Australia and the Vietnam War

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Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF)

RAAF 1975: Operation Babylift

RAAF air crew comfort some of the babies with bottles before take-off during the second airlift of orphans from Saigon’s Tan Son Nhut airport. [AWM P01973.002]

RAAF air crew comfort some of the babies with bottles before take-off during the second airlift of orphans from Saigon’s Tan Son Nhut airport. [AWM P01973.002]

South Vietnam’s population was moving en masse. As their forebears had done in times of war, they were fleeing an approaching enemy, seeking safety to the south and hoping for a way out. Caught in the mad rush of people vying for a means of escape were thousands of orphans, most far too young to appreciate the gravity of the situation. Some had been chosen for adoption in Australia while others had homes waiting for them in the United States. In early April 1975 both the United States and Australia began to evacuate them in a series of flights known as Operation Babylift.

On 4 April, two days after the United States announced Babylift, two Australian Hercules crews stood on the tarmac of Saigon’s Tan Son Nhut Airport chatting with the crew of a giant American Galaxy. After all their passengers were on board the Americans took off followed shortly afterwards by the first Hercules. On the Australian plane, loaded with babies – the older ones five to a litter and the smallest infants in cardboard boxes on the floor, all with water bottles between their lips to ease the pain of changing air pressure – all went well and they headed west to Bangkok. But on the Galaxy, disaster struck. With 243 children, their escorts, medical staff and aircrew on board the plane’s cargo door blew off soon after take-off. The pilots tried to return to the runway but 2 kilometres from the airport the stricken aircraft hit the ground, bounced over the Saigon River and exploded. Only 43 people survived. The dead included 143 babies and two Adelaide women, Lee Makk and Margaret Moses, who had volunteered to help with the children.

A few hours later the two Hercules landed at Bangkok’s Don Muang Airport and disembarked 194 children as well as the three doctors and twenty nurses who had tended the infants. Other RAAF Hercules brought some 80 Australian civilians, mostly embassy officials and their families, out of Saigon.