Operation Baby Lift during the closing days of the Vietnam War was an attempt to save some of the smallest and most innocent victims of the conflict. The first flight on April 4 was one more horror piled on top of countless others, but the following missions took place without incident.
North Vietnamese forces were bearing down as the last flight left on April 14, 1974.
Saigon fell 16 days later.
As it became clear that the Communists were going to overtake South Vietnam, fear began to spread about what was in store for the enemy. It was rumored that children of American servicemen would be dealt with especially harshly by the NVA.
President Ford initiated “Operation Baby Lift,” which transported more than 3,000 children out of South Vietnam bound for adoption in the US, Canada, Europe, and Australia. Many South Vietnamese mothers jumped at the chance to help their mixed-race child escape their war-torn country.
Not everyone thought it was such an altruistic, well-meaning idea though. Some saw it as a last desperate attempt to garner sympathy for a highly unpopular war. Some Americans posed the question of whether fear of communism justified snatching children from their country.
In fact, many people equated Operation Baby Lift with kidnapping.
On the other hand, Sister Susan McDonald, who worked in a Saigon orphanage, reported that supplies were dwindling as the North Vietnamese advanced closer to Saigon. The children's lives were in jeopardy, and McDonald had been frantically trying to secure them commercial flights out of the country. When given the chance to participate in “Operation Baby Lift,” she was grateful the children in her care would be taken to safety.
The first Air Force cargo jet took off on April 4, tragically crashing shortly after take-off. Over 130 passengers lost their lives, including 78 children. This nightmarish scenario played out as the NVA closed in, and as each new flight with more children took off, they worried about crashing and getting shot down by the enemy.
The last “Operation Baby Lift” flight left South Vietnam on April 14, 1975.
As it turned out, many of the children air-lifted out during those last chaotic days of the war weren’t orphans at all. It was a common practice in Vietnam for poor families to place their children in orphanages until they could better care for them.
Parents visited their kids often and had every intention of returning for them when their circumstances improved. Some parents decided to put their children on the Baby Lift flights to ensure their safety, intending to find them at a later date when they could arrange to leave Vietnam as refugees.
But conditions were anything but orderly and organized in Vietnam during those last days of the war. As Bobby Nofflet, a worker with the U.S. Agency for International Development in Saigon remembered:
“There were large sheaves of papers and batches of babies. Who knew which belonged to which?”
Rather reminiscent of a certain present-day “border crisis.”
Lawsuits were filed claiming the children had been handed over under duress, and that the U.S. was obligated to return the children to their birth parents. The Baby Lift case was eventually thrown out of court, as the judge ruled it was not a class action suit, but rather 2,000 distinct cases.
The “Baby Lift” children are all adults now. Some have tracked down their birth parents. Others lack the inclination or the funds to do so. Through support groups and Baby Lift Reunion gatherings, many have formed friendships with each other based on their unusual and traumatic childhood experiences.