Operation Babylift: Reflections & Interview with Aryn Lockhart

As the fall of Saigon and the end of the Vietnam War loomed, thousands of Vietnamese babies and toddlers remained in South Vietnamese orphanages. As the Viet Cong seized control of the South, these young souls were at risk of injury or death. President Ford, along with leaders in Canada, Australia, and France, coordinated an effort known as Operation Babylift to evacuate thousands of orphans. On April 4, 1975, a C-5 cargo plane that carried 300 people aboard—including military and medical personnel, employees from the Defense Attaché Office of Saigon, and escorts and nuns who cared for the babies and toddlers—crashed shortly after takeoff. 135 people perished…178 survived. Aryn Lockhart is one of those survivors.

Why am I writing about this, you might ask?

My most recent (yet to be published) novel Pink & White has two main characters: Andy, a former Vietnamese refugee who is now a manicurist in California, and Elizabeth, his customer, who is grieving her father while falling into the opioid epidemic. While researching Pink & White, I was gripped by the history of Operation Babylift. As I dove deeper into my research and wove different historical events into my novel, I read Aryn Lockhart’s book Operation Babylift: Mission Accomplished, A Memoir of Hope and Healing. I knew I had to talk with her!

We started our communication through Facebook, then emails, which morphed into Facetiming, and finally a face-to-face meeting in May of this year. Aryn and I met in Monterey over a delicious meal, and we fell into easy conversation as we both share a passion for writing, and are adoptees.

Here is a bit from our time together…

Q: Aryn, like me, you knew from a young age that you were adopted. What were you told?

A: I always knew that I was adopted from Vietnam. My parents were very open about my adoption, not to mention that I didn’t exactly look like my folks. They told me all about Operation Babylift.

Q: How did they find out that you were one of the surviving children of Operation Babylift?

A: My parents always believed I was on the initial flight that crashed. They pieced together clues and felt it was certain. After arriving in New York as a baby, I was checked by a doctor. During his examination he observed that my eardrums had burst and healed over—an injury that occurs during a rapid decompressions or plane crash. I grew up knowing that this was my history.

Q: Can you discuss how that impacted you?

A: Being part of Operation Babylift has affected me in every sense of who I am and what I do. I feel a tremendous amount of gratitude toward the people who brought me to this life and this country. Without the kindness and love of these strangers, I would never have been afforded so many opportunities. I feel compelled to express my gratitude for the kindness that was shown to me.

Q: You wrote about your history in Operation Babylift: Mission Accomplished, A Memoir of Hope and Healing. What compelled you to write your story?

A: I love to write, and always wanted to write about Operation Babylift. I wrote my first story about it when I was only nine. After I met Regina Aune, the medical crew director and another survivor of the C-5, our story came full circle. The more our lives intertwined, the more we wanted to share our unique and special connection. Our story was healing, and we hope it inspires others as it did us.

Q: You went to Vietnam and were able to locate the grave of the nun who accompanied you during Operation Babylift. Can you share that experience?

A: The nun who cared for me and chose me for my parents was Sister Ursula Lee. She died in the C-5 crash. It was a serendipitous set of circumstances in how I was able to visit her grave. I was returning to Vietnam for the first time after 40 years, and also visited Malaysia. While in Malaysia, I met family members of Sister Ursula, and visited her grave. It was extremely emotional; Sister Ursula was my first mother figure. I felt a deep connection with her, and was filled with gratitude for the love she gave me as an infant. It was solely because of her that I found my way to the Lockhart family, and I felt tremendous love and loss for her sacrifices.

She lives within me every day, and after visiting her grave and going to Vietnam, I decided to place two tattoos on my left wrist facing me. The first is the word “Peace”, which was written on Sister Ursula’s gravestone. I wanted a daily reminder of her. My second tattoo is the symbol of the Sisters of Good Shepherd. Both tattoos face toward me as reminders of the love and kindness I received. They are also my daily reminders to give that love and kindness in return.

Q: What’s next for you in your writing life? What projects live inside you?

A: I am doing research for my second book, which is a continuation of Operation Babylift: Mission Accomplished.  After Regina Aune and I finished writing our first book, I realized that the story was still unfolding. I feel like I am living this amazing story, and I have the unique privilege of telling it. I can’t wait to share more with the world. After that, I’d like to write fiction. I see stories and characters around me in everything I do, and I can’t wait to create a fictional world full of intrigue and self-discovery.  

Q: Anything else? Any words you wish to share with others who are adopted and looking for their roots?

I am proudly both a Vietnamese adoptee and an American. It is a deeply personal journey for those of us looking for our roots. I know many adoptees who hope to find their biological ties, but for me that was impossible. Looking for my roots took a different form, and I found peace in sharing my gratitude to those who helped me. I have traveled throughout the world to say thank you to soldiers and nuns who shaped my story.

We, as adoptees, will always have gaping holes within us. There are burning questions, and some may never be answered. I often wonder how much I look like my biological parents, or where I gained my loving traits, or my inexplicable need to procrastinate to the very last second. Ultimately, my peace has come through gratitude.

My advice is to be kind to yourself on your journey. While we may always struggle with the “whys” and “how” we were given up, we will experience love in many forms throughout our lives. Allow that love to be your guide on this emotional journey.