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Lost and found: 35 years later, Vietnamese adoptees still try to grasp place in world

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 8, 2010 - In a small home, tucked into her couch, a middle-age nun sits in sweat pants and a sweat shirt, one sock missing thanks to Conway, her beagle.

Down the hall hangs a photo of two of the Vietnamese orphans Sister Susan Carol McDonald cared for from 1973 to 1975. At that hall's end, her office holds towering file cabinets filled with the small details of thousands of lives, documents that show when children entered an orphanage, what they were called, when they left. Inside one shelf sits pieces of blue and yellow tile, the old floor of New Haven Nursery, where she worked for those two years. Photos stick to shelves and to the walls alongside Buddhist blessings printed on yellow paper.

"May all beings dwell in the heart of harmony." "May your heart flower." "May you know the deepest levels of peace."

Every day, McDonald gets an e-mail or a call asking for information. They come from adoptees all over the world, once from a woman in Vietnam, sometimes even from American men who served in the war.

So far, she counts 7,000 requests.

From 1967 until 1975, thousands of orphans were adopted out of Vietnam. The United States got involved at the end with a declaration by President Gerald Ford on April 3, 1975. With "Operation Babylift," Ford allocated $2 million and military planes for the children's evacuation.

"Precious Cargo," a documentary by PBS, estimates 2,700 children were adopted into families in the U.S., with another 1,300 taken to Canada, Australia and Europe.

Several of those children came to families in St. Louis, including Dan Bischoff, Jim Zimmerly and Lyly Thanh Koenig.

Today, nearly 35 years later, those children are adults with lives and, often, questions of their own.

Many want to understand where they came from, many want to understand why, and most have had to learn to live in a world where they don't quite fit -- often they're Amerasian, with Vietnamese mothers and fathers who were American G.I.s. They're not 100 percent Vietnamese, not blond haired or blue eyed, in small ways unlike the siblings they grew up with, in subtle ways reminded of that often.

"It's a part of who I am, just not knowing," Bischoff says, "not knowing a lot of stuff, I guess."

Growing up, people always paused for a second too long when Zimmerly's white sister introduced him as her brother.

"It's an issue," he says. "It's always gonna be an issue."

While it's been nearly 35 years since Operation Babylift, interest in the orphans from the Vietnam War continues -- with movies, documentaries, TV investigations, books, papers, Web sites and Facebook pages devoted to telling their stories. Their adoptions weren't just international, they weren't just transracial or transcultural. They were historical, tied to a war, and unlike anything we've seen since.

For many adoptees -- including Bischoff, Zimmerly and Koenig -- understanding who they are started with understanding where they came from.

And some of that information is here, in Crestwood. In her files and folders, McDonald has answers. At least, she has some of them.

Thirty-five years ago, when these adoptees were just babies, McDonald knew the impossibility that would come as they grew and tried to understand the whys and hows of the beginnings of their lives.

"Vietnam had been at war for 90 years," she says. "That's something you can't imagine. I thought I could before I was there. I could not. You cannot. The situation was desperate."


In May, 1973, McDonald left her home in Kentucky, for Saigon, stopping in Paris on the way to visit friends. At the time, it seemed like a grand adventure.

Then, she landed in Saigon.

People lived along the river, bathing and using it for a toilet. Barbed wire stretched out everywhere. Soldiers roamed the streets.

McDonald arrived by taxi at New Haven Nursery, one of four started by Rosemary Taylor, an Australian. Taylor's orphanages tended children with no known living relatives and worked to place them in adoptions abroad. It would later be known as Friends for All Children.

The former French villa sat in the city's center at the intersection of Phan Dinh Phung and Mac Dinh Chi. The majority of the children were babies and toddlers, just 30 at first, though soon the number would swell to 121.

McDonald was the only nurse. Rats and cockroaches always lurked. But compared with some orphanages in the country, the conditions were good. The staff maintained a 4-to-1 ratio with the children. They weren't allowed to prop them up with bottles, as poorer and understaffed nurseries did, or leave them in tiny hammocks made from rice bags, where the children's urine dripped through all day.

Taylor's orphanages were supported by overseas organizations, according to Sister Mary Nelle Gage, who was at New Haven at the time. Those organizations included World Children's Fund, based in St. Louis, which meant they could hire Vietnamese staff to bond with and care for the children. Provincial orphanages didn't have that support.

"There are an estimated 800,000 orphans in South Viet Nam," reported Time magazine about a year later, on March 25, 1974. "More than 20,000 are crammed into understaffed, under-equipped orphanages that are often breeding grounds for deadly respiratory and intestinal diseases. Moreover, because of social taboos against mixed-blood offspring, many of the children who are half-American have been abandoned by their Vietnamese mothers now that the G.I.s have all gone home."

Jobs were scarce. The rural population fled fighting, creating a refugee society. Children were found in markets, cars, under bus seats.

Despite the conditions, McDonald loved her job. She'd grown up the oldest of eight, so she was used to mothering and the hustle of caring for many children.

But she couldn't do everything, and she couldn't save everyone.


On April 3, President Ford announced the evacuation of the orphans of Vietnam with Operation Babylift. On April 4, the telephone at New Haven rang.

"Get 22 of your strongest children to the plane because it's a cargo plane," Taylor told McDonald.

By the front door, departure bags for the children already waited, with diapers, changes of clothes, medicine and bottles. McDonald, now 28, knew none of them had much longer in South Vietnam. The Americans were nearly gone. From inside the orphanage's walls, she could hear shelling outside the city. At night, she could see flares light the sky.

McDonald, Taylor, and Friends for All Children in the states worked to get passports and documents together so the children could leave.

Vietnamese kept telling her and other foreign child-care workers to go, but they refused until planes were ready to take them and all the 600 children in their care.

That early April day, McDonald sent the 22 children to the airport in embassy cars and took another group to the Australian embassy a few blocks away for a flight to Australia.

She returned to New Haven, and 15 minutes after the first group boarded the flight to the United States, Taylor returned as well, telling McDonald about the plane they left on, a C5 Galaxy, and how awful it was, stretching six stories into the sky. It was a shell, really, meant for holding troops and supplies. Not children.

Taylor was only back at Wing Haven for a few moments when the phone rang again. A nurse at Saigon Adventist Hospital was on the other line.

"Send your child-care workers," she said. "We're bringing your wounded babies."

Taylor and McDonald rode in a taxi to the hospital in silence. There, they found cars and jeeps full of children, dead and alive. In all, 185 people had been killed, including child-care workers, Americans and 76 orphans, the majority of whom were in the lower hold of the plane.The plane had crashed shortly after takeoff.

It would be years before McDonald, or anyone involved, understood the full details of the crash.

That day, the Post-Dispatch reported: "Preliminary reports indicated that giant rear doors of the plane blew off in flight, damaging its controls and causing it to crash," the story reported ... (Witnesses) heard two explosions before the plane plunged into the paddy field. The plane skidded through the field and exploded ... Headless bodies were buried in the mud, and a baby's bottle, a flight manual, cushions, clothing and molten pieces of metal were scattered about the burning grass. 'It was a horrible thing to see,' one witness said. 'Children were crying while the fire burned.' American rescue workers were dropped from helicopters and waded through the mud trying to find survivors as well as bodies of the dead spread along a mile-long swath."

The next day, 350 children were sent on PanAm 757 to Canada.

McDonald and several others stayed behind.

SAIGON, APRIL 8 or 9, 1975

The cafeteria was nearly empty. McDonald stepped in from the swelling Saigon heat and took a seat in the USAID restaurant that once seemed like a small refuge. Now, the emptiness was just another sign that things were nearly over, whatever that might mean.

Rumors swirled about the North's impending takeover of South Vietnam. McDonald got word of planes coming for evacuations, and every day, their rescue fell through.

She still had hundreds of children in her care. Some survived only because of it. She would not leave without them.

McDonald ordered a banana split. On a radio somewhere, she heard "Yesterday," by the Beatles. When her food arrived, she ate in silence, tears leaving shiny paths down her cheeks.

SAIGON, APRIL 26, 1975

The call finally came. A plane waited. They were ready for all the 250 remaining children. McDonald had milk, food, medicine, bottles, supplies that she hoped would last until they landed wherever they were going.

At the airfield, they boarded a USAF-C141. Inside, several Vietnamese refugee families waited, holding each other and wailing.

McDonald settled her children into bassinets and boxes.

Two hours later, the plane landed at Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines. When the two giant cargo doors opened their arms onto the airfield, McDonald thought to herself -- this is heaven.

She saw ambulances, lights spinning, and a long line of people waiting. The doctors came first.

"We have to know where all the sick children are," she remembers one saying.

Carefully, each child was lifted out of the plane and carried away. Then, another doctor came onto the plane.

"We almost lost a child last night," he said. "Are you sure you've given us all the sick children."

She felt a shift right then and was filled with relief.

Near tears, McDonald sat on the plane and thought to herself, "I'm back in a place where the loss of one baby is tragic."

Editor's Note

This story was reconstructed using several interviews with Sister Susan Carol McDonald and Sister Mary Nelle Gage and from news articles at the time. Some details are from "For Children Cannot Wait (1980) by McDonald and "Turn My Eyes Away: Our Children in Vietnam, 1967 to 1975," by Friends for All Children.