On April 30, 1975, Saigon was mere days from falling. The communists were coming and it was a race to escape.
In the midst of the turmoil, thousands of Vietnamese orphans, many of whom were fathered by American servicemen, were at risk until President Gerald Ford answered the pleas of international children’s organizations and ordered the evacuation of nearly 3,000 children. Now, 40 years later, those who participated in the initiative celebrate the anniversary and reflect on the frantic days when saving children became a top priority.
Perhaps most compelling is the story of flight attendant Jan Wollett, who was aboard the World Airways DC-8 cargo plane that delivered the first round of orphaned children to the United States. She believes they were doing something good:
“You wanted to be able to help every child. You wanted them to have a good life. We felt we were taking them from a possible bad life to maybe a good life.”
It’s easy to forget the actions of those who participated without receiving any of the limelight. Wollett recalls how the flight attendants “lined the floor of the plane with blankets because it had no seats,” and how they eventually “turned the plane into a giant play pen.”
It was no easy trip, as Wollett told NPR. It was, however, a step in the right direction and on the 40th anniversary of this initiative, many of those children are now appreciative adults. One of the former Babylift children (many of whom can be found posting at the initiative’s Facebook page) is Kim Lan Duong, who was an orphan on the chaotic streets of Saigon before being flown to Detroit. There, she was adopted and raised by a single mother and grandmother, Sandy and Violet Howard. Said Duong about being reunited with her rescuers:
“To be able to see adult adoptees, it warms their hearts to see us grown up. They still call us kids and that’s OK.”
The 40th anniversary event organizer Lana Mae Noone said “Operation Babylift is one of the few great things to come from the Vietnam tragedy.” Controversy arose due to the fact that some children might not have been orphans, but 2,547 adopted children found homes and opportunities many would never had in Vietnam.
Relevant Reading: The Life We Were Given: Operation Babylift, International Adoption, and the Children of War in Vietnam by Dana Sachs (Beacon Press)
Describing the heroic and often chaotic efforts by the U.S. government to give Vietnamese children a home overseas, The Life We Were Given focuses on the consequences of the operation, including the perspectives of the orphanage workers, military personnel, medical caregivers, awaiting adoptive parents, adult adoptees, and a few birth parents who gave up their children for a better life.