Inside the dangerous mission to rescue infants after the Vietnam War

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On March 28, 1975, a World Airways jet landed at Vietnam’s Tan Son Nhat Airport. The plane was ordered toward a hangar, but the airlines’ CEO, Ed Daly, instructed the pilot to experience “radio failure” and ignore the order. During the Vietnam War’s shambolic end, the plane was on a mission to rescue those who sought escape.

As it touched down, stewardess Jan Wollett watched “thousands of people running toward the plane, motorcycles and bicycles, trucks and Jeeps and personnel carriers rushing faster yet,” according to the new book, “Come Fly The World: The Jet-Age Story of the Women of Pan Am,” by Julia Cooke (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, March 2).

Standing by the cockpit door, Wollett saw a man shoot at the plane from below. It was clear that stopping was unsafe.

So as the plane taxied slowly down the runway, the door was opened and stairs were lowered so people below could try to jump on board.

“Screaming people clawed at others as they ran next to the plane, pushing them aside,” Cooke writes. “Jan saw one of the other stewardesses on the stairs reaching over the railing, pulling people up, and she moved to help.”

Wollett saw a family of five — parents and three children, including an infant — running toward them. She reached out, but as she did, she heard shots. The family “crumpled to the asphalt. Whether they had tripped or been shot was unclear.”

By the time the plane took off, with bodies of hopeful escapees falling from the wheel well, 268 had made it on board.

“Come Fly The World” tells of the time when flight attendants were all women, and still referred to as “stewardesses.”

While they were subject to strict weight and appearance standards — the airlines made no secret that their main priority was appeasing male passengers — Cooke shows how these women were smart, strong, and ambitious, with many playing key roles during the Vietnam War.

Stewardesses’ were seen as so integral to the war effort that those who regularly worked flights into Vietnam were made second lieutenants in the US Armed Forces.

A stewardess named Clare Christiansen told Cooke of flights where the captain’s announcements included, “If you look to your right you can see the Viet Cong,” or, “down and over to the left you can see a napalm drop.”

Sometimes, after these flights landed, they’d find bullet holes on the underside of the engines.

By the war’s end, there were thousands of orphaned or abandoned babies with American fathers and Vietnamese mothers. The sight of orphanage directors with large groups of children on flights became increasingly common.

On one flight, a stewardess noticed a soldier with a boot box on his lap, and instructed him to place it under his seat. The soldier refused, and an older officer intervened, “Just trust me, it’s okay.”

In the air, she suddenly heard “a piercing, thin wail.” She walked back to the soldier and insisted on knowing what was in the box.

“You promise we’re not going back?” the soldier said.

“We’re not going back,” she confirmed.

“He lifted the lid of the box. The babies were so tiny, too tiny, born weeks too soon,” Cooke writes.

“Their mother had given birth in a field and died nearly immediately, he said. The soldier had brought them to a nurse, who’d said they would die. But they had not died.”

A week after the Tan Son Nhat incident, President Gerald Ford announced an effort to bring every South Vietnamese war orphan to the US known as Operation Babylift.

The next day, a Pan Am flight landed at Tan Son Nhat. It unloaded ammunition, then waited for its return cargo — 243 children being flown to the US.

The children were loaded in, with infants strapped two to a seat and older children “strapped down using the same restraints that had secured arms and ammunition westward across the Pacific.”

The plane took off, and twelve minutes later it crashed into a rice paddy. Amazingly, around 60 of the children survived.

No one knew what caused the crash at the time, and sabotage was a frightening possibility. [It was later determined to be a mechanical malfunction.] But evil intent or not, children needed to be rescued.

The next day, two Pan Am flights landed in Saigon.

Staffers on the first plane were told they’d be picking up “two hundred ninety-five infants, one hundred children between two and twelve years, sixty escorts, five doctors, and ten nurses.”

They were instructed to place the infants “two per bassinet under middle seats.” Some of the children would be not just orphans, but survivors of the previous crash.

The plane landed in an especially low trajectory, as pilots had been instructed to “keep the tail number clearly visible to the North Vietnamese troops surrounding the city.”

Once it landed, “adult arms formed a fireman’s chain on the tarmac,” Cooke writes. “Doctors, nurses, ground staff, and [children’s] escorts passed the babies from one set of arms to the next. Men balanced infants in the crook of their arms.”

Worried about sabotage, the Pan Am station chief patted down the children.

“If someone had bombed a military transport filled with orphans,” Cooke writes, “an explosive device on a child was not out of the question.”

Inside the plane, stewardess Karen Walker made sure the children were safely strapped in.

“Their tiny bodies were unbelievably hot, Karen thought as a set of hands passed her an infant, then a second and a third,” Cooke writes. “Karen [moved] through the warmer air near the door into the cool of the plane once, twice, six times, eleven times carrying infants. Her arms were full and a child with no leg had lost his crutches in the crush, so he hobbled down the aisle.”

A doctor asked if he could bring three Vietnamese nurses who had no visas or identification. The pilot told a stewardess to “strip-search them and lock them in the lav[atory].” A stewardess named Tori Werner patted them down carefully and told them to stay in the bathroom until the plane reached cruising altitude.

“The scope of the present disaster — the fear that could drive a mother to hand her infant over to an unknown future — overwhelmed Karen”

Julia Cooke

As the flight filled up, it became clear, through pieces of conversation overheard from adoption officials, that some of the children weren’t orphans.

“The scope of the present disaster — the fear that could drive a mother to hand her infant over to an unknown future — overwhelmed Karen,” Cooke writes. “Empathy became anger as she moved down the aisle. What the hell did we do to these mothers that they’re sending their babies away? she thought.”

The sickest of the children — there were cases of hepatitis, meningitis, and chicken pox on board — were placed in first class, which served as a sick bay with IV lines crossing the aisles. Everyone on this flight will wind up with chicken pox, Werner thought.

By the end of April, 2,242 children had been flow to the US.

In 1993, a former army nurse named Diane Carlson dedicated the Vietnam Women’s Memorial, a salute to the two hundred sixty-five thousand women and volunteers who contributed to the war effort, on the National Mall. Stewardesses on flights to and from Vietnam were included in the memorial.

“We tried to recognize that everybody had a job to do and we were part of a big team,” Carlson said. “What would we have done without those wonderful flight attendants who offered us all some comfort?”

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