Wresting love from war's ruins

Children, workers in Saigon `baby lift' meet after 25 years

April 27, 2000|By Allison Klein | Allison Klein,SUN STAFF

Betty Tisdale tried to ignore the pleading women surrounding her bus, offering their bundles up to the windows and begging, "take my baby, take my baby."

She and a group of orphans were on their way to the airport and away from a frantic, chaotic Saigon in April of 1975. The Vietnamese government had been specific: Only children approved for adoption by American families could leave the country. Babies without papers couldn't go.

The screaming mothers didn't care. Saigon was about to fall, and they wanted their babies on that bus, taken to safety. Tisdale, who ran an orphanage, averted her tearing eyes and brought the orphans to the U.S. military planes. During two and a half days, she escorted 219 children out of Vietnam.

Tisdale became one of the heroes who helped orphans leave the war-ravaged country. The orphans she led out were part of the Vietnamese "baby lifts," which carried 2,000 young children out of Saigon only days before the city fell to the North Vietnamese.

This weekend, about 200 people, including 70 "babies," their families and baby-lift volunteers will meet at the Reunion of the First Generation of Vietnamese Adoptees.

They are gathering in Baltimore for events that will culminate Sunday at sunrise at the Vietnam Memorial in Washington. The memorial's black granite wall is etched with the names of more than 58,000 Americans who were killed in Vietnam.

Tisdale, who adopted five of the 219 children, will be at the reunion because she wants to be sure she didn't make a mistake when she led the children out of Vietnam.

"You always wonder if you do the right thing taking them out of their homeland," said Tisdale, who stays in touch with many of the children she escorted out. "There are quite a few of my babies who I haven't seen since they were babies. I want to see as many as I can and put my arms around them."

The reunion will be held at the Lutheran Center, 700 Light St. The orphanage workers, social workers, foster families, flight crews and escorts who helped deliver the orphans to safety during those days of April 1975 will tell their stories. Some will meet the babies they cradled and soothed on the long plane ride to America.

"There was so much activity happening so quickly, there's never been an opportunity to collectively capture the stories," said Susan Cox, vice president of public policy for Holt International Children's Services, a reunion sponsor. "When we think about Vietnam, we think about politicians and soldiers. We don't often think of an entire population of people who came to be because of it."

About half of the children from the baby lift are of mixed race, which in Vietnam was seen as shameful. The fathers of some were American soldiers who were killed. Others didn't know they had fathered babies or didn't care. Many Vietnamese mothers left their infants in orphanages because they couldn't raise them or didn't want a mixed-race child born out of wedlock.

"Many children were Amerasian and had America written all over their faces," said Barbara Holtan, whose son, Tim, was part of the baby lift. "They were in grave danger if they stayed."

She and her husband, Andy, Harford County residents who describe themselves as former hippies, adopted baby Nguyen Van Linh, as Tim was then called. .

They paid $2,000 to a now-defunct adoption agency and soon received a picture of a very confused and serious-looking Nguyen Van Linh.

Every night for four months, they watched the news with knots in their stomachs, praying that their boy would be carried out of Saigon unharmed.

On April 4, 1975, a planeload of children on a U.S. Air Force cargo flight leaving Vietnam crashed, killing 200. The Holtans watched the news in horror as the tiny bodies were taken from the wreckage.

"I was crying all the time. I was out of my mind," Holtan said. "I called everyone. I even called the White House. They were sympathetic."

But three days later, they learned that Tim hadn't been on that flight.

Finally, on April 11, the flight carrying the Holtans' 18-month-old adoptee landed in Baltimore. Tim walked off the plane in too-big clothes. His tiny fingers were holding up his pants at the waist.

Holtan held her breath.

"He looked like those kids you see in a magazine. You know, `Feed the children,' " she said. "He had skinny legs and a big belly from malnutrition. But I looked at him and was completely smitten."

Tim, now 26 and a waiter at the Macaroni Grill in Timonium, believes his natural parents died. He and his adoptive mother say his father was a South Vietnamese soldier who died in the war, and his biological mother, also Vietnamese, was unable to care for him.

Tim has grappled with being both an adoptee and a product of one of the most politically divisive wars in American history.

"I find resentment from people like `Why was I over there fighting for your country?'" said Tim, who lives with his parents in Harford County.

His adoptive mother believes it's time to put aside bad feelings from the war.

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