By BART JONES
It was the final days of the Vietnam War in April 1975 as Saigon was falling, and the United States launched one last massive effort: To airlift as many orphans as possible out of the country.
In the three weeks before the last helicopter lifted off from the roof of the U.S. Embassy, some 2,548 babies and children were flown out. Most ended up in the United States, including about 100 on Long Island.
Now, at the 35th anniversary of the end of the war, “Operation Babylift” is gaining renewed attention, partially because of a Nassau County woman who led the humanitarian effort and adoption campaign on Long Island.
Lana Noone, of Franklin Square , adopted two of the infants and was a main organizer of local families who took in children from Babylift. She helped send supplies, such as baby formula, to Vietnam before the children’s arrival to the United States and then organized outings, cross-cultural events and parties as they grew up.
Next week Noone will speak about Operation Babylift as part of a retrospective program on the Vietnam War hosted by the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts museum. The event will be held at the site of the 1969 Woodstock concert.
Her appearance follows the release of a documentary that opened nationwide this year.
Last year, the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., hosted, for the first time, an event to mark Operation Babylift. “Finally, after the 35th anniversary, we’ve gotten this recognition,” said Noone, 63, who appeared at the Smithsonian.
The first sickly infant she adopted, Heather, died a month after arriving on Long Island , and Noone says she vowed to dedicate the rest of her life “to make sure no one would forget there was a Vietnam babylift and her short life would not be in vain.”
Noone’s other adopted daughter, Jennifer, was found wrapped in a blanket in a garbage can in a Saigon market, a common practice by Vietnamese mothers who hoped their babies would be found and placed in a good orphanage. Jennifer Noone, now 35, is a social worker in Manhattan.
Lana Noone says her daughter Jennifer became a cheerleader at H. Frank Carey High School in Franklin Square , a class vice president and a member of the National Honor Society. She went on to graduate with honors from Drew University before attending Columbia University , where she earned her master’s degree.
“I don’t have a day where I don’t think of these birth parents,” Noone said. “My life is full. But it is over their tragedy.”
Jared Rehberg, one of the adoptees who now lives in Queens , helped produce the documentary “Operation Babylift: The Lost Children of Vietnam ,” and says Babylift lasted just a few weeks “but it changed a lot of lives.”
He still does not know what day he was born, or how he ended up at an orphanage in Vietnam. “It’s kind of a mystery,” he said, adding that he returned to Vietnam in 2005 as part of a group of 21 adoptees who visited for several days.
“It was a little closure for me,” he said.
Today, Lana Noone runs a group and website, vietnambabylift.org, that tries to keep alive the memory of what some call one of the largest humanitarian missions in history. She often receives e-mails from Babylift adoptees trying to track down their birth parents, or from birth parents – including U.S. veterans – trying to track down their children born in Vietnam.
Operation Babylift was criticized by some as a cynical attempt by the United States to generate good public relations amid the debacle of the end of the war. But Noone says she thinks there was little choice.
“I sincerely feel it was the only thing that could have been done,” she said. “They were in harm’s way. There was a war. With all the chaos that was going on, they weren’t on the top of anyone’s list.”