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Ford's 100th birthday: Vietnam orphans remember the man who saved them

By Megan Terlecky, News Channel 3 Anchor & Reporter, megan.terlecky@kesq.com
Published On: Jul 12 2013 06:52:26 PM CDT
Updated On: Jul 13 2013 10:28:50 PM CDT

Courtesy Gerald R. Ford Library

PALM DESERT, Calif. -

Saturday marks what would have been President Gerald Ford's 100th birthday.  After leaving the White House, Mr. Ford made the Coachella Valley his home until his death the day after Christmas in 2006.

Many remember him for pardoning President Nixon after Watergate,but, others remember Mr. Ford for saving the lives of thousands Vietnam orphans.

Now, those orphans are all grown up and celebrating the life of the man who saved their lives. 

"Without the event happening, who knows where I'd be right now," said Jacob Geller. 

Geller was five years old when South Vietnam was on the verge of collapse.  He was one of thousands of orphans who were caught in the middle.

"It was known that if something didn't happen to take all of those orphans out of there that something really bad was going to happen to them," said Vietnam veteran Joe Snyder. 

That's why despite fierce opposition, on April 3, 1975 President Ford announced plans for 30 flights to take these children out of the country.

"He said we have to do this, this is something that we have to do and we are going after as many orphans that we can get and we are going to bring them out of South Vietnam and that is exactly what happened," said Snyder. 

Geller was on the first flight now known as Operation Babylift. 

"I really don't remember much.  I remember the actual descent of the plane and then passing out basically," said Geller.

Twelve minutes into the flight,  the lower rear fuselage tore apart.  The pilot's lost control and were forced to make a crash landing. 

Of the 330 people on board, almost half died, many of them children.   

Geller was one of the survivors. "I just give thanks everyday," 

Once in the United States, Geller was adopted by a Northern California family. 

Now, 43 years old, he works as a production manger for TV and film. It's a life he says he would never have if it weren't for President Ford.

"If it hadn't happened,  I probably wouldn't have survived because I am in a wheelchair.  I was born like this.  Over there, I didn't have a wheelchair, I crawled around on my stomach with my hands and knees, so I wasn't able to get around easily.  I think coming here I was afforded that through my adopted parents," said Geller. 

Because of Operation Babylift, between 3,000 and 4,000 children like Geller escaped the Communist takeover in South Vietnam. 

"He was courageous enough to make the decision and it was his decision alone to bring those orphans out of Vietnam and save their lives," said Snyder. 

"I think it's a great thing.  I think it was something that had to happen at the time, to save as many children as you can because children are the future and here we are in the future," said Geller. 

Coming up on Saturday night, we talk to another Operation Babylift child who was also going to be on that doomed flight, but a twist of fate ending up saving her life.   It's a story you will only see tomorrow night on News Channel 3 at 6 and CBS Local 2 at 6:30.