The war babies’ escape to new lives in America

Abstract:

An Air Force C-5A that was evacuating orphans at the end of the Vietnam war crashed on Apr 4, 1975, killing over 100 children, but it served to rally support for more airlifts. Over 1400 children were eventually rescued to new lives in the US. Two orphans who found loving US families are profiled.

Full Text:

Saigon: From a tragic crash, a redeeming moment

The date was April 4, 1975 – a hot brilliantly clear spring day in South Vietnam. To the north, the North Vietnamese Army was gathering momentum for its drive to final victory. In the south, near the doomed city of Saigon, the roads were choked with refugees. After weeks of dickering with the Pentagon, American volunteer workers assembled 243 war orphans at Tan Son Nhut Air Base for a last-ditch evacuation to the United States. The kids – infants, toddlers, some as old as 8 or 9 – were loaded in the cavernous hold of an air force C-5A. The big jet lifted off but crashed 20 minutes later, killing more than 100 of the children aboard. TO their horror, emergency crews found a trail of tiny bodies leading to the wreckage: scores of them had been sucked out of the plane when its cargo door malfunctioned in flight. The babylift, a heroic effort born of good intentions, seemed bound for tragedy, like everything else America had tried to do in Vietnam.

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That this is not so – that the babylift was a small redeeming moment in the bitter history of U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia – is proven by people like Jenny Elizabeth Anh Tennies and Dr. Matthew Steiner. Jenny Tennies, 25, is a secretary in Washington, D.C. Steiner, 28, is finishing his residency at Methodist Hospital in Indianapolis, Ind. Both are war orphans who survived the fall of Vietnam despite – and perhaps because of – the C-5A disaster. Front-page news all over the world, the crash transformed the effort to bring the orphans out. Within 24 hours, an anonymous donor – later revealed to be Connecticut businessman Robert McCauley – gave the money to charter two Pan American 747s to evacuate the survivors and hundreds of other orphans as well.

“I remember that day as if it were last Tuesday,” says Alan Topping of Miami, then a Pan Am director in South Vietnam. “The situation was a little tense. The first 747 came in and at that point, no one knew what had caused the crash of the C-5A. So we body-searched every single baby going onto the plane, to make sure there were no [explosives] strapped to their bodies. Picture the scene – a 747 with 375 seats, each with a cardboard file box with a baby or an infant sitting in it, each box strapped to a seat. You can’t imagine the sound and smell of 200 to 300 infants, all crying, all reeking of wet diapers.

“There were 700 orphans, some pure Vietnamese, the majority Amerasian. didn’t even want to look at these kids, it was so sad. You’re loading them on the airplane – they have no clue – and then they go off to the States with nothing but a diaper on. These were human beings we were handling like buckets of water in a fire line.” But Topping and all the other volunteer workers knew the end was near – and the bottom line, he says, was “just trying to save lives.”

They did. Over the next few weeks, on the Pan Am 747s and on military flights that followed, about 1,400 orphans rode the babylift to America. Jenny Tennies, then 5 years old and known as Vuthi Anh Wa, remembers the day she left Vietnam as a terrifying blur – a hasty medical checkup, the thud of distant explosions as the NVA approached, the bus cavalcade to Tan Son Nhut. “I remember being lifted into the plane,” she says. “The babies were on the floor in boxes. The older children were on the seats, two or three children in one seat – we were scrawny, skinny bones.” Matthew Steiner, then known as Houng Van Long, flew out of Tan Son Nhut on one of the 747s. “We had 407 kids on that flight. Three fourths were infants, most less than 2 years old. I was one of the older ones. I remember all these kids coming onto the plane and total chaos, kids screaming at the top of their lungs. Most of us had never been on a plane before.”

No history: Fast-forward 20 years. Vuthi Anh Wa, renamed Jenny Elizabeth Anh, was adopted and raised – very happily – by the Rev. Francis Tennies of York, Pa., and his wife, Elizabeth. Jenny went to college, moved to the Washington area and got a job in the human-resources department of the National Cooperative Bank. She likes volleyball, Latin music and old movies – typically American tastes. She has no regrets about leaving Vietnam and no desire to go back. As a child of mixed ancestry – her father was either French or American, she doesn’t know which – Jenny says she would almost certainly have been rejected in post-war Vietnamese society. “I heard the orphanage was turned into a North Vietnamese army base,” she said. “I would have literally lived on the streets … probably ended up being a whore.” She said her adoptive parents made “a perfect family” and that “no one could ever love me as much as my mother does.” She does not want to trace her biological parents – nor can she, since there was no record of her background when she left Saigon. “I have no history,” she said, “but I was truly blessed.”

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Dr. Matthew Steiner has just returned from Vietnam and Laos on a two-week “Motherland Tour” organized by Holt International Children’s Services of Eugene, Ore., the relief agency that ran his orphanage in Saigon. Steiner is the child of an American father, whom he does not know, and a Laotian mother, who died when he was 7. He was adopted by Dr. James and Mary Steiner of West Liberty, Ohio, and says he spent much of his childhood trying to be “an all-American boy.”

Interviewed by Newsweek while he was still in Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City), Steiner said “the memories just kept coming back.” He visited the building where the Holt orphanage had been and went up on the rooftop where he used to play. “It’s not so huge anymore,” he said, laughing. He found he knew some Saigon neighborhoods as if by deja vu. “I’d get a tingling down my spine because I could remember so much: the smells, the sounds, the sights,” he said.

Steiner said going back “made me realize I can’t deny … the Vietnamese side of me that I put aside for 20 years.” But he still considers himself an American, and he said he wants to show that he is “thankful to all the people who made this life possible up to now.” Steiner is surely among the luckiest of all the babylift orphans. But two decades after the fall of Saigon, the story of their dramatic escape remains a happy footnote to the entire Vietnam debacle.

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