HOLMDEL, N.J. >> Vietnamese orphans airlifted to the United States in an evacuation dubbed “Operation Babylift” reunited Saturday with some of the soldiers who helped them flee in the frantic final days of the Vietnam War.
Twenty evacuees and their adopted families took part in the reunion marking the rescue operation’s 40th anniversary at the New Jersey Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Holmdel.
Operation Babylift was authorized by President Gerald Ford in April 1975 and evacuated 2,547 children to families in the United States and allied countries as Viet Cong troops descended on Saigon.
Participants at the reunion dedicated a plaque inscribed with the names of 138 children, volunteers and soldiers who perished when their C-5A Galaxy crashed while headed to Clark Air Base in the Philippines.
Kim Lan Duong said she was orphaned in the streets of Saigon before being flown to Detroit during Operation Babylift, where she was adopted and raised by her single mother and grandmother, Sandy and Violet Howard.
“To be able to see adult adoptees, it warms their hearts to see us grown up,” Duong, 43, said. “They still call us kids and that’s OK.”
Lana Mae Noone, 68, of Garden City, New York, started Vietnam Babylift as a website to honor a promise she made to her daughter Heather Constance Noone, as the girl lay dying of pneumonia in an American hospital after being evacuated from Vietnam.
“I promised her I would make sure babylift would never be forgotten,” Noone tearfully recalled.
Greg Gmerek, a medic in the 9th Air Evacuation Squadron in the Air Force, was among those who survived the crash whose victims were honored Sunday.
“Mud was flying at me and I went flying around all over the place” recalled Gmerek, who was not strapped in because all the seats were strapped with two children a piece. “We just started getting the babies out as best we could.”
Gmerek said he broke six ribs and had a partially collapsed lung from the crash.
“I thought about them all the time,” Gmerek said of the children. For the first time last year, he said he was able to meet one of the survivors, at barbecue set up to honor Operation Babylift.
“It means a lot to me,” he said.