At the end of April, 1975, the situation in war-torn Saigon was increasingly dangerous. Ed Daly, the President and owner of World Airways, had already overseen the evacuation of refugees earlier in the month. He had also air-lifted orphaned children and babies to safety, prompting the federal government to do the same in “Operation Babylift.” Now, as the North Vietnamese advance on Saigon, it was time to do it again.
The Health Team meets at World Airways Headquarters in Oakland, CA. Pictured are the Nursing Director, Medical Director “Skip” Burkle, Jr., and an unidentified Dentist.
The WA -747 that flew from Oakland to Saigon.
A meeting with the flight attendants on the way to Saigon. They would be caring for the infants. In 1968, Skip Burkle had directed a Vietnamese Children’s Hospital. Knowing the children might be ill, he directed the First Class section be turned into a critical care area with all seats removed.
Waiting on the Tarmac at Clark AFB in the Philippines.
Several hours before the anticipated landing, the plane was diverted to Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines. Saigon was surrounded and no more commercial flights were being allowed in to Tan Son Nhat airport.
As they waited for further instructions, Dr. Burkle and the medical team saw these children that just arrived at Clark AFB from Saigon. The children were unaccompanied, and without name tags or any identification.
To the WA crew and its medical personnel, arriving from Oakland, this was shocking. It was the first indication of what they might see in the coming days when more children would arrive from Saigon.
These scenes prompted the WA health personnel and flight attendants to begin to actively prepare their WA 747 for large numbers of infants and young children. How would they safely contain and care for the children that would arrive over the next few
days from Saigon?
Word had gotten around that Dr. Burkle was going in to Saigon to find as many orphans as possible. He spoke the language and knew the culture. Before he left, he asked that the flight crew strip the first class section of seats and turn it into a critical care area for the most seriously ill.
Ed Daly (right) and Dr. Burkle discuss the worsening conditions in Saigon. Dr. Burkle agreed to travel in empty Flying Tigers plane with pilots willing to fly to Saigon, despite worsening conditions there. The pilots would drop Burkle off, and he would make an attempt to round up any remaining orphans who needed immediate evacuation.
Two Flying Tiger pilots, a flight engineer, a CBS cameraman and Dr. Burkle finally left for Saigon’s Tan Son Nhat airport. As they approached the airport, the tower advised them about the presence of NVA surface-to-air missiles in the vicinity. At 20,000 feet the pilot took a 360 degree dive to line up with the runway while the co-pilot desperately scanned for any approaching missiles. The plane circled, went too far, and had to circle once more. Finally in a rapid landing approach, the plane bounced along the main runway.
Dr. Burkle was struck by the numbers of military planes and helicopters of all sizes that had been bulldozed onto the grassy areas and stacked high on top of each other so “that they appeared to be Mattel Toys.”
North Vietnamese soldiers were already in the city. Dr. Burkle found the Vietnamese manager of the Flying Tiger’s office hastily shredding all the office records but he agreed to take Dr. Burkle into the teeming and dangerous city to search for orphans that desperately needed evacuation.
Orphanage workers desperately pleaded with Burkle to take the children. He found deplorable conditions - several unnamed and abandoned infants were stuck to the floor of the dark and dirty orphanages by their own feces. Many were seriously ill.
Dr. Burkle and the two WA C-141s eventually and their precious cargo made it out of Saigon … but not before several dangerous delays. One of the Vietnamese bus drivers transporting infants had planted a bomb on one of the planes.
In the confusion and noise of loading the infants, he grabbed one and placed a satchel charge in a purple Seagram 7 Crown Royal bag under the blanket covering the infant. He then entered the plane. Because the seating area was hectic with infants and children crying and the crew hurrying to ensure that each box was secure, the bus driver was able to conceal the bomb into the small latrine located in the forward bulkhead of the C-141.
By chance, only moments later, the flight engineer opened the door to get towels to clean up after a sick child. He found the Vietnamese bus driver positioning the bomb into a section of the wall of the latrine. He struggled with the bus driver, threw him onto the deck of the plane and removed him and the bomb to the tarmac. Every activity ceased while the crew searched for more hidden bombs.
Right before the plane took off, there was a large explosion on the right wing – and immediately all engines shut down. It was only an overheated engine, because the planes had been waiting for hours on the tarmac in blistering heat.
At the back of the long line of file boxes were coffins of US personnel who were killed in the deliberate downing of the C-5A immediately after takeoff several days before. Dr Burkle remembers: “The plane finally left the runway in what seemed to be almost a vertical takeoff it seemed to struggle upwards the entire outside layer of the cockpit glass cracked into a fine jigsaw pattern…no one said a word and after several suspenseful minutes everyone took a deep breath and a silent prayer.”
At Clark AFB, the children and infants from Saigon were transferred onto the waiting WA-747.
Additional children from previous airlifts were also transferred onto plane.
Dr. Burkle feeds a severely dehydrated and malnourished infant.
There were 160 infants on the plane, many still in the original file boxes that were provided in Saigon.
The older children helped care for the infants.
Infants who were too weak to suck on the bottles were given an intravenous treatment.
An infant in the critical care section in First Class died. Dr. Burkle sent a message to Los Angeles Public Health authorities describing the reason for the death, and gave a breakdown of the other seriously ill infants on board. This became a quarantine issue.
The return flight was diverted from San Francisco to Los Angeles with only 3-4 hours notice. San Francisco authorities had only agreed to accept infants and children who were already registered in the adoption process. Flight Captain Ken Healy clarifies medical information before a radio transmission to LA. LA public health officials would certainly be concerned with any potential infectious disease cases entering the country.
The WA-747 landed at LAX without further mishap.
Dr. Burkle made sure the very ill infants were sent off the plane first.
Understandably, the local Public Health authorities were not prepared for the number of children. Dr. Burkle and the nurses attempted to give them the children's crucial medical histories to speed the triage and treatment process along.
The local Public Health officials should have conferred with the WA health care team, but they ignored them.
One child had seizures.
Dr. Burkle remembers: “The authorities at LAX insisted that all the WA-747 personnel return to the plane. We sat in the door in despair as the situation on the hot tarmac became more chaotic.”
Finally the patients were dispatched by ambulance and the other passengers were allowed to leave.
The WA-747 crew and medical and nursing personnel flew back to Oakland. It was a silent trip; many were exhausted and in despair that the final moments were so chaotic after the excellent organization and care that was in evidence on the plane. Dr Burkle later learned that the majority of the children were airlifted again that same day – this time to a health facility on the East Coast.
World Airway’s Captain Ken Healy called a debriefing for key personnel. Everyone was cautioned to be quiet about the flight.
Reporters had already noticed that 25 of the healthy children were from Cambodia and that their parents were on the plane, too. The presence of these individuals may have violated agreements that only certified orphans who had homes to go to were allowed to be evacuated to the U.S.
Thanks to World Airways, and the health team members for their selfless dedication to saving these lives.