Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Memories of Operation Babylift

I came across a very special letter the other day.  It was written by a commander at Clark Air Base in The Philippine Islands, and addressed to Mrs. Joel Dahlen.  Seeing that letter brought a tidal wave of memories and emotions.  It took me back to that chaotic time when Saigon fell, and plane loads of orphaned children were taken from there by the military and brought to Clark.  I was one of countless volunteers who helped care for the children as they arrived.  From Clark Air Base they went on to their new homes across the world. 

We lived off base in Angeles City, under Marshall Law, so as I recall, we were not allowed out after 10pm without an armed guard due to being at risk or even arrested.   I was told that I was needed for the first night, so the base sent buses and jeepneys around to pick us all up.  We were taken to the base airport with many others to wait for the first plane to arrive.  Unfortunately, our wait was in vain, as that first plane leaving Saigon loaded with children and adults, crashed into a rice paddy after a rear explosion, killing 138 of those who were aboard. 

When American businessman Robert Macauley learned that it would take more than a week to evacuate the surviving orphans due to the lack of military transport planes, he chartered a Boeing 747 and arranged for 300 orphaned children to leave the country, paying for the trip by mortgaging his house.  You can read about it on Wikipedia. 

When we heard the news about the crash, we were stunned and saddened.  After a brief period of time, we were all taken back to our homes until the next plane arrived.  At 4am we were again taken to the base where we were given instructions to line up, walk into the plane and pick up the first child we saw.  I was hoping for a baby, but God had better plans.  The first child I saw was a boy around the age of six, so I picked him up and carried him off the plane and onto the bus that was waiting.  For the next 24 hours this little guy was under my care.  We were taken to a huge quanset building, covered with hundreds of mattresses on the floor. I  found an empty mattress and set him down.  After the mattresses filled up, people came around and told us to take the children to the showers to be washed and de-liced.  I think a shower was a novelty to the kids as he and the others were smiling and even laughing at the warm water coming out of the wall.  I found the little guy clean clothes that I thought would fit and we went back to the mattress to wait.

 Soon we were back on a bus going to the cafeteria to eat, where I observed the kids as they saw all the food available to them. They were almost overwhelmed by it all.   My little guy took an orange and ate even the peelings.  He also held food tucked back into his mouth, which I knew he was saving in case another meal was not available to him.  Poor guy, you knew he had gone hungry a lot.  He was not the only one to keep food in his cheeks.  They looked like little chipmonks.  After eating their fill, we headed back to the mattresses.  He slept awhile but later woke up and began drawing pictures, as he tried to communicate with me.  He drew pictures of planes bombing his village and then of Vietnamese looking men shooting his family.  He evidently had seen his parents killed.

During this time the military personal walked around checking up on everyone.  The Vietnamese women who were married to American soldiers also were present, going from mattress to mattress to talk to the children and reassure them they were safe and going to see their new parents soon. Their endless efforts were amazing.   One officer saw the pictures that my little guy drew, and he took them from me.  I expect it was related to security.  I spent most of the time just comforting this 6 year old who was obviously frightened by all that he was experiencing. 

After Operation Babylift ended, I wondered how he was doing, but did not expect to find out.  And then we received the "Stars and Stripes" military newspaper and there he was on the front page being led off the tarmac in Washington State.  He was holding the hand of an officer and carrying an American flag.  What a blessing for me to see him.   Thank you Jesus!  I don't have the newspaper clipping any longer, but I do have the memory to cherish.

I will never forget this experience.  Being part of Operation Babylift during the fall of Saigon was a great privilege.  Joel and I were both able to play a part.  Joel was a meterologist who briefed pilots flying to and from Viet Nam and I was able to hug and comfort a scared little boy.   It had a powerful affect on my life and I am so grateful and yes, proud, that I was able to be a part of it.  The letter of appreciation was "lost and forgotten" and then it showed up again, and with it a flood of memories and thankfulness. 

Whenever we look back on our lives, I am always grateful and in awe to see God at work bringing his plan for us to fruition.  I pray that young boy was raised in a good home and has become a man of purpose who has God in his life.  I know that would have been part of God's plan. 


Mom Of Many said...

Wow Renee!! What an amazing story! I knew you were a lover of the orphan, vulnerable and broken of this world...but I had no idea about your part way back then!

I have to tell you - I have friends who live near Buffalo, NY...they were adopting a little one from Viet Nam and that little one {can't remember now if it was a boy or girl} was killed on that first plane that crashed! The grief they had! They went on to adopt about 10 children...and are in their late 60's and still adopting! The dad, was my Algebra teacher in middle school. Both sold out Christians and love the orphan!! Small world, huh?

Anyway, I knew I loved you so much Renee and this solidifies just how beautiful and selfless you are! xoxo

Renee said...

Thanks sweet friend! Love you, too.

Debbie Huffaker said...

Oh what an awesome experience and a blessing to both you and that little boy. I'm guessing he never forgot you!

Anita Johnson said...

I love this story, Renee!

Renee said...

Thanks Deb. It was a beautiful experience, for sure.

Renee said...

Thanks Anita!