In the closing days of the war in Vietnam an audacious plan was hatched to fly thousands of Vietnamese orphans out of the country. The first of those flights ended in disaster, killing more than 150 people. Almost four decades later, Brett Davis accompanies an Operation Babylift Survivor on a search for the scene of his brush with death.
It’s an unusually clear early-August afternoon and we are standing in the middle of a small cluster of rice paddies in Ho Chi Minh City’s District 12. It is only a kilometre or two from the main road but the landscape quickly takes on a semi-rural feel, dotted by low-set houses with small front gardens.
The directions were not exact; we had a rough idea and then started asking around once in the vicinity. Pulling out the photographs we were given, there is no doubt we have found the spot. This is where the first of the Operation Babylift flights came to a shuddering halt, crash landing shortly after take-off in April 1975.
I’ve come along on the day’s search with Landon Carnie, who with his twin sister was among the fortunate who survived that day. They were both thought to have perished. Yet the two were found more than a day later in a nearby field, unharmed and reportedly clinging to each other.
While he says he has often thought about visiting the site, Carnie only became aware of the general location of the crash recently. “I was interviewed a few months ago by a reporter from Al Jazeera, and she was on one of the later Babylift flights and she told me about the location,” he says.
There are 173 other survivors. Another 153 people, including government officials, air force crew, nurses, civilians and 76 children were killed. Yet there is little to mark the location of such a significant event — just an old bowl and vase atop a cracked bit of concrete, nestled between two rice paddies hidden by the tall grass.
In the dying days of the war in Vietnam, then US President Gerald Ford gave the order to commence an operation to help thousands of orphans evacuate the country. Between Apr. 4 and 26, some 3,000 children were relocated to the United States as well as Australia, Canada and France.
The first of these flights took off from Saigon’s Tan Son Nhat airfield around 4pm. A quarter of an hour later, about 24 kilometres off the coast from the fishing village of Vung Tau, the Lockheed C-5 Galaxy carrying the human cargo suffered a catastrophic failure. The rear cargo doors blew out, causing an explosive decompression and severely damaging the aircraft’s control systems.
With extraordinary skill the pilots of the stricken aircraft managed to turn the plane around and get it back in sight of the runway in Saigon. But at about 4.45pm the Galaxy hit the ground in rice fields, miraculously bouncing again to allow it to clear a branch of the Saigon River, before smashing into a dyke and breaking into pieces.
The area at the time was farmland and the crash site was more than a kilometre from the nearest road so firefighters could not reach the burning wreckage. The first rescuers had to be choppered in.
On learning it would be up to 11 days before the surviving children could be airlifted out of the war-torn country, American business man Robert Macauley mortgaged his house to charter a Boeing 747 to get the children out.
Back at the Site
As we walk back out of the fields to the road where our taxi is waiting, a couple of local residents are talking animatedly with other members of our party. One woman, whom I would guess to be in her 60s — although she declined to give her name or age — tells us there’s another site nearby where the middle part of the fuselage came to rest. We are astounded when she adds that the single remaining piece of the aircraft is still there. Everyone piles into the cab as the woman hops onto the back of a motorbike and we head back down the road.
She later tells me she and her husband were living in the same place back in 1975. They remember hearing a tremendously loud noise. They ran out of their house and were “scared” by the site of burning wreckage and bodies strewn across the landscape.
Heading roughly due east, we turn on to one road and then another, before taking a right on a rutted dirt track just wide enough for the car to pass. Tall trees line the path and the houses are a little closer together than before, but the shade at least provides some respite from the sun. After bumping along for about a kilometre we stop at a typical countryside house set at the back of a wide courtyard.
It takes a moment to realise where to look, or even what exactly we are looking for. But there it is. Tucked just inside the front gate of the property is a little altar divided into halves, top and bottom. The top chamber of the small concrete structure contains a flower and a small bowl, and underneath, protruding from the earth about 30 centimetres, is the last mottled-grey piece of Lockheed C-5A Galaxy number 68-0218.
The owner of the house initially is not too pleased to see us. Despite our excitement at finding this artefact from Operation Babylift, we apparently are not the first to make the trek to his front door. It is not long though before Mr Dang, who says he is a year shy of 50, warms to us once he understands the reason for our interest. He tells us his family moved to the area when he was a boy and built the house he currently lives in. At that time, he says, there was still much of the wreckage to be found. He also related stories about people gathering clothing and even jewellery from around the crash site.
I wonder why there is still one piece of the aircraft remaining and an altar built around it. Apparently, like an iceberg, only a small portion is visible and Mr Dang estimates the piece of metal extends perhaps two metres below ground. It was simply too large to dig away so life continued on around it.
From somewhere cans of 333 are produced and we enjoy a beer and amiable conversation. Out of a clear blue sky commercial airliners regularly descend on their final approach to the airport only a few miles away. It is a reminder of how close that flight in 1975 came to making it to safety.
Carnie is uncharacteristically quiet, and seems content to take things in while others do the talking. I ask how he is feeling now we have found the crash site, and even the remaining piece of the plane. “I can’t fully grasp it at the moment,” he says. “But I’ll let it sit for a while as I digest everything that has happened.”
He says he is maybe a little disappointed there was not more tangible evidence of what had occurred. “I also realise why there wouldn’t be, it is not the story of the Vietnamese living here.”
When I met Carnie at his apartment at the beginning of the day, before we set out on our search, I was interested to know if he felt in any way special because of what he had been through, the very fact he was alive.
He tells me it is difficult to say because he has no recollection of the events of that day, being only 18 months old at the time of the crash. “But it was always something I kind of knew, even though I don’t remember when or how I was told,” he says.
It is understandable that it would take some time to process everything he thought or felt on the day of our expedition, so I get in touch a few weeks later to ask how he is feeling about it now.
“I think I feel more at peace about one small bit of my life and experience of coming to America,” he tells me. “I think about the sacrifices that were made to get me and many others to countries which would provide us with great opportunities. Mainly, I think you have to live life as you want to, not how you are expected to, and just try to make others’ lives better and show compassion.”