Operation Babylift – Minh’s true story
This is the true story of Van Nguyen (Minh), a Vietnamese orphan rescued by the Royal Australian Air Force during Operation Babylift in 1975. Minh will forever be grateful to Australia’s servicemen and women who returned to help evacuate those in need. Minh has not only embraced life as an Australian, but he has also given back to the Australian Defence Force, joining the Australian Navy Cadets and the Royal Australian Navy Junior Recruits and serving eight years in the Navy. These days, Minh is retired, enjoying what life has to offer. He’s an active member of the RSL Ex-Servicemen Club Orange and the Naval Association Orange branch. This is his incredible story.
In the final days of the Vietnam War, the Royal Australian Air Force played a significant role in humanitarian efforts.
Despite having taken its combat troops out of Vietnam several years before, Australia responded to an urgent call to fly out evacuees and refugees as the North Vietnamese offensive made rapid headway down the country.
There were significant risks, but RAAF personnel worked tirelessly to ensure as many people as possible were evacuated safely. They also flew emergency food, medical and other relief supplies to some 40,000 refugees. Over 200 people – air and ground crew, equipment and administration personnel, nurses and other medical staff – flew on operations during the RAAF’s final involvement in the Vietnam War.
The population of South Vietnam was fleeing the approaching enemy, seeking safety in the south and hoping for a way out. Thousands of orphans were displaced in the chaos. Throughout the war, orphans had come to Australia for adoption. Suddenly, there was a need to accelerate the operation and get as many children as possible to safety.
Some had been chosen for adoption in Australia, while others had homes waiting for them in the United States. In early April 1975, the United States and Australia began evacuating the Vietnamese children in a series of flights known as Operation Babylift. The notable operation successfully rescued 194 orphaned Vietnamese children and brought them to safety in Australia and other countries.
Minh was one of those orphaned children brought to Australia at the end of the Vietnam War in 1975.
“I never met or knew my biological family. I was a refugee orphan with a disability (polio) from birth. I was evacuated from an orphanage with other orphans and put onboard a military Hercules evacuation flight out of Saigon in April 1975”.
Despite a tough start in life, Van was one of the lucky ones.
On 4 April two Australian Hercules crews and an American Galaxy crew filled the planes with babies, children, their caregivers and medical staff. As the American Galaxy took off, disaster struck. The plane door blew off. The plane bounced over the Saigon river and exploded tragically killing most on board. The dead included 143 babies and 2 Australian women from Adelaide, Lee Makk and Margaret Moses, who had volunteered to help with the children.
The two Australian Hercules landed in Bangkok and disembarked 194 children, three doctors and 20 nurses. From there the children were taking to Australia.
“After arriving in Australia, all the orphans became care of the state ward in various orphanages in Sydney awaiting adoption or fostering. I was fostered for a short period of 4 years by an Australian family in the tiny country town of CARGO in the central west of NSW.
“At age 14, I joined the (NRC) Naval Reserve Cadets, nowadays known as the Australian Navy Cadets, for about 12 months. When I was 15, I left school with the permission [from another foster parents in Sydney] and applied for the Royal Australian Navy Junior Recruits at HMAS Leeuwin in Western Australia (JRTE) Junior Recruits Training Establishment. I served in the Navy for eight years.
“Although I have Vietnamese heritage, I am Aussie by nature and proud to be an Australian. I call Australia home. I am so grateful for all the service men and women who went before and are currently working to protect this beautiful nation.
“To all Vietnam Veterans, I salute you and thank you for your service and sacrifice. What an amazing gift it is to enjoy my new life with such tranquillity.
“I am a member of the RSL Ex-Servicemen Club Orange in the central west of NSW and the Naval Association Orange branch. Getting involved in these organisations has been very important for my mental health well-being and has allowed me to reconnect with ex servicemen and servicewomen.”
This year marks 50 years since the official end of Australia’s Involvement in the Vietnam War in 1973. The event will be marked with a national commemorative service in Canberra on 18 August 2023 (Vietnam Veterans’ Day).