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Lost and found: Jim Zimmerly returned to Vietnam with adoptive family to meet his biological one

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 12, 2010 - They met outside Ho Chi Minh City airport.

He was exhausted, unprepared and unsure, but Jim Zimmerly stood there surrounded by a crowd of people, in the arms of his crying mother. His biological mother. The woman who adopted him at 1, who raised him and loved him and put him through school stood nearby.

She cried, too.

Thirty-two years before, their lives all intersected when Zimmerly's biological mother in Vietnam gave him up for adoption and a family in St. Louis signed up to adopt a child from a country still in tatters from war.

Close to 3,000 children were adopted into families in the United States during the time, with thousands more in Europe, Canada and Australia. Zimmerly was one of those children.


But it was 2007 now, and Saigon was Ho Chi Minh City, and Zimmerly wasn't a baby, but a 32-year-old back in Vietnam for the first time.

His birth mother was small, fragile, it seemed, her hair cut short. She cried throughout the day and touched him all she could, his face, his back, as they sat at her small home around the coffee table eating plates of rice and shrimp and fish, sweating and sipping bottled water, as he met his younger brother, two younger sisters and their families.

During that trip, he probably spent a total of 10 hours with his biological family.

"I wish there was more, but it seemed like more than enough," he says now, seated at a Starbucks in St. Peters. "What do you talk about, you know? We just sat there. You go into it thinking you're going to have all these questions, like, who my father was."

But once he met her, Zimmerly couldn't ask those questions. "I didn't know what to do."

He points to a photo of him and his biological brother, who have the same smile. His brother was born just 10 months later, and Zimmerly thinks, that could have been me, I could have stayed in Vietnam, he could have been adopted.

It's something he's thought about a lot -- chance. Like how easily he might have been among half of the passengers who didn't survive the C5 Galaxy crash 35 years ago during the first flight of Operation Babylift. Or how easily he could have ended up with a family who mistreated him.

"It's fate and destiny and a lot of luck, obviously, to survive a plane crash," he says.

But chance hasn't shaped everything in his life.

Family has.

ST. LOUIS, 1970s

In Vietnam, Zimmerly couldn't ask questions about his past. But in St. Louis, they always came easily. They started as a child and often included this one: Why did you and dad decide to adopt the child of a stranger from another country?

"I've always known that story," he says. "And I always remember it."


In the 1970s, Wanda and Mel Zimmerly sat on the beach one Sunday, having a picnic during a two-week visit with her brother in California.

There, playing in the sand, was a little girl from Korea. She'd been adopted, they found out.

"Wouldn't that be nice if we could do something like that?" Wanda Zimmerly said to her husband then. They talked about it again on the trip home to St. Louis. 

About a year later, she saw an article in the newspaper about adoptions and how to help the children of Vietnam. She got more information and applied. The Zimmerlys, who worked through Friends for Children of Vietnam, had a home study and got on a waiting list. Then, they waited.


In February 1975, when the Zimmerlys' daughter and son were 10 and 8, the family got a photo of a little boy. He was about a year old and weighed 13 pounds. They assumed his mother was dead. They had 10 days to decide if they wanted him. They did. They'd name him Jim.

One morning that April, Mel Zimmerly left for work like he always did. A little after 6:30 that morning, the home phone rang. Wanda Zimmerly answered.

"Wanda, there's been a plane crash in Vietnam," a friend said.

She knew they were trying to get the kids out of Vietnam, but she didn't know if the little boy they adopted was on the plane that crashed. Later that afternoon she saw the news on TV.

The C5 Galaxy carrying Americans and orphans crashed several minutes after takeoff. Nearly half of those on board had died, including children.

Wanda Zimmerly was devastated.

A few days later, a social worker in Colorado called her and said, "I think we found Jimmy."

Wanda Zimmerly arranged for a friend to bring the little boy from Colorado once the paper work was cleared. He arrived on a Saturday night, the day before his first birthday.

His new sister, Melissa, was 10 when Jim arrived. She remembers he was tiny and couldn't walk, how he loved ice cream and never fussed.

Three years later, a letter arrived from Friends for All Children in Colorado.

"In April of 1975, a plane evacuating 228 of our children from Viet Nam crashed. Seventy eight of the children and six staff were killed. One hundred and fifty children survived. Your child was one of the surviving children."




For several years, the Zimmerly family traveled to Washington, D.C., regularly, like other families in the lawsuits against Lockheed and the government for the crash of the C5 Galaxy.


During those trials, it came out that the rear doors of the cargo plane had blown off after takeoff, as they'd done 17 times before. There was no oxygen, and children passed out as the plane crashed. That loss of oxygen caused some of the children to suffer minimal brain damage.

Jim Zimmerly saw doctors, was strapped down for a cat scan and visited an empty courtroom. To him, it was a big vacation. He started bragging to friends about how many times he'd been to D.C.

The first trial ended in mistrial, and a second trial proceeded, where the Zimmerlys were included in a class action suit. That trial ended in a settlement and the Zimmerlys returned to St. Louis, but Operation Babylift remained an important part of their lives.


ST. LOUIS, 1980-2005


Nearly every summer through the end of high school, many of the Operation Babylift families vacationed together.

They went to Colorado, Cape Cod, Wild Dunes, S.C., Oregon, Disneyland and even St. Louis. They stayed in their own rented houses or hotels, but gathered together for meals and activities.


Though all the kids lived in different parts of the country, Jim Zimmerly grew to think of them as a family. Among them were an understanding and a connection that didn't require explaining or a map. It was easy.

Zimmerly always knew he was adopted, he'd heard the story again and again. And though his father's side of the family were traditional German immigrants who saw black, white and Asian with clear differences, Zimmerly's father wouldn't allow that kind of thinking in his own home.

As a child, if Zimmerly cracked a joke about not really being his son, his father got angry.

"He would almost hit me, saying 'I am your father. Don't say that.'"

The signals weren't always so clear in other places though. Zimmerly, who went to Country Day School, was often asked where he was from.

Vietnam, he'd say.

Oh, the war, kids replied. Which side are you on?

He had no idea what they meant.

During his teen years, Zimmerly distanced himself from Operation Babylift. He had his adoptee friends, but didn't want to know the details of the crash or the war or anything to do with Vietnam.

In 2005, a 30-year reunion changed that. The group, organized by Sister Mary Nelle Gage, one of the nuns at the Vietnamese orphanages, met in Estes Park, Colo. Twenty-six of the adoptees came, including the crowd Zimmerly had grown up with. By then, most of them were 30 and had already been back to Vietnam. (Story continues below the photo of the 30-year reunion)

At one point during the long weekend was a group session to talk about how people were doing.

"It was awful," Zimmerly says. "I mean, it was awesome, but it was awful at the same time."

He heard a lot of pain, a struggle for identity and issues with adoptive families.

And he thought, that could have been me.

Zimmerly decided to return to Vietnam, to see it for himself, and soon, his mother had located two brothers and a sister who were also adopted in the United States. Through them, she found out that his birth mother was still living.

In 2007, with the mother who raised him and his sister, the Zimmerlys went over to meet is birth mother.

ST. LOUIS, 2010

In 2009, Jim Zimmerly and Wanda Zimmerly returned to Vietnam for a second time. He saw his birth mother again, but a stroke she'd had 10 years before was causing her health to decline.

That same year, at 34, he was diagnosed with heart disease. Shortly after that, he had heart surgery.

"I dodged a bullet twice," he says.



Jim Zimmerly, easy going and quick to laugh, has always been that way. But after his heart surgery, it takes even more to get him rattled.

Still, it happens.

People say stupid things all the time, like how he looks like that guy from "Entourage" or "Mad TV." They're small things, like the comments growing up. But they continue.

"I think it's ignorance," he says, "but sometimes it does get to me."

"The discrimination is what amazed me," says his sister, Melissa Narez. "I forget that he's Asian and he doesn't look like me."

Jim Zimmerly knows that he and the other Babylift adoptees didn't have what kids have now when they're adopted transracially and internationally. There weren't any culture camps back then, or books or classes for parents.

"I don't speak Vietnamese; I don't know much about the food," he says.

He wishes he did.

And though he's met his biological family, there's no bond there, not with his biological mother or siblings.

He wishes there was.

While he doesn't let it get to him, sometimes, Zimmerly feels like there's no real place for him.

"Here, you're Vietnamese," he says. "There, you're an American."

In the 35 years since Operation Babylift, Sister Susan Carol McDonald has seen how differently adoptees handle their identity.

"Well, most of them would say that they grew up and realized they looked different from other people and some didn't have a problem with this, some did," says McDonald, who cared for orphans in Vietnam from 1973 to 1975. "Many of them were wishing they had lighter color skin, that their eyes were shaped differently, that their hair was curly or blond, wanting to fit in. Most of them had other children teasing them with karate moves or making Chinese eyes or talking in some gobbledygook language. So they knew that they were different."

For some, it wasn't a big deal. For others, it was.

The issues of racial identity might be specific to transracial adoption, but the issue of identity in general isn't. McDonald thinks many adoptees hesitated in asking more about their past because they didn't want to hurt their adoptive parents.

"Parents would say, oh, he's an all-American boy, she's an all-American girl. I think some felt they had to live up to that."

In fact, she says, some rejected their heritage because they didn't see it in their families. Wanda Zimmerly, who still speaks on a weekly basis with other Babylift families, doesn't know much about transracial adoption today. But without meaning to, she and the other families helped their children have a place to process their identity every summer. While the reunions ended after high school, in the last few years, many of the adoptees have reconnected online.

"Jimmy knows who he is," his mom says.

And he agrees with that. He's 35, a tax consultant, laid-back, single, living the life. He's adopted from a place remembered for war, the survivor of a crash that killed half of those on board, the youngest of three, a St. Louis native and a St. Charles transplant. All those things are part of him. His family had a lot to do with his acceptance of that, he says.

"They made me belong."

Next year, Jim Zimmerly plans on returning to Vietnam with his mom. While there, they'll visit his birth mom again.