How one woman is honoring the unsung heroes of ‘Operation Babylift’

Weeks shy of the Fall of Saigon, President Gerald Ford authorized the evacuation of South Vietnamese orphans and displaced children to the United States on April 3, 1975. The effort was called Operation Babylift. More than 2,000 children would be evacuated and adopted by families in the United States and allied countries.

Lana Noone and her husband Byron were one of many adoptive parents in the United States eagerly anticipating their appearance. The couple was awaiting the arrival of their adopted daughter, who they would name Heather Constance Noone.

Heather was scheduled to leave Vietnam on the first flight on April 4, 1975. On that day, the C-5A Galaxy took off carrying 243 infants and children when it developed pressure problems shortly after takeoff and crashed while attempting to return to the airport. 138 people died in the crash.

Lana remembers hearing the horrific report that stated there were no survivors and that the agency’s children had all perished.

“We mourned the death of our daughter,” she said. “It took 24 hours for the news to reach the United States that a different agency’s children had been on the plane.”

Lana and Byron held onto hope once again that their daughter would arrive.

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Lana and her husband Byron hold Heather on her arrival day to the United States on April 23, 1975. (Photo Credit: Lana Noone)

Heather left Vietnam the next day, April 5, 1975. She was hospitalized three times en route from Vietnam and finally arrived home on April 23, 1975 at JFK Airport in New York City.

April 29, the day before South Vietnam would surrender to North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces, Heather would be hospitalized again. Sadly, she would lose her life on May 17, 1975 after suffering a massive heart attack. Her death was a result of complications from pneumocystis carinii pneumonia, birth defects related to Agent Orange exposure and severe malnutrition.

Two days before Heather died, Lana remembered accepting her doctor’s words and her daughter’s fate. There was no hope. “I sat next to her Isolette bed,” Lana recalled. “And promised her that I would spend the rest of my life making certain that [Operation] Babylift was remembered and that her short life was not in vain.”

Lana and her husband were called by their adoption agency on May 20, the night of Heather’s funeral. They had major news. Three babies from Operation Babylift remained in the hospital in Denver, Colorado. Two babies were to be discharged over the next few days and one baby, who was still quite ill, would remain awhile longer. Miraculously, that child would become their adopted daughter, Jennifer Nguyen Noone.

Jennifer was evacuated from Vietnam on April 26, 1975. After her hospitalizations, she arrived home to Lana and Byron on June 5, 1975. Lana and her husband would later adopt a son, Jason Paik Noone, from South Korea in 1979.

After having a family of her own, Lana wanted to honor Heather’s memory and spirit. She has since made it her mission to remember the unsung heroes and casualties of Operation Babylift, more than four decades later.

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One of the Heather Constance Noone Memorial Plaques created by Vietnam Veteran Charlie Wilber to honor those involved in Operation Babylift and to remember the casualties of the C-5A crash. (Photo Credit: Lana Noone)

Lana co-founded the website Vietnam Babylift in 2005 with friend Charlie Wilber. The website aims to connect Babylift adoptees, families, Vietnam veterans and civilians who assisted with Operation Babylift missions. The website is also filled with personal stories from Babylift survivors, relatives and friends.

 

“My goal was to connect all the ‘threads’ of the Vietnam era so that people who had helped with Babylift might have some idea of what happened to the children whose lives they saved,” she said.

The Vietnam Babylift website also allows adoptees to search for mothers, fathers or siblings they never knew. “Every so often through our volunteer network, we’re able to help connect family members,” Lana said, “which brings a tremendous amount of joy.”

Since its inception, there have been tens of thousands of visitors to the Vietnam Babylift website. Lana continues to receive emails from people thanking her for not forgetting them.

She considers Operation Babylift one of the most extraordinary humanitarian efforts of the 20th century and she’s proud to play a small part in remembering their legacy.

“The children were in harm’s way, and all that could be done to save their lives, I truly believe, was to evacuate them,” she said. “Everyone involved is an unsung hero and the sacrifices they made on behalf of the children were extraordinary, and impossible to sufficiently acknowledge.”

Lana organized a reunion between Babylift evacuees and their adoptive parents at the New Jersey Vietnam Veterans Memorial Foundation in 2015. Participants dedicated a plaque where the names of the 138 casualties from the fatal first crash on April 4, 1975 are inscribed upon it.

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Lana speaking about Vietnam Babylift at the National Vietnam War Museum in Mineral Wells Texas. (Photo Credit: Lana Noone)

Lana works to educate the public about Operation Babylift through social media, talks and lectures throughout the country. Her most recent effort has been to share the personal experiences of those who took part in Operation Babylift through a play entitled, “Children of the April Rain.” The play tells the story of nine Americans who worked to get South Vietnamese orphans to safety. It is co-authored by herself and eight others involved in the effort including, Sally Vinyard, who was the last American woman to be evacuated from Vietnam on April 29, 1975.

Lana says the play is “truly the legacy of Vietnam Babylift” and is her gift to the unsung heroes who were involved, the adoptive families and children. It received a standing ovation on April 29, 2017 during a staged reading at the New York City Vietnam Veterans Memorial Plaza.

The play is currently available for staged readings at no fee.

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Lana with her grandchildren, Heather and Jayden Noone, April 2016. (Photo Credit: Lana Noone)

Lana continues to organize showings of the play “Children of the April Rain” across the country. It is her way of remembering the men and women who gave their lives so that those children might experience life in the United States. Today, Lana resides in Garden City, New York and is the proud grandmother of two grandchildren–Heather, who is named after her daughter, and a grandson named Jayden.

Her unyielding mission to bring families, loved ones and veterans together is a fitting tribute to the men and women who were a shining light during the dark times of war. But her work honors the most important promise she made to her baby girl more than four decades ago: she would “never let Babylift be forgotten.”

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