This Memorial Day weekend, as we remember all nurses who have served in the U.S. military, we spotlight one, Air Force Captain Mary Klinker, who died in a plane crash outside Saigon during the final days of the Vietnam War. She was the only member of the U.S. Air Force Nurse Corps—and the last military nurse—to die in that war.
Capt. Klinker had volunteered to work aboard the first flight of a mission, Operation Babylift, ordered by President Gerald Ford’s administration in the weeks before the fall of Saigon (now called Ho Chi Minh City). The aim was to move 2,000 South Vietnamese orphans and displaced children to the Philippines and then the United States for adoption.
In addition to Capt. Klinker, more than 300 passengers, including Air Force personnel, Defense Attaché Office employees, and about 250 children, filled the troop compartment and cargo area of the C-5 cargo plane on April 4, 1975. Children were placed together in seats and cardboard boxes. Soon after leaving the airport near Saigon, a substantial malfunction in the rear of the plane led to a forced landing in a field. About 130 passengers, many of whom were in the cargo area, died. Capt. Klinker was caring for children in that part of the plane when it crashed. She was 27 years old.
According to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, Capt. Klinker’s name is one of 58,315 listed on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington, DC. The names of only seven other women—all members of the U.S. Army Nurse Corps—are listed on the wall. Capt. Klinker’s name can be found at the bottom of the last panel of the memorial’s west wall (panel 01W, row 122), in the center of the structure.
To find out more about Capt. Klinker, Operation Babylift, and military nurses who served in the Vietnam War, see the following resources:
- “Remembering the Doomed First Flight of Operation Babylift,” an article published at NPR.org, offers first person accounts from the pilot, a child survivor, and another nurse, Colonel Regina Aune, who was a first lieutenant in the Air Force and the chief medical officer of the flight.
- “The Vietnam Women’s Memorial: Better Late Than Never,” by Kay E. Schwebke, appeared in AJN’s May 2009 issue and discusses the Vietnam Women’s Memorial in Washington, DC, and the experiences of individual nurses who served during the war. (Article will be free until June 7.)
- “Two Air Force Nurses Heroes of ‘Operation Babylift,” an article about the nurses aboard the first flight of Operation Babylift, appears on the website of the United States of America Vietnam War Commemoration, a program created by Congress to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the beginning of the Vietnam War.
- A page dedicated to Mary Klinker’s memory and legacy can be found at the website of FlyGirls, a dramatic series about women World War II pilots.