Fragile Delivery: Operation Babylift

Phil's Stories

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Sister Susan Carol McDonald
Oct 2, 2020
Sister Susan Carol McDonald      Oct. 22, 1944 – Sept. 23, 20

It was early May 2011 when I received a call from Sister Susan. She wanted to know if I was coming to St. Louis for a Babylift reunion at her place. The reunion was schedule for late May and Babylift adoptees from around the country and two from Switzerland were in attendance. Sister Mary Gage Nelle was there as Sister Susan's special guest. She helped place many adoptees into loving home all over the world. She worked with Sister Susan at an orphanage in Vietnam.
  Sister Mary Gage Nelle wanted to meet me; we spoke briefly over the phone during my conversation with Sister Susan. I assured her that I would make the reunion in St. Louis. My wife and daughter signed on to come along with me. I wanted my family to meet my Babylift families whom I've been connected to for many years. Sister Susan and I have been friends for many years but my wife and daughter had never met her.
  My family and I drove to St. Louis Illinois from Flint Michigan; the drive there was fun and exciting. We talked about what to expect once we arrived. There was a get acquainted or meet and greet time at Sister Susan’s house. Plenty of food and drinks were available. A group of us went downtown St. Louis to a local grill where we had dinner and drinks. We were getting to know each other and had much fun doing so. We took many photos. Everyone was full of conversations, questions and curiosity, specially the Operation Babylift adoptees. Many had a deep quest for any information about the Babylift and I was there for them. Just like Sister Susan said during our phone conversation “Phil, the kids will have a lot of questions for you".
  These kids/adoptees loved Sister Susan and I understand why. Sister Susan was in the trenches back in the day. She gave up so much of her young life to the protection of so many kids that were trapped in the orphanages. For many of the Operation Babylift kids, Sister Susan knew what orphanage they come from in Vietnam. She had a treasure chest full of photos in her library.
  I remember when Sister Susan introduced Sister Mary Gage Nelle to me and my family. It was a meeting I had hoped for long before we talked on the phone. I heard about the many orphanages she cared for and supervised. Sister Susan shared with Sister Mary how she found me clinging to life once I entered the emergency room evacuated from the crash site. Sister Susan was a nurse, she volunteered at the Seventh Day Adventist hospital when the C-5A galaxy went down.
  She said she saw me when I was brought into the emergency. She was afraid for me not sure if I was going to make it. She prayed for me as the trauma team worked on me. My white shirt was drenched with blood while I was lying on the stretcher. She prayed again for me, she stayed near my side when I was treated.
  Sister Susan is a very affectionate person. She still shows that same affection today with the kids. The adoptees brought gifts for Sister Susan; we collected donations to help replenish the money she spent for the reunion. Her friend Mary Louis was great she did a wonderful job accommodating everyone at their home. She had her chef’s hat on while roasting the pig. We had all kinds of side dishes to munch on. The adoptees loved having Pho on the menu, (a popular Vietnamese soup).
  I met two survivors from the C-5A galaxy crash, Shane Dewey and Jimmy Zimmer. We embraced and hugged each other with so much love and feeling. It was as though we had met before, but in a since we had met before. They survived the troop compartment section of the airplane crash. I met Jimmy's adopted mother Wanda Zimmer, she's a sweetheart and truly precious. She let me have a video tape of a 20/20 interview I was on in 1984. I had been looking for the 20/20 interview for a long time and Wanda came through for me.
  Saturday's schedule included indulging that succulent roasted pig we been waiting on. A trip the St. Louis Zoo and a few went to the St. Louis Cardinal game. My wife, my daughter and I stayed at the house with Sister Susan. The youngsters went out to explore St. Louis while the more senior guests stayed back. We met Wanda Zimmer, she came over and introduce herself and said she adopted Jim Zimmer. She learned from Sister Susan about my connection with Operation Babylift and was so delighted to talk to me. I remembered her from the 2010 trip to Vietnam but really didn't get chance to talk with her. That trip was the 35th anniversary of OBL (Operation Babylift) April 4, 2010. We organized a reunion trip to Vietnam through Facebook. Babylift kids from all over the world made the trip. Well over eighty people showed up.
  I told Wanda that I remembered her from last year's trip to Vietnam. She remembered me too! In Vietnam she didn't know my story; she only remembered we had met at the market in district one, Ho Chi Minh City (formally Saigon). The market place was the rendezvous spot to meet up. From there we walked to the restaurant as a group.
      The next day was a big day for us. Sister Susan organized a tour to the crash site for the memorial service. My hotel was a block away from where we were to depart. I walked over to the hotel and the lobby was full of people. I saw people that I knew, many who came up to me. We took pictures and talked about how exciting it was to be in Vietnam. We talked about the crash site. It was the first time for many of them visiting to the crash site. The religious belief for many in Vietnam is that the souls won't rest until a memorial is in place near the crash site grounds. A lot of the conversation was about how we can get land reserved near the crash site for a memorial dedication. I understand that there's a lot of red tape and politics involved for such a request.
Many Vietnamese believe that America stole their kids during the Baby lift. I think that's ridiculous, I could see how the Amer-Asian adults were treated in Ho Chi Minh City. They are treated as third class citizens. I looked at them and wonder who fathered them, if they had American fathers, or do they want to know about their fathers. The politics of putting a memorial dedication at the crash site remains to be a hot button issue. We arrived at the crash site and walked the along dusty dirt road that lead to the memorial site. Well over one hundred people joined us and at the site. Sister Susan and her friends who worked at her orphanage passed out incense to light. For Buddhist rite: ALL ARE GIVEN STICKS OF BURNING INCENSE, AND BAGS WITH CANDIES AND COOKIES, PAPER GARMENTS FOR CHILDREN AND PAPER TOYS, FOOD, PLATES, ECT. FOR BURNING--OFFERINGS TO SPIRITS OF THOSE WHO HAVE GONE BEFORE US. We formed a circle and each of us read the names of each loved persons including my crew members. After names were read we tossed bags of cookies, candies, and treats into the air. These symbolize giving gifts of happiness to the children who died in the crash. The treats left behind were collected and enjoyed by children who live in the area. Sister Susan read this quote, "In our hearts, we acknowledge with love each of these individuals. You may presume these people are here, present with us now. We give them our love and receive love from them".
Everyone received a copy of a poem by a Vietnamese poet, Thich Nhat Hanh. We sang in the spirit of Kum Ba Yah "This Is Holy Ground, Kum Ba Yah" lead by Sister Susan. We concluded by singing, "There are angels here, Kum Ba Yah - We remember you, Kum Ba Yah, - We're together here, - Kum Ba Yah, - Precious loved ones, - Kum Ba Ya.
Memories of that visit to Viet Nam came back at the reunion. Sister Susan is a very special person she is clearly a gift from God. She has touched the lives of so many people including myself. It was magical watching her educating the kids about where they came from throughout the many orphanages in Vietnam. I don’t know how she knew the names of so many adoptees and who took care of them when they were in Vietnamese orphanage. Sister Susan Carol MacDonald is my friend and hero. She went above and beyond the call of duty during and after the Vietnam War in taking care of the kids of War. I believe her leadership and prayers has saved many, many lives. That’s what makes her an American hero.

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Inside the C5-A Crash
Oct 1, 2020
• You can feel the aircraft cooling off as the engines are at full throttle and the anxiety of each passenger seems to dissipate. Our itinerary is to go to Clark refuel and on to Travis where President Ford will meet the orphans and welcome them to America. We begin taxing down the runway and the big C5-A galaxy is rumbling as it is picking up speed down the runway. I’m sitting on the cargo floor with a cargo tie down strap across my lap feeling the vibration of the rumbling aircraft. It is noisy and loud as we lift up with the sounds of the wheels closing as they fold into the belly of the aircraft.
• Finally we are airborne and climbing. The lighting inside the cargo section is dim I look and observe the patients and passengers sighing in relief as we climb higher. Sitting on the cold cargo floor I begin to wiggle around trying to find some comfort even though the blanket underneath cushions me. About fifteen minutes into the flight the seat belt sign is turned off. Lt Aune, DC Johnson and I are attending to a female patient that is in distress. We try to calm her down, so, Lt. Aune decides to go up to the galley to retrieve some medication for our patient. DC and I stay with the patient. SMSgt. Joe Castro is filming as we are attending to our patient. SSgt. Kenneth Nance is behind me making his way forward of the aircraft and Col. Willis is walking toward us close to the left side cat walk observing us offering to help with the patient.
• Suddenly a loud explosion sounds and jars the cargo section. I look up toward the aft (rear) of the cargo where the noise comes from and see the rear cargo doors and ramp have ripped off like ripping a piece of paper. It is obvious that a rapid decompression is occurring right before my eyes. As I look back I see Perkins on the ladder near the top hanging on as he is trying to make it to the troop compartment. At the same time I see the blue skies and the white clouds. And the dim cargo section suddenly illuminates as the cargo section filled with fog and cold air.
• It is cold in the cargo hold section and I hear the sounds of fear in the voices of the kids as they yell and scream. I see bodies sucked out the rear and pallets of supplies and equipment is ripped out and disappears into the blue sky. I see the blue skies and white clouds glaring in front of me but death never crosses my mind, although the screaming and the panic surrounding me are saying something different. What came to my immediate mind is the thought of what one of my instructors taught me in flight school, SMSgt Jim Harden said, “Phil if you get into a situation and the airplane is going down make sure you save yourself first. But that is not what I am thinking while I am looking out at the blue sky in disbelief trying to breathe but having great difficulty. I am thinking of protecting the babies. I am thrown off my feet as I am trying to grab hold of a cargo tie-down strap. From that point forward I don’t remember what happened. I don’t remember the crash landing or any of the rescue efforts. I do have vague memories of hearing helicopters propellers and feeling chilly.

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Journal Entry - After the Crash - Recovery
Sep 28, 2020

• I am finally released from quarantine and am able receive visitors. Tessie hasn’t seen me since the night before the crash and she is a nervous wreck waiting to learn about my condition. She got word of the crash through my friend Ted Coleman. He escorted her on base to visit me. When they come to see me I learn that the hospital administrator has placed signs throughout the hospital corridors on the first floor that read; no visitors for Sergeant Wise.
• It is nice to know that so many friends care about me and I feel bad that they were turned away wanting to visit me. My good friend Ted (Tico) Coleman gets Tessie a daily base pass authorized by the Base Commander. She is able to visit with me every day; I appreciate her helping with taking care of me. Tessie is hands on when comes to my health care needs and pain management. She calls my nurse whenever I am in pain or any type of discomfort. Tessie gets to know my mother by way of telephone. She calls her almost daily giving her an update on condition. That’s what Tessie is really about, loving, caring, thoughtful, and considerate. Mom loved Tessie right away and could not wait to meet her.
• Once the word gets out that my quarantine is over I begin to receive visitors. I have so many visitors wanting see me. My crew members are some of the first to visit, it is Marcie and Harriet. They are so excited to see me, they embrace and hug me. And tell me all the details of what we went on during the C5-A crash. Lieutenant Goffinet draws a diagram detailing how the C5-A touches down and eventually crash lands in the rice paddies two miles from Saigon.
• Marcie and Harriet tell me that I am the only survivor to make it out of the cargo hold section. They don’t know at the time that two others survived the cargo hold section too. Two more crew members come by at least I think they are crew member because they wear flight suits. What I didn’t know was that they were CIA. The CIA was at crash site to protect the aircraft wreckage from the local villagers who were pillaging the crash site.
• Those guys came to Clark to visit with me and see about my recovery. They thought I was not going to make it when they last saw me in Vietnam. They go on to tell me how they recued me. I can’t remember their names. I really wish I could remember their names. Someday I hope to meet them again to thank them for saving my life. One of the guys says he saw my white shirt from a distance. They went to check out the burning wreckage and saw me hanging upside down with my left leg entangled in wire cable. I was told that I was unconscious with my forehead laid opened my eyeball was protruding out of its socket and I had multiple wounds all over my body. While they were untangling my body from the wreckage they said to each other,” dang, this dude is still alive.” Listening to these guys telling me how they rescued me was riveting. I was hanging on their every word. I gave them both a big hug and thanked them immensely for saving my life. I never see them again.