Two AF nurses heroes of 'Operation Babylift'

  • Published
  • By Tom Budzyna
  • Air Force News Service
No matter how far women were kept away from combat roles, they were never far from harm and the opportunity to rise above and beyond the call of duty.

An explosion blew out a pressure door of a C-5A Galaxy as it took off from Tan Son Nhut Air Base, Vietnam, April 4, 1975, forcing it to make an emergency landing with 313 passengers and crew, including 250 orphans.

The plane was the first to depart in support of Operation Babylift, where American caregivers were paired with South Vietnamese orphans, most fathered by Americans, to evacuate them to the Philippines then to San Diego, Calif., where President Gerald Ford was ready to welcome them to the United Sates.

Capt. Mary Klinker, the flight nurse and 1st Lt. Regina C. Aune, a nurse, were on board to help safely secure the children for their passage to a new life.

Pilot Capt. Dennis "Bud" Traynor and co-pilot Capt. Tilford Harp heroically controlled the doomed aircraft, but the explosion and a crash landing changed the lives of all on board.

Aune was thrown the entire length of the upper deck as the crippled aircraft skidded a quarter mile in a rice paddy, became airborne approximately a half mile, then crashed into an irrigation ditch where it was torn into four pieces.

In the crash, Klinker became the last U.S. servicewoman to die in the Vietnam War and was posthumously awarded the Air Medal and the Meritorious Service Medal. Her name is listed on panel O1W, row 122 of the Vietnam Veteran's Memorial.

Aune helped carry 80 babies to rescue helicopters at the muddy crash site. When unable to continue, she asked the first officer she saw if she could be relieved of her duties, then passed out. It was later discovered she helped save these babies with a broken foot, a broken leg, a broken vertebra and numerous other injuries.

Aune became the first woman to be awarded the Cheney Award, which was established in 1927 to recognize an Airman for an act of valor, extreme fortitude or self-sacrifice in a humanitarian interest, performed in connection with aircraft, but not necessarily of a military nature.

In all, 37 medals were awarded to the crew or next-of-kin of the 11 Airmen killed in the crash. Those killed also included 35 Defense Attaché Office employees and 78 children.

Aune retired an Air Force colonel in 2007.

(Sources include Pablo at Lafayette Urban Ministry and the Air Force News Service)