SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- An extraordinary chapter of the Vietnam War will be celebrated Thursday night at the Presidio in San Francisco. Dozens will gather to mark the 40th anniversary of "Operation Babylift," a mission to bring thousands of Vietnamese orphans to the U.S. many of those children would not have made it, if not for the heroism of an American pilot.
The end of the war was chaotic, frightening, and violent. Untold numbers were fleeing the North Vietnamese onslaught, including thousands of orphans. On April 3, 1975, the White House started "Operation Babylift," with a goal of bringing them to America. About 1,500 were flown to San Francisco. But the mission got off to a tragic start.
The first official Operation Babylift flight carrying 243 children, 44 escorts, 16 crewmen, and 2 flight nurses wouldn't make it to its destination -- Travis Air Force Base in Fairfield, Calif.
Forty miles from Saigon and 23,000 feet high, the rear cargo doors blew off, crippling the flight controls. The C-5A Galaxy plane lost altitude quickly. The pilot, Captain Dennis Traynor, crash landed in a field.
"I said goodbye to my wife," he said. "Because I thought okay, I'm done. And then we came to a stop."
Traynor spoke to ABC7 News recently at his home in Fairfax, Virginia.
"The airplane broke into parts and you can see where the fire is burning," he said.
Traynor was not injured.
One hundred yards away he could see the troop compartment, the wings and tail were someplace else, and tragically the cargo compartment, where many of the orphans and escorts were seated, was crushed in the landing. One hundred thirty eight people, mostly children, were killed.
An investigation blamed the crash on a maintenance issue with the cargo doors.
Traynor was awarded the Air Force Cross for extraordinary heroism and airmanship. His flying skills are credited with this not being a worse tragedy.
"An ordinary captain's life that was made extraordinary by the mission and then made tragic by the fact that we lost so many people," he said. "But we lost 138 people but 176 went on to live long and prosper."
One of the 176 survivors is Carrie Briggs. She was just 4 years old when she was put on the doomed flight. ABC7 News caught up with her at her home in Mission Viejo in Southern California.
"Recently, I was given a piece of the insulation of the plane," she said.
Her memory of the crash is limited; she doesn't remember getting on the plane.
"Once it crashed, you know, the help trying to get me out, I remember the flash fire that happened and seeing fire in the distance of the pieces that had crashed," she said.
Briggs remembers being taken to a medical facility, checked out, and then put on another Operation Babylift flight to the Bay Area. She landed four days after the crash.
"I don't even remember being on that next plane," she said. "But I do remember once I landed in the Presidio, my adopted father grabbed me and took me and I just hung on to him the whole time."
Briggs was taken by her adoptive family to their home in Riverside, Calif. She says she's grateful for Operation Babylift, which led to a new life and new family.
"It's a part of history," she said. "Definitely a part of my history and a part of American history. So, that's really great to see."
Briggs and Traynor have met. They both attended a reunion in Southern California.
Traynor says the survivors keep in touch through a special Facebook group.
He says many people like Briggs plan on going back to search for their roots and find out more about the families they left behind in Vietnam.
The "Operation Babylift: Perspectives and Legacies" exhibit in the Presidio will be on display until December. It's open Tuesday through Sunday 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. and is free to the public. Click here for details.