continued from my previous post…
The Vietnam/American War resulted in a sharp increase in orphaned and abandoned children. Between 1966 and 1974, the number of children cared for by orphanages more than doubled (The War Cradle). Thousands of abandoned children, especially Amerasian children, were evacuated because of the fear that they would be killed by invading N. Vietnamese armies. This humanitarian movement came to be called “Operation Babylift.” (The War Cradle by Shirley Peck-Barnes provides a compelling account of this little-known story.)
Judy Boyles worked for Pan Am during the war. She answered a call from an agency conducting American adoptions of Vietnamese orphans to purchase a prepaid ticket for an orphan. “Through the conversation it became apparent that an escort would be needed also.”
Judy recalls, “While my student husband let his hair grow long and marched down Colfax, I protested at work to the buying of war bonds and by getting involved in something positive during a very negative time, the airlifting of orphans.”
Judy met babies in places like Guam, Manila, Honolulu and San Francisco to escort them through the final leg of their journeys. Her most vivid memory is the time she actually flew into Saigon.
“Once we left the sea, headed into Ton Su Nut airport in Saigon, we flew in a giant 747 at landing altitude for about 45 minutes, right above the tree line. It was very unnerving but it had been decided that it was harder to hit a target that big, at that speed, at a low altitude.”
After landing safely, she headed for the terminal. Lugging along 40 pounds of baby formula to donate to a Vietnamese orphanage, she was unsure of what to do next. Then she spotted another Pan Am employee carrying a baby, and they made the exchange amidst the bustle of a war-zone airport.
“Ninety minutes later, I was airborne and headed for home with baby David. The same Pan Am flight that took us into Vietnam took us out, but this time it was packed to the brim with Asian people fleeing the war with everything they owned.”
Of course, most of the orphans and vulnerable children were left behind to endure the war’s aftermath. Children like my guide and friend, Nghia. From that horrific day when he witnessed his friend become orphaned, through the challenges of abject poverty and loss of personal freedom under new national leadership, Nghia read every book he could get his hands on. His parents could not even afford textbooks; but he borrowed from friends, quickly absorbed the content, and returned the books. Studying led him to understand justice, freedom, sin, and, finally, salvation. In a Communist country where Christian beliefs are suppressed and believers are persecuted, Nghia came to know God through Jesus Christ. He studied in the United States, determined to return home to help his people. Today, Nghia partners with a US organization to provide humanitarian aid to orphans and children in impoverished areas.
Especially after stepping foot in Vietnam for myself, the issues of the war feel as muddled to me as dense jungle shadows. Certainly it was a watershed time in American and Vietnamese history that flushed out evil beyond comprehension and forever changed those who experienced it, as well as the course of generations to come: children who would never be born to those who perished in its trenches. Children uprooted from their home country and adopted abroad. Orphaned children who grew up without the protective covering of parents. Children born to the Vietnamese diaspora, who know the true story of what happened after the last American soldiers helicoptered out of Saigon. Children born to parents who lost part of their hearts to the ravages of war. A daughter born to a Navy man who almost served there, a daughter who struggles still to untangle its incomprehensible threads.
I see the conflict still raging in the eyes of those who now open up to me about their wartime experiences, because I have been there. Family members and friends who quietly tucked away their memories for decades, never speaking of the horror they experienced – first in the warzone and then, for the American soldiers, in returning home to fellow citizens who scorned them for risking their lives out of devotion to their country.
Yet these war survivors also share stories with me of humanity’s tremendous capacity to fight evil with acts of great personal sacrifice. Soldiers who tried to protect foreign orphans; Army nurses and medics who battled for the lives of both American troops and Vietnamese civilians through long, harrowing nights in under-supplied, over-crowded wards; civilians who flew into war zones to rescue vulnerable children; a Vietnamese child who grew up determined to fight a different kind of war than the one that scarred his childhood.
As Nghia and I conversed in Vietnam over iced coffee, we represented two countries bitterly divided by the tragedy of war. Two people born in the same year, we grew up half a world apart with vastly different experiences, yet our lives were touched by the same events. In the end, it is his conclusion that is the only one that makes any sense at all to me. From him, a man certainly entitled to bitterness and revenge, I realize that we cannot change what happened, only where we go from here.
Nghia summarizes his guiding philosophy, “Every day, we pray for our people and the authorities, too. They do not know what they do. They need the Light. We always choose the solution ‘conquer them with love.”
With special thanks to those who shared with me their recollections of the Vietnam/American war through interviews conducted in 2011 and on-going conversations: “Nghia,” Judy Boyles, Dave and Sue Briggs, Dennis Pringle, and my dad, Rick Ferguson.
And with deep gratitude to American men and women – past, present, and future – who were, are, and will be willing to lay down their very lives, many times at the expense of their sanity, for the incalculable gift of freedom.