Find­ing their roots: Babylift kids re­turn to Viet­nam

The China Post - - BUSINESS - BY CAT BAR­TON

In the chaotic last days of the Viet­nam War, the U.S. air­lifted thou­sands of chil­dren out of Saigon. Forty years later, many Op­er­a­tion Babylift sur­vivors have re­turned, look­ing for an­swers from a fam­ily or coun­try they never knew.

Dur­ing the con­tro­ver­sial mass evac­u­a­tion, some 3,000 chil­dren were flown out of Viet­nam to be adopted by fam­i­lies from Amer­ica to Swe­den. The very first Babylift flight crashed shortly af­ter take­off.

“My (adop­tive) par­ents re­ceived a tele­gram ... say­ing they couldn’t find us ... we were miss­ing and pre­sumed dead,” said Lan­don Carnie, who was on the C5-A Galaxy plane on April 4, 1975.

Carnie and his twin sis­ter Lorie were later found float­ing in a rice paddy amid the smol­der­ing wreck­age of the crash, which killed 138 peo­ple in­clud­ing 78 chil­dren.

“It was ac­tu­ally a rice farmer who found my sis­ter and I to­gether, both in the same shoe box,” he told AFP as he ex­plored the site of the crash ear­lier this month.

The twins even­tu­ally left Viet­nam on an­other flight, along­side thou­sands of other Babylift in­fants — who were taken from or­phan­ages or hos­pi­tals across what was then South Viet­nam. They were part of a mass ex­o­dus of peo­ple.

As it be­came clear Saigon would fall, Amer­ica evac­u­ated all re­main­ing civil­ian and mil­i­tary per­son­nel. Hun­dreds of thou­sands of Viet­namese, many as­so­ci­ated with the South Viet­nam regime, also fled.

Some crit­i­cized the Babylift op­er­a­tion, ques­tion­ing whether the chil­dren in­volved were all re­ally or­phans or had just been sep­a­rated from their fam­i­lies or given up in a des­per­ate bid to get them out of the war-torn coun­try.

Carnie and his sis­ter were adopted by a Mor­mon fam­ily and grew up in ru­ral Wash­ing­ton state. When he de­cided to re­turn to Viet­nam 15 years ago, the first thing that struck him was that ev­ery­one looked the same as him.

“I didn’t stand out, I wasn’t be­ing looked at or pointed at. I’m not say­ing that hap­pens in Amer­ica a lot but I came from a ru­ral town and I knew I was dif­fer­ent,” he said.

In Ho Chi Minh City — as Saigon was re­named af­ter Viet­nam’s beloved found­ing pres­i­dent — “no­body paid at­ten­tion to me, I ac­tu­ally liked that,” he said.

He liked it so much that he moved back to Viet­nam and has lived in HCMC for the last decade, where he works for Aus­tralian Uni­ver­sity RMIT.

Carnie was told that his mother had died in child­birth. But all his orig­i­nal doc­u­men­ta­tion was de­stroyed in the plane crash and he has not tried to trace his birth fam­ily since he re­turned to Viet­nam as he says he’s made peace with his past.

“I’m com­fort­able with ex­actly who I am ... there­fore I don’t need to pur­sue any­thing else,” he said.

‘Things I need to know’

But other Babylift chil­dren are still look­ing for an­swers.

Chan­tal Doeckk, raised in Australia by adop­tive par­ents who re­sponded to an ad­vert in their lo­cal news­pa­per, said she be­gan ask­ing ques­tions af­ter she had her own chil­dren.

Ear­lier this month, she re­turned to the hos­pi­tal in Ho Chi Minh City where she was born and tried to find out more about her mother, who gave her up shortly af­ter child­birth. But with hardly any doc­u­men­ta­tion to help her, she had lit­tle suc­cess.

“I just want to find a fam­ily mem­ber,” she told AFP blink­ing back tears. “There’s things I need to know.”

But Doeckk said she has found an­other fam­ily of sorts — other Babylift adoptees, who she has con­nected with first on Face­book and then in Viet­nam dur­ing a 40th an­niver­sary re­u­nion this month.

“I’m friends with so many adoptees from all over the world, and it’s fan­tas­tic,” she said. “I love ev­ery one of them I’ve met ... we all call each other brother and sis­ter.”

She now feels in­creas­ingly com­fort­able in Viet­nam.

“Australia is where I live but this is home ... a lot of the adoptees say the same things.”

Le­gacy of War

For three decades — from Ho Chi Minh’s dec­la­ra­tion of in­de­pen­dence in 1945 to its even­tual re­al­iza­tion with the fall of Saigon and re­uni­fi­ca­tion in 1975 — Viet­nam en­dured up­heaval and con­flict.

There are “un­count­able” num­bers of miss­ing peo­ple in Viet­nam, said Nguyen Pham Thu Uyen, a TV show pre­sen­ter based in Ho Chi Minh City.

“Al­most ev­ery fam­ily in this coun­try has suf­fered some kind of sep­a­ra­tion, with at least one per­son miss­ing,” Uyen told AFP.

She hosts a hit show called “As If There Were No Sep­a­ra­tion” which tries to re­unite fam­i­lies sep­a­rated by war.

In the eight years they’ve been on air, they’ve re­ceived 70,000 en­quiries — from Amer­i­can GIs seek­ing long-lost girl­friends to Viet­namese fam­i­lies hunt­ing for chil­dren taken from them dur­ing the war. The show has helped thou­sands of peo­ple to find their rel­a­tives.

Uyen’s team have worked on some Op­er­a­tion Babylift cases, and she says they have a unique per­spec­tive on their po­si­tions — rarely re­sent­ful of their birth par- ents and ac­cept­ing they were given up so they could have a bet­ter life.

“It’s very mov­ing, this hu­mane at­ti­tude,” she said.

Babylift adoptee Doeckk agrees that the burning ques­tions she has for her birth fam­ily do not in­clude “Why did you give me up?”

“I don’t hold any grudges against my mother or fa­ther — it was wartime, what choice did they have?” she said.

“I’d just like to find some­body,” she added.


In this April 1975 file photo, or­phans aboard the first “Op­er­a­tion Babylift” flight at the end of the Viet­nam War look through the win­dows of World Air­ways DC-8 jet as it flies them to the United States.

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