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Orphan flight

Book examines the rescue of Vietnamese children

The flight of children from war torn Vietnam is examined in Angels Flying Out of Hell: The 7,000 Mile Journey of the Operation Babylift Orphans by Bette James. Courtesy photo

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In this 40th anniversary year of the end of the Vietnam War, it seems fitting that two books have just been published about the frantic, life-saving rescue of orphaned South Vietnamese babies: Angels Flying Out of Hell: The 7,000 Mile Journey of the Operation Babylift Orphans by Bette Milleson James and Operation Babylift: A memoir of Hope and Healing by Regina Aune and Aryn Lockhart. The plight of orphans, abandoned children, and those of Amerasian descent became so desperate in March of 1975 as the North Vietnamese Army pressed south into Saigon that President Ford authorized the use of military airlift for the massive evacuation dubbed Operation Babylift.

Although much has been written about America's longest war, until now there was little recorded history on the extent of the heroic efforts involved in this final collaboration of orphanages, volunteers and military. After years of reaching out to as many of those involved as possible, James was able to retrieve the poignant stories of the children and the unlikely mélange of rescuers who had less than a month to carry out the monumental task of flying almost 3,000 children to the United States.

James spotlights the crisis as "refugees flooded the roadways, southbound in families, large groups and small, many of the children of all ages traveling alone or in groups, trying to stay ahead of the North Vietnamese Army. Many of the children coming from the north were brought to Saigon orphanages by anyone who could bring them, sometimes simply by older children who helped small ones along."

Despite a cease-fire agreement signed in Paris in 1973, the North Vietnamese began violating it within the first year. Things became increasingly bad until, by the end of March of 1975, there was pandemonium, with babies dying of exposure, malnutrition and disease.

To save lives, Ed Daly of World Airways and many others took it upon themselves to break rules and cut through red tape, preferring, as the saying goes, to ask forgiveness rather than permission. At the same time, a volunteer baby brigade of military and civilian men, women and children began to work around the clock to care for the children on their way as they were transported by Operation Babylift out of Saigon through the Philippines, Guam, Oahu and/or California by military or charter airplanes.

The product of many years of research, Angels Flying Out of Hell provides an in-depth look at the compassion with which so many Americans stepped up to the challenge of washing, feeding, dressing, cuddling, and escorting the children who were saved. In the few crisis-filled weeks involved, there was no time to record the stories of the orphans or the volunteers who sent them on their way to freedom. But, thanks to James, we now know how many of their lives were forever changed by what those who were part of the operation saw and did during that time.

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