Operation New Life
Two years after US military involvement in the Vietnam War ended, massive North Vietnamese Army assaults began to threaten the American-backed government in South Vietnam. On April 3, 1975, in response to appeals from the South Vietnamese Ambassador to the United Nations and various humanitarian agencies, President Gerald Ford announced that money from a $2 million special foreign aid children's fund would be used to fly 2,000 South Vietnamese orphans to new homes in the United States. He directed American officials in Saigon to act immediately to cut red tape and remove obstacles preventing the children's departure, stating that aircraft especially equipped to accommodate the orphans would begin evacuation flights within 36 to 48 hours.
Operation Newlife evolved in two phases: in phase one, 111,919 refugees transited through Guam. Of this, 2,600 were orphans who moved on 3 and 4 April 1975. During phase two, the focus shifted to the politically sensitive repatriation of 1,546 refugees to their homeland by ship.
From April 4 to September 3, 1975, US forces supported the movement of 93,987 orphans, refugees and evacuees from Southeast Asia to the United States in Operations Babylift and New Life. The initial Babylift mission proved to be a disaster, for the C-5A aircraft crashed shortly after takeoff.
On April 4, 1975, two USAF aircraft were supplied to participate in Operation "Babylift". A C-5, which was returning to the Philippines after delivering war material, and a C-9 were loaded with children from Saigon'' orphanages and female government employees. As the C-5 ascended to 29,000 feet, a section of the tail blew out causing rapid decompression and numerous injuries. With great difficulty, the pilot managed to land the aircraft south of Tan Son Nhut AB, RVN, in the silt of the Mekong River Delta. The nurses and technicians aboard did their best to save as many children as they could. Thanks to the aircrew's flying skills, however, 176 of the 314 people on board survived, including 150 orphans. At first, there was no explanation for the explosion, but Air Force officials feared sabotage. Major General Lyn, Commander of the 13th Air Force, decided to use Security Police as guards on all future evacuation flights to preclude future disasters.
Despite the accident, Operation Babylift continued. C-141 aircraft, MAC-sponsored contract flights and private airlift brought the orphans out of Saigon to Clark AB in the Philippines for medical evaluation, then continued on to the mainland after a refueling stop in Hawaii.
Security Policemen were tasked to deploy into Tan Son Nhut with the first plane of the day, and fly out again with the last plane at dusk in order to comply with prohibitions against American combat forces in South Vietnam. As the daily evacuation missions increased, so did the workload for the Security Police. By April 21st, 36 Security Policemen were left in TDY status at the Tan Son Nhut AB airport because C-130s had been added at the rate of three an hour after dark, and there was no last plane out. The Security Policemen performed security screening at the airport, and were to prevent saboteurs and stowaways from boarding. The Air Force flew C-141s in the daylight and C-130s at night non-stop.
At 0200, April 30, 1975, a C-130 was hit by North Vietnamese rockets. The five crew members and two Security Policemen aboard left the disabled aircraft to burn on the runway and ran to a fully loaded C-130 preparing to depart. Remaining Security Policemen moved evacuees under concrete abutments for protection against the constant barrage of rockets. They received and returned fire while assisting the evacuation of 400 remaining passengers. By 1600, April 30, 1975, most of the passengers had been evacuated, and by 1830, the Security Policemen boarded a CH-53 helicopter operated by the 56th Special Operations unit at Nhakon Phanom RTAFB, and were taken to the USS Midway. They finally made their way back to Clark AB, PI.
The receiving end of the Saigon Airlift was set up in Tin City on Guam at Andersen AFB. Operation "New Life" lasted three or four months and processed an estimated 75,000 refugees. It was a confusing and hastily set up camp. Security Police from the CONUS participated with Andersen AFB Security Police in establishing a sort of perimeter security. This operation was one of many humanitarian missions to be supported by Security Forces.
For six months the command worked seven-day weeks in support of the massive undertaking. The early days were one of crisis management. Guam was overwhelmed by the sheer volume of refugees and the necessity to create a life-support system for 50,000 people virtually overnight. This task was met by professionalism on the part of all agencies. The humanitarian energy of the individuals, from all branches of the military, the civilian contingencies of various departments and agencies, and citizen volunteers, was the key element in the success of the operation.
Phase two of the operation with its overtones of potential political embarrassment and violence also proved sensitive. The awareness of the United States of the determination of the repatriates to return to Vietnam, and the Vietnamese government's willingness to turn one of their vessels, the Thung Tin One, over to the repatriates in a unilateral effort to return them in an expeditious and honorable manner was the key to the success of phase two.
- OPERATIONS BABYLIFT AND NEW LIFE By Lea Arakaki - 15th Air Base Wing historian
- THE COMMAND'S HUMANITARIAN EFFORTS by Anne M. Bazzell PACAF Office of History
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