This article originally appeared at dailymail.co.uk By Simon Parry For Mailonline.
- Landon and Lorie Carnie were on first flight of Operation Babylift in 1975
- Vietnamese orphans and children were evacuated before the Fall of Saigon
- Plane crashed in one of the worst humanitarian disasters of Vietnam War
- 17-month-old twins thought to have died with 80 other babies and children
- Taken to adoptive parents in U.S., where they grew up in Washington State
An orphan who survived a horrific plane crash that claimed the lives of nearly 80 babies and children 40 years ago has made an emotional return to the scene of one of the worst humanitarian disasters of the Vietnam War.
Landon Carnie and his twin sister Lorie were initially thought to have died with scores of other youngsters when the first flight of Operation Babylift – an evacuation of vulnerable Vietnamese orphans and children before the Fall of Saigon – crashed minutes after take-off.
Incredibly, with wreckage and bodies strewn over miles of countryside, the terrified 17-month-old twins were found huddled together in a rice paddy more than a day after the crash and later taken to their adoptive parents in the U.S. who had earlier been told they were dead.
Now 41, Landon has visited the crash scene and is thought to be the first child survivor to return to the countryside on the outskirts of Ho Chi Minh City where the C-5 military cargo plane crashed and broke up killing 78 children and 50 adults on April 4, 1975.
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The tragic start to Operation Babylift – which eventually saw more than 3,000 vulnerable children evacuated to new lives overseas as Communist forces closed in on the southern capital – came as an explosion blew out the cargo doors as it climbed to 23,000 feet.
The crew wrestled to bring the plane under control and were returning to Tan Song Nhut air base in Saigon when it crashed and broke into four blazing pieces short of the runway.
There were 175 survivors.
Landon and his sister had at first been placed on the lower cargo deck of the plane where they would almost certainly have died before a nurse caring for them moved them to the upper deck of the plane shortly after take-off.
‘The two of us were put into one chair together,’ said Landon, recalling stories he was told about the crash as a child.
‘We were found over a day after the crash, right next to each other in a rice paddy. A rice farmer found us.
‘My parents who had adopted us actually got a telegram saying we had died because we couldn’t be found. And then, we were found.’
All the orphans’ documents including details of the birth parents, dates and places of birth were destroyed on board the inaugural Operation Babylift, which had been due to be met when it landed in the U.S. by President Gerard Ford.
The twins were brought up in Washington State until – engrossed by a document on American TV about the 25th anniversary of Operation Babylift in 2000 – Landon decided to visit the country of his birth.
He visited with his adoptive mother and then, two years later, decided to return to Vietnam to live.
Landon is now a lecturer in communications at the RMIT University in former Saigon, renamed Ho Chi Minh City after the war.
‘My adoptive parents were worried about me coming back at first,’ Landon recalled.
‘They said “don’t forget it’s a Communist country and if you do something wrong you might be put in jail and never allowed to leave Vietnam”.
‘They scared me a little bit and I was very careful about what I did and where I went when I first came back.
‘But now I’ve been here for 13 years and I know exactly what I can say and do here.’
Landon’s twin sister Lorie visited Vietnam in 2005 but it was only years later that Landon discovered the scene of the crash in which they were presumed to have died, visiting ahead of tomorrow’s anniversary with a film crew from asialifemagazine.com.
In emotional scenes, Landon found the likely spot where he and his sister lay undiscovered for more than 24 hours and met elderly villagers who recalled the crash and the spirits of the dead children they say haunted the area for years to come.
They built a shrine over the top of one fragment of the plane that was embedded in the ground to appease the spirits which superstitious villagers believe still haunt the fields.
‘The spirits are still here,’ said one villager.
Another villager, an elderly woman who witnessed the crash, said the bodies were left in the fields for a long time because everyone except gangs of looters was too frightened to go near the wreckage.
‘They (the children) were dead and they were left there,’ she said. ‘That is why those spirits are still around.’
Operation Babylift continued despite the April 4 tragedy and before the Fall of Saigon on April 30, more than 3,000 babies, infants and young children – mostly orphans, disabled youngsters and the children of US servicemen – were evacuated by plane.
Around 2,000 of the children went to the U.S. while others went to Australia, Canada and Europe.
The last planeload left Vietnam on April 29, the day before Saigon surrendered to the North Vietnamese Communist forces.
Landon has been told his mother died in childbirth and that his father gave him and his twin sister up for adoption as there were no other family members to care for them.
He knows his birth town but has not managed to contact any members of his birth family.
Asked how his extraordinary survival had affected him, Landon said he believed it had contributed to making him a free spirit.
‘I take life and embrace it,’ he said. ‘You have to take life and enjoy yourself.’