Operation New Life

In the spring of 1975 Wake Island’s population briefly soared to over eight thousand, the largest number of humans ever on the little coral atoll in the mid-Pacific. Operations Babylift and New Life evacuated tens of thousands of refugees in the closing days of the Vietnam War, and Wake Island became an overflow station for the New Life program. While the island had been home to a bustling community of over a thousand Americans and Filipino workers during the hey-day of the late 1950s and 60s, its population had plummeted to little over 200 by the early 1970s as air support operations in Southwest Asia waned and new, longer-range military and commercial aircraft no longer needed mid-ocean gas stations. But Wake’s quiet “standby airport” status underwent a radical change that spring as relief personnel and supplies poured in, followed by planeload after planeload of refugees.

As North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces closed in on Saigon in April 1975 U. S. military forces mounted airlift operations to evacuate government employees, allies, South Vietnamese who had collaborated with the Americans, and others swept up in the panic. By mid-April Marine Corps helicopters were evacuating the last U.S. citizens and thousands of desperate South Vietnamese were fleeing by fishing boats and by air, seeking a safe harbor or refuge on U. S. Navy ships.

An Interagency Task Force created by President Gerald Ford had initiated Operation Babylift and Operation New Life on April 4 to transport and process refugees for eventual resettlement in the United States and other countries. Operation Babylift would rescue over 2,500 orphans, transporting them by military or private aircraft to the Philippines and Guam and eventually to adoptive families in the United States. (Tragically the first Babylift flight suffered a midair malfunction that resulted in a crash landing, killing seventy-three children and fifty adults.) New Life evacuated tens of thousands of refugees as Saigon collapsed, and massive efforts went into organizing shelter, food, water, clothing, medical facilities, and processing centers in the Philippines and Guam. When the Philippines set a strict limit on evacuees, Guam was quickly overwhelmed, and Wake Island was designated to take the overload with the Air Force handling most of the logistics on the island.

After confirming that Wake could manage eight thousand and up to a surge of twelve thousand refugees, the former commander of Wake Island AFB recalls the sudden flood of personnel and supplies and the rush to open shuttered housing and set up field hospitals and kitchens. Bruce Hoon, LT Col USAF (Ret) describes how at the height of the mission, C141s – each packed with 283 passengers – landed on the 10,000-foot runway every hour and forty-five minutes.

A weather service worker on Wake put his camera to good use, shooting both candid and posed photographs of the visitors. Dozens of his black and white photos – including many poignant shots of children – can be found in the galleries on Dennis Lowden’s website listed among the Sources below.

Bruce Beardsley, an American Foreign Service agent with Vietnamese language skills, was called from his post in Afghanistan to Wake to help coordinate the refugee project. He found most operations running well on the island so took on problems that “fell through the cracks,” such as evacuees who wanted to return home and separated family members. Beardsley’s work with the Vietnamese evacuees on Wake led to his lifetime commitment to refugee work.

The flow of refugees through Wake Island proceeded for a month. Between April 26 and May 25, 1975, a total of sixty-four flights landed on Wake with 12,500 evacuees. Safe from the war and its aftermath, they were given shelter, fed, medically examined, and processed for the next leg. In the final airlift mission Operation New Arrivals flew the refugees from the Philippines, Guam, and Wake to air force bases in the U. S. over the summer months. With the aid of charitable organizations 130,000 Vietnamese would find new homes across the United States. And on Wake Island workers took down tents, shipped supplies back, burned garbage, boarded up vacant buildings, and resumed the role of a standby airport that had stood tall when called.

Select Sources:

“Operation Babylift and New Life,” by Daniel L. Haulman at the Air Mobility Command Museum site, https://amcmuseum.org/history/operation-babylift-and-new-life/

“Remembering the Doomed First Flight of Operation Babylift,” NPR, April 26, 2015, https://www.npr.org/2015/04/26/402208267/remembering-the-doomed-first-flight-of-operation-babylift

“C141Heaven: A Wake Island Story,” memoir by Bruce R. Hoon, LT COL USAF (Ret), https://c141heaven.info/dotcom/tall_tales/a_wake_island_story.php

“Wake Island 1975,” memoir and photo galleries by Dennis Lowden, https://www.wakeisland1975.com/index.html

“Vietcong Attack on Embassy Saigon in 1968,” by Bruce A. Beardsley at the American Foreign Service Association site, https://afsa.org/viet-cong-attack-embassy-saigon-1968

“Historic American Buildings Survey: Wake Island Airfield, Terminal Building,” HABS No, UM-2-A, 2008, https://memory.loc.gov/master/pnp/habshaer/um/um0000/um0060/data/um0060data.pdf