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In the spring of 2014, Jan Herman, retired Navy Medicine historian, interviewed Dr. Frederick “Skip” Burkle for an oral history at his home in Kailua, Hawaii. Early in his medical career as a Navy medical officer, Dr. Burkle was assigned to the 3rd Medical Battalion and served with the Marines with Delta Med hospital at Dong Ha, Republic of Vietnam, a few miles south of the Demilitarized Zone. There, he acquired skills as a combat surgeon, and for his service he received the Bronze Star with Combat V. Burkle returned to Vietnam in April 1975 under equally dangerous circumstances. A month earlier, the North Vietnamese had precipitated a full-scale invasion of the south. By the middle of April, the North Vietnamese army had rolled south toward Saigon, conquering every province and city in its path. South Vietnam’s collapse was now inevitable. On April 3, 1975, following President Gerald Ford’s announcement that the Military Airlift Command would begin evacuating orphans from Saigon aboard C-5A Galaxy and C-141 Starlifter cargo aircraft, Operation Babylift began. Several nongovernmental organizations also weighed in by chartering aircraft to evacuate orphans and bring them to the United States. It was now a race against the clock to evacuate as many orphans as possible before the enemy captured the city. © Association of Military Surgeons of the U.S. All rights reserved.
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CHRONICLES
MILITARY MEDICINE, 182, 7/8:1621, 2017
Operation Babylift: Delivering a Nameless Cargo to Freedom, Part I
Frederick M. Burkle Jr., MD, MPH, DTM, FAAP, FACEP
In the spring of 2014, Jan Herman, retired Navy
Medicine historian, interviewed Dr. Frederick Skip
Burkle for an oral history at his home in Kailua, Hawaii.
Early in his medical career as a Navy medical officer,
Dr. Burkle was assigned to the 3rd Medical Battalion
and served with the Marines with Delta Med hospital at
Dong Ha, Republic of Vietnam, a few miles south of the
Demilitarized Zone. There, he acquired skills as a combat
surgeon, and for his service he received the Bronze Star
with Combat V.
Burkle returned to Vietnam in April 1975 under equally
dangerous circumstances. A month earlier, the North
Vietnamese had precipitated a full-scale invasion of the
south. By the middle of April, the North Vietnamese army
had rolled south toward Saigon, conquering every
province and city in its path. South Vietnams collapse
was now inevitable.
On April 3, 1975, following President Gerald Fords
announcement that the Military Airlift Command would
begin evacuating orphans from Saigon aboard C-5A
Galaxy and C-141 Starlifter cargo aircraft, Operation
Babylift began. Several nongovernmental organizations
also weighed in by chartering aircraft to evacuate orphans
and bring them to the United States. It was now a race
against the clock to evacuate as many orphans as possible
before the enemy captured the city.
I was studying for my masters degree at University of
California, Berkeley, in public health in 1975. At that
time, we all recognized that Vietnam was folding. The North
Vietnamese had invaded the south and were moving much
faster than anticipated. It was early April. I got a call from a
dentist outside San Francisco, who had been asked by World
Airways and the government to send a team to take out
some of the orphans from Saigon. I do not know how he got
my name, but this dentist asked, You were there?
I responded, Yes. I ran a childrens hospital there in
1968 and spoke some of the language.
He then requested, Would you be my medical director?
We took off from Oakland on a World Airways 747.
World Airwaysbiggest business back then was to do the
Hajj in Saudi Arabia and other charter ights. The plan
would be to land in Saigon and take out a large group of
orphans. When I got aboard, I looked around to see what
other medical personnel I was going to direct. I noted
13 nurses, 13 doctors, and 26 ight attendants, most of
whom were nurses or who had nursing experience from
World Airways. A number of the physicians were pediatri-
cians I had never met. That is when I decided that we would
make the rst class section the intensive care unit for the
sickest kids. That was just my choice due to space. The seats
were still in place so we would have to put the babies
in boxes on those seats (Fig. 1).
About 2 hours outside of Saigon, the pilot announced
we were not being allowed to land. The North Vietnamese
had advanced and Nguyen VanThieu, President of South
Vietnam, had said he was not going to send any more chil-
dren out, and that they were going to ght to the last person.
doi: 10.7205/MILMED-D-17-00103
FIGURE 1. Robert Stinnett, untitled (Operation Babylift), April 12, 1975.
Gelatin silver photograph, 8 × 10 in. The Oakland Tribune Collection, the
Oakland Museum of California, Gift of ANG Newspapers.
MILITARY MEDICINE, Vol. 182, July/August 2017 1621
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Besides, Saigon was surrounded and no more commercial
ights were being allowed into Tan Son Nhut airport. So the
plane turned around and we landed at Clark Air Force Base
in the Philippines. Everybody got off, we were exhausted.
The ight attendants needed to restock. I got off and was
introduced to two men nearby who were associated with
a Scandinavian humanitarian group, an international non-
governmental organization (NGO).
About the same time another plane, a Flying Tigers 727
aircraft, had just landed. In the back of the plane lying on
thick padding material used to protect cargo were about
30 infants and toddlers that this airplane had brought out
of South Vietnam (Flying Tiger Line, named after the 1
st
American Volunteer Group (AVG) of the Chinese Air Force
(19411942), nicknamed the Flying Tigers, was the rst
scheduled cargo airline in the United States and a major
military charter operator during the Cold War era for both
cargo and personnel.). The children were unaccompanied, and
none had name tags or any form of identication. The pilots
of this 727 said they were planning to go back to Cambodia
this time on a larger DC-8. Also on the tarmac was Ed Daly
the President of World Airways, also arrived from Saigon
after his rescue attempt ight from Danang airport. He was
aware that there were many orphans still in need of evacua-
tion and arranged for the DC-8 to try to land at Saigon
before going on to Cambodia. He asked if I was willing to
go. We immediately met with the Scandinavian humani-
tarian group on the tarmac where the NGO representative
asked me to accept a second task: tracking down and deliv-
ering four packets each containing good faith$3,000 cash
plus promissory notes totaling thousands of dollars. The
packets contained lists of many names that were to be evac-
uated from Saigon. Unfortunately money previously sent to
Saigon as bribes to get families out disappeared,leaving
families at the boat docks. The potential evacuees were told
to show up at the harbor at a certain time and boats would
be waiting for them. But no boats showed up. And that is
why the bribe money stopped and the promissory note system
was substituted. The representative from this Scandinavian
NGO explained that once I made contact with the people in
Saigon whose names were on the packets, I was to explain
that if the people on the list made it out and the person who
worked the evacuation exchange came to the United States
themselves, the promissory notes would then be honored
and they would receive the additional cash.
We then learned that President Thieu would only allow
orphan children under the age of 6 years to be evacuated.
Once it was decided that I would go back on that DC-8,
I gave orders to remove all the seats in the rst class area of
the World Airways 747 while I was away. Assuming that I
was able to come out with sick kids, the rst class area would
be set aside for critical care. I had requested supplies but
emphasized no milk supplies. I needed infant feeding bottles
with electrolyte solutions for dehydration, saline intravenous
bottles, ringers lactate, and other necessary medical supplies.
From my experience running a childrens hospital in
1968 in Vietnam, I was aware that many Asian kids do
not tolerate milk protein. The milk protein produces almost
instant, severe diarrhea. This can lead to added dehydration
and diarrhea. I specically asked for clear electrolyte uids
that children often get in hospitals the world over. I assumed
there would be stocks available at the U.S. military hospital
tied to the base in the Philippines.
I sat in the cockpit immediately behind the pilot facing
inward. The pilot, copilot, and the ight engineer, all of
whom had white hair, had own in China during the Second
World War with the Flying Tigers. Accompanying us was
a young CBS cameraman based in San Francisco named
David. Once in the cockpit, we introduced one another and
discussed what our chances were of being able to land in
Saigon. The pilots said they would chance it, and if not,
they would go on to Cambodia because they knew of
some orphans who needed to be evacuated from that war-
torn country.
As we ew over Tan Son Nhut at 20,000 feet, the crew
requested permission to land. Unfortunately, we could hear
the control tower personnel but they could not hear us. And
then, suddenly, the Tan Son Nhut tower crackled through.
The back-and-forth discussion included, no you cantland
and yes you can land.Finally, we got permission to land
but were warned that the North Vietnamese were near the city
and had surface-to-air missiles. The tower personnel empha-
sized the real danger if we were to land. The pilots did a
360-degree dive turn to come around to 2,000 feet hopefully
to line up with the runway. That is the only time in my life
I ever felt G forces. I was sitting right behind the pilot and was
pushed up against the bulkhead. It was quite a dive-turn.
We came around and when we had descended to 2,000 feet
the pilots realized we had come around too far and were
denitely in range of not only the SAMs, but a lot of other
heavy artillery. These pilots were scared and I recall think-
ing that after all the close calls I had in 1968 during the war
that this was an odd way to die.The copilot stood up to
look outside his side window assuredly calling out that he
could not see any missile trails in our direction.
We did another quick 360 degrees and made a very hot
landing at Tan Son Nhut. As soon as we hit the runway, I
was overwhelmed with the sight on the grassy areas between
the runways. All contained small spotter planes, helicopters,
and midsized planes, which had own in from bases all
over South Vietnam which had landed on the runway over
the last several days in desperation to escape the advancing
North Vietnamese. The people aboard had quickly emptied
the aircraft and run for it. I saw hundreds of aircraft all
bulldozed onto the grassy areas between the runways. The
haphazardly stacked aircraft all one on top of the other
looked totally articial, almost like piled up Mattel toys.
These planes and choppers worth millions were on their
sides and upside down. The massive pileup extended for
hundreds of feet.
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The plane stopped just outside the Flying Tigers terminal,
which they shared with World Airways. When we got off
the plane, I was introduced to a soft-spoken middle-aged
Vietnamese man who was shredding documents. He was
the Flying Tigersstation manager. I told him my medical
mission and showed him the addresses on the packets. He
listened intently. He spoke fairly good English and said,
Well, as soon as I nish the shredding, Ill try to help
you.He then agreed to take David, the CBS cameraman,
and me into Saigon.
Tan Son Nhut is north of the city. This assignment was
not going to be an easy chore. I remember leaving the airport
among chaos. We went on foot, and were checked several
times by both American and South Vietnamese military
asking our reasons for being in Saigon. The airport had
several gates but we walked through a small driveway where
Vietnamese guards operated gate bars that went up and down
for vehicles. As soon as we got through the gate, the situation
was totally different. At least a hundred thousand refugees
were already in Saigon and many more were roaming the
streets or joined us as we moved toward Saigon.
It was on April 11, 1975. I had the four sealed packets
with three Vietnamese names and addresses on each one.
The instructions I received from the Scandinavian people at
Clark were to verify the identity of one of three names on
each packet before handing the packet over to that person.
Each packet had $3,000 and promissory notes with promises
for more money if those people on the promissory list were
able to get out of Saigon. At the same time, my major duty
was trying to nd orphans in several small orphanages that
the Flying Tigersofce manager agreed to take me to. My
task was to nd other orphanages not run by Americans and
try to get those babies out.
The orphanages the tour guide brought me to were abso-
lutely black holes of Calcutta. They were decrepit old struc-
tures in poverty-ridden areas. The buildings did not look
appropriate for orphanages. I entered these orphanages with-
out any lighting. I tripped almost immediately over an infant
who was stuck to the oor in his own feces. I just looked at
all these babies in disbelief. About 15 or 20 kids were in
some bassinets, some two to three in one bassinet. They
were, of course, just orphans with no names.
Isaid,Ill take them all.But all the time I am thinking
how the hell am I to transport them to the airport? Through
our guide, I gave the Vietnamese in charge of the orphanage
instructions as to where to show up the next morning with these
babies. I believe in total that we went to four small orphanages.
Those in charge of these orphanages had to nd transpor-
tation themselves for their precious cargo. We could not pro-
vide it for them. They were told which entrance to use at
Tan Son Nhut airport. All the attendants at the orphanages
were grateful and willing to arrange for the transportation.
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