The jumbo jet dove through the clouds over South Vietnam and aimed for the runway. The burned-out hull of a transport plane smoldered below, resting where it had crashed near Tan Son Nhat Air Base the day before.
Less than 24 hours earlier, during a layover in Hong Kong, Karen Ryan and her flight crew received a telegram from Pan American Airlines.
The urgent dispatch canceled their scheduled route, diverting the crew south to evacuate 395 infants and children ahead of Saigon’s fall to North Vietnamese troops.
The flight was voluntary, but Ryan wasn’t going to miss it.
“I was young and invincible, and I was going,” said Ryan, thinking back over the years from the comfort of her Ronan home. “Saigon looked deceptively peaceful from our airplane, but we were nervous.”
Ryan is reminded daily of that fateful flight in 1975. Time and again, she thinks about the children rescued during Operation Baby Lift, and the lives lost and forever changed by years of war.
The conflict divided her generation, but it also wrote happy endings nobody saw coming when the war was at its height.
“A lot of those babies would have been street children – a lot of them wouldn’t be alive today,” Ryan said. “It’s been a meaningful experience in my life.”
Ryan’s ranch west of Ronan includes the trappings of a decent life. There are sheep in the pen waiting for the shears. Her husband is in the bunkhouse reading a book.
Inside the house hang pictures of people who look nothing like her. How those pictures got there is a story that began in 1967, when Ryan took a teaching job in Southern California.
It was just what her parents wanted – a teacher in the family. But it wasn’t a good fit for Ryan. The race riots in Watts, Martin Luther King Jr.’s march on Selma, Alabama, and the assassination of Malcolm X – these were the events that grabbed her attention.
The world was big and she wanted to see it.
“I heard this international airline was hiring,” said Ryan. “My parents gave me pressure not to do it. But this was 1967 and I had that travel wanderlust like young people do.”
Pan American Airlines had rigorous employee standards. A stewardess had to possess a college degree and speak another language – German in Ryan’s case. Given the times, being young and pretty didn’t hurt.
She had to cut her long hair to meet airline standards, but it wasn’t so bad. She traveled to Rome and Paris, Tahiti, Auckland and New Delhi. She reveled in the world’s great cities, even as Vietnam divided her generation.
“We used to fly over the war heading to Bangkok,” she said. “I sat in the cockpit a lot when things were slow and the pilot would say, ‘Hey, got a lot of action going on down there today.’ You could look down over Vietnam and see the explosions.”
By the end of 1967, America was deep in war. Dan Gallagher of Missoula was fighting in the Central Highlands of Vietnam. Chue Vang, from Laos, was fighting the communist Pathet Lao. Ronald Babich of Butte was killed in June near Quang Tin. Michael Havranek of Missoula died the same day in Quang Tri.
The list of Montanans killed that year is long, but President Lyndon Johnson pressed on. The U.S. had committed 485,000 troops to the region and lost 17,000 in battle. The Tet Offensive was just around the corner and the conflict, to Ryan’s surprise, would require the service of Pan Am and its civilian crews.
Planes built for passengers began transporting munitions into Saigon. The jets left with troops heading out for rest and relaxation in Hawaii, Thailand and Australia. The outbound flights were a thrill, but the return trips were heavy hearted.
“On the way out, the soldiers would get on board and they were so excited,” Ryan said. “They’d come straight out of combat and they’d all line up at the bathroom with their shaving kits to get clean. But when we picked them up on the way back, nobody said a word or got out of their seat.”
Back in Saigon, Ryan offered hugs at the door. “Don’t be a hero,” she’d whisper to the young soldiers and Marines leaving the plane. It was her standard practice until a military officer put a stop to it.
“The lieutenant didn’t like me saying that to his guys,” Ryan said. “We were just a nice taste of home for the G.I.s – American girls flying right into Vietnam. I found it very moving these guys were stuck in that situation.”
Ryan saw the world from the air. But down below, the nation was in turmoil.
In 1970, four anti-war protesters were shot dead at Kent State and the Watergate scandal was about to break. Three years later, under the presidency of Richard Nixon, the U.S. signed the Paris Peace Accords and pulled its remaining combat troops from Vietnam.
In return, North Vietnam agreed to release all U.S. and other prisoners of war. The North Vietnamese advanced south, closing in on Da Nang, Phuoc Long and Saigon. Thousands of orphaned children, including those fathered by American troops with Vietnamese mothers, sat in harm’s way.
Ryan continued flying her international routes, hardly aware of the mounting crisis in Vietnam. In 1975, with the final collapse of South Vietnam at hand, one of those flights took her to Hong Kong. She didn’t know it then, but she had a date with history.
“I’m on a normal route thinking of getting home,” she said. “We’re in Hong Kong to spend the night before flying to Tokyo, then home where I could get back to Missoula. We got on the bus and they read us a telegram saying our flight home had changed and we’re all going to Saigon. Nobody had been to Saigon for two years.”
The telegram instructed the crew to pick up 295 infants and 100 children between the ages of 2 and 12. “Place infants two per basket under middle seats,” the telegram read. “Use zones C-D to ensure constant surveillance.”
Ryan lay in bed that night trying to imagine the task: 400 crying children, dirty diapers and hungry mouths. She woke the next morning to a sparkling clean 747 waiting on the tarmac.
Time was of the essence.
“We’d known Da Nang had fallen,” Ryan said. “We knew it was falling quickly all over the country.”
The crew prepared the bassinets and baby bottles. The nurses on board the jet prepared IV tubes. Doctors readied syringes filled with penicillin.
The crew had already heard the news, how a C-5 transport leaving Tan Son Nhat the day before had crashed 12 minutes after takeoff. The aircraft broke apart in a rice paddy outside the airbase, killing 138 people, including 78 children.
Had the plane been shot down? Ryan wondered. The cause of the crash wasn’t yet known; she wasn’t alone in her thoughts.
The Pan American pilot brought the big 747 into Tan Son Nhat on a sharp descent to avoid enemy fire. Ryan held on for the ride, though she found time to snap a picture out the window. She still has the fading color image.
“We dove for the runway, taxied to the far end and saw the burning plane from the day before,” she said. “We opened the door and this steaming, tropical heat comes pouring in, and here come the buses and nurses with Vietnamese babies under each arm.”
Ryan has relived the moment many times – the rickety old buses pulling up to the jet, the tears and the volunteers passing babies into the plane. She took them up, strapped the infants into seats. Some she placed under the seats, setting them wherever they would fit.
“This whole 747 is stuffed full of babies,” Ryan said. “They were all traumatized and crying. We closed the doors and we threw out all the FAA rules.”
As the big engines roared for takeoff, Ryan stretched her arms as far as they would reach, holding the children against the thrust of the aircraft. If the descent into Saigon was steep, the climb out proved equally dramatic. The children were in tears, though the infants would later find their thumbs.
Less than 30 days later, Saigon fell to the North. But over one month, 24 flights chartered by private charities evacuated 2,945 orphans to the U.S.
Some asked if the children would be better off in America. Critics saw the lift as a political stunt to shift public opinion. The mothers of the children fathered by American troops saw it differently. One birth mother feared the Viet Cong would splash her Amerasian daughter with gasoline and burn her in the street.
“I never had to do my job in tears before,” Ryan said. “Here were all these babies without their mothers. They needed their moms and they had us. The reality of that war hadn’t hit me until then.”
Ryan chronicled her experience in a 1975 article printed in the Missoulian with the headline “War Comes Aboard.” The following year, she wrote a similar story for Reader’s Digest.
The magazine would call 24 years later as the 25th anniversary of Operation Baby Lift drew near. The editors asked the standard question: Whatever happened to all those babies?
“I had written down some of the names of these little babies, but I never thought I’d know what happened to them,” Ryan said. “I knew one gal who still flew for Pan Am and they had this whole network – World Wings International.”
The group helped Ryan get in touch with the Holt Adoption Agency in Eugene, Oregon. Holt had arranged the placement of the Vietnamese children in American homes. Holt also arranged a 25-year reunion on "Good Morning America" in 2000.
Going to a box by her television, Ryan pulled out a VHS tape. The recording shows her with the people in the pictures hanging around her house. She names them each and calls them family. She’s attended their weddings. Cards arrive in the mail on Mother’s Day.
One child, adopted by former U.S. Rep. Bill Delahunt, D-Mass., received her master’s degree in Spanish and is now married with two children. Another works as an emergency room doctor in Indiana. A third works as a police officer in Seattle.
Life has come a long way from that day in April as the Vietnam War closed in around them on a steaming tarmac in Saigon. But for Ryan, life has turned out pretty well.
“I have these kids in my life that I wouldn’t otherwise have, and it has greatly enriched me,” she said. “It’s been a real honor to know them. We have a special bond because I was there for this horrific transition in their life.”