Back to News

Book review: Operation Babylift

Second of two book reviews on the rescue of orphaned South Vietnamese babies

Email Article Print Article Share on Facebook Share on Reddit Share on StumbleUpon

The perfect companion to Angels Flying Out of Hell, Operation Babylift is the poignant memoir of Air Force nurse Regina Aune and orphan Aryn Lockhart, both of whom were on the ill-fated initial C5-A Babylift mission out of Saigon that crashed with more than 300 babies, crew, and caregivers on board.

Aune was already a nurse when she decided to join the Air Force medical service early in 1973, and then went on to qualify to fly aeromedical evacuation missions. Chosen to be the Medical Crew Director of the first evacuation mission out of Saigon, she had just climbed the plane's ladder to the upper deck when, shortly after take-off, the rear cargo doors blew open, causing an explosion, rapid decompression, and the airplane's crash into a rice paddy.

Although Aune had been thrown the length of the upper deck's main aisle, badly broken her right foot, fractured a vertebra, punctured her right leg, and was bleeding heavily from multiple lacerations, she somehow got herself off the deck to check the passengers as best she could and open the emergency exit to help remove children from the plane. Over and over again she and other survivors and rescue workers carried the little ones to the helicopters hovering to help until she finally lost consciousness and collapsed.

One of those surviving babies was Lockhart, but Sister Ursula, the Malaysian nun from the Vinh Long Orphanage who had chosen Lockhart for her adoptive parents in the United States and accompanied her, was one of the 138 who did not make it. Although Lockhart knew she was adopted, she did not give it much thought as a young child, perhaps because she'd spent most of her elementary school years in California where there were many other Asian students. In addition,  Lockhart's older sister Cari was also an adopted Vietnamese child. Together with the family's biological sons, they were a mixed race family of four.

But a move to Virginia changed things when a boy on the school bus called Lockhart a "chink." With adolescence and college, she began to feel more and more as if she "existed somewhere in between two worlds" and yearned to learn more about her pre-adoption past. While in college, she began researching Operation Babylift, and in the process discovered an article about Aune, who had received the prestigious Cheney Award for her valiant efforts to save the children the day of the crash. She then managed to track down the nurse and arrange a meeting, 22 years after the first Operation Babylift airplane had crashed with both of them on board.

Over the years, the relationship between Lockhart and Aune, her husband, and their own three daughters, progressed from friendship to that of family. In the process, they began to talk about one day writing a book together after first making an emotional return journey to Vietnam.

For Aune, her relationship with Lockhart eventually provided the answer to the question of whether "the loss of so many lives in the tragedy that was the first flight of Operation Babylift" had made any difference to anyone. And for Lockhart, the visit to Vietnam and the grave of the nun who had loved and cared for her, even unto her own demise, brought her full circle to as much as she could reach of her roots.

But perhaps the most important takeaway for this reader is to think about PTSD as more than a battlefield wound. Almost anytime there is a disaster in the world, the military is on the spot to help with a humanitarian mission. Those involved also need to be prepared or helped to deal with the overwhelming emotional pain they feel from the human misery they witness in the process. As Aune reminds us, we must never lose sight of hope, "the ability of the human spirit to endure, to overcome and to soar."

Read next close

Military Life

Madigan provided lifelong care for family

comments powered by Disqus