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Remembering the First Operation Babylift Flight
Video Excerpt from "Airlift... Working for Humanity". Video courtesy of the Department of Defense.
During the collapse of South Vietnam in 1975, President Gerald Ford ordered the evacuation of Vietnamese orphans from Saigon in the face of a massive North Vietnamese offensive. This mission, coined Operation Babylift, began April 4, 1975, and evacuated more than 3,000 orphans throughout the month.
On the first available plane, ground crews loaded 250 small children along with a staff of volunteers and nurses onto a C-5A Galaxy transport. There were 36 female members of the Defense Attaché Office (DAO) Saigon on board to serve as escorts, at least five of whom were Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) employees.
Approximately 12 minutes after takeoff, the locks on the rear cargo door of the C-5 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 almost all of the orphans were kept. There were 138 people killed in the crash, including 78 children and 35 DAO personnel.
DIA’s Celeste Brown, Vivienne Clark, Dorothy Curtiss, Joan Pray and Doris Watkins died that day supporting Operation Babylift. It was the single largest loss of life in DIA’s history until the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. “The fourth day of April, 1975. I’ll never forget it,” said MG Homer Smith, former U.S. defense attaché in Saigon. “It was the longest day of my life … I recall my [executive officer] telling me, coming in and saying, ‘Boss, we have a disaster. The C-5 just crashed out toward the air base.’ And you could look out and you could see the smoke coming … We set up a morgue over at the Seventh Day Adventist Hospital and brought bodies over there. We had a few survivors. They were taken to the hospital. It was a shattering, shattering experience.”
The sacrifice of these women brings honor to their country, to their colleagues at DIA, and to themselves and their families. Their names are listed on the Patriots' Memorial among the other DIA patriots who died contributing to our national security.
On the anniversary of the crash this April, DIA is reminded of the commitment, dedication and ultimate sacrifice of these women whose legacy continues to inspire those serving today.
Photos courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration.
This page was last updated January 25, 2013.