San Francisco April 1975
For some reason the Vietnam conflict managed to hold little interest in my personal orbit. My main concern was taking care of four daughters and arriving on time to my job in a San Francisco Bank. Yes, I was aware of the far away conflict and certain news flashes — basically, I considered myself politically unsophisticated and liked it that way.
What caught my attention were news clips regarding babies rescued from Vietnam were to be flown to various cities in America, including San Francisco. These flights would be landing at Crissy Field in the Presidio. Other than the fact Crissy Field is located under the Golden Gate Bridge and we crossed the bridge each morning and afternoon, the implications still did not kick in.
Mornings were fairly routine for me and my husband as we drove from our home in San Rafael to downtown San Francisco each morning. His position with the Stock Exchange required he arrive before the Market opened; while the Trust Department opened at 8 am. I used this drive time to apply my make-up.
As usual, we were tuned into the local radio station when the newscaster interrupted the broadcast to announce the first plane from Operation Babylift would be arriving sometime that morning. It still did not awaken the pitter-patter of little feet in my brain. However, within minutes traffic came to a sudden and complete stop mid-span on the Golden Gate Bridge!
I raised the sun-visor for a better look — wondering who had banged into what causing the delay. People in the vehicles around us were also craning their necks to see what was holding up traffic — or so I thought. And, this is when the newscaster broke in to announce — the first plane load of babies from Operation Babylift had just landed at Chrissy Field. I could barely breathe! For some reason I knew I had to be there.
The first thing I did when I entered my office was call our neighbor, Senior Photo Editor for United Press International (UPI), for the phone number to the exact location in the Presidio. The line was busy all day — and each time I heard the busy signal I was sure it meant I was supposed to be there! I wanted to be involved — just to comfort an infant after a long flight before another trip to their ‘Forever Home.’ Many of the infants were already in the process of adoption and which flight they were scheduled for would be determined from this location.
.After work, my husband reluctantly drove to the Presidio where the volunteers were meeting. The room was crammed with potential volunteers, many appeared to be homeless themselves, and not everyone smelled as fresh as sunshine. We shoved our way to the front where I signed the volunteer list before moving back to the open door for air. We waited for nearly an hour. Finally, a man approached and offered if I was serious about volunteering to return at 5 a.m. when not as many people would be there. He was right. The place was nearly vacant when we arrived at the allotted time.
The same man from the day before came to where we were sitting and asked what I did that made me think I would qualify to help? When I replied I was a Trust Officer in a Bank he took my hand and said, ‘Come with me.’ I looked back at my bewildered husband and mouthed, ‘Good-bye!’ not knowing it would be over 36 hours before I saw him again.
The man led me up some back stairs into another building. Passing us on the stairs were several volunteers each holding an infant. One of the infants was badly burned on her face and head from an earlier flight that had crashed on take-off in Vietnam. Yes! I remembered hearing about this!
At this hour in the morning the room was pretty quiet. Papers and empty food containers were scattered everywhere. Cubicles set up for volunteers with babies were empty, yet those who were still there with babies were not in the cubicles. The woman in charge was on the phone — I later learned she had adopted a newborn with hip displeasure and was searching to connect with a doctor for his treatment. Through an open door I could see a long table set up for medical evaluations. Both doctors were quietly working on infants.
I was restless and anxious to get my hands on a baby. The woman in charge — now off the phone — came to tell me another flight was scheduled to arrive shortly, and then I would be assigned an infant. She went on to announce those on the next flight out need to collect extra diapers, formula, a blanket, and a change of clothes for their infants before lining up at the top of the stairs.
As I watched the girls line up with their infants I noticed one was missing a blanket and sent her back to fetch one. Then, another without formula — and sent her off for formula. Had they not listened or what, as one by one I sent the volunteers after more supplies. All the while making a mental note to myself to pay attention when my infant arrived.
Only half-a-dozen volunteers with infants were still there after the lineup left for the airport. I decided to find someone to talk to and see how it was going. This is when I spied a clipboard on a folding chair with a list of babies — most of whom were listed as SK 131, 2, 10, (Sick Kid 131, etc.). I grabbed the clipboard, climbed up on the chair and said, “May I have your attention, please? Everyone with an infant please return to your cubicle until I can identify who is still here!’
By the time I had identified those still in attendance another flight had arrived, and the room filled quickly with more volunteers and infants. I barely remember the next 36 hours. Someone sent me home for sleep around midnight of the second day.
When I returned five hours later the operation had moved into a cavernous Quonset Hut. Twin size mattresses covered with clean white sheets were lined up on the floor ten across and ten rows down each holding a volunteer with a baby. Next, a long table of medicines and baby supplies where doctors were now working on the infants out in the open. — followed by another series of mattresses ten across and ten rows down on the other side of the table.
I learned the babies were Amerasian’s. Vietnamese babies who had American fathers were sent to America (and Canada, Australia, etc.) to avoid becoming outcast by families. Now, there’s a story! American military sent into battle in a foreign country impregnating foreign girls…??? Had they lost their focus in the face of war? No wonder they return home confused.
My job continued to be watchdog over the volunteers to make sure they gathered the necessary items for the cross-country flights. I had established myself as ‘responsible’ and thus volunteers came to me for advice. Sears and J. C. Penney had each supplied huge dumpsters full of baby clothes of all sizes. I recommended each volunteer take at least three outfits for each baby. Babies are unpredictable and can soil an outfit unexpectedly.
Many infants were shuttled off to the airport; occasionally someone with adoption papers came to claim their child. Some arrived with photos, some in tears, others sent a nurse or nanny to fetch their new family member. By the evening of the last day the medics had gone home, and only two volunteers with infants were left.
Around 9:30 p.m. the last of the volunteers brought her newborn saying she had to go home to her own children and could I watch her infant? The nurse scheduled to arrive from New York by 9 p.m. to fetch the baby had not been heard from and she could wait no longer.
I gladly accepted as this was the last baby in the program and the first infant I actually had the opportunity to hold. Steven was six-weeks old and dressed in clothes for a much older infant. The volunteer had rolled up the sleeves and legs leaving donut-like lumps around his arms and legs. With all those baby clothes upstairs, I was sure I could find something that fit better and even a few extra outfits.
With this tiny person tucked in one arm, I crossed the vast area to the portable two-story, staircase and the dumpsters at the top. Looking down from the ramp at the top of the stairs the mattresses looked very small and lonesome. We entered the first room through a wide opening without a door and within minutes I had three newborn outfits for Steven.
When I turned to leave I was stunned by the sight below. Tears flooded my cheeks and bounced off my chest. In the short time it took to find baby clothes all except Steven’s mattress had been removed, including the medics table. But who did this? Not a sight nor sound — nothing had I heard or noticed — and I have excellent hearing and (???) noticesses, too! We returned to the mattress where I felt like a pea on a lily-pad in the middle of the ocean. I went about changing Steven into a new outfit, all the while looking and listening for someone to acknowledge the activity. Nada!
The Quonset Hut was. of course, military, yet I never saw anyone in uniform coming or going. Along a far wall on one side of the building were a series of four open doors and occasionally someone would pass by. So far away and fleeting it could have been a ghost! (?). Never did I witness anyone in uniform joining the rest of us out in the open, nor did I hear anyone making noises.
Eventually, I recognized at the far end of this giant military facility, a row of gray and blue striped mattresses standing on end and lined up against the wall. The white sheets had been removed making the mattresses almost unidentifiable. I wanted to express my appreciation for their well trained and precision-like performance. Someone was paying attention to our existence without so much as a whisper. How many men did it take to whisk all except Steven’s mattress away?
Shortly after 10:30 p.m. a middle-aged woman arrived (by taxi) with papers and a photo of a toddler named Christopher as the child she was there to collect. It was obvious Steven and I were the only ones left, yet she was reluctant to accept Steven as the baby she would be leaving with. After a few awkward moments I picked up Steven and said, “Look, you came here to pick up a child who needs a home and Steven needs a home: so, here’s your child!” What could she say? She took Steven along with his meager belongings and walked out to her taxi without looking back.
(During the passing years it occurred to me, since the nurse had a photo of a toddler named Christopher, maybe she had been sent by the father who had already identified his child?).
It has been over 40 years and yet when I think of turning around to see only Steven’s mattress on the floor in that vast military space, or walking out of the Quonset Hut with no one to say Good-bye to or, Thank, or to hug, still makes me cry! It is impossible to find any of the infants who were either first names only or SK 000 children. Who was the lady on the phone? Marion, maybe? I never saw her again after the move to the Quonset Hut. Or the gentleman who led me upstairs and vanished! John, I think?!
The volunteers came and went so fast we never even exchanged names. I am unable to recall even one of the medics faces, just bodies hovering over an infant on the table. It feels like waking from a dream that felt so real it took a few minutes to realize you were only dreaming. While little Steven found his Forever home, I felt as if I had been thrown away and locked in a dream-like odyssey — a poignant story ending without a conclusion!
As April is once again approaching, I am reaching out as the last Volunteer, with the last infant (Steven) to have been involved in San Francisco’s 1975 Operation Babylift Project.