On this day in history : 6th April 1975 – A plane carrying 99 Vietnamese orphans lands at Heathrow Airport as part of ‘Operation Babylift’ – rescuing children from war-torn Vietnam….
US President Gerald Ford had announced on the 3rd of April that America would begin evacuating orphans as American troops prepared to pull out of South Vietnam…. After two decades of fighting the city of Da Nang had fallen to the Communist Vietcong and Saigon (later to be renamed Ho Chi Minh City) and was under attack…. Ford feared for the lives of the orphans – his concerns being that the victorious Vietcong would show little mercy to the orphaned children, especially those who had been fathered by American servicemen….
In total more than 3,300 children were air-lifted out of Vietnam….more than 2,200 of those to the United States. Canada, Australia, France, West Germany and Britain all joined in the operation….
Tragically the very first plane bound for the States crashed 12 minutes after take off; whilst attempting an emergency landing after a door had blown out…. 138 were killed, including 78 children….
The children brought to England arrived on a 747 chartered by the Daily Mail newspaper – among them two survivors from the air crash…. Doctors and nurses accompanied the orphans – many of whom were only a few months old – on the 18 hour flight from Saigon…. On arrival at Heathrow thirty of the children had been diagnosed with pneumonia and six had to be immediately hospitalised; three were sadly to die….
There were those who condemned the newspaper, accusing it of performing a publicity stunt. The Red Cross said inadequate provision had been made to look after the children in Britain and that care should have been given to them in their homeland…. A spokesperson for the British Council for Aid for Refugees said it may be in the best interest for some to return to Saigon, as there were bound to be legal problems in making sure they were genuine orphans….
As it was, none of the children were returned to Vietnam…. 51 were adopted and the remainder grew up in homes run by the Ockenden Venture and the British Vietnamese Orphans Project – (compared to out of 2,204 children taken to the US who were nearly all adopted within a few months)….
As adults many have tried to discover their roots – (or are in the process of doing so) – having grown up in Britain not knowing their date of birth or even their real name – only having the one given to them by the orphanage….