|Jen Noone was on the last Operation Babylift flight out of Saigon. She and mother Lana stand near the memorial site for Noone's other adopted Vietnamese daughter, Heather, who died after a brief illness. Bob Shane photo.|
Noone's daughter, Heather Constance Noone — born Mai Ngoc Tranh — left South Vietnam as part of Operation Babylift on April 2, 1975. After stops in Long Beach, Calif., and Denver's Children's Hospital, the tiny, malnourished 2-week-old baby landed in Noone's arms in New York City 23 days later.
Authorized by President Ford as the Vietnam War concluded, Operation Babylift was a three-week airlift of more than 2,500 orphaned babies to the United States. Artifacts from the historical evacuation are on display at the Gerald R. Ford Museum in Grand Rapids, Mich., host city for General Synod 27, June 26-30, 2009.
"The only thing to be done at that time for those children was to evacuate them," says Noone. "Future generations might well consider it to have been the moment when the global family became a reality in communities throughout the United States."
Noone, a 32-year UCC member, chronicles her experience of the times in a book titled "Global Mom."
Following numerous miscarriages, Noone and her husband, Byron, went to their pastor in 1974 to discuss adoption options. The pastor asked them whether they had considered an international adoption. "A light bulb went off," Noone says. "We said, 'Let's do it.' It was just one of those miraculous moments."
The Noones were approved in March 1975 — but were told it would take six to nine months to adopt a child out of South Vietnam. "Then we were told that babies would never be able to be evacuated," says Noone. They spent the month watching the news, on the phone, trying not to despair. "And then at the end of March came news of this extraordinary event."
Emaciated, with a greyish tint to her complexion, Heather arrived — and the Noones' world became brighter.
"We were teachers, so we were always trying to stimulate her," she says. "You weren't supposed to hang mobiles from IV poles and oxygen tents in the hospital, but we did anyway. Those were the only two times she smiled in her life."
One of the most warming memories Noone recalls about Heather's arrival was the reaction of an EMT in Long Beach who helped transport Heather to the hospital. "She just looked at us and said, 'I'll never forger her. She has a very old soul'."
On May 17, the Noones received a call that Heather was in full cardiac arrest. They rushed to the hospital to meet their pastor, who baptized her there. "The minute we went to her tent, her heart rate and vitals stabilized," says Noone. The baptism took place, and Heather died of pneumocystis carinii pneumonia a few hours later — 18 days after the fall of Saigon.
"Two days before Heather died, I promised her I'd spend the rest of my life making sure that she would not be forgotten, that her short life was not in vain. We never regretted any of it. We loved her very dearly."
The Noones subsequently adopted their daughter Jennie – the last baby ever placed from Operation Babylift — and a son, Jason, from Korea.
Operation Babylift began on April 2 with an "unauthorized" flight when World Airways departed Vietnam for Oakland, Calif., with 57 children aboard. The next evening, President Ford — an adoptee himself — appeared on national television to authorize Operation Babylift. But the following day, tragedy struck when an Air Force C-5A Galaxy carrying 328 people, including 155 orphans, crashed shortly after takeoff. Ninety-eight of the 150 people killed were orphans. (President Ford was traveling to San Francisco to meet the plane upon its scheduled arrival.)
By the time Operation Babylift's final flight landed on April 26 — three days before the complete evacuation of U.S. personnel from Vietnam — 2,548 children had been safely lifted on 26 flights.
The Ford Museum collection includes a high-profile photo of President Ford pictured on a tarmac, holding one of the airlifted babies. A painting titled "Welcome Home" includes fragments of the plane and soil from the area where the ill-fated flight crashed.
Noone has been central to the Operation Babylift reunions held to commemorate its 10th, 20th and 25th anniversaries. But the 2005 gathering holds special sentiment: World Airways flew 21 adoptees back to Vietnam for the 30th anniversary. Noone and then-30-year-old Jennie brought along soil from the grave sites of Byron, who died in 2002, and Heather for a memorial service. "We sang 'Amazing Grace' in the middle of Saigon, had a prayer service and sprinkled the soil with their ashes."
In a website posting, Noone sounds a rallying cry to help heal wounds left festering from the divisive war. "Let us come together in a spirit of hope and reconciliation," she writes, "not because we were right and someone else was wrong, but because, at a moment in time, over 2,500 children in harm's way were brought to safety. Efforts failed and a tragic number of lives were lost. However, our spirits remain strong. I welcome you to this web site no matter where or how the Vietnam Era affected your life."
Noone became a member of Garden City (N.Y.) Community UCC in 1977. A talented musician throughout her school years, Noone says church was always the priority in her life.
"The only time you reconcile a journey like mine is with faith, which sustains you," she says. "The most important thing I could say about myself is that I'm UCC."
Jeff Woodard is a regular contributor to United Church News and a member of Pilgrim UCC in Cleveland. For more information on Operation Babylift and the items at the Gerald R. Ford Museum go to <vietnambabylift.org>; send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org; or visit the Gerald R. Ford Museum in Grand Rapids, Mich.