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Operation Babylift, published in Newsweek

Written by LeAnn Thieman, CSP, October 7th, 2008

Newsweek articleNewsweek article, March 8, 1999 p.67

SAIGON, APRIL 1975: As the city fell, President Ford ordered an airlift of all orphans, many of whom had American fathers. LeAnn Thieman, an Iowa nurse, volunteered to help.

Our adoption agency kept 100 infants in a two-story French villa. Every inch of floor was covered with sheets and mats – it was a sea of babies, crying and cooing in 100-degree heat. There was a strong smell of spit-up and diarrhea. The Vietnamese orphanage workers were weeping. For the airlift, they dressed the babies in clothes from America: lace, panties with ruffles, patent-leather shoes. Instead of diapers or rags, the orphans would go to their new homes in party clothes.

Newsweek articleThree of us took half of the 100 babies on the first run to the airport, first by Volkswagen van, then by city bus. We put three or four babies on a seat. As the bus started to roll, so did the babies, so we all stretched out, spread-eagled in the aisle. At the airport, a Vietnamese guard told us our flight had been canceled. The babies were wet from crying and sweating. Many were losing bodily fluids. It was a crisis. We were there a couple of hours, feeding and cleaning the babies, when we got clearance to fly.

Our plane was a C-5A cargo jet, the big one you can drive a truck inside. The U.S. government had gutted it and strapped down 22 cardboard boxes end to end down the center. We put two or three babies to a box. There were nine of us to care for 100 babies. We took our seats for takeoff and the true terror began: Would we be shot down? Would we even get off the ground? There was an eerie silence, as if even the babies knew the risk. Then nothing but the roar of the engine.

Finally the captain announced, “We’re out of range of the Viet Cong.” There were whoops and hollers and tears. The babies started fussing again. So it was back to work, but it was joyful work. The babies were going to their homes, to freedom.

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