Operation Babylift at North Head Quarantine Station

Hello friends of HSTY3902,
The organisation I am conducting research for is the Q-Station Sydney Harbour National Park. It is located at the historic site of the former North Head Quarantine Station, near Manly. As early as 1832, the site was used to quarantine new arrivals to the colony via ships that had or might have been exposed to infectious diseases, such as small pox, whooping cough, the Spanish influenza, etc. By 1975, the station was turned into a temporary migrant centre. The site housed victims from Cyclone Tracy of 1974, to Vietnamese orphans from the Vietnam War in 1975 (which I’ll explain a little further down). The site continued to operate until its closure in 1984. Nowadays, the site is used for conference and accommodation purposes. It is also home to one of the most famous paranormal tours in Australia and forms part of Sydney Harbour National Parks.
My major project will be based on Australia’s version of ‘Operation Babylift’, both seen in Canada and the US. This year marks its 40th anniversary in Australia. Operation Babylift was primarily an American initiative which saw around 2,000-2,500 Vietnamese children airlifted towards the end of the war right after the fall of Saigon in 1975. According to Dr Peter Hobbins (whom we had the pleasure of meeting during our excursion to the Q-station), this ‘operation’ has a unique historical link with the site. However, this has not been thoroughly explored and documented.
Between April-May of 1975, as mentioned, the station was temporarily turned into a migrant centre. According to one nurse on the site at the time:
“On arrival in Sydney, 100 children were admitted to the Royal Alexandra Hospital for Children and the rest were taken to the Quarantine Station at North Head, Manly.”
If you are interested in reading this very interesting and unique account, see: http://www.adoptedvietnamese.org/reflections/personal-reflections/chris-sturt-memories-of-north-head-quarantine-station/)
Interestingly, Operation Babylift fell on the cusp of Australia’s first major refugee mission/response, per se. Hence, this saw the Whitlam government initially hesitant to take in refugees. Despite this fact, the government and the embassy in Vietnam were “pressured on these three issues: refugees, the evacuation of Australian embassy staff and the evacuations of orphans.” Inter-country adoption became one of the major facets of this operation right here in Australia, as seen in the US and Canada (source: Fronek, Patricia. “Operation Babylift: advancing intercountry adoption into Australia.” Journal of Australian Studies 36, no. 4 (2012): 445-458).
As stated on the Quarantine Station website, the Q-Station is an ‘ideal place to examine the changes & evolution of a site over time. The history of the Quarantine Station parallels and reflects Australian & world history”. This is very true for a site which is home to a variety of stories situated within Australia’s colonial and post-colonial past. However, as mentioned, one of these stories has been relatively untold. Nonetheless, considering the importance of this unique piece of Australia’s immigration history, I really do hope I can do it justice.
More to come soon.
P.S
I would just like to mention an unrelated thing: This unit has by far been one of the most challenging classes I have ever encountered. Regardless, it has allowed a student of history like me to witness and analyse this discipline from a different and exciting angle; an angle to which I thought I’d never have the opportunity to look through. Essentially we have been told to get up from our seats, walk through the classroom door to discover what lies beyond us (hence history ‘beyond the classroom’). For history is all around us, waiting to be discovered and one day be a part of the larger picture of our ‘fabric of society’, of the world.
So thank you to Michael, Peter and peers! I hope we can all finish strong in what has been just as rewarding as well!

One thought on “Operation Babylift at North Head Quarantine Station”

  1. 1975 was a very busy year at NHQS – I helped out at the Laundry during the Cyclone Tracey accommodation period (Dec 1974-Jan 1975). I started a PhD scholarship so wasn’t available for work at the station after Jan 1975 – my Father Herb Lavaring (OIC)had a very busy time throughout that year – the Baby Lift saga was very political and Gough and Margaret Whitlam visited the children during their stay – my father was relieved to be able to retire late in 1975 and leave all the activity well behind after nearly 13 years in charge of the station.

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