The withdrawal of forces from Vietnam was drawing to a conclusion in April 1975 when the Australian Government made a decision to evacuate some war orphans from the vicinity of Saigon before they could fall into the path of the advancing North Vietnamese troops.
Planning for the evacuation proceeded rapidly. Arrangements were being made for the Australian adoptions of the orphans whilst a Qantas 747 was chartered to convey the orphans from Bangkok in Thailand to Melbourne under medical evacuation - medivac - conditions.
Two C-130 Hercules of the RAAF's No 37 Squadron were tasked to uplift the orphans from Saigon to Bangkok, considering the hazardous airspace to be penetrated around Saigon. Another C-130 was to be used to fly some of the nurses from Bangkok to Saigon. The plans were to be kept confidential for security reasons until a formal announcement of the operation was made by the Prime Minister immediately preceding the evacuation.
A search was undertaken to find nursing and medical staff with medivac experience. Two prime sources were the Repatriation General Hospital at Heidelberg and the Fairfield Hospital in Victoria because of their expertise in tropical/enteric diseases. Ideally, requirements were for volunteers having some flying experience, some experience in South East Asia, current cholera and smallpox inoculations and a current passport. These requirements narrowed the field considerably.
Two of the volunteers who satisfied the requirements were Miss Vivian Bullwinkel, a former POW of the Japanese and then Director of Nursing at Fairfield Hospital, and Phyllis Schumann, a senior Operating Theatre Registered Nurse from the Repatriation General Hospital, Heidelberg. RN Schumann was well qualified having been a member of the RAAF Nursing Service from 1959 to 1966.
During that time, I had participated in medivacs of many severely injured Australian servicemen from Vietnam to Butterworth in Malaysia where the RAAF main evacuation hospital for the wounded was located," Phyllis Schumann recalled. "My expertise in the operating theatre at Butterworth contributed enormously to the recovery from wounds of many of our service personnel.
The final plan was to evacuate 75 orphans under the age of 10 years, of which 60 per cent were babies and toddlers.
Following a few days on standby, I was advised to present myself to the Department of Health in Melbourne for briefings on the proposed conduct of the operation. These were conducted by officers from the Departments of Health, Foreign Affairs and the Office of the Prime Minister.
Anticipated medical problems included tuberculosis, malaria, gastroenteritis, dehydration and intestinal infestation. In fact, the overall medical problems of the orphans proved to be more varied and serious, resulting in some very ill children.
A very early start was made on 16 April with a car collecting me from Repatriation General Hospital, together with a small bag of luggage, to convey me to Tullamarine. I already knew most of the volunteer team as we boarded the Qantas 747, all of us very much aware of the enormous task we were confronting.
The long 11-hour flight took us over Derby in WA and Denpasar in Indonesia en route to Bangkok for an arrival in the late evening. The high 32-degree temperature and humidity rapidly enveloped us as we left the aircraft in Bangkok where an overnight stop had been arranged by the Embassy. A rather superior Embassy staffer seemed to be more interested in preventing the team incurring high overnight expense accounts than with the operation in hand.
I was weary after the long day and in anticipation of the demands that were about to be placed on our stamina, I wanted to do no more than have a good meal and a sound sleep. The rest of the team had similar needs and we all retired at the first opportunity. The concerns of the Embassy staffer over the potential for high expenses were met with distain.
There were more briefings held early next morning. Twelve volunteers from the team were called for to proceed that day on one RAAF C-130, A97-160, captained by Wing Commander Mitchell. This aircraft would be entering hostile air space around Ton Son Nhut. The aircraft, being vulnerable to enemy anti-aircraft fire in the area, would be making a steep descent into Ton Son Nhut airfield. Time on the ground was to be minimal considering the risk of mortar fire and other enemy activities. Nevertheless there were 12 volunteers including Phyl who, with her previous experience of medivacs from Ton Son Nhut, was able to provide valuable comments on what could be expected.
Remnants of the Australian Embassy in Saigon were to have the selected 75 orphans ready for immediate emplaning and to provide every assistance possible.
Meanwhile, in Bangkok, the remaining team members were to prepare and stock the Qantas 747 with equipment and medical supplies needed for the direct flight back to Melbourne departing immediately following the transfer of the orphans from the two C-130s.
Phyl describes this part of the operation in her own words:
Taking basic medical supplies with us, we took off from Bangkok for Ton Son Nhut - a two hour flight with fighter escort," she said. "We had brief glimpses of the war-torn countryside and the Mekong Delta. A very rapid descent was made to minimise exposure to the possibility of gunfire with the size and speed of the aircraft making it vulnerable.
Awaiting us were two C-130 Hercules with engines running, into which all the children had already been loaded. One containing the babies and toddlers did not wait for us to board. We nurses were assisted up the loading ramp of the second C-130 as it started taxiing to the runway. The pilots were most apprehensive as parts of the airfield were under attack.
On board, it was very hot and noisy. There were webbing seats running along either side of the aircraft which was not configured for a medivac mission. Confusion reigned for a while until everyone sorted things out. We were able to comfort the terrified children who had never experienced the inside of a large military transport aircraft scrambling to get into the air and safety. Initially we were intent on getting fluids into the orphans as quickly as possible as they were obviously very dehydrated. Intravenous lines and fluids were used in the worst cases.
On arrival in Bangkok we all transferred to the Qantas 747 which was ready for the long haul to Melbourne.
At Bangkok airport the orphans were first taken to a transit lounge where a team of volunteers, including wives of members of the Australian Embassy staff, helped bath and feed the children. Thai trainee nurses then helped carry the children to the waiting aircraft.
We used cardboard cartons as improvised cots for the babies. Every available space in the aircraft was soon filled to capacity with the very sick orphans placed to the rear of the aircraft to receive intensive nursing.
After take off we became intent on administering to the needs of the orphans and had to contend with officials who were intent on identifying the children. Qantas staff were extremely helpful in keeping up a fluids and nappy patrol throughout the aircraft. I became responsible for attending to three eight-week-old babies in cartons and it became a full-time job trying to re-hydrate them.
The older children became less apprehensive as this aircraft was quieter and cooler. They were given fluids, food and then bedded down. Most were suffering from malnutrition and there were a variety of enteric and parasitic infections.
Nearing Melbourne, we dressed the orphans in extra clothing, anticipating the cooler weather - it was 8 degrees!
On arrival at Tullamarine in the early morning, amid tight security, the very ill children were transferred first to waiting ambulances. Ambulance officers came on board to assist and we were soon on our way to Fairfield, where wards had been prepared. Our last duties were to transfer our charges to the waiting hospital staff.
Six months later, I visited the Fairfield hospital and learned that some of the orphans were still hospitalised. Most had gone to their adoptive parents after receiving health clearances.
Now 26 years later I look back on the experience with satisfaction and ponder on the youngsters we were able to rescue and help introduce to new lives in Australia. All in all, an eventful experience.
The material for this article was supplied by Phyllis Schumann of Victoria.
Photographs published with the kind permission of The Herald & Weekly Times Ltd and The Age Ltd.
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