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Drama of Operation Babylift recaptured in a play

Garden City resident Lana Mae Noone conributed to

Garden City resident Lana Mae Noone conributed to "Children of the April Rain," a play that tells her story and those of eight others. Credit: Yeong-Ung Yang

In the opening of a new play performed at a dramatic reading in Manhattan, the chaos of the last days of the Vietnam War comes to life as actors describe scenes of tiny infants being airlifted by military transport planes to escape the fall of Saigon in April 1975. As the drama unfolds, the first plane in the rescue mission, which came to be known as Operation Babylift, is filled with young refugees and crashes shortly after takeoff, killing more than 100 onboard. But subsequent planes that arrive in the United States safely deliver thousands of infants who find homes with adoptive parents.

“Children of the April Rain” is a play about the personal experiences of nine Americans who worked to save orphaned children they believed were in peril because of the impending communist takeover in Vietnam. Like the controversy surrounding U.S. involvement in the war, Operation Babylift was not without opposing sides. Many questioned whether the Vietnamese children should be taken from their homeland. And shortly after, it was learned that some of the youngsters had been left at orphanages by their parents, who were too poor to care for them, but had no intention of permanently relinquishing custody.

However, the play focuses on the involvement of the nine Americans who felt compelled to help children too young to help themselves. Their written memoirs of that period were used by playwright William Bryant Doty to create the script that was read by stage actors at Judson Memorial Church for its Greenwich Village premiere in late April. The nine authors who were portrayed were some of the last to work with the children in the orphanages: a 19-year-old American man who went to South Vietnam for the adventure and ended up running an orphanage there; a nun who, while helping the children, “married” two men at the same time to give them papers to flee prison or possible death; an Iowa housewife who went to assist and stayed almost to the end, despite dangerous conditions.

Among the stories told is one written by Long Islander Lana Mae Noone, a South Bronx-born classical musician who adopted two children from Operation Babylift. One of the two girls died from illness soon after arriving here; the other thrived and is now married. Noone is credited with getting the drama project off the ground, along with the playwright. “For 41 years, I thought, someone needs to tell this story,” said Noone, 69, who lives in Garden City. “These are the heroes. These were children in harm’s way. These kids were not at the top of anyone’s list.”

The play progresses through vignettes that describe what the Americans were going through when they were in Vietnam and in this country, waiting for the children as they arrived. Doty, the playwright, who came from his home in Kansas for the show, said that when he assembled the play from the written memoirs, he wanted to weave them together, in chronological order to build to the dramatic ending — the last babies leaving the country and the men and women who worked there until they were forced to leave. The play, about 90 minutes long, is only performed sporadically, when the group can find actors and a venue for it. “It was an editing job and a gathering job, and occasionally a writing job, but the stories were theirs,” said Doty, who has a background in television, and is an archivist for the National Archives.

The audience of about three dozen ran the gamut of emotions during the reading in the small basement space where the play was performed; there was sadness for the infants and others lost in the crash and laughter during lighter moments. In the end, there was enthusiastic applause.

Noone and her husband, Byron. were married in 1968. After several miscarriages and speaking with their pastor, they decided in the winter of 1974 to adopt a child. But there was a two-year wait for a healthy baby, which seemed a long time, Noone said. The adoption agency counselor told them about other couples adopting children from Vietnam; babies who were abandoned or lost parents in the war. “A light bulb went off,” Noone said. “I looked at my husband and he looked at me.”

The couple started the complicated process of completing their dossier when they were told that things were heating up in Vietnam, and there was now little hope to get the children out of the country. Despair set in, until they received a call about a child arriving on what Noone calls “the maverick flight,” when Ed Daly, the chairman and principal owner of World Airways, sent a DC-8 cargo aircraft to Saigon. Its mission was to transport dozens of children who were orphaned and in need of medical treatment to this country. “He scooped up 57 war orphans,” Noone said. “One of the kids on that plane was mine.”

The Noones called the infant Heather. She was no more than a few months old but very ill, with a dangerous form of pneumonia. The plane landed in California and in late April, Heather was moved to North Shore Hospital in Manhasset. “I watched the fall of Saigon on the television in her hospital room,” Noone said.

Less than a month later, on May 17, Heather died. The couple was heartbroken. Noone said they couldn’t believe that after this child was flown out of a war-torn country and across the United States to receive the best medical care, that this would be the ending. “I was 28 years old,” she said. “This wasn’t supposed to happen.”

In many ways, Noone said, Heather has been the impetus for developing the play. “I sat next to her bed,” she said, “and I promised her that no one would forget about the babylift, and that she would not be forgotten.” On the day of Heather’s funeral, the Noones received a call about another baby from Vietnam but the couple was too grief-stricken to consider it.

Noone’s story vividly describes loss and grief, and amazing courage. Among the other vignettes is the story of another sick baby who was considered the last child to leave in the American-sanctioned baby evacuations from South Vietnam. That girl became the Noone’s daughter, Jennifer. She was airlifted out on April 26, sent to Denver Children’s Hospital, and after being treated for pneumonia, malnutrition, scabies, and other afflictions, “Jenny” was cleared to come home to Long Island and her new parents.

“This was my mother’s story,” said Jennifer Noone, 41, who also attended the Manhattan reading.

The Noones also adopted a boy from Korea. Their son, Jason, is now 39, and teaches social studies at Hempstead High School. He has two children.

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Some of the nine Americans in the play share important connections. For instance, the story of Sister Marie Therese Leblanc, who helped children and others to safety, mentions a little girl who was especially dear to her. The nun would often seek her out and hold her, despite the child’s fragile health. Jill Redding, the actress who read the part of the sister at the performance, delivered the line that succinctly expressed the nun’s feelings for the child, when she said, “I could have held her forever.” The girl she called “Maggie,” came to the United States where she was adopted and given a new name: Jennifer Noone.

Ross Meador, 61, of Fullerton, California, was the 19-year-old American who went to work in an orphanage in the war-torn country. A sense of adventure brought him there, he said. “I wanted to travel,” and he also wanted to be involved in helping people during the war. Sixty of his young charges at the orphanage were on that first fatal flight.

Meador was not only part of the historic Operation Babylift, he also had a role in another iconic moment seen on TVs across America: the dramatic helicopter rescue of the last few Americans from a rooftop in Saigon.

As someone who witnessed the sick children who were fighting for their lives and were mostly forgotten because of the war, Operation Babylift was a matter of human compassion, Meador said. “For us, we believe it was one of the greatest humanitarian efforts in history.”

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