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
“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
“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
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
“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.