Cockpit and flight deck of the airplane lying on its side. Photo courtesy of Ray Snedegar.
Vinh Long Convent in Vietnam. Photo courtesy of Ray Snedegar.
Older children were seated downstairs in the aircraft along the wall. Photo courtesy of Ray Snedegar.
Sister Ursula Lee holding Aryn Lockhart as a baby. Photo courtesy of Ray Snedegar.
Aryn Lockhart and her husband, Martin, CMSgt (Ret.) Ray Snedegar, and Col (Ret.) Regina Aune visiting a children’s home in Vietnam.
Photo courtesy of Ray Snedegar.
Ray Snedegar, visiting kids in a children's home in Vietnam. Photo courtesy of Ray Snedegar.
Regina, Aryn, Carrie Camenga Briggs, who is also a survivor of the Babylift crash and was four or five years old at the time, and Ray.
Photo couresty of Ray Snedegar.
Aryn, visiting Sister Ursula Lee’s grave in Malaysia. Photo couresty of Ray Snedegar.
By MS. KIM KNIGHT, Staff Writer
Long after the United States signed a cease-fire with Vietnam, the war between North and South Vietnam raged on. Da Nang fell after a North Vietnamese assault on March 30, 1975, which left thousands in South Vietnam terrified and fleeing for safety from the communist regime. Saigon faced an imminent threat as the country’s defenses collapsed. The situation for the helpless people was deteriorating swiftly, so the United States began evacuating planeloads of refugees out of the Tan Son Nhut Air Base near Saigon by the thousands.
Sadly, an estimated 70,000 orphaned children were trapped in the hostile territory. To rescue the innocent children, President Gerald Ford announced on April 3, 1975 that Operation Babylift would evacuate the children from the war-torn region to the United States and allied countries on 30 humanitarian airlifts.
In great haste, the first official American flight, a C-5A Galaxy, planned to depart Tan Son Nhut Air Base at 4 p.m. on April 4, 1975. The precious cargo was quickly loaded. Inside the cabin, there were benches along each interior wall where older children and toddlers were seat belted in. Large cardboard boxes, each containing two or three babies, were placed down the center of the plane and were secured in place by long straps. Nuns from the orphanages, volunteers, and Air Force personnel did their best to calm the fearful or crying children before departure.
Only 12 minutes after takeoff, tragedy struck as an explosion blew off the rear door of the massive C-5. The aircraft crashed two miles from the base, killing more than half the passengers on board.
With the fall of Saigon near, Operation Babylift could not halt in the aftermath of the crash. It was reported that all other remaining flights in the Babylift were without incident. The mass evacuation continued until April 14, 1975, when it was too dangerous for flights to go in and out of Tan Son Nhut Air Base. Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese forces 16 days later, which ended the war.
”We are seeing a great human tragedy as untold numbers of Vietnamese flee the North Vietnamese onslaught. The United States has been doing and will continue to do its utmost to assist these people.”
President Gerald R. Ford,
April 3, 1975
CMSgt Ray Snedegar (Ret.), chief loadmaster on that first Babylift flight, survived the crash. He and his C-5 crew were scheduled to depart Clark Air Base in the Philippines for Japan, and then he planned to go home. However, due to his combat loading experience, Snedegar and the crew were sent to Vietnam to assist with Operation Babylift instead.
Snedegar had already spent three years in Vietnam and had survived two plane crashes when he arrived to help with the operation. However, he had never combat loaded a C-5A with babies.
When he arrived at the Tan Son Nhut Air Base, Snedegar said there was a lot of turmoil escalating in Saigon. He worked quickly strapping precious cargo—women and children—to whatever he could inside the C-5A.
“We put babies upstairs because they couldn’t take care of themselves,” he continued. “I remember having 145 little babies in 75 seats. Others—5-, 6-, and 7-year olds—were downstairs along the side of the wall. It took 3 or 4 hours to load them all. I had never seen such chaos. I was supposedly in charge of loading, but I didn’t feel in charge of anything.”
Shortly after the aircraft left Tan Son Nhut Air Base, an apparent explosion tore apart the lower back fuselage, ultimately causing rapid decompression and descent. The crew struggled to maintain control. Instead, the plane touched down briefly in a rice paddy and went airborne before hitting a dike and breaking apart. Sadly, 138 people perished, including 78 of the young orphans and 11 crewmembers.1
“I’ve been in other plane crashes in Vietnam,” recalled Snedegar, “but they happened so fast that I didn’t have time to be frightened. But this was like slow motion, and I knew we were in trouble. Everything started flying around me—the tail was in one section, the cargo compartment full of people was shredded away, and the troop compartment with 145 babies broke off and slid like a sled. I was in the cockpit, which broke off and tumbled upside down.”
Snedegar remembers wishing the plane would just stop.
“But we just kept going,” he said. “When we finally did stop, I was hanging upside down. I released my seat belt and fell to the floor, which was actually the ceiling. I stood up and had no idea where I was.”
The wings came off in the accident and burned. Still disoriented, Snedegar thought the fire ahead of him was the front of the airplane and that pilots had burned to death. Turns out, they were behind him and didn’t get hurt. Those who could began searching and quickly found survivors, as well as casualties. Help also came from an Air America crew that had packed to leave Vietnam and from South Vietnamese Army helicopters.
Col Regina Aune (Ret.), a nurse on board that day, evacuated children from the wreckage until she could no longer continue due to her own injuries—a broken foot, leg, and vertebra. She coauthored a book years later about the experience with Aryn Lockhart, one of the young passengers rescued that day. Lockhart told me how the incident shaped her life, as well.
“I grew up knowing Operation Babylift was part of my history,” she said. “My sister and I are Asian but my parents are Caucasian, so we were obviously adopted. They always said that a nun—Sister Ursula Lee—chose me for my parents from the orphanage in Vietnam.”
Sister Ursula died in the crash, and records for the children on board were destroyed, so Lockhart was unable to find out how she wound up at the orphanage. After college, she tracked down Aune and gradually forged a close relationship with her. When the duo decided in 2014 to write the book, they invited Snedegar to join them. They eventually traveled to Vietnam.
“That was a big thing,” Snedegar explained. “We stood at the crash site while a civilian airplane was landing. When it made a left turn toward the runway—the same turn we were making that fateful day—we held each other and cried. It somehow recreated what we went through years before.” Later, they visited kids in nearby orphanages.
“The writing and photography were my outlets to get through the experience there,” added Lockhart. “I choked back tears constantly because I was overwhelmed.” During the journey, she met Sister Ursula’s family and visited her grave. “I wasn’t sure how I would feel standing in front of a gravestone stamped April 4, 1975. She was responsible for me being alive, and I deeply felt the gravity of that. Even in the horrible moments of war, she gave love, kindness, and protection. She was my first mother figure, yet I never knew her. I could finally thank her, though.”
“Many people don’t want to put themselves out there—to be vulnerable,” said Lockhart. “But every time I do, I see the benefits of the story. It’s bigger than Ray, bigger than Regina, and bigger than me. We all do engagements individually, but appearing as a group brings the whole story together.”
And what a story it is.
1The number of survivors and fatalities varies, depending on the source. Figures here are from The Chronological History of the C-5 Galaxy at https://www.amc.af.mil/Portals/12/documents/AFD-131018-052.pdf.