In 1975, as the city of Saigon in South Vietnam was falling to the North Vietnamese army, western governments and aid workers scrambled to evacuate thousands of orphans who were at risk of being killed. Many flights made it safely to the United States, Canada, England, and elsewhere. One did not. Last week we interviewed Tuyết Phạm, who told us about Mai, the little girl her family would have adopted had her plane not crashed just after takeoff in Vietnam. Today Tuyết shares a tribute she wrote to Mai during her first-ever return visit to Vietnam at the age of 39.
It has now been 35 years and I’ve finally returned home to pay homage to our country, to you, and to this crash site. It’s taken a long time for me to return, but now I am here to celebrate your life. You see, Mai, I was not on that plane, but your would-be brother was. He was coming to Canada with you to join this family, and they were all looking forward to meeting you both. Unfortunately, the crash took away their joy when they learned that you would not be joining them. What happened was a tragedy. On April 4, 1975, Operation Babylift was organized by the Americans to help get as many babies and children out of Vietnam as possible. You were up in the air with hundreds of other children coming out of the orphanage, including your would-be brother. One of the plane doors was not securely fastened when the plane took off, and it blew open and the plane lost control. The pilot was able to land in the rice paddies below, about two miles short of the runway, but the plane kept on going and bounced for quite some time before it all came to a complete halt and silence. Smoke from the crash could be seen for miles. Pieces of the craft were lying all over the rice paddies. It is said that the plane broke into four huge pieces and all the children, including you, who were in the belly of the plane did not survive. It is believed that out of the 328 passengers aboard the C-5A Galaxy aircraft, 155 were killed, 98 of those being babies and children. Your crash made news in the media all around the world.
Thirty-five years later, we see children of the Vietnam War, and those who helped you and all these children come out of Vietnam, still trying to put their lives together. Many are still struggling to get past the horror of the plane crash. Many still relive the nightmare. These children have grown up now but still seem to be at a loss as to their identity, where they came from, who their parents were, and why they are here.
It is unfortunate that this tragedy happened. Your would-be parents were expecting you. You would have been happy in this home. Of course, there would always be ups and downs to deal with. You would have moved around a lot, but you would have had lots of brothers and sisters to keep you company. You would have liked this family, Mai, with all of its craziness, with everyone having different interests, different likes and dislikes, different tastes, and certainly different personalities.
Growing up, you would have had to deal with a lot of issues, like, who are you? Who were your parents? Why are you so different from the biological kids your parents have? Would your parents love you more or less than their own? Why did your parents adopt you? Why are you the only Asian child in your school? How will you fit in?
Your would-be parents, however, still wanted to adopt a little girl from Vietnam, and this time it would be a girl with special needs. They were told about a little girl needing a home to go to about a few weeks after your crash. I arrived to the family on April 19, 1975, with the media naming me as a ‘replacement’ for you. It would be years later when I asked your would-be parents about this article. All they could say was that it was just the media, doing their job.
I think in some strange way, Mai, maybe this crash had to happen for me to be adopted and to be able to tell you about this, years later. Maybe I was meant to be here. But for now, I have returned.
For information about Operation Babylift in the United States, visit www.vietnambabylift.org.
For more information on the Canadian Orphan flights, you can find Last Airlift: A Vietnamese Orphan’s Rescue from War by Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch at a bookstore near you.