This is a feel-good story about the Vietnam War, which, I know, sounds like an oxymoron. But, read on.
“Operation Babylift” was the moniker for the mass evacuation of babies and young children, mostly orphans, from South Vietnam just before the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong overran Saigon. Over 10,000 children were airlifted from Saigon to the US, Australia and various other countries between April 3 and April 29, 1975. Eventually, they were adopted by families all over the world.
The operation was authorized by President, Gerald Ford. The plan was to utilize some 30 flights on military and cargo aircraft. Several service organizations participated in this project, including Holt International Children’s Services, Friends of Children of Vietnam and the Catholic Relief Service, among others.
The project got off to an inauspicious start as the first plane to leave crashed killing 138 passengers. However, that was the only mishap. After a while, a shortage of military planes developed, and with the North Vietnamese closing in on Saigon more rapidly than originally anticipated, it became necessary to supplement them with flights on commercial aircraft. In addition, some private citizens, such as businessman Robert Macauley, chartered planes at their own expense to help.
The operation, itself, was somewhat controversial. Some people questioned whether or not it was in the children’s best interest, since many of them were not orphans, and therefore, were being separated from a parent and/or sibling. John Bennett, a former president of the Union Theological Seminary, summed up this argument opining it would be “better to allow the children to grow up in their home culture.” Moreover, certain South Vietnamese government agencies objected to placing the children with foreign families. They preferred to place them with Vietnamese families. The net effect was to complicate and delay the operation, but, ultimately, many thousands were saved.
Some 40 years later, I believe there can be no doubt that the program was a rousing success. Generally, those who remained behind did not fare well, especially children of mixed birth and their Vietnamese mothers. All in all, it is estimated that the North Vietnamese murdered some 250,000 South Vietnamese and sent millions more to “labor” or “re-education” camps or worse.
Meanwhile, those who were rescued did just fine. For example, take the case of Michael Marchese. He was transported from a South Vietnamese orphanage to the US at the age of three. Today, he is married with a family working as a successful real estate broker in New Jersey. He knows he was very lucky and is very grateful. “I can never thank Holt [International] enough. Without the babylift, [I] would have either died or grown up on the streets. ……The Vietcong were gathering up boys who didn’t look fully Vietnamese, [and with an American father Marchese definitely did not], and taking them to camps or actually shooting them.” Marchese was attempting to find his older sister and his mother for many years. In a further happy twist, Marchese’s older sister had also been adopted by a US family and was also looking for him. They re-united in 2000, and later found their mother. Obviously, it was a very poignant reunion. Marchese said his mother kept apologizing to him for sending him away. His response: “There’s nothing for you to apologize about. You …saved my life.”
And, then there is the story of Victoria Sharma and her adopted Vietnamese sister. Sharma, an eight year-old American citizen living in Saigon with her parents, remembers the harrowing experience of getting her sister out of the country. Her father, a US government employee was in San Francisco. They did not have a Visa or passport for the little girl and the North Vietnamese were closing in. At the last minute, her mother wrote the necessary contact information on the four year-old-child’s body and literally tossed her into the waiting arms of one of the airplane’s crew members. All she could do was hope that the baby would be delivered to the father in San Francisco. She was. Sharma and her mother left on a commercial flight later. The foregoing are but two examples of the harrowing and, ultimately, uplifting stories associated with the airlift.
At the present time, a Vietnamese agency called Operation Reunite is busily attempting to match adoptees with their families using DNA, so, perhaps, there will be many more happy reunions. In addition, there is now a memorial in Holmdel, NJ commemorating Operation Babylift. The project was a very positive ending to a dark period in our history.