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.

Pilot, Crew and others Discuss the Crash of the USAF C-5A
Video: Pilot, Crew, and People on Ground

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 Part II: Operation Babylift  

In Part Three Part III: Out of Vietnam 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.

Part Four Part IV: The Lucky Ones we will discuss these 'children' today as they have grown either still in Vietnam or in other parts of the world. And we will meet two of these mixed race children one in Norway and one in Australia.

Part Five: Under Construction: A Look Back, A Look Forward

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: