Hindsight is always great, and those who engage in this pastime, especially in war, need to be called to task for the stones they throw at any and all persons who make a decision.
Its 1975, Da Nang has fallen and the Communists of North Vietnam are moving swiftly toward Saigon. Those who have sided with the American forces are hurrying to escape, gathered around the U.S. Embassy and pleading to be put on the next transport out.
Defeat has an ugly smell and anyone who has been in a war zone knows that American soldiers have not kept their pants zipped during their tours in Vietnam. The result has been babies that one glance will tell even the most casual observer that some of the offspring of the Vietnamese women are what we have come to term Amerasians. Some of these babies have been dumped in orphanages to remove them from the site of their Vietnamese families.
And Vietnamese babies are in orphanages as well, taken there by mothers who no longer have the resources to feed them. They’ve left theirs babies and small children with the hope that when this ugly war is over, things will calm down, and some measure of prosperity will return. They can then reclaim their children and get on with their lives.
Protocol in the form of paperwork gets lost, if it ever existed, in war, and there is no way to tell who is who.
Fears abound. Will those babies fathered by American soldiers be murdered? Who is responsible for their well-being, their very lives?
On June 23, I was able to get a first-hand account from Kentucky native Chief Master Sergeant, U.S. Air Force (1958-1989) Ray Snedegar of “Operation Babylift” a flight on April 4, 1975, that shook the world.
As part of the Library of Congress Veterans History Project and with U.S. Coast Guard veteran Ted Jones videoing, I was prepared for another story of the ravages of war. This one, however, involved babies and children, and it was ordered as the first of 30 planned flights by U.S. President Gerald Ford.
Trouble was apparent with the C-5 Galaxy cargo plane 12 minutes after takeoff with 243 orphans and assorted personnel and crew aboard. As the plane fell apart, Snedegar found himself upside down in the cockpit, totally separate from other parts of the plane. Before takeoff from Saigon, Snedegar, had been admiring a lovely girl, age 19. After the crash, she came up to him, holding a baby. She was bleeding profusely from the side of her head and her blouse was now missing. “Please put my ear back on,” she pleaded and handed him her ear. He put the ear in place and bandaged her head (She survived and the ear was later successfully attached).
In the scheme of things, the ear was inconsequential; however, Snedegar remembers that scene vividly.
On that day 138 died, including 78 of the children as the plane crashed and broke into its component parts.
By the end of April 1975 there were 3,000 orphans airlifted out of Vietnam. A Vietnamese non-profit called “Operation Reunite” seeks to use DNA testing to reunite the ones who survived that crash that day with their Vietnamese families. Snedegar indicates that this is impossible because papers were necessary for the orphans who had no papers. A doctor arbitrarily assigned a birthday, and nuns at the orphanages used a telephone book to give them names.
Snedegar who was recognized with the other surviving crew by the U.S. Air Force for “heroism and extraordinary achievement” was visibly shaken as he ended this part of his interview, and the study I had done in preparation for it had in no way prepared me.
Following the crash, bomb sniffing dogs were brought in to determine if sabotage were involved. Luggage had been hastily thrown into the cargo hull without checking because of the time constraints.
There were 100 C-5 grounded until the cause of the crash could be determined, but scavengers were on the scene as soon as the fires would permit, carrying off anything they could , and the back door of the cargo was somewhere in the South China Sea. Leaflets were printed and distributed with offers to buy back anything the Vietnamese had taken from the crash site. A camera used by a film crew in the cargo hull was recovered but the film had been removed. The black boxes were recovered and provided a sequence of events but no reason for the door failure. The U.S. Seventh Fleet finally located the rear door on April 26, and then it was time to load up everything possible and leave Vietnam on April 27.
The cause of the crash was a human one, emanating from Travis Air Force Base in California. With a shortage of parts, cannibalizing was practiced to service planes where parts were needed. Snedegar says, “A bell crank was removed and replaced that controls the three forward locks on the right side of the aft ramp.” There are 14 locks on a C-5, 7 on each side. In the C-5 locks, three of the tie rods had been removed and were replaced improperly and had not held. Proper rerigging procedures were not followed.
Before takeoff, load master Snedegar noted that he had to try three or four times to get the cargo door closed. The pressure on the locks was too much and they failed. The solution: A failsafe remedy was put in place using a steel pin to avoid future problems.
Of the over 50 interviews in which I’ve been involved for the Library of Congress Veterans History Project, I regularly iterate and reiterate that every job in our military is important, is mission critical. This story certainly affirms my conviction.
In conclusion, there are persons who question the wisdom of removing the babies from Vietnam. There are person who question why the U.S. was ever tin Vietnam. There are those who feel we redrew too soon and should have finished the job by any means necessary. Others feel the American public was deceived while others still hate those who demonstrated against the war. It’s all complex, and my sense is that my role is to present perspectives as I’m able to enlist those who were involved and are willing to talk about their experiences. My role is to give voice to those who might otherwise remain voiceless.
Note: I will be writing a more comprehensive accounting of Snedegar’s outstanding and interesting career in an upcoming issue of “The Kentucky Explorer.” The feature will include words and photographs of those orphans who survived the crash and are now adults. Send comments to: firstname.lastname@example.org or Vivian B. Blevins, Ph.D., 1497 Nicklin Avenue, Piqua, OH 45356.