Air Force Women in the Southeast Asia War
Hundreds of Air Force women served at bases in South Vietnam and Thailand, mostly performing “traditional” duties such as nursing and administrative work. Air Force flight nurses, many of them women, provided in-flight care to wounded personnel being evacuated.
During the war, several important changes in federal law opened new opportunities for women, including the removal of barriers on promotions and the number of women serving in the Air Force.
In 1975, South Vietnam collapsed as communist forces advanced from the north. Concerned for the safety of orphaned children, the United Nations’ South Vietnamese Ambassador appealed to the US to evacuate and resettle 2,000 Vietnamese children. On April 3, President Gerald R. Ford announced an evacuation operation would begin within 48 hours.
Over the course of the 13 day operation, Mobility Airlift Command organized 30 flights to remove 1,794 orphans from the hostilities in Vietnam. Operation Babylift was the first of several aerial evacuation missions that lasted until September 1975.
A Mission of Self Sacrifice
On April 4, the first military evacuation aircraft arrived at Ton Son Nhut Air Base, near Saigon. After unloading equipment from the C-5A, the aircrew and medical teams loaded 228 children ages 3 months to 10 years old, along with 120 US and Vietnamese adults. First Lieutenant Regina Aune, medical crew director for the aeromedical evacuation team, controlled the flow of children and reviewed each child’s condition before directing where to seat the child. Older children sat in the downstairs cargo compartment, while the younger children were placed upstairs in the flight deck and troop compartment.
Within 15 minutes of takeoff, a locking mechanism on the rear cargo door failed allowing the cargo doors to blow open, causing rapid decompression and damaging the flight controls in the tail. Passengers and the children’s medical records located near the cargo doors were sucked out into the South China Sea.
The pilots turned the aircraft back towards Ton Son Nuht Air Base. However, the additional drag created by the landing gear reduced the aircraft’s air speed. Unable to maintain level flight, the crew prepared for a crash landing. After skidding to a stop two miles short of the runway, the surviving crewmembers and escorts started carrying children from the wreckage. While many of the crewmembers suffered from injuries, they transferred the crying orphans to rescue helicopters. Lieutenant Aune, with a broken foot, compression fracture to her spine, puncture wound to the leg, and serious lacerations carried 80 children through mud and blowing debris before fainting. Another flight nurse, 1st Lt Harriet Goffinett, carried children in spite of her broken collarbone and immobile arm.
Seventy-eight orphans, 11 Air Force crew members, 35 Defense Attaché Office employees, and several American and Vietnamese escorts died in the accident. But because of the quick thinking and heroic actions of the crew, 150 orphans survived and were adopted by parents in the US, Canada, Europe, and Australia.