by Jess Clackum
A native of Lafayette, Indiana and graduate of St. Elizabeth School of Nursing, Captain Mary Klinker joined the Air Force Reserve in 1969 as a flight nurse, instructor and flight examiner.
While stationed at Travis Air Force Base in California, Klinker helped servicemen wounded in Vietnam and released American prisoners of war. She was eventually assigned to the 10th Aeromedical Evacuation at Travis where she cared for wounded soldiers being transported from hospitals in Vietnam to hospitals in Japan, Philippines, Hawaii and the U.S. mainland.
She was assigned to the 22nd Aircraft Squadron Clark Air Base in the Philippines in 1974. After the fall of Saigon, President Ford ordered an airlift of thousands of South Vietnamese orphans out of Saigon and to the United States for asylum and adoption. This humanitarian mission was known as Operation Babylift. Captain Klinker volunteered to assist in the mission and was responsible for caring for the children during their transport.
The official government flight of Operation Babylift Saigon departed on the afternoon of April 4, 1975 with 314 persons on board. Twelve minutes after takeoff an explosion tore apart the fuselage and the cabin lost pressure. Most onboard could not access oxygen masks as the aircraft was overcrowded and though the pilots attempted to turn back, it was too late. The C-5A Galaxy cargo plane crashed into a field just two miles from Saigon, killing 154 infants, flight crew and caregivers including Captain Klinker.
Klinker, who was just 27 years old at the time of her death, was the only member of the Air Force Nurse Corps to be killed in Vietnam. She was posthumously awarded the Airman's Medal for Heroism and the Meritorious Service Medal. She is on panel 01W, line 122 of the Vietnam Memorial Wall in Washington DC.
Captain Klinker’s legacy of helping people lives on through the Mary T. Klinker Veterans Resource Center, a chapter of the Disabled American Veterans located in Lafayette, Indiana. The Center serves homeless and at-risk veterans and their families by providing resources, peer to peer counseling and financial assistance.