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1975’s Operation Babylift offers lessons in resiliency, relationships

From left, Aryn Lockhart, retired Lt. Col. Regina C. Aune and retired Chief Master Sgt. Ray Snedegar listen to their introduction before giving their presentation on Operation Babylift on Oct. 8 at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, Texas. They survived the crash of the first authorized Operation Babylift out of Vietnam on April 4, 1975. (U.S. Air Force photo/Carole Chiles Fuller/Released)

From left, Aryn Lockhart, retired Lt. Col. Regina C. Aune and retired Chief Master Sgt. Ray Snedegar listen to their introduction before giving their presentation on Operation Babylift on Oct. 8 at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, Texas. They survived the crash of the first authorized Operation Babylift out of Vietnam on April 4, 1975. (U.S. Air Force photo/Carole Chiles Fuller/Released)

Aryn Lockhart (from left), retired Lt. Col. Regina C. Aune and retired Chief Master Sgt. Ray Snedegar stand in front of a piece of art honoring “Those Who Save,” which includes a tribute to then 1st Lt. Regina Aune. The artwork is in Building 1 at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, Texas. (U.S. Air Force photo/Carole Chiles Fuller/Released)

Aryn Lockhart (from left), retired Lt. Col. Regina C. Aune and retired Chief Master Sgt. Ray Snedegar stand in front of a piece of art honoring “Those Who Save,” which includes a tribute to then 1st Lt. Regina Aune. The artwork is in Building 1 at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, Texas. (U.S. Air Force photo/Carole Chiles Fuller/Released)

The Vietnamese rice paddy where a C-5A crashed shortly after takeoff on April 4, 1975. The cargo aircraft, part of Operation Babylift, was carrying more than 200 Amerasian orphans bound for a new life in the United States.

The Vietnamese rice paddy where a C-5A crashed shortly after takeoff on April 4, 1975. The cargo aircraft, part of Operation Babylift, was carrying more than 200 Amerasian orphans bound for a new life in the United States.

From left, retired Lt. Col. Regina Aune, Aryn Lockhart and retired Chief Master Sgt. Ray Snedegar pause for a photo after showing their respects at a shrine for those lost after the crash of a C-5A in Saigon, Vietnam, in April 1975.

From left, retired Lt. Col. Regina Aune, Aryn Lockhart and retired Chief Master Sgt. Ray Snedegar pause for a photo after showing their respects at a shrine for those lost after the crash of a C-5A in Saigon, Vietnam, in April 1975.

Operation Babylift survivor Aryn Lockhart, lights a memorial candle at a shrine commemorating those lost during the crash of a C-5A in Saigon, Vietnam, in April 1975. More than 70 orphans bound for the United States died in the crash.

Operation Babylift survivor Aryn Lockhart, lights a memorial candle at a shrine commemorating those lost during the crash of a C-5A in Saigon, Vietnam, in April 1975. More than 70 orphans bound for the United States died in the crash.

The former orphanage where Aryn Lockhart and other Amerasian orphans lived prior to their evacuation to the U.S. in 1975. The site is now used by the Vietnamese government.

The former orphanage where Aryn Lockhart and other Amerasian orphans lived prior to their evacuation to the U.S. in 1975. The site is now used by the Vietnamese government.

JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-LACKLAND, Texas --

Three people whose lives were indelibly changed by a tragic event more than 40 years ago shared their experiences with members of the 772nd Enterprise Sourcing Squadron here Oct. 8.

The three — retired Lt. Col. Regina C. Aune, retired Chief Master Sgt. Ray Snedegar and 20-year civil service employee Aryn Lockhart — survived the crash of C-5A 89218, the first authorized Operation Babylift flight out of Vietnam on April 4, 1975.

On the flight, Aune was the chief medical officer; Snedegar was the senior loadmaster; and Lockhart was one of the infants being evacuated from Saigon just weeks before its fall. Their presentation was the first time they told their stories together.

The C-5A, an airframe that had never been used for an air evacuation, was to have taken 1,200 Amerasian orphans whose lives were endangered to the United States. Although the operation began before the orphanages were ready, the plane was packed with young children and volunteer caregivers.

“Saigon was absolute, total chaos,” Aune said. “We had a lot of people trying to help us out.”

The babies, loaded hand-over-hand, bucket-brigade-style, were placed two per seat in the troop compartment with Aune helping load each one. Those deemed to be able to care for themselves were in the cargo hold.

“We still had to put some of the babies down below,” Aune said. “There were like, little nests, if you will; one woman with a couple of babies strapped to the floor.”

The babies in the cargo hold were secured with tie-down straps, litter straps, and blankets and pillows.

Who went where turned out to be a momentous decision. Shortly after takeoff, the cargo door locks malfunctioned and the doors broke off, causing rapid decompression.  The pilots, managing to turn the plane around, crash-landed it in a rice paddy.

The plane broke into three pieces: the cockpit, troop compartment and cargo hold.

Of the 310 aboard the flight, 135 were killed and 175 survived. Miraculously, all but one of the babies in the troop compartment were OK. Some even slept through the event. Only one person in the cargo hold survived, a member of the medevac team.

“Anybody Lt. Aune and I thought could take care of themselves got killed,” Snedegar said.

Although Aune was originally positioned in the cargo hold, she had gone up the ladder to the troop compartment just before the doors malfunctioned to retrieve medication for a volunteer who had become violently ill.

“When the fog cleared, and I looked down, I saw the jagged edge of the aircraft. … The ladder got ripped out, so there was no way to go back downstairs,” Aune said.

The medical team worked to secure the children and tried to figure out how to handle the crash landing that was sure to come. 

“We were going strictly from what we knew as C-141-crew members and also what we were making up as we went,” she said.

Both relayed acts of heroism among crewmembers, including how one small man pulled a large man with two broken legs from the broken ladder through a very small opening and into the troop compartment. 

Once the pieces of the plane came to a stop, the rescue effort began, in what essentially was a swamp.

“When we got out, we were knee deep in muck and mud,” Aune said.

The cockpit crew was uninjured but Aune wasn’t as fortunate. She had gone sailing down the aisle breaking a bone in her back, all the bones in one foot and had serious cuts on her leg and hands. Despite her injuries, she helped evacuate survivors to helicopters until she passed out.

Aune said she remembers nothing until awakening on the floor of a helicopter but Snedegar recalled the medical officer snapping a salute and asking to be relieved of duty before fainting.  

After a few weeks in a hospital at Clark Air Force Base, Philippines, the crew members went their separate ways. The med evac team was reorganized.

“We talked to nobody and saw nobody after that. … There was no way to find out about the orphans; there were no records. But that does not mean the orphans couldn’t find us,” Aune said.

Lockhart, now 41 and a senior visual information specialist at the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany, was one of those babies Aune held.  She has become a healing force for Aune and Snedegar and they have helped her fill in the blanks of her past.

Lockhart grew up with her adoptive family in Northern Virginia and California. After graduating college, she started to research her past. In 1997, the early days of the Internet, she found an article about Aune and tracked her down.  Through the years, they have grown so close that Lockhart now calls Aune her second mom. Aune’s other children, including Diane Taylor, a civilian employee of the 772nd ESS, have welcomed her as well.

“When she found us, we had no way of knowing the relationship would develop as it did,” Aune said after the presentation.

They grew closer during Aune’s 2001-2003 assignment to Kirtland Air Force Base, New Mexico, where Lockhart worked as a contractor.

When Aune retired after 28 years of service in October 2006, Lockhart met another of her rescuers: Snedegar. 

Aune and Lockhart had been working on a book (“Operation Babylift: Mission Accomplished”) and planned to return to Vietnam. They invited Snedegar along. The trip, in November 2014, was intense for all three.

“It was a healing process for Mom and Ray,” Lockhart said. “I’m inspired by that relationship.”

Lockhart organized the expedition, arranging for a translator, renting a villa and hiring a cook.  Her experience as a photojournalist and writer helped her tell her own story, and gave her a way to separate herself from it emotionally.

“The writing process was very cathartic for me. The writing and photography helped me process it,” she said. Her experience was different than the two retired Air Force members, she said.  “They were reliving it.”

Shrines stood in the Vietnamese rice patty where lives were lost, but none were marked. Lockhart used her design skills to create and place signs for them in English and Vietnamese.

“It’s important to me to honor the sacrifices that were made,” she said.

Lockhart said she came away with a new sense of herself.

“I grew up not being very proud of being Vietnamese. Now, after the book, I am proud.”

All air crewmembers on the C-5A were awarded the Airman’s Medal. Aune also was awarded the 1974 Cheney Award and a Purple Heart. Snedegar was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross.