helping load kids on the buses, I went out to the airport. Daly was in all his glory, holding court with the reporters at the Tan Son Nhut restaurant. All of us felt pleased that we were about to do this really good thing. We had clearance from the government for this first group—but then things suddenly came to a standstill. I talked to an Australian, Rosemary Taylor, who had brought a lot of children out to the airport. She told me that they were ready to take off but the U.S. Embassy had suddenly stepped in, advising her that our plane was unsafe, claiming among other things that it was not pressurized and had no toilets.
Taylor said that instead of taking our plane, she would use a plane that the embassy was going to provide. Our guess was that the embassy didn’t want to be embarrassed by World Airways flying orphans out of the country. They wanted to make it a government project.
I said, “Rosemary, what they are telling you is not true.” It was now about 1 p.m. and, as the children were sitting on the buses in the hot sun, I showed her and a woman from the embassy our plane. I tried to convince her that our plane was safe, that it was pressurized and had johns and all the things required to ensure the safety of the children. She shook her head, and I can still remember her saying, “No, no, no.” She wanted to accept the government offer to fly these orphans out.
The truth is, the government had no plans to fly anybody out. What I believe is that American Ambassador Graham Martin was concerned that if that happened, he would have problems convincing Americans that South Vietnam was not about to fall. During those chaotic days, Martin tried to project the image that we were going to stand there and that everything was going to work out. The idea of somebody as flamboyant as Daly flying a load of orphans to California might hinder the embassy’s effort.
I told Daly what was happening. The children from the Friends For All Children were bused back to their orphanages. Then someone with Friends of the Children of Vietnam, which had split off from the other organizations, came to me and said they had children they would like to fly out. Daly gave the go-ahead, so they went hurrying off to round up children that could go on our plane. They started trickling in, and as nightfall approached we had about 55. The Vietnamese checked them out to make sure they were authorized to go. The Seventh Day Adventist doctors and nurses then brought another five babies and carried those on board.
At last we were ready to take off. Meanwhile, Daly had talked with the director of South Vietnamese civil aviation, who warned him that there were reports of Viet Cong in and around the airport, and that if we were going to go we had better go soon. At that we all jumped on the plane.
One young woman who had an Amerasian child was trying to get her child to California. Somebody had introduced her to Daly, so we slipped her onto the plane. We had her locked in the restroom until we took off. While many of the children came without papers, this was the only illegal one.
As we readied to take off, pilot Ken Healy took control. They had shut off the lights at the airport, perhaps because of the threat of a Viet Cong attack, or perhaps in an effort by the American government to slow down this babylift—but on Daly’s orders we took off anyway.
Daly got off the plane in Yokota, Japan, and said he was going back to Vietnam. By this time he was all caught up in the situation and he was determined to go back and help. So I stayed on the plane with the orphans going all the way to California.
We were surprised when we got to Oakland. I had been sending telexes to Daly’s daughter Charlotte telling her how many kids were coming. They had doctors and many others waiting there, and had arranged to take the youngsters to the Sixth Army headquarters.
It was only when we arrived and I saw all these people that I realized that we had become a big news story. If Daly had known that, I think he might have come all the way home.
There is a bitter footnote to the orphan story. The American government finally did arrange to fly the rest of those orphans out, but on April 4 the C-5A carrying them crashed shortly after takeoff, killing more than 130 passengers. These included at least 78 children, many of the ones we had not been permitted to take to Oakland on our “unsafe plane.”
Historian and journalist Larry Engelmann lives in San Jose, California.