Finally, after a long wait inside the squadron the mission was on the way. It was early April and I had been alerted to fly at 0655 hours by the CQ (charge of quarters), five minutes before my duty was over. My initial thought was that maybe there was a mistake. I called the squadron to confirm the mission and was told that it was a go. I grabbed my bags and caught a taxi to the flight line. I ran toward the aircraft, a DC-9 Nightingale with the engines started and ready to taxi.
At this point I'm thinking that they were leaving without me. I waved my hand while running toward the aircraft trying to get them to stop. The aircraft stopped and the forward door opened. The flight engineer stepped out and asked "What can I do for you?” I said, “I’ve been alerted to fly and I should be on the flight with you.” The flight engineer said, "This is just a training mission, we’re going up and turning around and coming back."
I was baffled. I went inside the squadron office to find out what was going on and found TSgt. Turner Smith in the control center. “What’s going on?” I asked. “Just hold tight Sgt. Wise,” he said, and that’s what I did for quite a long time. In fact, I was still waiting hours past 0700 hours, which was my off-duty time. But it didn’t matter. I had my orders.
By 1000 hours, we were assembled in a briefing room, the flight crew and the medical crews. The wing commander and our squadron commander led the briefing. We learned that the fall of Saigon, Vietnam was imminent. Yet thousands of people were fleeing to Saigon from the north, including many orphans displaced from orphanages, hoping to get out of Vietnam from there. The commanders estimated that unknown numbers of Amer-Asian kids were trapped in Saigon and the fear was that they would be treated badly, persecuted or killed if left behind.
We were told that President Gerald R. Ford had ordered Operation Babylift. The US government set up a $2 million fund to evacuate more than 2,500 Amer-Asian orphans from Vietnam. Even children who had parents were being given to orphanages in hopes of getting them out of Vietnam. We all were stunned in the briefing with the realization that the fall of South Vietnam had begun. We realized that this was a history-making event. And we were part of it.
The big surprise for the medical crew was that we would not use the C-141 or DC-9 Nightingale that we normally used, but instead we would be using the huge, five-story C-5A Galaxy. It would be the first time a C-5A Galaxy was used for an aerovac mission. The flight crew gave us a quick walk through of the C-5A Galaxy. I was amazed at the size of the aircraft. I stood there in awe of its massive doors and ramp. The belly had howitzers strapped down for delivery to Vietnam. We strategized with the flight crew and figured out what we needed to take for the kids. We took medicine, blankets, milk, water, diapers and anything we could think of that those babies might need.
We boarded the aircraft and took off for Tan Son Nhut Air Base, South Vietnam. Our medical team rode in the flight deck with the flight crew. We talked about what was happening in Vietnam, how the President would meet the C-5A Galaxy at Travis AFB California on its return to welcome the orphans to America. We were excited, thrilled. We talked about what to expect once we got to Vietnam. We wondered what condition the babies would be in, what the security situation would be like, and if the flight line would be shelled, or maybe the flight line would be overrun by refugees trying to escape the ensuing communist regime.
The medical team leaving Clark AB Philippines consisted of two nurses and four medical technicians. The nurses were 1st Lt. Marcie Wirtz Tate and 1st Lt. Harriet Goffinet Neill. The medical technicians were SMSgt. Olen H. Boutwell, TSgt. Denning C. Johnson, Sgt. Gregory B. Gemerik and I, Sgt. Phillip R. Wise. We were all from the 9th Aero Medical Evacuation Group, Clark AB Philippines. I was the senior medical technician with responsibility of assigning the other medical technicians to perform duties in different sections of the aircraft.
Marcie was MCD (Medical Crew Director) and Harriet served as the second nurse. Our assignment changed when we arrived in Saigon. The C-141 medical crew merged with us. Capt. Mary Klinker and Lt. Regina Aune were the flight nurses from the 10th Aerovac at Travis AB California. SSgt. James A. Hadley and SSgt. Michael G. Paget were the medical technicians. Once our crews merged, I remained the senior medical technician and Regina became the MCD. The Medical Crew Director, in charge of the medical team, worked as the second nurse and managed the medicine kit.
When our C-5A Galaxy crew landed at Ton Son Nhut, we taxied to an isolated area of the flight line. The doors opened and a gust of hot air rushed through the cabin. I looked out the huge cargo doors and saw a long line of buses parked on the tarmac. Heat waves misted around the buses. I thought, “I hope those buses are air conditioned,” but I found out later that they weren't. Our medical crews got together and devised our assignments to work in the different sections of the aircraft. Regina Aune, Mary Klinker, DC Johnson, Michael Paget and I worked the cargo section. Marcie Wirtz, Harriet Goffinet, James Hadley, Greg Gemerik and Olen Boutwell worked the troop compartment upstairs.
We got our teams in place and were ready for enplaning the kids. We formed a chain line up to the troop compartment where we passed each child upstairs. They were placed two per seat in the approximately 77 seats upstairs. Downstairs we prepared the cargo section by placing military blankets throughout the cargo floor. The older kids were positioned downstairs. Some sat on the cat walk and the others sat on the floor. We used cargo tie down straps across our laps to secure us for takeoff. Normally loading passengers downstairs without seats was against Air Force regulation. An exception was made for this emergency evacuation mission to accommodate more people – so many that we did not have a manifest that accounted for everyone.
The powerful doors and the huge ramp closed, and we could hear the loud hydraulics as we prepared for takeoff. The door latches locked, the cargo cabin got dim and the cabin began to finally cool off after a long wait in the unbearable heat. My uniform was soaking wet from perspiration and I welcomed that cold air. The kids began to quiet down as the cabin cooled off. The C-5A Galaxy took off and we were airborne.