Dottie Curtiss discovered who she was in Vietnam in 1974. Nine months later she died as part of Operation Babylift.
Curtiss, a single mother of two just-grown daughters, traveled to Vietnam with the Defense Intelligence Agency to work as a clerk typist. She’d spent her entire adult life working jobs and raising two children on her own. When she got the chance to go to Vietnam she grabbed it – it was an adventure she’d never have again.
She loved it, going to balls and parties, working with top secret clearance, being part of an elite expatriate government group. She went there in July and by November had asked to stay another year.
But by March 1975 it was clear the government in Saigon was going to fall. The American government started the process of evacuating civilians. In the lottery of who would go when, Dottie’s number came up in the first group. She was quite disappointed. In her last letter to her daughters, she talked about wanting to stay longer.
She hitched a ride on a C-5A transport plane based at Travis Air Force Base. She was among several civilian workers and family members to join more than 300 children, their escorts and a military medical team on the first official flight of Operation Babylift, a massive evacuation effort at the end of the Vietnam War.
Dottie was seated in the bottom level of the cargo plane, helping care for dozens of toddlers and older children, when the rear door of the plane blew off. Wind whipped debris around the large area and children started to lose consciousness because there weren’t enough oxygen masked to go around. She and the other adults scrambled to secure children as the pilots turned the plane around and headed back to Tan Son Nhut Airport.
They almost made it back. The plane landed in a rice paddy, the landing gear cushioning the crash before they broke off, the fuselage scraping along in the mud as the passengers in the bottom of the plane bucked back and forth. Some who weren’t secured flew up, their heads hitting the roof. Others managed to stay seated.
Then the plane hit a levy and leapt into the air again, crossing over a river before landing in another rice paddy. This time the landing gear wasn’t there. This time the lower half of the cargo plane buckled and flattened before the plane broke apart into four pieces, spreading out to rest hundreds of yards apart in the muddy field.
Dottie Curtiss was one of more than 180 people who died in that crash. Margaret Moses, a funny Australian teacher who helped manage several orphanages in Saigon, also died. As did Cuong, a 5-year-old Vietnamese boy whose parents abandoned him in Gia Kiem and who was headed to an adoptive family in France.
But through a combination of flying skill, coincidence and serendipity, almost half of the people on board survived. People such as Christie Leivermann, a nurse from Minnesota who was escorting the babies; Regina Aune, a military nurse who after the crash helped carry dozens of injured babies to rescue vehicles before collapsing with a broken back; and Sati, a fresh-faced girl who grew up to be a 32-year-old woman in England.
I’m working on a book about the crash of the first official Operation Babylift flight. I want to tell the stories of the people who boarded that plane, where they came from and where they were going to, and how the crash may have ended many lives but also forged a future for many others.
I’m going to Vietnam with a group of Vietnamese adoptees, people who came to America through babylift who are returning in search of their roots. Others on the tour include two women whose mother, Barbara Maier, died in the crash. We plan to visit orphanages where some of them came from and the crash site, among other sites in what was South and North Vietnam.
It’s been 31 years since the end of the war, a time of great challenge for Vietnam. From all I’m told, it’s a beautiful country filled with friendly, dignified people eager to welcome anyone to their country.
For me, it will be a chance to see new places and people, and learn about an incident that was more triumph than tragedy at the end of a tumultuous time.
For others, it will be about returning to a place they may not remember and remembering people they’ll never forget.