Vietnam evacuation: An old story of babies in boxes told through tears
ST. SIMONS ISLAND, Ga. (Tribune News Service) — Carol Johnson figures if she tells the story often enough, she'll eventually be able to get through it without crying.
It's been 40 years, and I can verify she still can't do it.
Johnson's husband was an enlisted man at Hickam Air Force Base in Hawaii in April 1975 when a call came around midnight for Air Force wives to go to the airfield, she said.
They did as asked. A 747 landed, and they all went aboard.
"On the plane were cardboard boxes,'' she said, "with an Army blanket and a baby in each box. We went on the plane, and each one picked up a baby and held it through the night.''
They were children evacuated from Vietnam as it fell, some from orphanages, some whose parents had just handed them to soldiers and Marines.
The obviously sick ones were bundled off to Tripler Army hospital, Johnson said.
"I held a baby boy. He was 3 or 4 months old,'' she said.
She remembers the absolute stillness in the filled lobby and the children with thin wispy hair, spindly arms and legs, all malnourished and too weak to cry. They burned all the babies' clothes and gave them nothing but water because all were thought to have intestinal problems.
"We all asked, 'Can I keep one of these babies?' '' she said, but they couldn't. They were bound for San Francisco and to points beyond already arranged.
She had left her two "beautiful children," Paul, 6, and John, 4, sleeping at home. John said later, "I remember when you came home, you were happy, then you cried."
It wasn't to be the last time. There were two more planes, both with older children.
"There were boys coming off the plane in ill-fitting clothes. They were all cold because it's warmer in Vietnam,'' she said.
Those they fed, and the cafeteria was like Disney World.
"They had never seen such plenty. They stuffed apples in their pockets,'' she said.
There was one prosperous family, a Vietnamese Army colonel, his wife and their two young children. The well-dressed wife also wept through the night.
"They had only minutes to get out. They left two older children behind who weren't home,'' Johnson said.
She saw children scarred from burns, with disfigured limbs and teenage girls who sat rocking and crying, staring into space, all of them alone and going places they couldn't imagine.
Her husband has passed away, and she moved to St. Simons where Paul had been in the Coast Guard. He's a tugboat captain in Savannah, and his brother is becoming one.
She keeps telling the story hoping she won't cry.
"I can't get over babies in boxes,'' she said.
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