THE BLOG

Operation Baby Lift: The Story Behind the Story

04/10/2014 11:53 am ET | Updated Jun 10, 2014

It's the stuff of legends.

A plane takes off from Tan Son Nhat Airport at 4:00 PM on April 4, l975. It's less than a month before Saigon will fall. North Vietnamese troops are rapidly advancing. Desperate people are pouring out of the country, fearing for their lives.

The plane is a C5A Galaxy -- a cargo plane. There are 243 children on board, along with their escorts and Air Force personnel. It's the first plane in Operation Babylift, organized to bring orphans of the war to the U.S. A row of cardboard boxes runs down the center of the plane. Each two-foot square box contains two or three infants. Toddlers and older children line the sides of the plane, sitting on hard aluminum benches.

Twelve minutes out of Saigon an explosion tears the fuselage apart. Cables are severed. Control is lost. Decompression fills the plane with fog and debris.

Somehow, the pilot turns the plane around and heads for Saigon. Halfway back it's clear they won't make it.

The pilot does the only thing he can and brings the nose up, making the plane belly flop into a rice paddy. It skids a quarter of a mile and then becomes airborne again, skimming the surface of the ground until it hits a dike half a mile away and breaks apart.

One hundred and thirty-eight people are killed instantly, including 78 children. One hundred and sixty-five children survive -- many of them critically injured and desperately in need of medical attention.

Half a world away one man hears what happened and decides he has to do something about it. He is not about to wait the ten days the government says it will take to mount a relief effort.

The man is Bob Macauley. He loves children, hates bureaucracy, and believes nothing is impossible. He is driven by the terrible urgency of "now." In an instant, Macauley decides to rescue the kids and begins by calling every airline in the phone book. All he needs is one willing to charter a plane to Saigon.

Pan Am is at the bottom of the list. As it happens, they have a Boeing 747 in Guam. "Yes, we can send it to Saigon," they say -- it's the first 'yes' Bob has heard, "but we will have to pull it out of a commercial run."

This is Pan Am's way of saying they can do it but the cost will be steep. They want a quarter of a million dollars, ten percent down, and the balance on arrival in San Francisco.

Bob tells them to put the plane in the air and he will put the check in the mail. He doesn't bother telling them he doesn't have a quarter of million dollars. He doesn't bother to tell them he doesn't even have enough in his checking account to cover the deposit. Still, he keeps his word and sends Pan Am the check he promised.

"This all happened on a Friday," he said. "By the time Pan Am got the check, I knew it would be Monday. I figured the kids would be safe by then. We could worry about the rest later."

Sure enough, on Sunday morning Pan Am calls Bob to say the plane is on its way. They want the balance. Bob cheerfully writes them another check and sends it bouncing along. By the time a somewhat agitated Pan Am employee calls to find out what is going on, Bob has taken out a second mortgage on his house to make good his debt and cover the cost of his mercy flight.

That's the story of Operation Babylift. The story behind the story is Bob's wife's response. The first Leila Macauley heard of all this was when the TV crews parked on the front lawn and started taking pictures of her house.

When the reporters told her what happened and asked her what she thought, she said, "It sounds like a pretty good deal to me. Bob gets the kids and the bank gets the house."

How many women would respond like that? How many people would do what Bob did? How is it possible? The Macauleys would say it's pretty simple. If you know what your values are all your other decisions are easier.