Playboy Bunnies Helped with A (Controversial) Vietnam War Evacuation
In April 1975, with the collapse of the South Vietnamese government looming, the United States prepared for withdrawal. President Gerald Ford announced that the United States would lead an operation to evacuate orphans from Saigon. In what became known as Operation Babylift, infants and young children were brought to new adoptive families in the United States.
And during this mission, a few evacuees rode aboard a plane owned by Playboy founder Hugh Hefner.
Despite the number of children successfully evacuated from Operation Babylift, the mission started with tragedy. On April 4, 1975, the first plane in Operation Babylift, a C-5A Galaxy, crashed near Tan Son Nhut Air Base, resulting in the deaths of 78 children and almost 50 adults. This bad start did not sway the Ford administration from continuing, and the rest of April saw more than 2,500 young orphans flown to the United States. President Ford himself was there for the first plane’s arrival at the Presidio military base in San Francisco.
Whether or not this entire operation was done with human interests in mind or was simply a publicity stunt is up for debate. The Vietnam War was incredibly unpopular, and with the imminent collapse of South Vietnam, it would make sense that the government would launch Operation Babylift to have the appearance of at least one good thing happening during the debacle.
Regardless of the intentions, though, Operation Babylift was popular as it was going on. Infants that were brought from Vietnam were already in the adoption process, and San Francisco was their first step to reaching new American families. This is where Playboy comes in.
Actor Yul Brynner and his wife Jacqueline Brynner (yes, of course, Hollywood celebrities had to also get involved) were concerned about ensuring that every orphaned child from Operation Babylift made it to their new homes. Transporting that many passengers across the country would be a massive endeavor, and large civilian planes could help. Knowing who among them had a plane up for such a task, the celebrities called on Hugh Hefner and his personal jet, the Big Bunny, to assist in the operation.
The Playboy plane was responsible for taking 41 orphans from the processing facility in San Francisco to their new homes in New York. During the flight, Playboy Bunnies cared for the young children.
As nice as it sounds to rescue orphans from a country devastated by a long and bloody war, the legacy of Operation Babylift remains controversial. While the American people were generally supportive at the time, even as the operation was ongoing, there were questions. The biggest being about the actual orphan status of some of the children evacuated.
Operation Babylift happened during a chaotic time, and those involved in the rescue mission likely were not able to verify the status of every single person involved. During the evacuation, a translator involved discussed talking to children who said they were not orphans. The orphanages in Saigon that were involved in the operation were maintained by American organizations. Vietnamese families sometimes turned their children over to the orphanages, as they were safer than staying at home. Some of the children involved had since taken to genealogy websites or non-profits in order to reunite with their possible birth families.
Just like many endeavors during the Vietnam War, Operation Babylift had flaws and was misguided by nature. Still, for all the questions it raised, it did undoubtedly save some lives. And along the way, Playboy models helped make part of it happen.
Top Image: National Archives and Records Administration