The scene was chaos.
The mood was tense.
The Viet Cong approached.
Mothers cried as they dropped off their babies to be loaded onto a Boeing 747 in Saigon, final destination Seattle.
More than 400 young children were boarded on this Pan Am flight on April 5, 1975 – most of them babies and many of them orphans. With the Vietnam War coming to an end, President Gerald Ford had called for airlifts of Vietnamese babies to the U.S.
The Pacific Northwest was designated as the third area for entry of orphans into the U.S. About 2,000 children ended up in the U.S. – 366 got off the plane at McChord Air Force Base, now Joint Base Lewis-McChord, south of Seattle.
“We had babies that were in seats, we had them in bassinets, under the seats, they were all but sticking out in the main aisle,” said Joyce Wertz Harrington, a volunteer nurse on the flight. Harrington now lives in Oregon.
Arm bands attached to each child were color-coded and listed adopted parents’ names, case numbers and where in the U.S. they were headed. The flight would last 30 hours with several drop-offs.
The adults aboard were rightly scared. The day before, a C-5A cargo jet had crashed, killing children and adults. Harrington had heard that sabotage could not be ruled out.
Harrington was assigned to the first-class section of the plane, where the higher risk babies were located. She held a tiny child who looked like a preemie even though her tag said she was 4 months old. She was dropped off in Guam.
“I don’t think she survived. I heard later it might have been meningitis,” Harrington said.
Whenever Harrington started to doze off, someone would come by and drop off another baby. When she went to drop off a baby in a bassinet, she often found that another baby was already there.
“As far as my heart goes, I wanted to hold one the whole trip instead of doing the bare necessities,” she said.
During one stop, they picked up formula for the babies, but it was different from the formula they had been drinking.
In an essay, Harrington wrote, “My heart went out to the babies who were in unfamiliar surroundings with disrupted routines and then subjected to formula changes. No wonder so many had diarrhea by the time we reached Seattle.
“Many also had heat rash from the plastic bassinets. A few had also broken out with chickenpox en route.”
Among those who helped deliver the babies to the plane were two Vietnamese women who worked at the Adventist hospital in Saigon. They ended up being stowaways on the plane, Harrington said.
Before landing south of Seattle, Harrington overheard people in charge of the trip talking with them. They told the young women not to talk to anyone and to keep their faces away from the cameras.
“We’re not worried about you,” they told them. “We’re worried about your families in Vietnam. America will take you.”
As the babies from Operation Babylift grew up, Harrington made sure to stay in touch with them. In her essay, she refers to them as “our babies.” She keeps in touch with the greater Babylift community online, eager to hear how they’re doing.
“There’s a large community that call each other brother and sister, list each other as family,” she said.
“It’s a close-knit online community.”