Wartime medals are often won for saving lives, most often for saving those of fellow combatants and adult civilians. For Air Force Capt. Mary Klinker, two posthumous medals were awarded because she worked to save very young lives -- and, in the course of doing so, lost her own.
Klinker was a flight nurse assigned to the 22nd Aircraft Squadron at Clark Air Base in the Philippines in 1974. As Saigon fell, President Gerald Ford ordered an airlift of all in-country orphans, many of whom had American fathers, to the United States for asylum and adoption. The 22nd, with its motto of "Anything, Anywhere, Anytime," was given the task of bringing those children from Vietnam to the Philippines. Klinker volunteered for the humanitarian effort, which became known as Operation Babylift.
Evacuating hundreds of orphans would prove difficult in many ways. At one makeshift orphanage in a two-story French colonial villa, nurse LeAnn Thieman recalled a "sea of babies" across the floor, lying on mats crying, cooing, playing and sleeping. The Vietnamese caregivers prepared the little ones for their journey by dressing them in "lace, ruffled panties, patent leather shoes," Thieman said.
After leaving the orphanages, each group of babies was then transported to Tan Son Nhut Air Base for evacuation. The aircraft selected for this mission were C-5A Galaxy cargo planes, big enough to drive a truck into and stable enough to fly about 25 cardboard boxes holding two or three babies apiece.
Thieman, who worked on the flight that followed Klinker's, recounts the apprehension that she and her colleagues felt: "We took our seats for the takeoff, and the true terror began. Would we be shot down? Would we even get off the ground?"
At 3 p.m. on April 3, 1975, the initial mission flight took off with Capt. Dennis "Bud" Traynor at the controls; a crew of 16; seven attendants, including Klinker; and 145 orphans. At 4:13, the lower rear fuselage was torn apart, and Traynor "had to invent a technique for managing a seemingly unmanageable aircraft," according to John L. Frisbee of Air Force Magazine.
In the ensuing crash, the 27-year-old Klinker, from Lafayette, Indiana, became the last nurse and the only member of the Air Force Nurse Corps to be killed in Vietnam. She received the Airman's Medal and a Meritorious Service Medal and is listed on Panel O1W Row 122 of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
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