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We Remember: Five DIA employees killed in Operation Babylift

By DIA History Office

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On Apr. 4, 1975, five Defense Intelligence Agency employees – Celeste Brown, Vivienne Clark, Dorothy Curtiss, Joan Pray and Doris Watkins – lost their lives trying to save the lives of Vietnamese infants and children fleeing Saigon in Operation Babylift.

As the government of South Vietnam collapsed in the face of a massive North Vietnamese offensive, President Gerald Ford ordered the evacuation of Vietnamese orphans from Saigon. The Air Force Military Airlift Command (MAC) was responsible for the flights and Army Major General Homer Smith, the U.S. defense attaché in Saigon, provided escorts and coordinated requirements of the withdrawal airlifts. Operation Babylift would process 400 war orphans and their escorts for evacuation each day from Tan Son Nhut airbase, adjacent to the defense attaché office complex. 

The first available plane was a C-5A Galaxy transport that arrived in Saigon the morning of April 4. Ground crews and an Air Force medical crew loaded the babies and small children aboard the plane. Also onboard were members of the defense attaché office staff, including the five DIA employees. 

Just after 5 p.m. local time, the last of the 314 passengers were onboard and the transport took off. Twelve minutes later, the locks on the rear cargo door of the C-5A failed, and the aft pressure door, part of the loading ramp, and the cargo door, blew off, severely damaging the flight controls in the tail. The pilots attempted an emergency landing at Tan Son Nhut airbase, but the plane crashed in a marsh two miles short of the runway. The impact crushed the cargo deck where many of the orphans had been placed. In all, 138 people died in the crash including Brown, Clark, Curtiss, Pray and Watkins. It was the single largest loss of life in DIA history until the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. 

Operation Babylift continued through Apr. 26, 1975, ultimately bringing more than 3,300 infants and children to the United States.

Today the DIA Patriots Memorial honors our personnel who died in service of the United States. It commemorates the profound individual sacrifices made by DIA members, and acts as a reminder of the selflessness, dedication and courage required to confront national challenges in the past, present and future.

Defense attachés are an integral part of the DIA team. Appointed by the Secretary of Defense, they are responsible for all Department of Defense activities and personnel assigned to the embassy of the country in which they serve. Defense attachés are the primary military advisor to the ambassador and country team on military issues and developments. Additionally, they represent the Secretary of Defense, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and greater DOD elements. Defense attaches plan and coordinate U.S. military activities with that nation’s armed forces, observe and report on military developments, oversee U.S. military training programs and support DOD and other high level visits.

DIA uses all-source defense intelligence to prevent strategic surprise and deliver a decision advantage to war fighters, defense planners and policymakers. The agency collects and analyzes key data using a variety of tools, and deploys its personnel globally, alongside war fighters and interagency partners, to defend America’s national security interests.