He Wrote a Bad Check to Rescue a Plane Full of Orphans. What Happened Next Is Amazing

04/05/2015 10:05 am ET | Updated Jun 05, 2015

You know that impulse we feel when we see someone in need and think, "I should do something"?

Forty years ago this month, as the U.S. was scrambling to leave Vietnam, a Connecticut businessman had such an impulse. His story encourages all of us not to walk away, but rather to embrace the inclination and act -- the reward might be extraordinary.

Amid news of the U.S. exit from Vietnam, Bob Macauley saw that a plane full of orphaned babies and toddlers heading to the U.S. for adoption had crashed on takeoff and the survivors were stranded in an increasingly unstable Saigon. Frustrated that it would take 10 days to rescue the children, Bob thought, "I should do something."

He and his wife, Leila, kited a check, chartered a Pan Am 747, pulled strings to get authorization for the mission and brought back 325 young children that had been living in orphanages in South Vietnam. The plane landed in San Francisco on April 5, 1975, amid great fanfare. President Gerald Ford helped carry the children off the plane -- a moment captured for all the world to see by waiting news crews.


President Gerald R. Ford, courtesy of the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library

The Macauleys didn't hesitate. They acted on impulse -- that first rush when your heart is open and there is no what-if or why-not, before the mind parses the benefits and drawbacks of any action and sends out a little voice saying, "It won't make a real difference" or "It's inconvenient." They acted before they were distracted by the next thing and played an important, albeit little-known, role in a story that captured headlines around the world.

The reward has been great. For many of the rescued orphans, the reward was the miracle of new life. A Florida man, who was 3 years old when he came to the U.S. as part of Operation Babylift, recently wrote a letter to the Macauleys saying, "You gave me and my brother a life of opportunity with a loving family that were able to provide us with love, care, compassion and support. I owe my life to you."

For the Macauleys, the reward was the opening of a door to years of acts of compassion around the globe. They went on to found a nonprofit humanitarian aid agency called AmeriCares with the goal, in Bob's own words, to "find someone who needs help and help them."

Bob passed away in 2010. Leila lives in Florida and remains engaged as the vice-chair of the AmeriCares board. Leila still receives letters and emails from the PanAm passengers who find her to say thank you.

I have the great honor to sit in Bob's seat as the CEO of AmeriCares. We have grown into a sophisticated global organization with hundreds of employees, tens of thousands of donors, deep relationships with corporations and other humanitarian aid agencies, a vast network of partner hospitals, clinics, social service agencies and others across the globe and more. We literally help millions of people every year. Still, it is Bob's impulse to act out of compassion to help someone in crisis that remains at the heart of our identity and work.

The founding stories of many charities include similar stories of people who followed an impulse to act. But most acts of generosity don't end in an airplane charter or global nonprofit. Instead, they are singular incidents that help one person or family find relief, restoration or redemption. Multiplied over and over again, these independent acts amount to more than a single charity could ever accomplish.

The opportunity to make a difference is open to each of us nearly every day -- we just have to honor the impulse and act.


Michael J. Nyenhuis is President and CEO of AmeriCares, an emergency response and global health organization that has delivered more than $12 billion in humanitarian aid to 164 countries.