This Day In History: April 4

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The American airlift of Vietnamese children deemed war orphans to the U.S. and other Western nations begins disastrously on April 4, 1975, when an Air Force cargo jet crashes shortly after takeoff from Tan Son Nhut airbase in Saigon. More than 135 passengers, mostly children, were killed. Some of the children had been loaded two to a seat in the plane's troop compartment; others were strapped more haphazardly to the floor of the cargo bay, with blankets and pillows.

"Operation Babylift," initiated to bring South Vietnamese war orphans and the children of American servicemen to the West for adoption, was carried out during the final, desperate phase of the war, as North Vietnamese forces were closing in on Saigon. Although the first flight ended in tragedy, subsequent flights over the subsequent weeks took place without incident, up until the fall of Saigon and the end of the war. Ultimately, more than 2,600 children were transported out of their home country.

While the U.S. government presented the program as a humanitarian mission—President Gerald Ford posed with some of the incoming babies at the San Francisco airport—critics assailed Babylift as poorly planned, politicized and racist. Newspaper headlines read, "Babylift or babysnatch?" and "The Orphans: Saved or Lost?" Some of the children weren't orphans at all, but had families who had temporarily given up custody under wartime duress. A lawsuit later brought by birth families was thrown out of court, and the records sealed. A lawsuit against Lockheed and the U.S. government, filed on behalf of the doomed first Babylift flight's injured survivors, ended in a $19.7 million settlement.