SAV­ING CHIL­DREN, FIND­ING FAM­I­LIES Op­er­a­tion Babylift or­phans thank­ful af­ter 40 years

The Washington Times Weekly - - National - BY CH­ERYL WETZSTEIN

For adopted chil­dren like Michael March­ese, fam­ily re­unions have meant re­con­nect­ing with lost rel­a­tives: He has found his el­der sis­ter and his birth mother, whom he hadn’t seen for decades. Un­der the pro­tec­tion of a South Viet­namese or­phan­age in 1975, he was 3 years old when he was placed on a char­tered plane bound for the United States.

“I am very for­tu­nate,” the mar­ried fa­ther of two said. “I landed safely in Amer­ica and was adopted by a won­der­ful fam­ily, the March­eses. … I only wish that all adop­tion sto­ries could be as suc­cess­ful and re­ward­ing as mine.”

Mr. March­ese was one of more than 3,000 young Viet­namese chil­dren who were res­cued dur­ing Op­er­a­tion Babylift in April 1975 and sent to adop­tive homes as com­mu­nist North Viet­nam over­ran the South Viet­namese gov­ern­ment.

A 40th an­niver­sary re­u­nion of the chil­dren of the hu­man­i­tar­ian ef­fort is planned for Novem­ber in Wash­ing­ton, said an of­fi­cial with Holt In­ter­na­tional Chil­dren’s Ser­vices, which brought more than 400 or­phaned chil­dren out of Viet­nam in the res­cue ef­fort.

The bound­less al­tru­ism of the baby lift — which con­tin­ued with gov­ern­ment, pri­vate and com­mer­cial flights un­til April 29, the day be­fore Saigon fell to the com­mu­nist North Viet­namese army — con­tin­ues to in­spire him, said Mr. March­ese, who was put on a Holt-char­tered plane to be adopted by the March­ese fam­ily of Philadel­phia.

“I can never thank Holt enough,” he said. With­out the baby lift, he said, he would have ei­ther died or grown up on the streets be­cause he was left in the or­phan­age — a pre­sumed safe haven against the anti-U.S. Viet Cong.

“My mother’s big­gest con­cern” was that the Viet Cong were gath­er­ing up boys who didn’t look fully Viet­namese and “tak­ing them to camps or ac­tu­ally shoot­ing them,” he said.

His birth fa­ther, known only as “Wil­liam” — as la­beled on his jump­suit — was an Air Force me­chanic, “and I re­ally don’t look Viet­namese,” said Mr. March­ese, now a com­mer­cial real es­tate bro­ker in New Jer­sey.

“So many of the [baby lift] chil­dren are Amerasian, and that would have been an es­pe­cially great hard­ship for them,” said Su­san Soon-Keum Cox, vice pres­i­dent of public pol­icy and ex­ter­nal af­fairs at Holt In­ter­na­tional Chil­dren’s Ser­vices.

“The fact that they were not full Viet­namese, and ob­vi­ously fa­thered by a sol­dier or an Amer­i­can, was go­ing to put them at risk when there was no one there to pro­tect them. And cer­tainly, for the moth­ers, it would be dif­fi­cult,” she said.

A lo­gis­ti­cal chal­lenge

Op­er­a­tion Babylift be­gan on April 3, 1975, when Pres­i­dent Ford said $2 mil­lion would be al­lo­cated to a spe­cial for­eign-aid chil­dren’s fund to fly some 2,000 South Viet­namese or­phans to the United States “as soon as pos­si­ble.”

The an­nounce­ment sparked a flurry of ac­tiv­ity: Viet­namese au­thor­i­ties — who in pre­vi­ous years pre­ferred to place chil­dren with Viet­namese fam­i­lies and had not sup­ported in­ter­na­tional adop­tion — wanted pa­per­work on each child. Also, chil­dren 11 and older were not per­mit­ted to be air­lifted, which meant some sib­lings were sep­a­rated.

U.S. gov­ern­ment planes were ex­pected to ferry the chil­dren. How­ever, Ed Daly, pres­i­dent of World Air­ways, quickly pledged and used his air­craft to as­sist in the air­lift, de­spite U.S. and South Viet­namese con­cerns that the “rice cargo plane” was “un­safe and un­suit­able” for ba­bies and chil­dren, ac­cord­ing to an April 3, 1975, let­ter to the White House from the U.S. Agency for In­ter­na­tional Devel­op­ment.

Mr. Daly was alerted to the Viet­nam or­phan cri­sis by his daugh­ter, who worked for Friends For All Chil­dren. He in­sisted that a DC-8 that had been fly­ing rice to Ph­nom Penh and was re­turn­ing to the U.S. was a good so­lu­tion.

“Hell yes, we’ll turn it into a fly­ing crib. We’ll get doc­tors and nurses and take all the kids,” Mr. Daly said, ac­cord­ing to a 2009 ar­ti­cle by Larry En­gel­mann in Viet­nam mag­a­zine.

World Air­ways car­ried dozens of chil­dren — many from the Friends of the Chil­dren of Viet­nam pro­gram — on each of its flights to the U.S.

Holt, which had been in Viet­nam for years, had more than 400 chil­dren to move, so it char­tered a Pan Am 747 for an April 5 trip that in­cluded a $185,000 in­sur­ance pol­icy. The de­ci­sion pos­si­bly spared those chil­dren from tragedy.

‘A bit­ter­sweet time’

On April 4, a U.S. gov­ern­ment C-5A cargo plane took off with more than 200 or­phans and some 40 adult care­givers. When a door mal­func­tioned shortly af­ter take­off, the “mercy flight” crashed near the air­port, killing 78 chil­dren and about 50 adults.

A Pan Am flight char­tered by Friends for All Chil­dren landed safely in San Fran­cisco on April 5 and was greeted by the pres­i­dent and first lady Betty Ford. The Holt-char­tered plane soon fol­lowed and ar­rived in Seat­tle af­ter mid­night.

“It was in many ways a bit­ter­sweet time, full of lay­ered emo­tion,” said Lucinda Mu­niz, a so­cial worker who re­ceived the Holt chil­dren at the Seat­tle-Ta­coma In­ter­na­tional Air­port that night.

Many chil­dren’s adop­tive fam­i­lies had poured into the air­port, and more than 100 chil­dren boarded Pan Am flights to other cities, es­corted by Pan Am flight crew vol­un­teers. An­other 144 chil­dren went into tem­po­rary foster care in Wash­ing­ton, and about 18 were hos­pi­tal­ized, “chiefly for ob­ser­va­tion,” Ms. Mu­niz re­called in an email to The Wash­ing­ton Times.

“There was ex­cite­ment and there was sor­row. We rec­og­nized that, es­pe­cially for the older chil­dren, their jour­ney was just start­ing. It was in­ef­fa­bly pro­found,” she said.

Through­out April, about 2,000 chil­dren were trans­ported to homes in the United States, and 1,000 oth­ers were flown to Europe, Australia and Canada.

The last flight was on April 29, when Holt adop­tion ad­vo­cate Rose­mary Tay­lor left the coun­try, ac­cord­ing to a his­tor­i­cal ar­ti­cle writ­ten in 2000 by John Aeby, the late direc­tor of com­mu­ni­ca­tions for Holt.

“What sad­dened me was that Holt had to leave be­hind some of our Viet­namese staff and foster par­ents,” said Glen Note­boom, a Holt staffer who safe­guarded the adop­tion records un­til he, too, was evac­u­ated.

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

A World Air­ways jet on April 3, 1975, was the first Amer­i­can air­liner to carry refugees as part of Op­er­a­tion Babylift. The chil­dren were evac­u­ated as Saigon fell to the North Viet­namese army.

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