It was a hot and muggy afternoon April 4, 1975, when the C-5 carrying more than 300 crashed into a rice field just outside the Tan Son Nhut airport. The conditions were about the same when we trudged out to the site for a memorial service Sunday morning.
It was a long walk in many ways that morning. We'd taken the bus out past the airport a few miles, turning off the highway into a dirt road that soon petered out. We started walking then, at various paces, in the morning heat, past small homes and fields, over a small bridge, to the right past another home, out to a field that looked much like any other except for the tree in the center and a small clearing about the size of a single bed, marking the site and the memorials created to remember it.
For others it was much more than a physical journey.
Yvonne Shimek and Diana Schumacher came to say good-bye to their mother, who died in the crash. She was a secretary working for the government in Vietnam, there will her husband. Both Yvonne and Diana and their two siblings were grown by then. This was their parents time for adventure in some ways, time alone again. When it became clear the evacuation was imminent, the American government started to send non-essential personnel home, reassigning some as escorts for the children on babylift. That's how Barbara Maier came to be on that plane. When their mother died, they didn't get her body released for several weeks. The service was controlled and abbreviated. This was the first time the two sisters had been to the place where their mother died. This was the first time they'd had to really say good-bye.
Phil Wise worked in the aeromedical crew that got the call to serve on the first babylift flight. He was one of the handful of people on the lower deck to survive the crash, which pancaked the plane and almost instantly killed all those in the cargo hold below. Somehow, Phil became entangled in wiring and was pinned to the top of the plane. The pilot found him later, thinking to collect his body, but discovered he was alive, legs twisted, eyeball gone, barely alive. He wasn't expected to live. He did. He came to the site for the first time to honor those who didn't, buddies, babies. He came to the site to honor his life and the will to survive to serve a greater purpose.
Catherine Thuy-Hang Pelletier came to Vietnam to find her mother. She came to see the site to visit the place she almost died. She was a baby on the plane, a small infant who was placed in the upper level of the C-5, in the passenger area where all the babies were strapped on to the seats there. She survived the crash and left a few days later for her adoptive family in Quebec. During the years she questioned her origins but her parents wouldn't tell her much. One time when she was 8, and another time when she was 10, a black man came to dinner. Her mother told her he sold vacuums. She's convinced he was her father, although her mother wouldn't say. She's searching for her mother in the village in which she was born, according to the papers that accompanied her adoption. At least, she hopes it's that village. Most if not all of the adoption papers for the children in the crash were destroyed. It's uncertain exactly who was what, although those who knew the babies did their best to recreate the paperwork needed to leave the country.
Others came, too. About a dozen workers who cared for and loved the children who died in the crash came to remember them. Several led the Buddhist part of the memorial, lighting incense, burning paper clothing for the dead. Other adoptees, those who had left Vietnam in 1968 or 1986 or even other babylift flights mourned those who had been brothers and sisters in circumstance if not in birth. Sister Susan MacDonald remembered the children she cared for and the women she worked with who died. The orphanage where she worked provided 230 children and staff for the flight. In all 180 people died. This isn't her first time back to the site.
For me, visiting the site of the crash was one of the reasons I came to Vietnam. I wanted to see the field that ran pink with a mix of water and blood, as pilot Bud Traynor described to me. I wanted to feel the mud that so hampered rescue efforts and hear the quiet that was disturbed by the grinding engines as the plane hit the ground at 350 mph. I wanted to meet the ghosts and hear the stories and absorb the tale I wanted to tell.
After a few words and a song, we started to read the names of the dead aloud.
The nursery staff: Margaret Moses, Lee Makk, Dolly Bui and her children, David, Michou and Tina Bui, Sister Ursula Lee, Monique Ewald, Birgit Blanc.
The children: Bob Chiodo, Salandre DuBois, Ann Marie Blanc, Mark Paul Desplanques, Symphony Enget, Vim Escriou, Sulvester Sudhoff, Susi Gottschalk, Jim Hentz, Nancy Montladuc, Heiko Harke, Volker, Pascale McKay, Gerald Peck, Viet, Jill Bjorklund, Anne of Green Gables Tremblay, Janice Williams, Geoffrey, Hy Vong McCauley, Tran Van Hai, Tashini, Paul Nguyen Ngoc Bich Bauldault, Vincent, Tuan, Tran Tinh Nhu Chevallier, Hai Cone, Thanh Deguine, Diep Marie Giles, Denis Howsam, Do Xuan My D'Anna, Cuong Felce, Hemar, Khanh Huharski, Phuong Lange, Henry Le Bailly, Be Lowe, Christine Laget, Jacques Binh Langlet, Cuong LeMarie, Tien Lowe, Mai Kristen McDermott, Tran Dinh Meiller, Tom Otterson, Kim Oanh McCauley, Dean McLaughlin, Helen Rosalie Murray, Quoc Kien, Thuy Linh, Marcia, Bach Mai, Ngoc Brandt, Minh, Lien, Kim Hoa Deborah, Hung Bernard, Genevieve, Andrew, Phy Walkoe, Hoa, CS Lewis, Elizabeth Dung Wilson, Desmond Hung Walker, Carsten Tam Tulli, Thy Sutton, Minh Schou, Pascal Nhan Vilain, Lois Tracy, Thanh Schou, Diedre Roukema.
The Defense Attache Office staff and embassy families: Barbara Adams, Clara, Nova Bell and her son Michael Bell, Arleta Bertwell, Helen Blackenburn, Ann Bottorff, Celeste Brown, Vivien Clark, Juanita Creel, Mary Ann Crouch, Dorothy Curtiss, Twila Donelson, Helen Drye and her children, Rohn and Theresa Drye, Mary Lyn Pat Eichen, Elisabeth Fuginio, Ruthanne Gasper, Beverly Herbert, Penelope Hindman, Vera Hollibaugh, Dorothy Howard, Barbara Kavulia, BarbaraMaier, Rebecca Martin, Martha Middlebrook, Katherine Moore, Marta Moschkin, Marian Polegrean, June Poulton, Orin Poulton, Joan Pray, Sayonna Randall, Marjorie Snow, Barbara Stout, Doris Watkins, Sharon Wesley, Laurie Stark.
The military members: Lt. Col. William S. Willis, Capt. Mary Therese Klinker, Capt. Edgar R. Melton (pilot), Master Sgt. Joe Castro, Master Sgt. Denning C. Johnson, Master Sgt. Wendle L. Payne, Tech Sgt. Felizardo C. Aguillon, Tech. Sgt. William M. Parker, Staff Sgt. Donald T. Dionne, Staff Sgt. Kenneth E. Nance, Staff Sgt. Michael G. Paget.
These are some of the people I want to remember in my book. There are many more, those who survived, those who worked to rescue, the families awaiting word on who lived and who died, the people who continued the babylift amid speculation of sabotage or enemy fire.
The reality of the site set in right after the ceremony when one of the group stepped into the rice paddy and sank almost thigh-deep. He managed to extricate himself but left his shoe behind. It took a young boy from nearby several minutes to dig out the shoe, stretching deep into the hole up to his shoulder and finally digging around it to pull it out. Imagine the difficulty the people on the C-5 had just trying to walk away from the crash, sinking down, the exhaustive efforts to pull out again, moving back and forth from plane to awaiting rescue helicopters that couldn't land near the site. It brought home the difficulties and challenges these damaged people had to face.
We were fortunate the site was still there. In past years more was visible but someone has built a home nearby and plowed the fields a different way. However, the property owner agreed to preserve a small piece of the land in tribute.
Nearby were other remnants of the crash. Down another pathway several hundred yards away a piece of the plane rested in the front yard of a home, a memorial box with a jar of incense sticks on top of it. The family who lives in this home has come out every day to pray for the people in the crash. Some said four villagers died in the accident, hit from above, but no one can confirm that. Diana, Yvonne, Catherine and Phil went inside the family's home to visit a shrine to the mother, who had died a few months past, who started the tradition of praying for the crash victims.
We walked back to the bus hot and somber, and yet pleased. Diana said the ceremony was all she hoped for and more, as did Phil. Everyone fear what they might see and feel and remember. But it was OK. Better than OK.
Near the roadway where we turned in we stopped at a store with three odd seats near the back. They'd sat there for more than 30 years, a row of three seats from the C-5 stripped away from the crash site. People in the area took many of the parts of the plane strewn over several hundred yards, so much so that military investigators apparently had to establish rewards for the return of certain parts important in determining the cause of the crash. Diana, Catherine and Phil took turns sitting in the seats with a couple of the Vietnamese. Diana knew her mother hadn't sat there - she'd been below in the cargo hold. But Catherine may have been in these seats before, a squirming, kicking baby strapped down and on her way to a new home before a tragedy detoured her journey. As they posed and mugged for the cameras, smiles and laughs ended the visit. It seemed appropriate.