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On the ground as the North Vietnamese army advanced

Posted on December 7, 2021, by Mary Nelle Gage SL

A young boy sits on the knee of a smiling woman.
Ruth Routten CoL hugs a Vietnamese orphan before escorting him out of Vietnam and to his waiting family.
Photo: 1973, courtesy of Ruth Routten CoL

Aiding orphans in Vietnam wasn’t new to Ruth Routten CoL, an American Airlines flight attendant who, on her days off, had escorted children from Vietnam to adoptive families starting in 1973. After the C-5A crash in early April 1975, when she returned to Saigon to assist with the final evacuation, the situation on the ground had become acute. Orphanages were once again at full capacity as Catholic sisters from provincial orphanages brought more and more children. Finding flights out had become nearly impossible. After a promised flight for the orphans had been canceled by a charter aircraft company, Ruth, with Susan Carol McDonald SL, Rosemary Taylor and Australian volunteer Sr. Doreen Beckett brainstormed evacuation options.

Tensions skyrocketed. Vietnamese staff shared reports from Radio Hanoi that those who had cooperated with American agencies were considered war criminals. American Armed Forces Radio announced that the signal to report immediately to evacuation sites would be “It is 110 degrees in Saigon and rising,” followed by the playing of “White Christmas.”

By April 25, the North Vietnamese takeover was imminent and there were still 270 orphans waiting to leave. The women worked around the clock caring for the children and preparing for evacuation. Finally a flight was scheduled; Ruth and Susan flew out on April 26, four days before the Northern army takeover, on a bare-bones C-141 cargo plane. Children were strapped in several to a seat; others were on blankets spread across the floor; infants traveled in boxes with Susan. The orphans were brought to Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines where they underwent medical exams and were assigned caretakers. Susan then arranged for the children’s flights from the Philippines to the U.S. on C-141 cargo planes.

Ruth flew on to McCord Air Force Base near Seattle and escorted orphans to Europe and Australia. That same year, 1975, she had also volunteered with Families For Childre Cambodia orphanage, including arranging the March 1975 evacuation. In subsequent years, she has assisted with planning and coordinating Motherland Tours for adoptees to their birthplace, as well as reunions so that cribmates could reunite; many have formed enduring friendships.

Mary Nelle Gage SL

Mary Nelle Gage SL

Mary Nelle was raised in Texas and graduated from Loretto Heights College ('66) where she met the Sisters of Loretto. After entering Loretto in 1967, she taught English, speech and drama at St. Mary's Academy and Machebeuf High School. Mary Nelle joined Sister Susan Carol McDonald in Saigon, Vietnam, to care for orphans and to assist with their adoption. For 20 years she resettled refugees for several church agencies. For 30 years she has done customer service at American Airlines and does occasional marketing for EarthLinks. She is involved in the preservation and re-development of the LHC (Loretto Heights College) campus.
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