The handwriting was on the wall—the nightly TV news showed we were losing the Vietnam War. North Vietnamese forces were closing in on Saigon and military bases in the area. It was only a matter of days before the North’s complete takeover.
At Tan Son Nhut Air Base near Saigon, it was cloudy on April 20, 1975. I could only imagine the terror and fear across town near Bien Hoa Air Base, the other major Air Force installation in the area. My fear increased as each mortar shell landed and the concussions of exploding rounds shook the ground violently. I always wondered if the next one had my name on it.
At that point I had been in the Air Force 16 years. I was a technical sergeant stationed at Travis Air Force Base in California, where two squadrons of C-5A Galaxy troop transports supported airlift missions to Southeast Asia. My job was senior C-5A loadmaster attached to the 22nd Military Airlift Squadron. On April 3, President Gerald Ford had given his approval for Operation Babylift, an evacuation of South Vietnamese orphans, who would be flown on military and commercial aircraft to families in America to escape the communist onslaught.
Tan Son Nhut was the evacuation site where thousands of children and many adults boarded planes to start the journey to their new homes in the weeks before Saigon fell on April 30. Two C-5A planes from Travis Air Force Base were scheduled to participate in the evacuation, operating out of Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines, on April 4. I was on one of them. The Galaxy is a massive cargo lifter capable of hauling outsized loads. It was still somewhat new, and we continued to work out maintenance issues. The C-5A could airlift many more kids than its smaller cousins, the C-141 Starlifter and C-130 Hercules.
Although Tan Son Nhut airport had a lot of ramp space, the Air Force did not want two giant planes—big juicy targets for Viet Cong snipers—on the ground at the same time, so one was scheduled to leave a few hours later than the other. That would give the first plane time to get in and out before the second one, my plane, arrived. There was no air cover support at that time. Headquarters gave us a status report, saying everything was normal. “Good,” I thought to myself.
Only 30 minutes after my plane left Clark, headquarters called. We were told to turn around and go back to Clark because there had been an accident in Saigon. We were shocked and wondered what kind of accident. The C-5A occasionally broke down. I thought it was the worst time to have maintenance problems.
Landing back at Clark, we were stunned to get the news that the first plane had crashed. What happened? We initially thought it was sabotage. The plane took off from Tan Son Nhut OK but suddenly descended rapidly and crashed 2 miles short of the base in a rice paddy. Could it have been a bomb or surface-to-air missile? A bomb seemed unlikely, as did a SAM unless the enemy had an improved missile.
I immediately thought about my comrades on the plane. Some I had just seen four days earlier. Were there any survivors? What about the children? I thought about the older kids—many of whom had survived the horrors of the last decade or so, only to tragically die in a rice paddy that some of them might even have worked in.
Our flight was canceled. We found out there were survivors, thank God, even some among the crew members, but we had not been told who they were. Unfortunately, many people did not survive. The crash killed 138 of 314 people—adults and children—onboard. Many emotions run through your mind in a situation like that. I thought that it could have been me and my plane. You just must somehow bury the tragedy and keep going. War is hell.
The Air Force launched an investigation. Experts were sent to look at the crash, but peasants had raided the site by then and snatched everything they could haul away. It took days to determine the cause. The investigation revealed that the ramp sheared off during ascent through 20,000 feet, where the most pressure occurs. Investigators suspected that the ramp locks came loose and the intense pressure caused a rapid decompression. Even so, the ramp should still have held. Safety lights indicated the ramp was locked, but there was a false reading.
Not completely sure of what happened, the Air Force decided to ground the C-5 fleet, which severely hampered the evacuation. Other types of planes, however, carried on the airlift and came into Tan Son Nhut one after another. I waited at Clark and then joined up with a C-141 crew. We went into Saigon on April 20 and 21, then again on April 23 for the last time. On all the flights, we were taking out orphan babies, children and some adults.
During my first flight into Tan Son Nhut, on April 20, I was nervous and did not know what to expect. I knew things would be hectic, but what I found was more than I could have imagined. There must have been six planes waiting to be loaded and another two taxiing out for takeoff. A huge line had formed near the tarmac. It looked like there were several hundred people, mostly women, babies and young children.
The C-141 Starlifter carries about 72 in passenger-type seats and about 40 in side-facing seats. Every side-facing seat was stored up, and we sat everyone on the floor. The Red Cross had prioritized the prospective passengers: the orphan babies, children, then adults.
I brought in about 20 kids, babies and their chaperones, sat them on the floor and brought in another 20, repeating this several times. We crammed in as many as we could and secured them with tie-down straps. The chaperones and older kids held some of the babies. One of the loadmaster’s duties is to perform a weight and balance check to make sure the plane’s center of gravity is balanced. With a crew of six and approximately 90 passengers, we were way below our capacity, so there were no weight issues.
The loading took about 20 minutes. We then taxied out and got in line for departure. Two planes were already waiting. It was no more than 10 minutes before we were airborne and headed back to Clark, where evacuees would continue on other planes until they reached their destination in the U.S.
On the April 23 flight we were warned en route to expect the worst. We were unarmed and depended on only the few Army and Marine personnel still there for our safety. That day will forever be burned into my memory. As we landed at Tan Son Nhut, planes were moving everywhere. There was hardly any space to maneuver.
Taxiing in, we opened our cantilever shell doors and positioned the back ramp horizontally to save time. Infants and children were supposed to go first, but when fear sets in, people will do anything to survive. You could feel the tension. Everyone was panicking and scrambling. The Red Cross monitors could not keep the peace. Even the Security Police were being overwhelmed. The scary scene was reminiscent of the movie Titanic when a mad rush followed the order to load the lifeboats.
This time, we kept our engines running. The North Vietnamese Army and Viet Cong had closed in on Bien Hoa Air Base. We could hear the hissing of deadly mortars nearby. Our helicopters gave us status reports on the enemy’s location. We were ready to go at a moment’s notice.
I was out by the right wing on headset. Looking at the massive crowd, I noticed someone had broken the line and was running straight toward our plane carrying a package of some sort. We had been warned to watch out for saboteurs with bombs or other deadly devices. “Oh my God!” I thought. As the person got closer, I noticed it was a woman who seemed to be heading for the back of the plane. I knew the monitor would turn her around and send her back. To my surprise, she veered and headed straight for me.
Over the headset, I screamed, “Someone is approaching me holding something!” A crewman yelled back, “Watch yourself!” Unarmed, I was so scared. Saboteurs came in all types. Then I realized it was not a package she was holding—it was a baby. She stopped in front of me and crying hysterically held out the infant at arm’s length. I backed up, and she moved closer, begging me to take her child. I raised my arms in the air and shook my hands, trying to tell her, “No.” She left, still sobbing. I watched her go back to the line but lost sight of her.
I often think about that moment. Looking back, I just should have escorted the woman and her child onto the plane, where maybe they would have been allowed to board. We took on 72 passengers, waited our turn and departed. On the way out we saw rocket flashes as the enemy continued to bomb Bien Hoa.
The airlift was a success. Our mission was accomplished. Days later, the North Vietnamese captured the base and eventually Saigon. My squadron suffered several casualties, and I lost some good friends. However, thousands of lives were saved. Ironically, one of the babies we rescued, now an adult, lives and works in Las Vegas, where I reside.
Albert Monroe is the author of My Unbelievable Journey: The Story of an Air Force Crewman. He served in the Air Force 1963-85 and then worked for Lockheed Martin, teaching satellite operations. Monroe taught political science at the college level for 12 years. A second book, NASA Secrets, the story of the space shuttle, is coming soon.
This article appeared in the April 2022 issue of Vietnam magazine.