Rotary speaker describes panic in 1975 Vietnam,'Operation Babylift'


In 1975, frantic residents of South Vietnam sought to flee their country, under imminent takeover by North Vietnam. Thousands rushed to escape on boats, airplanes and helicopters. U.S. President Gerald Ford activated “Operation Babylift” to save as many orphaned South Vietnamese infants as possible.

In his historical novel “Struggle to Survive,” U.S. Marine Capt. William T. Yaley chronicles the panic that ensued as the South Vietnamese attempted to save themselves from capture and probable death. He described the scene to members of the Rotary Club of Los Altos at their April 25 meeting.

According to Yaley, South Vietnamese babies were left on the steps of a Catholic orphanage, then carried through war zones to helicopter landing sites. Amerasian infants were especially at risk, he said, because the North Vietnamese felt they represented “imperialist America.”

The orphans were brought to the Saigon airport to board U.S. Air Force cargo airplanes to be flown to the United States, per Ford’s orders.

Yaley and his wife, residents of Los Altos at that time, had applied two years earlier to adopt an orphaned child, but the approval process was slow and cumbersome. He has photos that show the infants, many of them Amerasians, who were saved by the U.S. airlift and delivered to the Presidio in San Francisco. He recalled how soldiers were called on to help feed and care for the thousands of infants during their overseas trip and after arrival in the U.S.

Early one morning, the Yaleys received a phone call to come pick up their daughter, expected to be 1-2 years old. They were handed a tiny baby girl just 5 weeks old.

That was the start of her life in America, more than 40 years ago. The Yaleys already had three sons before welcoming Kateri, their Vietnamese daughter, and two adopted Korean daughters, Darcy and Mollie. Kateri’s photo was featured on the cover of the Los Altos Town Crier in 1975.

Kateri thrived in the U.S. She became a schoolteacher and volleyball coach in Merced, and later encouraged her son to enlist in the U.S. Marine Corps, honoring her American family’s tradition – a tradition that saved her life.

“Struggle to Survive” is available on

Marlene Cowan is a member of the Rotary Club of Los Altos. For more information, visit

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