With November quickly coming to a close I would like to say thank you to all veterans and military personnel and their families currently serving. As we gather with family and friends throughout the holiday season and give thanks to God for our many blessings, let us remember one of our own and pray for those who are trapped in collapsing circumstances.
Mary T. Klinker was the daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Klinker. She had four brothers (Richard P., David J., James D., Donald J.) and one sister (Carolyn). Capt. Klinker was a member of St. Lawrence Church. She graduated from Central Catholic in 1965 and St. Elizabeth School of Nursing in 1969. Mary Klinker served in the Air Force as a flight nurse, instructor and flight examiner from 1969 until her death in April 1975. Two years after the United States signed a ceasefire with Vietnam, South Vietnam was crumbling under assault from North Vietnamese troops. As North Vietnam troops spread through South Vietnam, frightened people were pouring out of the country. Humanitarian groups working with orphans in Vietnam were advocating that the American government undertake an emergency evacuation. With South Vietnam’s reluctant agreement, President Gerald Ford announced that Operation Babylift would fly some of the estimated 70,000 orphans out of Vietnam.
On April 4, 1975, the first official government flight of Operation Babylift departed Saigon with more than 300 children and Central Catholic graduate Capt. Mary T. Klinker. Tragically, 12 minutes into the flight, an explosion blew off the rear doors of the C-5A Galaxy plane. Few could get to oxygen masks as the overcrowded aircraft had been prepared for 100 children. The US Air Force pilots were able to turn the plane back toward Saigon. The plane crash landed 2 miles from the Tan Son Nhut airport in a rice paddy field. One hundred and fifty-four infants, flight crew, and caregivers died on the first flight of Operation Babylift, including Capt. Mary T. Klinker.
Capt. Klinker was a flight nurse assigned to Clark Air Base in the Philippines who was providing healthcare to the Vietnamese orphans on the inaugural flight. She was 27-years old when she died and the last nurse and the only member of the US Air Force Nurse Corps to be killed in Vietnam. She was posthumously awarded the Airmen’s Medal for Heroism and the Meritorious Service Medal.
Her name is still honored today at the Mary T. Klinker Veterans Resource Center located at 420 N. 4th Street in Lafayette. The non-profit group serves homeless veterans, veterans in need, and their families by providing resources, peer-to-peer counseling, and financial assistance in Tippecanoe, Warren, Benton, Newton, Jasper, and White counties. During the time of Operation Babylift, more than 2,000 babies and children were flown out by military and private planes to be adopted by families in the United States. Many people, like Mary T. Klinker, responded from their hearts to the babies and young children who were casualties of the end of Vietnam War. Operation Babylift has been coined “one of the most humanitarian efforts of all time.” Thank you Mary T. Klinker and all service men and women for your sacrifice and leading with your heart!