Friday, October 10, 2014

Left Behind- The Children of War Part III- 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

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