PERSONAL JOURNEY: Centerville man part of ‘Operation Babylift’ in Vietnam

Dayton is not only home to one of the largest and most organizationally complex Air Force bases in the country, but is also home to military heroes, all living among us as neighbors and friends.

Ray Snedegar of Centerville has lived in the area since late 1979. He served in the military for 31 years after growing up in Grange City, Kentucky. His family moved to Ohio, and he graduated from high school in Hillsboro before joining the military in 1958.

“I grew up in a farming family and I figured out early on that it wasn’t for me,” Snedegar said. “I tell people I went to Vietnam on my senior trip just to get out of farming!”

Snedegar’s first assignment after basic training was in security services in Japan. He ended up in Vietnam in 1963, 1965, 1968 and 1969.

“After that, I was flying in monthly until 1975,” said Snedegar, whose job it was to look over cargo and decide how it was to be loaded.

In April of 1975, then President Gerald Ford gave the order for troops to evacuate American Asian babies from Vietnam. At that time, Snedegar was in the Philippines and the next day he was told he was going to fly in on a C-5A aircraft to get the babies out.

Snedegar helped load a total of 145 babies and put the youngest upstairs with the crew, while the rest were in the cargo hold. Shortly after takeoff, the plane experienced rapid decompression, and the rear blew off.

“We were at 23,800 feet and still climbing,” Snedegar said. “We lost everything that controlled the airplane but managed to turn it around.”

The horrific crash happened five miles short of the runway. When Snedegar went downstairs to check on the passengers, he heard screaming. There was a total of 310 people on the plane and everyone in the cargo area was killed except for one medical crew member and a 15-year-old girl. Of the 138 killed, 78 were young children and babies.

“We were rescued by Air America Helicopters from Saigon,” Snedegar said.

All survivors were first sent to a nearby hospital. The babies and children remained there until they could be put on civilian planes, while Snedegar and his crew were sent to stay in a villa until they could fly out.

“I thought every one of the babies on our plan had a place to go,” Snedegar said. “But some of them didn’t when they landed in the US.”

Though many children’s lives were lost, Snedegar is proud he was able to help save those that lived, especially since the North Vietnamese had been threatening to kill every Asian American baby or child they found. Before Operation Baby Lift was shut down, about 3,000 children were evacuated.

“This was my third plane crash in Vietnam, and this was the first time I was afraid I was going to die,” Snedegar said.

Fast forward several decades and Snedegar remained ever changed by his experiences on that April day. Especially when he realized that one decision he made ended up saving the life of a young woman who has become like a daughter to him.

“I decided to put all the very young babies upstairs with me,” Snedegar said. “But somehow Carrie, who was five but very small, ended up upstairs too.”

Snedegar didn’t actually discover this until the advent of social media. When he created a Facebook account, he found that many of the ill-fated Babylift flight’s survivors had been planning reunions. He decided to attend one in person for the first time in July of 2013.

“I met so many of the kids, including Carrie, who told me she remembered the crash,” Snedegar said. “Most of the others don’t remember it because they were too young.”

Today Carrie Briggs lives in California and is married with two children. She was adopted by a family in Los Angeles and since that time, has discovered who her biological father, now deceased, was. She is now in regular contact with his family.

After retiring from the military, Snedegar went to work for ABX Air in Wilmington and retired from there in 2009. He has three children and six grandchildren of his own and had been married for 52 years before his wife Barbara passed away 12 years ago.

“I went through nine combat campaigns in Vietnam and I’m very proud of everything I’ve done,” Snedegar said.

He is also extremely proud both of Briggs and one of his other “angel daughters,” Aryn Lockhart, who was nine months old at the time of the crash. Now a speech writer at the Air Force Academy in Colorado, Lockhart has adopted three children of her own.

“I’m so blessed to have experienced everything that has happened in my life,” Snedegar said. “I sometimes I have survivor’s guilt, especially since we lost so many others. But I know God has a plan for me and always has.”

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