ONLY ON ABC7NEWS.COM: 'Operation Babylift' marks 40th anniversary

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ByEric Thomas KGO logo
Thursday, April 2, 2015
EXCLUSIVE: 'Operation Babylift' marks 40th anniversary
Forty years ago, the first of many "Operation Babylift" flights touched down, bringing refugee orphans of the Vietnam War to the Bay Area.

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- Forty years ago, a passenger jet touched down at the Oakland Airport, with precious cargo onboard from Southeast Asia. It was the first of many "Operation Babylift" flights that would bring orphans to the Bay Area, refugees of the Vietnam War. In a story you'll see only on ABC7 News, you'll learn that while the airlift wasn't well-organized at first, it got the job done.

On the other side of the world, there was a desperate fight to keep South Vietnam from being swallowed up by its neighbor to the north.

While in Oakland, a World Airways DC8 touched down on the last leg of its flight home to the Bay Area. Onboard was the most precious of cargo -- 57 children. Some were Vietnamese. Others were the orphaned mixed-race children of Vietnamese women and American GI's.

"You got a nursery full of babies, you know, do you lock the door or leave it open?" asked Babylift volunteer Ross Meador in an April 2010 interview. "Do you prop a bottle in their mouths as you drive away?"

Meador was a volunteer frantically trying to find a way to get orphans out of the country.

In this undated image, children from "Operation Babylift are seen.

"We weren't able to find a plane that would take our kids until we met Ed Daly," he said.

Daly was the hard-drinking, pistol-packing owner of World Airways, an airline based in Oakland.

"He definitely did not care about the rules," said Valerie Witherspoon, who worked for Daly. "There we were, sitting on the runway, it was dark. And we suddenly hear the sound of kids singing, 'California, here I come,' and they got on the plane."

She went on to say, "It was completely in cargo configuration -- no seats, no oxygen masks, few lavatories."

The flight itself was unauthorized; neither cleared by the U.S. or South Vietnamese governments.

Jason Gahr was onboard with his two brothers. A South Vietnamese official decided he was old enough to stay and fight.

"When he was doing that, other people were trying to interfere," said Gahr. "The pilot Ed Daly tried to talk him out of it, tried to bribe him."

Witherspoon explains, "Daly gave the immigration officer a $100 bill, hoping that that would prevent that from happening. But it didn't work, so he tore the bill in half and gave it to the young man they took off the plane and the other half to his brother."

"It's one of the most important mementos in my life," Gahr said. "That is like a token that ended a chapter of my life and started a new chapter."

In this undated image, "Operation Babylift" orphan Jason Gahr shows off half of a $100 bill given to him by Ed Daly.

He would make a later flight and reunite with his brothers who were on their way to America, and San Francisco's Presidio.

It might not look like much now with all the years of wear and tear, but Harmon Hall was the first stop in America for almost half of the 3,300 kids airlifted out of South Vietnam as their country crumbled. The 1,500 children arrived in the Bay Area and passed through the Presidio.

"One of the things that we had done, at the Presidio was to set up bathing stations so that we could give them baths, you know, get them into clean clothes," said Babylift volunteer Teri Mills, RN.

Mills was a nursing student when she heard volunteers were needed.

"The biggest need I think that they had was how dehydrated they were," she said. "And that they needed, you know, to be fed. You could tell that they were not in great shape."

It was the first of many Babylift flights. They touched the lives of all of those involved. And Gahr, he's thankful and paying it forward.

An exhibition in the Presidio opens in two weeks. Click here for details.