JOINT BASE PEARL HARBOR-HICKAM, Hawaii -- The April 1975 fall of Saigon, South Vietnam, resulted in two massive refugee airlifts known as Operations Baby Lift and New Life. The first, Operation Baby Lift, ran from April 3-26, 1975 and evacuated more than 3,000 babies and young children, most of whom were orphans to the U.S. The second, Operation New Life, ran from April 23- November 1, 1975, airlifting over 100,000 evacuees and refugees from South Vietnam. Initial flights transported the refugees to Guam, bases in the Philippines and later Wake Island for processing. From there, many of the refugees stopped in Hawaii as their aircraft transited the Pacific.
Between April 5 and September 30, 1975 a total of 93,987 individuals transited through Hickam Air Force Base, primarily at the Military Airlift Command Terminal, today the Air Mobility Command Terminal, or the Honolulu International Airport with assistance provided by base personnel and volunteers. That number included 87,635 transient refugees, 2,625 transient evacuees, 865 refugees who settled in Hawaii, 139 evacuees who stayed in Hawaii, 1,508 orphans, 467 other returnees, 337 escorts, and 411 other miscellaneous passengers.
During Operation Baby Lift, the orphans and escorts arrived in Hawaii on 26 aircraft, including two commercial airplanes and 24 C-141 Starlifter military aircraft. Similarly, during Operation New Life, refugees and returnees arrived on one of 258 commercial charters and 287 C-141 flights. Combined, the airport and base supported a total of 571 aircraft spread over the six month period.
Support of the refugees began on April 5, 1975 with an all-out mobilization of the 15th Air Base Wing and numerous volunteers. That morning the wing received word that a Pan American Airlines flight would stop over at the Honolulu International Airport that evening carrying more than 400 orphans. Hundreds of wing personnel and volunteers met the aircraft, many to act as "temporary mothers and fathers" to bathe, feed and simply hold the babies and young children. The colossal effort marked only the start of a massive support operation.
Over the following six months, volunteers at Hickam AFB processed more than 90,000 pounds of donated clothing. The on-base dining halls served more than 25,000 meals in addition to food distribution during the early days of the operations. Additionally the wing provided 24-hour chaplain, medical and translation services. Most of the transient aircraft spent only a few hours on the ground in Hawaii but during that short time personnel and volunteers provided the refugees with meals, the donated clothing and toys, and for flights with longer layovers, cots. During Operation Baby Lift an escort was assigned individually to each child and remained with that child from the time he or she left the plane to the time he or she re-boarded. Volunteers for both operations were comprised mainly of military spouses and off-duty personnel.
In addition to supporting operations at Hickam AFB and the Honolulu International Airport, the 15 ABW also had operational authority of Wake Island where processing centers were established for refugees. Before the Operations began, Wake Island was on standby status with a skeleton crew of contractors and with most of its facilities boarded up as a precaution against typhoons. In mid-April 1975 personnel from the 15 ABW flew to the island to set up processing facilities and prepare the island to temporarily house thousands of refugees. These preparations included everything from airfield operations, to installing additional showers, setting up cots, and staging supplies. The wing shipped more than 37,700 pounds of donated clothing for distribution at Wake Island and an additional 35,000 pounds of food.
For most of the duration of the operations, the wing continued to work with limited information and without a clear schedule of when aircraft would arrive or how many refugees would be requiring support each flight. Flights arrived, often unannounced, at all hours of the day and night, both on week days and on the weekends. News and unofficial reports repeatedly hinted at suspensions or an end to the operations, which often proved incorrect, making coordination even harder.
Despite these challenges, the two operations were considered a success. The Chairman of Committee of Elected Refugee Representatives in San Francisco, where many of the refugees initially arrived in the U.S., stated these efforts were "successful in organizing and managing [refugee operations], pulling together thousands of lost individuals, giving them strength and courage, and awakening their will to live a 'new life.'"