Friday, October 10, 2014

Left Behind- The Children of War Part II A- Out of Vietnam

Previous installment Part II (link)

South Vietnam: The Breakdown Continues

As panic swept south, millions of Vietnamese poured into the cities; now crowded with terrified people, their meager resources spent.

Children living in orphanages throughout South Vietnam were thought to be in danger as the communists advanced. Although this threat did not materialize, tens of thousands of orphans were removed from Vietnam. The fact is, the majority of the orphanages were operated by powerful private adoption agencies or religious organizations. This clout would prove beneficial when it came time to move the children out of the country swiftly. Numerous flights were undertaken by order of the President of the US utilizing military aircraft. Some chartered flights were operated by World Airways which, at the time of the Babylift, had been delivering rice and other supplies to Cambodia. 

The panic of fleeing the advancing Communist forces is mind-numbing as captured by this film. The clip is of an overloaded World Airways airplane attempting to take off from Danang in 1975, with the airlines' owner, Ed Daly, struggling in the aft stairway. (video)

In the chaos of moving children and other Vietnamese evacuees, paperwork, birth certificates, and
other important documents were reportedly lost. Many children carried little tags or signs with an estimated date of birth and, often, a guessed name or no name at all. Often, there was no trace whatsoever as to who their parents were, what village they had come from and so on. These kids were carried off to a very uncertain future. Granted, many had been "promised" to adoptive parents but that was prior to the fall of Saigon and the ensuing uproar.

Today, there are Operation Babylift "children" across the globe. We know adoptees in Sweden, Norway, France, Germany, the UK, the US, Australia, New Zealand and other nations. They have begun forming groups and reaching out to one another- often learning they were on the same flights out of Vietnam, or maybe even in the same orphanage. Some were separated from a sibling or siblings and are seeking them. Many are looking for their biological mothers and fathers. Forty years later, there are still more questions than answers.

While some will defend the Operation Babylift effort as a mercy mission with nothing more than humanitarian motives, others will say that it was strictly a political ploy to somehow convince Americans to re-engage on behalf of the south. Of course this is nonsense, the South Vietnamese were incapable, at this point, of pushing back the Communists;  their own government was rife with corruption and the war had left the region essentially unable to function.  Once the US pulled out- it was just a matter of time before the whole situation unraveled. The communists called the evacuations of Viertnamese, referring to them as refugees as a "political kidnapping".

This is one chapter of a very long, and heartbreaking human event. It was war. War is about loss. There are untold numbers of adults today looking for their biological families, or at least their origins.

Behold, A Generation Disconnected

Not all orphaned children and infants were attached to orphanages, and not all were Amerasian. There were many children who were handed off by their mothers fearing they could not care for them. Some were the children of South Vietnamese military men whose wives had also been killed. Many Vietnamese women had been widowed by the death of their military husband.  It was rumored that those who had "collaborated with the enemy" would have a price on their heads and that included their family.

Those without adult connections often lived on the streets, sometimes moving in and out of families.

Confronted with this enormous reality, we must be open to generation of Vietnamese orphans who are now grown and asking questions. Some fathers are seeking their adult offspring. The so-called evacuation has stirred up conversations about the propriety- not to mention legality- of removing minors from their birth place. Much can be debated. Both sides are right. Some will say these kids fared well in their adopted homes, others admit struggle and, in other cases, deep failure.


Once the Americans had withdrawn from Vietnam at the end of April 1975- this included all support and embassy personnel- relations between the two countries ceased to exist and massive economic embargoes were placed by the US on the now Communist country. Between about 1976 and 1995, relations were anything but cordial. The Communist government in Hanoi had a lot of work ahead internally. The country was decimated; infrastructure had been damaged beyond repair and rebuilding would be difficult. The environment- both land and water, contaminated with deadly chemicals and other toxic substances. Hundreds of thousands of displaced persons roamed the cities and countryside. Many children were among the ranks of  the homeless and destitute. There was disease, starvation, and a non-existent economy.

Many distinguished charitable organizations, among them the The Pearl S. Buck Foundation
were coming around to understand that many babies and children in orphanages and on the streets were of mixed-race and presented a significant problem.

Where Do We Start?

The stories are numerous, never-ending. Many are embarrassing to Americans who had wives back home but lived as husband and wife with the Vietnamese women with whom they had children. Many of these women worked for the Americans in a variety of jobs; house (hooch) keepers, laundresses, clerks in PXs, clerical and- more often than not "bar girls" or prostitutes. the American military command did not seem to have a problem with their men living with these women, nor did the civilian authorities. 

As the reports, carried along with the thousands of orphans and their caretakers, flew across the seas with them, Americans began to learn of the existence of Amerasian children- the products of relations between Americans and Vietnamese women. Many of them were long-term love affairs between young American men far from home, and the women they took on as wives- often renting little apartments and living as man and wife.

Initially, efforts to repatriate these children were spearheaded by groups seeking the return of American POWs and MIAs, the most well-known and effective one at the time was Foundation for the Release of American Prisoners of War Remaining In Southeast Asia and for the Repatriation of Amerasian Children.a Eventually, these groups would drop their efforts on behalf of the orphans as it appeared that the US Congress was taking up the issue. The 97th Congress on October 27, 1982 introduced legislation to allow for Amerasians to emigrate. This language was known as The Amerasian Immigration Act, and it was inqtended to operate in tandem with the Orderly Departure Program (ODP) which was implemented in 1979 as a response to the increase of "boat people", refugees escaping the Communists by buying space on vessels of all shapes, sizes, and condition risking their lives on the open seas. The stories and films exposed the magnitude of this humanitarian crisis. The number of refugees was in the hundreds of thousands.

However, the legislation was sent to committee and did not become law until December 1987 during a session of the 101st US Congress, when The Amerasian Homecoming Act was passed, preparing the way for these children to emigrate to the US. Ultimately, something like 100,000 people have come to the US from Vietnam with the help of this law. Unfortunately, most of them did not reconnect with their biological fathers. Three percent is the figure most often mentioned. It was not until decades later that DNA testing became available. 

A Little Publicity Goes a Long Way

The AHA came to be  as a result of a story written by a photojournalist from Newsday, Audrey Tiernan, who was on assignment in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon). She felt a tug on her pant's leg and thought it might be a stray dog or cat. When she looked down she saw a small, deformed child. But this little boy had freckles, hazel eyes, long eyelashes and as she put it "a handsome Caucasian face". The child could not stand upright and scrambled around on all fours like a crab. It was a terrible sight to see. The little boy handed Tiernan a flower he had fashioned from the foil of a cigarette pack. The photo that she took of the boy- his name was Le Van Minh, was printed in newspapers around the globe. The next year, four high school students from Long Island, New York started a petition to bring Minh to the US for treatment. They contacted their Congressman, Robert Mrazek It was Mrazek who sponsored the Amerasian Homecoming Act. Prior to his sponsorship, Mrazek flew to Vietnam and connected with a Vietnamese official who agreed that helping Minh might be a way for the relations between the two 
countries to improve.

Meanwhile, the Communists were extremely unhappy to have to be dealing with these mixed-race offspring of Americans.
"The Amerasian presence is a national problem for Vietnam," says an official with the Vietnamese mission to the United Nations in New York. "It is not national policy to segregate, but Vietnam is an old country with an old culture." 
Thus, the Vietnamese look down at Amerasians because they were fathered by "round eyes".

Next: The story of grown Amerasians and other orphans of the American War

a < archive/items.php?item=0440631019>.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Left Behind: The Children of War Part II - Operation Babylift

The War Winds Down- New Problems Arise
Not all Babylift children were babies.

History will record that the American war in Vietnam ended in 1973 with the signing of the Paris Peace Accords on January 27. Much controversy swirled around negotiations which carried on for 5 years (from 1968-1973), prolonging the war for Americans, which did not truly end until April 30, 1975- 2 years and tens of thousands of lives later. Meanwhile there were thousands of children living on the streets and in orphanages throughout the south. The official list of "sanctioned" orphanages was extensive. Most were operated by religious organizations while some were charitable foundations such as the world renowned Pearl S. Buck Foundation.

The status of many of these children varied and many stories are told today regarding how they came to be living in orphanages. Indeed, some were the sad result of murdered parents caught in the choke hold of war, while others were the product of families far too burdened to care for them. Still others were surrendered to these facilities by mothers who recognized that neither they or their children, some fathered by non-Vietnamese, would survive long in a society that looked down upon the children of mixed-races.

Babylift Children Were Adoptees

The thousands of babies and children who were a part of the US government-sanctioned 
Operation Babylift were previously assigned to adoptive families around the world. As conditions in South Vietnam deteriorated, humanitarian agencies appealed to the US government for the hasty evacuation of these soon-to-be adopted orphans. Many thousands, however, would be left behind.

The American President 

Gerald R. Ford, formerly Vice-President under Richard M. Nixon announced, on April 3, 1975 that arrangements were being made to transport thousands of refugees to safety. Communists in the North had launched major offensives into the northern part of South Vietnam causing thousands of people to flee further southward, crowding cities and creating a huge humanitarian crisis. 

USAF C-5A Galaxy Lifts off from Saigon
April 1975

Part of a Press Release outlining the President's directive:
"I have also directed American officials in Saigon to act immediately to cut red tape and bureaucratic obstacles preventing these children from coming to the United States.
"I have directed that C-5A planes and other aircraft , especially equipped to care for these orphans during the flight, be sent to Saigon. I expect the flights to begin within the next 36 to 48 hours. These orphans will be flown to Travis Air Force Base and other bases on the West Coast and cared for there." 
Complete, Official White House Press Release a

The South Falls

On March 30, 1975 Da Nang, South Vietnam's second largest city is overrun by North Vietnamese troops and captured. By the middle of the following month, Saigon was under attack. The chaos and panic had begun. Rumors abounded that the North Vietnamese army was rounding up anyone who had ties to the Americans and that they, most likely, would be killed. Fear ran through the many orphanages in the south where stories had reached them that the children and their caretakers, particularly those children fathered by Americans awould be slaughtered on site. Thousands of frightened people were pouring onto American bases and many of them left out on US helicopters heading for aircraft carriers waiting offshore. While Air Force planes collected and transported civilian American citizens and others to Clark Air Force Base b in the Philippines, to Thailand and other locations. Finally, on April 30, 1975 Saigon falls to the North.
North Vietnamese tank rolls into grounds of Presidential Palace
Saigon April 30, 1975

In the midst of all this, President Ford's initiative to carry orphaned children, some of them fathered by American military and civilian contractors, had been active. Flights were scheduled to depart from Tan Son Nhut Air Base and conditions were rapidly deteriorating. There were an estimated 70,000 orphans flown out of Vietnam. Thirty flights were planned to carry babies and children to safety. A week of "official" flights was scheduled while numerous private chartered and loaned planes also ferried orphans away from Vietnam. The Australian RAAF contributed several Hercules aircraft and crew- Royal Australian Air Force Aids Babylift
RAAF air crew comfort babies before take-off during the 2nd
airlift of orphans from Saigon's Tan Son Nhut AB

As Panic Sets in Tragedy Strikes

On the second day of the Babylift flights on April 4 1975, a huge US Air Force C-5A Galaxy transport experienced mechanical failure over the South China Sea, forcing it to attempt a return to Tan Sohn Nhut Airbase in Saigon. The aircraft carried 300 kids and dozens of adults. The plane was unable to land safely, skidding across the runway and into a dike where it fell apart. There were 170 survivors, most of them badly injured. The decision was made to carry on with the flights as there were thousands of children yet to evacuate with the situation deteriorating and unstable. On the same day as the crash, a chartered Pan American Airways 747 hired by Holt International carrying 409 children and 60 adults took off. According to the website Adopt Vietnam 1200 children were moved out of South Vietnam by air in the 24 hours after the C-5A crash.

Eyewitness to History: BROCK TOWNSENDc Bin Hoa AB 1967-75
A civilian employee shares his memories of the Babylift and the crash of the C5a
Vietnam Babylift: My Personal Story

US Air Force Flight Nurse Dies in C-5A Crash Captain Mary Therese Klinker lost her life on that day. She is one of the eight American military women listed on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall

Children peer from the Windows of
giant aircraft that will carry them across the sea.

Next Up: Controversy follows the Babylift while Congress debates allowing Amerasians to emigrate.

a From the official White House Press Release April 3, 1975, Office of the White House Press Secretary, San Diego, California copy of which is taken from the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library, Grand Rapids, MI www.fordlibrarymuseum
b <>. The Vietnam Center, Texas Tech University
c All quotes, photos and links attached to BROCK TOWNSEND are by permission of the subject.

Thursday, June 05, 2014

Left Behind: The Children of War

"Whose Child Am I?"
 A wave of orphans is one of the many tragic results of the long presence of Americans in Vietnam.  Many of these children ended up in orphanages operated by religious organizations and humanitarian charities. Some were left on the street, even dumped in garbage cans. Reports hold that newborns were often tossed in ditches and left to die. They and their mothers were condemned by their own people. In a culture where chastity and purity of race are sacrosanct, these mixed-race children would become a scourge of post-war reunification which continues today as a broken link to real peace.
"Common to the lives of almost all Amerasians was the loss of their American father. While a few Americans took long-term responsibility for their children, most did not, leaving mother and child to fend for themselves. Growing up fatherless in a society like Vietnam's, where status, income, and opportunity derive from the father, Amerasians faced almost insurmountable difficulties."  a

Some children were the product of long-term relationships between Americans and their "hooch maids" ( also called Mama San).  Other Vietnamese women worked on or near bases in bars and other menial jobs. Some babies were the result of rape. In other instances, couples fell in love living as man and wife, often setting up homes in apartments that the American rented.  The US military command and local Vietnamese officials did not appear to be concerned about the possible outcome of these liaisons. After so many years unchecked however,  tens of thousands of kids would be born.
But neither America nor Vietnam wanted the kids known as Amerasians and commonly dismissed by the Vietnamese as "children of the dust" (Bui doi*)—as insignificant as a speck to be brushed aside. "The care and welfare of these unfortunate children...has never been and is not now considered an area of government responsibility," the U.S. Defense Department said in a 1970 statement. "Our society does not need these bad elements," the Vietnamese director of social welfare in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) said a decade later. b
*Incorrect use of term Bui Doi (link)

On April 30, 1975 Communist forces rolled into Saigon and other cities across South Vietnam. The war, for all intents and purposes, was over. But the struggle to survive, for those caught in the middle would just begin.

 Scourge of Reunification: Everything Changes

The people of South Vietnam, especially members of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam, ARVN,   and those who had worked or engaged in some way with the Americans and their allies, were treated with utter contempt by victorious Communist forces. Many were shot, charged with treasonous acts, some were arrested and imprisoned as collaborators and sent to so-called Re-Education Camps where life was very grim. Prisoners were often used as slave labor to rebuild the war-devastated region. Others would be sent to New Economic Zones.
The people of South Vietnam would suffer terrible deprivation with oppression from the victors and harsh economic sanctions by the United States.

Women who had children by the enemy were scorned. Meanwhile, their children were subjected to horrible abuses. Verbal taunts 
were the least of these. These children, soon to be described as Amerasians, could not conceal their lineage as they grew. Many of them had blond hair and blue eyes, fair skin and Caucasian features, some were evidently of African descent and still others had the round, dark eyes and straight black hair of Latinos. There was no way for these kids to blend in. In a culture dating back thousands of years their mere presence unhinged those around them. To the Communists, they were the children of the enemy.
Their lives were fraught with danger, abuse, ridicule and- in some cases, death. Unable to attend school without being taunted by their peers, many quit and fled to the cities where they were forced to engage in petty crimes, prostitution and drug dealing. The streets of larger cities in the South were crowded with homeless children. The economic situation after the war was abysmal. Mothers who could find honest work were treated like the lowest of the low- their lives would be nothing but struggle.

All the while, the kids would dream about their fathers and a happy life in America. For many, this dream would not come true. For some it would- but achieving that often took most of their lifetimes.
Amerasian Boys in Orphanage
< photo depicts an Amerasian boy named Tiger Hoa and his pure Vietnamese half-sister. Photo taken in 1974, a year before the death of their mother. Courtesy Tiger Hoa's family.

There were Amerasian children who were removed by the authorities from orphanages and relief agencies along with other children and adopted out to families across the globe. Most of those adoptions took place through orphanages but the US Government became directly involved during the effort known as Operation Babylift This effort was not without controversy. We will explore that angle too.

(Operation Babylift will be covered in PART TWO of this series).
* It is important to note that not ALL orphans airlifted and/or adopted out of Vietnam during and after the American war were the children of Americans. Many were full-blooded Vietnamese who were surrendered by mothers and other family members, unable to provide for proper care, believing things would be difficult in "liberated" South Vietnam, especially for children. Still more were the children of South Vietnamese soldiers killed in battle. Their mothers would live in poverty under crushing conditions.

And Now We Are Grown....
Still, We Search for Our Fathers...without them, we cannot be whole

In Part Two we will take a look at some of the measures employed to remove orphans and other children from South Vietnam as the Communists advanced. We will see what efforts were made to evacuate them as South Vietnam fell to the invading North. We will will take a look at organized, government-sanctioned evacuations and the measures taken by the US to allow emigration to the US. 

In Part Three we will focus on Vietnamese orphans and Amerasians 50 years on. This view will visit adults now in their 40s who were Operation Babylift adoptees. 

Finally, in Part Four we will meet a man who has spent half of his 42 years actively connecting Amerasians with their American fathers- many times successfully, other times not.  We will meet a couple of servicemen who actively sought and found their children and others who are still looking. The stories are an honest look into the lives of people who, even in their darkest hours, are resilient and hopeful. We owe them our attention.

Join us as we devote a series to this important topic.

As always, our objective is two-fold:

to speak the truth as we know it, to heal as many broken hearts as possible.

If you would like to contribute to our work, have input, or seek to clarify any of our commentary, please feel free to do so in our COMMENTS section below or email us at

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"Dust of Life: America's Children Abandoned in Vietnam: McKelvey, Robert S., Univ. Washington Press, 1999, pg. 102
b   Read more: