Flight Attendant On Saigon Evacuation: You Wanted 'To Help Every Child'
It was April 2, 1975, and flight attendant Jan Wollett was at a bar in Saigon. Her flight crew had been told they wouldn’t board passengers that day – they would carry children out of Vietnam instead.
Wollett lined the floor of the plane with blankets because it had no seats. During takeoff, every adult had their arms around the youngest children, she says.
Wollett says she used cargo netting to secure the others in her charge. There were 57 children on board.
"The ones that were older would snuggle close to you, but they could hold on,” she says. “I'd put their little bodies underneath so they would always be protected."
Because the World Airways flight wasn't sanctioned, it didn't have clearance to take off. As the plane taxied, Wollett remembers the tower screaming at the pilots to return. The runway lights went dark, but she says the pilot pushed on.
"He hit every light he had on the Stretch 8, and we barreled down a dark runway and took off," she says.
At first, Wollett says, many of the children were overwhelmed.
"They were just darling or they were very scared.
And you'd hug them and hold them and tell them it was going to be OK," she says.
Once airborne, she says, they turned the plane into a giant play pen.
"Especially when the sun came up and it was daylight and they could see out and see the ocean, and every once and a while you might see a ship and they'd get all excited," Wollett says. "So they were kind of enjoying whatever they could, and we were loving them. So it was pretty great."
After a brief stop in Yokota, Japan, the flight took off for Oakland International Airport.
It was late when Wollett and the crew tried to corral the children back under the cargo netting for landing.
Wollett’s flight was two days before the official Operation Babylift was launched, when Vietnamese children were flown out of the country – most of them to the U.S.
Some were the children of Wollett’s flight, U.S. service members and some were orphans. But there were others that may have had parents who were still alive, so the program was controversial.
Wollett believes what they were doing that day was right. "You wanted to be able to help every child. You wanted them to have a good life. We felt we were taking them from a possible bad life to maybe a good life," she says.
Thanh Jeff Ghar, of Shoreline, was 12 at the time. He remembers stepping off the plane into a sea of reporters and TV lights.
"When I got out of the airplane, first thought was 'My, it was cold.' It was freezing cold," he says. "You know, going from 80, 90 degrees in Vietnam to Oakland in April, it was very cold."
The next day, President Gerald Ford announced that the U.S. would officially begin to evacuate orphaned babies and children from Saigon.
Tragically, the first official flight crashed shortly after takeoff. Of the more than 300 people on board, 78 children and about 50 adults perished, including Air Force personnel. More than 170 survived.
Gahr says he knows that some of the people involved in the Babylift flight were torn over whether evacuating the children was the right thing to do.
But he's not.
Gahr, an engineer who designs planes for Boeing, says as an orphan in Vietnam he never would have had the opportunities he's had here in the U.S.
"There are thousands of children out there who went through the same way and have the same appreciation for what was done for them," he says. "I really want them to know that they did a wonderful thing."
By the time the government ended Operation Babylift in May, 1975, more than 3,000 children had been evacuated.
This report is part of a "Back at Base," a project with NPR and other public radio stations around the country that chronicles the lives of America's troops where they live.