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Flight Attendant On Saigon Evacuation: You Wanted 'To Help Every Child'

Children aboard this World Airways DC-8 jet were evacuated from Vietnam on April 2, 1975, shortly before the fall of Saigon and just two days before the first official Operation Babylift flight. Among the children was Thanh Jeff Ghar (center, lying by a window), 12.

NPR — along with seven public radio stations around the country — is chronicling the lives of America's troops where they live. We're calling the project "Back at Base."

It was known as Operation Babylift.

In the days before the fall of Saigon on April 30, 1975, Vietnamese children were taken out of the country and flown to the U.S.

Some were the children of 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.

Two days before the official Babylift was launched, there was a first flight out, with 57 children on board a World Airways DC-8 cargo plane.

Jan Wollett, one of the attendants on that flight, 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.

On April 2, 1975 — just weeks before the city would fall — Wollett and the flight crew were in Saigon at the airport bar. They had been told they couldn't carry passengers that day, and on short notice the crew was told that it was carrying children out of Vietnam.

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.

"The ones that were older would snuggle close to you, but they could hold on and I'd put their little bodies underneath so they would always be protected," she says.

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.

Thanh Jeff Ghar 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 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.

Copyright 2015 Puget Sound Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.kuow.org.

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