To a New Home
05/01/1995 at 01:00 AM EDT
The C5-A transport carrying 228 Vietnamese orphans was just 12 minutes into its flight from Tan Son Nhut Air Base near Saigon to Travis Air Force Base in California when something went terribly wrong. "There was this loud explosion, "recalls Dr. Meritt Stark, a retired pediatrician living in Asheville, N.C., of the April 4, 1975, flight. "I thought we had been hit by a surface-to-air missile." What he could not see from his position on the upper deck was that the rear cargo door had burst open, damaging the plane's rudder and stabilizer and causing a sudden decompression in the plane's interior. Air Force Capt. Dennis Traynor turned the crippled plane back toward Saigon and managed a crash landing in a rice paddy. The plane broke apart on impact; although 176 survived, the bodies of 49 adults and 78 Vietnamese orphans lay strewn about the site.
The crash was yet another calamity for children—many of them offspring of U.S. servicemen—whose lives were already freighted with tragedy. But it was also the beginning of an extraordinary moment of hope. As North Vietnamese forces closed in on Saigon—soon to be renamed Ho Chi Minh City—the U.S. scrambled to evacuate its remaining 7,000 soldiers, diplomats and civilians, and President Gerald Ford sponsored one last effort on behalf of Vietnam War orphans under the care of relief agencies. From April 3 to April 19, Operation Babylift, the largest such rescue effort in history, flew 2,003 children, including the survivors of the April 4 crash, to new homes in the U.S.; another 1,300 went to Britain, France, Germany, Canada, Australia and Scandinavia. Recalls lawyer Ross Meador, 40, who helped run an orphanage near Saigon for the Denver-based Friends of Children of Vietnam (FCVN): "People were desperate to get children out."
For the children of Operation Babylift, being given over to adoptive families in the West represented an unimaginable change of fortune. The transition has not always gone smoothly. According to FCVN executive director Cheryl Markson, about a quarter of the children airlifted to the U.S. have had adjustment problems. Yet most of them are now productive young adults, attending college, pursuing careers, starting families of their own. With the Vietnam War under renewed scrutiny 20 years after the fall of Saigon, Operation Babylift stands out as a victory. As the stories on the following pages attest, it provided a future for children for whom hope appeared lost.
Together again after a lifetime separation
Ginger Seevers was 4 when she climbed aboard the huge cargo plane in April of 1975, old enough to be anxious about being torn away from what was familiar to her. Her mother had left the family for unknown reasons, and her great aunt, who was caring for her, persuaded her father, a South Vietnamese soldier, to put her up for adoption. "I remember being on the plane and drinking milk," says Ginger. "I spilled it on a blanket and started crying and crying."
John and Ginny Seevers, of Kansas City, Mo., were also anxious. Although they had a biological daughter, Heather, 5, they had been trying for three years to adopt a Vietnamese child. "I had gotten to the point that I wouldn't leave home without having someone come over and babysit the phone," says Ginny, 53, a desktop publisher. "We were really frantic," adds John, 53, a high school social studies teacher in Overland Park, Kans. They had been told to expect a 3-year-old girl; then at the last moment they were informed that the child had been left behind in Vietnam but that another child needed a home. When they met their new daughter at the Kansas City airport, they realized they didn't even share enough language to ask her if she wanted to use the bathroom.
It was Heather who closed the language gap by naming things as she led Ginger—the name the Seevers gave her—around the house. A happy, sociable child, Ginger poured her energy into becoming an American—she acted in family theatricals, read fashion magazines, excelled in school—and expressed little interest in her past. Then, in 1990, she asked the Seevers to see her adoption file. "When I turned 20, I suddenly wanted to know everything," she says. "It's like a missing part of you out there. I was so curious."
Ginger was shocked to read that she had a brother from whom she had been separated in the confusion of the airlift. The file also listed the name of the FCVN's Cheryl Markson. When Ginger telephoned, Markson told her that the great aunt who had cared for her was now living in Florida. A second shock came when the aunt asked Ginger: Where were her brother and sister?
With Markson's help, Ginger discovered that her younger sister, Mailin, had been airlifted to Germany and adopted by Werner Felgitsch, an architect, and his wife, Brigitte. After an exchange of letters, the two met in Bristol, England, in 1993. "I'll never forget it," says Mailin, 23, who now works in Munich for a computer-parts company. "We talked and talked. After two days it finally hit me I had a sister."
Next Ginger tracked down their brother Jeff, who was living in San Diego. Jeff, a senior at the University of California at San Diego, had been brought up by Julius and Barbara Teglas, schoolteachers in Upland, Calif. "I called, and we talked for 3 or 4 hours," says Ginger, a slight 5'1". "I asked him what he looked like—if he were as short as me."
The siblings began to plan a reunion. Last September the three met for the first time in two decades at Ginger's apartment in Overland Park, where she works as a hairstylist. "I was really, really nervous," says Jeff. "I needed a couple of beers on the plane to relax."
For two weeks the three were inseparable. They went dancing and took turns cooking for each other—from burritos to spaghetti. "We did a lot of looking in the mirror," says Ginger. "We'd stand there and say, "Look at your nose. We have the same noses.' "
"There was a bond there that none of us could really explain," says Jeff. "Maybe deep, deep down we could remember each other."
The three are planning a second reunion in California this year and, at some point, a return trip to Vietnam. "All I know is that we're not going to lose each other again," says Jeff. Adds Ginger: "It's like finding the pieces of a missing puzzle. Now we're all one again."
A fulfilling life, joyously lived
She races from classes to rugby practice to intramural softball, then to her two part-time jobs in a deli and coffeehouse. In between, Jennifer Noone, 20, a sophomore at Drew University in Madison, N.J., loves to laugh and play-practical jokes with her friends. "I'm so happy with my life that I can't imagine it being any different," she says.
But for Operation Babylift, it would have been. Born in Saigon in January 1975, Jennifer—then an orphan named Nguyen Thi Dai Trang—was evacuated when she was just 3 months old and adopted by Byron Noone, an English professor at Queensborough Community College, and his wife, Lana, an elementary-school music teacher in Long Island, N.Y. Despite a happy childhood filled with piano, gymnastics and dance lessons, Jennifer felt the occasional sting of racial taunts at her mostly white elementary school. For a while she hid the fact that her middle name was Nguyen, the name her parents had retained for her as a vestige of her Vietnamese heritage. "When I was young, being different was kind of hard," she says.
Now she is ready to celebrate her heritage. She has started reading books about Vietnam and was elected secretary of Drew University's Asian Students in America chapter. This summer she wants to start Vietnamese language classes and hopes some day to visit the city where she was born.
Noone wants to become a social worker in an international adoption agency. "The other day I was thinking about how much time it takes to raise a child and how much my parents have done for me," she says. "I don't think I ever sat them down and said, 'Thank you.' But I think they know it."
An emotional return to a Vietnamese orphanage
In 1968, 22-year-old college student Gratia Meyer lay in a Denver hospital bed recovering from a near-fatal intestinal inflammation. Too feverish to read, she spent hours watching news coverage of the Vietnam War. "I bargained with God," she says. "I told him if I survived, I would take care of orphans."
Meyer's convalescence lasted seven months, but she eventually regained her strength and made good on her promise. In July 1974, Meyer and her husband, an Air Force captain, gained custody of Nhat, a 1-year-old boy who came from an orphanage near Saigon. Five months later she applied for a second child, Nol, who came to her via Operation Babylift.
Like many of the children evacuated from the country in the late days of the War, Nol, then 2, was both sickly and crippled. His body stiffened when touched, a common reaction among infants who receive too little physical contact. His left arm was paralyzed from birth, and he had never learned to walk. A boy who had survived on the streets before being taken to an orphanage in Saigon, he still ate insects and hoarded food. His teeth were filled with cavities. "Both boys required intense care, psychologically, emotionally and financially," says Meyer, 49. "They both had the orphanage survival approach, which is 'I can do it on my own.' But of course no one can make it in isolation. I was consistent and tenacious. They began to trust me."
Meyer taught herself how to get up from the floor using just one arm and then demonstrated the technique to Nol. She spent long hours exercising his paralyzed left arm so that the muscles in his back wouldn't atrophy.
Working by day as a school psychologist in Denver, she completed her Ph.D. in psychology through the University of Pittsburgh. When Meyer and her husband split in 1981, she kept the boys. She tried to make her sons proud of their Vietnamese heritage while remaining true to her own. "I raised them as Jewish Buddhists," she says.
She could not, however, ward off the cruelty of schoolmates who would taunt Nol about his limp arm. "In elementary school I used to slam my arm against brick walls," says Nol, 21, recalling his frustration. "I would rip off a fingernail with my teeth. When I got to be a teenager, I spent a lot of time trying to hide my paralysis, sticking my hand behind my back, denying its existence." Eventually, Nol had reconstructive surgery, which increased the arm's mobility. "Now that I'm not hiding it, people notice it less!" he says.
Nol flourished in high school, scoring straight A's and winning a leadership award. A talented artist, he enrolled at the University of San Francisco and the Academy of Art College. It was there he came across a brochure advertising a study program in Vietnam. "I decided I wanted to know about the Vietnamese side of me," he says."
Nol spent part of 1993 in Vietnam. During that time, his brother and mother and her new husband came to visit, and Meyer brought along a surprise: the paperwork from the Santa Maria Orphanage in Saigon, where Nol had once lived. When they paid a call, they found that the director of the orphanage, Nguyen Van Vung, was still there. At first Nguyen didn't understand who his foreign visitors were. But when he saw the papers with the Vietnamese name he had given Nol—Nguyen Van Cuong—he burst into tears. "I remember him when he was only this big!" he said, holding his hands apart. "I can't believe he has done so well."
Nol, who will graduate from both the academy and the college this May—and who is already writing and illustrating a children's book about adoption—was profoundly moved by the visit with the orphanage director. "He was so happy to see me," says Nol. "It was a moment I will remember forever. It was one of those events that helps put your life in perspective."
Coming to terms with the pain of abandonment
MaiLy Wong is one of the few Babylift children who remember life in Vietnam. Now a 29-year-old secretary working near San Francisco and the mother of an 8-year-old son, MaiLy recalls her 10 years in a Catholic orphanage in Da Lat, northeast of Saigon, as terribly lonely. "All you could do most of the time was sit and daydream," she says. "We didn't have toys. We would dig for whatever creatures we could find in the ground. You could hear the whines of babies."
The one joy in her life was Paul Markson, a U.S. Army Intelligence officer, who began making regular visits to the orphanage in 1969. "I would cling on him," she recalls. "He used to take my picture, and I would feel like a superstar. At night I would dream about what it would be like if a guy like that took me away."
Markson was taken with MaiLy too. In January 1975, he persuaded his wife, Cheryl, who had just begun to work for FCVN, to visit the orphanage with him. "They asked me if I wanted them to be my parents," says MaiLy. "I didn't know what a parent was. I thought it meant for them to keep visiting me. I said, 'Sure. As long as you keep bringing me cookies.' "
But the nuns who ran the orphanage held the Marksons off, saying they wanted to send MaiLy to a convent school in France. Then, in March 1975, Da Lat was overrun by Communist troops. The 60-odd children and 15 nuns of the orphanage were taken to the coast by truck, then loaded onto a makeshift raft. After three days on the South China Sea, the raft put in near Saigon. "I remember sitting for a long time," MaiLy says of the voyage. "I don't recall eating anything." On April 9, MaiLy and others joined the Babylift and were flown to Travis Air Force Base in California.
The Marksons, back in Denver, received welcome news from FCVN that MaiLy would be aboard an Operation Babylift flight. Cheryl Markson met her at Travis AFB, and the two boarded a bus for San Francisco, where the children were processed. Watching the strange countryside roll by, MaiLy fell apart. "Everything just hit me," she says. "Something told me I'd never see my country again. I burst into tears. I was scared and full of hostility. I refused to sit next to Cheryl. I hated her. I hit her and kicked her. Believe me, that woman regretted the idea of adopting me. It was a long ride."
MaiLy seemed to adjust quickly to life with her new parents and their five other children. But as the Marksons continued to adopt—they would eventually take in seven more children—MaiLy felt a little lost. "You're the president of an adoption agency," MaiLy says she used to kid Cheryl. "You can't keep them all for yourself."
The Marksons say MaiLy spoke little of her past. "It was so difficult to get her to talk about Vietnam, to do any-grieving," says Cheryl. "I think it was just too scary to remember."
One issue that came between adoptive mother and daughter was MaiLy's birth mother. Cheryl says she and Paul were told only that MaiLy was abandoned on the steps of the orphanage. But MaiLy insists she remembers visiting her mother, who lived nearby. The matter was finally resolved in 1994, when Paul and Cheryl returned to Vietnam and were told by the nuns that MaiLy was correct, and that her mother was alive and selling vegetables in the local market. "I was shocked. I went numb for a day," says MaiLy. "Always in my heart I knew she was alive."
Cheryl Markson says she understands her daughter's lingering anger. "The most central question for these kids is dealing with their abandonment, their loss," she says. "Even if they were babies at the time, they still wonder why. Sometimes having parents that love them just isn't enough."
MaiLy rebelled. Although she excelled at Denver's East High School, getting straight A's, she decided not to go to college. Working first for her mother's adoption agency, then as a grocery store clerk, she became pregnant at 21 with her son Rudy and moved to Las Vegas with the boy's father. The two soon separated, and in 1988 MaiLy met Ronald Wong, 41, an ex-Marine who works for a computer equipment company near San Francisco.
The two married in 1991 and are expecting a child in October. At last her long search seems ended. "I pray every night to God not to send me anything more," says MaiLy. Now she wants to give back something of what she has received. "I want to reach out to troubled kids," she says. "I want to help children who are neglected by their parents."
When anxious hope gave way to agonizing fear
Shane Dewey lived through one of the bleakest moments of the national disaster that was our time in Vietnam: He was aboard the C5-A packed with orphans that crashed shortly after takeoff on April 4, 1975. Strapped to a seat on an upper deck, the infant was one of 167 children pulled from the wreckage. Shane experienced oxygen deprivation when the cabin decompressed prior to the crash, but otherwise survived the experience unscathed. For nearly two weeks afterward, half a world away, it was his would-be adoptive parents who suffered.
Fred Dewey, now a chemistry professor at Metropolitan State College of Denver, and his wife, Karleen, studying for a master's degree in counseling, had waited a year to adopt a Vietnamese baby. On April 2, they were told that they had finally succeeded and that their son would be flying out in two days. Fred was driving to work on April 4 when he heard news of the crash on his car radio. "I was just crushed," says Fred, 55, tears welling in his eyes at the memory. "I had to pull off to the side of the highway. I sat there and wept and prayed for 5 minutes."
Says Karleen, 55: "We mourned the loss of all the children, not knowing if Shane was one of them. I was not able to eat or sleep. It would have been easier to have known."
The Deweys received no news for 13 days. Then, just after Karleen remembers saying a prayer, the phone rang. It was the adoption agency announcing that their son was alive and had arrived in Denver. When Karleen first saw Shane at the reception center, he was lying on his stomach. "He lifted his head up kind of like, 'Hi, Mom! Where have you been?' and gave me this big smile," she says. "I totally lost it and began sobbing."
Though Shane was healthy, he was later diagnosed with learning disabilities believed to have been caused by the minutes he had spent starved of oxygen. He spent kindergarten and first grade in a special school for children with learning problems—"Memory type of things are still hard for me," he says—but was successfully mainstreamed through the rest of his school years.
Shane fit in easily with the Deweys' nine other children, now 13 to 35—three of whom, like Shane, were adopted—and he attended Silver State Baptist High School in Denver, where he played on both the football and basketball teams. In the year since he graduated, he has enrolled in chef school and is working with his brother-in-law building redwood decks. He wants to save enough money to go to business school, but now he has a new responsibility. Shane, 20, and his girlfriend Angela Delagarza, 17, are expecting a baby daughter, due early in May.
The Deweys, meanwhile, keep finding new ways to be useful. An organization they started eight years ago teaches parenting skills to Denver teens—while encouraging sexual abstinence. Another of their projects has been sending teams of nurses and counselors to Romania since 1991. "It's all about helping children," says Karleen Dewey. "That's what counts."
A dedicated single dad takes on twin sons
Steve Johnson remembers the precise moment in 1974 when he first laid eyes on the two scrawny Amerasian boys in the orphanage in Da Nang. "They were two pathetic babies, twins," says Johnson, then a 25-year-old production controller for ITT who had become acquainted with the orphanages during an earlier tour in Vietnam as a GI. On his days off, Johnson would help shuttle supplies, clothing and children between FCVN facilities in Saigon and Qui Nhon, a city on the coast. Johnson was single at the time, but he just couldn't help himself. "I told FCVN that I wanted to adopt them," he recalls. "Everyone was doing so much for these children. I wanted to do my part."
Johnson had the twins transferred to Saigon. Then, in January 1975, he married Carol Kim, a Vietnamese singer he had been dating. In April, the boys were assigned spaces on a Babylift transport. (They were scheduled to leave on the illfated April 4 flight, but were bumped.) The arrival of the babies, by then almost 2, in the little, all-white community of Geneseo, Ill., where Johnson's parents lived, made local headlines.
In 1980, Johnson and Kim were divorced. The boys, Chris and Tony, stayed with their father. Both are now students at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, where Johnson is a public programming director. Chris, a junior, is a psychology major who wants to work in public relations. Tony, a sophomore, is majoring in electrical engineering.
Both boys are musical—Chris has had some singing roles in community theater productions—and they wonder if their talent is inherited. But like many of the Babylift immigrants, they don't know their biological parentage. Even their true age is somewhat in doubt. In the early days of 1975, the Saigon courts invented birth records for children needing documents to leave the country. The boys' official birthday, Sept. 8, was arbitrarily selected by a local official.
The lack of documentation gnaws at Tony. "I'd like to find out who my parents are," he says. "I want to know who I am."
A U.S. adoptee turns toward home to help
Timothy Holtan was, in many respects, the all-American boy. He played Little League baseball for five years. His bedroom in the Whiteford, Md., home he shared with his adoptive parents, Andrew and Barbara Holtan, and their four other children was festooned with pictures of rock stars. He played percussion in his grade school band and joined the chorus. At the John Carroll School in Bel Air, he was elected president of his freshman class and lettered in track and football. (He established the school's record for the 100-meter dash—11.3 seconds.)
Yet it is also Timothy Holtan, now 21, who has returned to Vietnam to discover his roots. Five years ago, a Vietnamese family in Whiteford invited him to a celebration of the Vietnamese new year, Tet, at the University of Maryland. "I started thinking about Vietnam," says Holtan quietly. "I realized I wanted to know what it was like."
Last October, with his family's blessing and $1,500 he had saved working as a busboy, he took a year's leave from Foothill College in Los Altos, Calif., and headed for a job with the Maine Adoption Placement Service in Hanoi. "At first it didn't hit me," he says. "Then after a week I thought, 'Wow, it feels great not to be different.' I could cruise on by and no one would look at me weirdly."
Holtan sips tea with neighbors at a shop near his Hanoi office, snacks on local delicacies from street merchants and is dating a Vietnamese woman. But it is the children who move him most. "They love being held and hugged," he says. "I know. I was in the same place at one time."
VICKIE BANE in Denver, JONI H. BLACKMAN in DeKalb. JOANNE FOWLER in Munich, LORNA GRISBY in Madison, LAIRD HARRISON in San Francisco, KATE KLISE in Kansas City, ANDREA PWLYNA in Hanoi, JANE SIMS PODESTA in Washington and JAMIE RENO in San Diego