Even more than 30 years later the images are fixed in Jim Kribbs mind.
The burning pyre.
The Buddhist monks.
The child-size body bags.
He didn’t know it at the time but he took part in the burial of many of the children killed in the crash of the first official Operation Babylift flight at the end of the Vietnam War.
“I was stationed in Thailand for three years (1972-75)," Kribbs said. "I was in military intelligence and was stationed in northern Thailand for 2.5 years. I was planning to marry a Thai national so I lost my security clearance. To stay in country long enough to get the paperwork completed, I was transferred to Camp Sameson, the Army installation next to Utapao Air Base, and assigned to the 181st MP Company there.
“I was on duty late one night patrolling the deep water port at Sattahip and received a radio call to return to headquarters at Sameson. I picked up an officer who informed me we would be escorting a vehicle. We escorted a large military “refer” truck to a Thai temple. I’m not sure exactly where we were, but it wasn’t too far away from Sattahip – maybe the Ban Chang area.
“We arrived at a Buddhist temple in the middle of the night and there was a large funeral pyre burning which was surrounded by chanting monks. We parked my cruiser as the refer truck backed in toward the pyre. The truck driver and his assistant exited the truck and opened the rear doors. Since this was in early August and a typical hot/humid Thai summer night, a thick fog rolled out of the back of the refer truck eventually settling to form a fog blanket about 3 feet deep over the whole area.
“The truck drivers then began handing us bodybags. We were to remove the bodies and body parts from the bags, place them on the pyre and stack the bags off to the side. It’s then I noticed all the bags contained babies and small children. When I inquired as to who they were, I was told they were the victims of the C5A crash during Operation Babylift. They had been held for autopsies. The truck driver then informed me he’d taken another load of bodies to a Catholic cemetery in Pataya for burial a day or two prior.”
Jim is back in Thailand now. He goes back fairly regularly but felt the need, this time, 31 years after the crash, to try to find this temple with the funeral pyre. Many of the children’s remains were buried in the cemetery behind St. Nickolas Church in Pataya, Thailand, but the location of this temple is unknown.
If you know anything more about the burial of these children please let me know.
I don’t know exactly why the dead children were taken to Thailand, although one can assume the turmoil occurring as Saigon fell forced officials to take the children out before trying to identify them. And many weren’t identified. Several of the children on that flight had been abandoned before ever getting a birth certificate and identification by dental records and the like just didn’t exist.
It’s a tragedy that marked almost everyone touched by the crash. Certainly it affected Jim Kribbs.
“The memory of that night is something I’ve carried with me all these years and it’s something that just can’t be shared with too many people as they simply can’t relate.”