From Saigon in a shoebox: Australian 'Operation Babylift' orphans reflect 40 years on

Tan Son Nhat airfield during the second airlift on 17 April 1975. (Australian War Memorial)

Abandoned during the Vietnam War and airlifted out for a better life, 'Operation Babylift' orphans reflect on adoption, growing up in white Australia and the search for their birth families 40 years on.

When Gillian Diggins first met Le Thi Ha, she weighed a tiny five pounds.

The baby – only a few days old – had just arrived from Saigon in a shoebox, along with hundreds of other children airlifted out of war-torn Vietnam in 1975. 

"She was so tiny. She was a premature baby as well, with a heart murmur so she needed a lot of attention," said Ms Diggins.

Like many who were born at a time when war and poverty raged through Vietnam, Le Thi Ha – now Chantal Doecke – was abandoned by her mother in Tu Du hospital in Saigon.

"She had me and she fled. Obviously knowing that she couldn't run with a newborn baby who was quite fragile," said Ms Doecke, now 40.

"I don't believe there was any paperwork. Unfortunately, a lot of us adoptees were in that same position. There's no time to think about passing over details, it was just, 'Get my child out'."

Ms Doecke was one of nearly 2,500 Vietnamese children evacuated from Saigon to the US, Canada, Europe and Australia as part of Operation Babylift

"The babies were put in boxes, I was in a shoebox. I guess the older children would've had to sit up onto the aircraft. I would assume that it was filled with more than what they normally would put on a normal aeroplane."

Click on the image to listen to Chantal Doecke's story

Ms Doeke arrived in Adelaide airport on April 5, 1975. Waiting for the infant was Gillian Diggins.

Troubled by the war raging in Vietnam, Ms Diggins responded to a newspaper ad calling for Australian parents to adopt war orphans. Her and her then-husband already had two biological boys, but wanted to adopt a Vietnamese girl "to complete the family."

The pair ended up adopting Nuyette, a half-Vietnamese, half-African American girl because "when they [mixed-race children] grew up, they're not really accepted in that society."

Ms Diggins said Nuyette was already eight years old when they first met.

"There were babies and children of all ages coming off that aeroplane. Nuyette was handed over to us at the airport," said Ms Diggins. "You can't run up and hug these children. They don't know you, you're a stranger.

"It was like poor little kid, bang, all of a sudden these white strangers walk off with her. We took her home and, oh, she's was very withdrawn."

A year later, baby Chantal arrived from the first airlift.

"Once we got her home she just thrived," said Ms Diggins. "It was wonderful for my older girl Nuyette. By this time of course, she was speaking English and she said, 'Now I'm not the only coloured kid in the family'."

Click on the image to listen to Gillian Diggins' story

A humanitarian mission

Between April 4 and April 17, 1975, the Australian government was involved in two airlifts, evacuating some 300 orphans from Saigon, now known as Ho Chi Minh City, to Australia. 

By that point, foreign governments were withdrawing troops from Vietnam, and there were reports the North Vietnamese government was preparing to capture Saigon.

"In March 1975, this caused a lot of concern for people who were caring for children in Vietnam," said historian Dr Joshua Forkert from the University of Adelaide.

"Organisations started approaching different governments – the South Vietnamese government, the US government, and also the Australian government – to try and get assistance to evacuate children under their care."

On April 2, the South Vietnamese government gave blanket approval for the mass evacuation of children. The following day, US President Gerald Ford made an announcement that the US would airlift and accept 2,000 children. Australia made a similar announcement on April 3. 

'It was just a mad panic'

Dr Wally Smith was one of the medical doctors involved in the evacuation. At the time, he was the Commanding Officer of No 4 RAAF Hospital in Butterworth, Malaysia, and sent clinical supplies and nurses onboard two Hercules aircrafts to Saigon for Operation Babylift. He wasn’t on the first airlift.

Dr Smith said he had three hours to get everything in order, and was mostly concerned about the children’s health as there were no doctors on the first airlift to assess their medical conditions.

"It was just a mad panic. We had three hours to get organised to get 200 kids out and it was going to happen on that day. So there would be no preparation or anything."

"It was a couple of guys counting kids around their bassinets. Pilots bottle-feeding babies. The infants were in cardboard boxes lined up on the floor of the aircrafts."

One of the tragedies of the Babylift was the US C5 Galaxy plane crash that killed nearly 80 children and some of the volunteers on board. It was the first flight to take off and was bound for the US. 

"Sadly the plane took off from Saigon, and there was a mechanical fault in the rear door. So the rear door blew open and the plane crash landed in the paddy fields," said Dr Forkert.

"Of the 243 children onboard around 78 children died including many of the escorts."

A few weeks later, Dr Smith and a paediatrician were part of the crew that flew to Saigon for the second Australian airlift on April 17, 1975.

Despite the chaos outside Ton Son Nhat airport, he remembers that day being calm and orderly.

"It was a couple of guys counting kids around their bassinets. Pilots bottle-feeding babies and stuff like that. It wasn't frantic by any stretch of the imagination. The infants, the little ones, were in cardboard boxes lined up on the floor of the aircrafts."

Click on the image to listen to Dr Wally Smith's story

He filled one aircraft with older and healthy children, and the other Hercules with sick children and infants. Smith was on the latter plane with the paediatrician.

But as their Hercules took off from Saigon, tragedy marred Operation Babylift once again.

"We were about five minutes off the ground and next minute down the back I see the paediatrician on the floor with a little kid giving mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, CPR," Smith said.

"I thought, 'Oh my god. What the hell is happening?' So I got myself down to the back of the aircraft. There's this little kid in a blue suit, cotton suit – they dressed him in that because they thought, 'They're going to Melbourne it will be cold there.' So they put him in something a bit warm.

"He was dead."

Realising they had a plane full of infants at risk of overheating, they started stripping the babies from their clothes and spraying water at them to cool down.

"I had my fingers crossed, hoped to God we wouldn't lose anymore. Fortunately we didn't."

A humanitarian necessity? 

Dr Smith said he could never forget his involvement in the airlift, but remains conflicted about the ethics of the operation – and whether the children themselves were orphans.

"Did we do the right thing? Was it the right thing to do? I don't know. That's a question I find very hard to answer. Usually what I say to people is: ask the kids. Ask the kids - how did they get on in life afterwards?"

"We've been plucked from our Asian heritage... and we've had to assimilate into Western lifestyles."

Many Australians saw the operation as a humanitarian necessity at first, but it was later revealed that some of the children were not in fact orphans.

"It sort of ties into this broader question about whether adoption is the best thing for the children, and particularly in crisis situations overseas," said historian Dr Forkert.

"The arguments are whether the children would have been better in Vietnam or whether they should have been evacuated. That's been going on since the mid-1960s, and it's still going on today when we talk about adoption."

'Plucked from our Vietnamese heritage'

While grateful for being adopted into a loving family, Ms Doeke said it’s hard not to be affected by the trauma of being abandoned and removed from her birth family.

"Partly what I've struggled with now, now that I'm older, is that we've been plucked from our Asian heritage and then we've been placed in a Western background and we've had to assimilate into Western lifestyles.

"A lot of the adoptees' families don’t realise that it has affected us in some way. I don't think it's intentional, but it has affected a lot of us in small ways, or large ways.

"So unfortunately, a lot of us are still trying to learn that side of the Vietnamese culture because we haven’t been educated enough. I haven’t been around a lot of Vietnamese people which I’m trying to do that now in my adulthood."

 

Ms Doecke said there were times she felt out of place for being Vietnamese and would often change her appearance to fit in.

"We've been the brunt of racial slurs along the way. I remember being a child and I hear people say things to mum, even in my adulthood, it still happens today," she explained.

"Obviously they see me with a white mother and a white father and couple of white siblings, so they'd go, 'Oh okay'. It wasn't that I was embarrassed but maybe I was trying to fit in – into western society. Trying to be more accepted."

But her mother, Gillian Diggins remembers the town being very accepting of the family, albeit curious at the sight of two Vietnamese girls.

"We did stand out a lot. We didn’t see people of different colours, like you do today," she said. "People used to stop us and ask questions in those days.

"We didn't have a problem with acceptance through the community at large. No problem at all. Neighbours and friends, everyone supported us. No nastiness."

'I experienced racism even though I was brought up to be white'

As a young Vietnamese adoptee living in rural Mt Gambier in South Australia, Dominic Hong Duc Golding said growing up was difficult.

Mr Golding, now 40, said he was constantly reminded of his "otherness".

"I experienced quite a lot of racism growing up. But I also experienced a lot of exclusion because I was not white, even though I was brought up to be white.

"I was told so often at school that I’m different, I'm Asian, 'you don't belong here', 'go back to where you come from' – being called a 'gook' or a 'charlie'.

"So there's these constant statements of otherness. Or reinforcing the fact that I’m not an Australian has made me want to investigate and try to take some kind of ownership of my own Vietnamese heritage."

Click on the image to listen to Dominic Hong Duc Golding's story

Born in Cholon, the ‘Chinatown’ of Ho Chi Minh City, Golding suspects he has Chinese-Vietnamese heritage. But of course, he can’t be certain.

"I'm not too sure about my identity. My papers clearly stated that there were no birth relatives," he said.

"I actually do not know the exact location of my orphanage in Cholon, even though it's stated in my documents. It's a bit of a mystery."

By four months, Mr Golding was suffering from malnutrition, respiratory failure and had mild cerebral palsy. He was one of the babies on the second Australian airlift.

Mr Golding now lives in Melbourne and works with newly-arrived migrants and refugees. He’s also a performing and visual artist.

He has been back to Vietnam three times since 1999, and has also lived there for a year teaching English.

He said visiting Vietnam the first time was "like being on a roller coaster ride."

"It was a very crazy time for me psychologically," he said. "In 1999, Vietnam was still a very impoverished country. Seeing the poverty and the struggle, particularly those with a disability like myself, it was a very strong emotional experience for me."

Chantal Doecke, now a mother of four, had a similar experience when she visited Vietnam for the first time.

"The first time it was like, oh wow, pretty confronting," she said. "Obviously, I’ve grown up in a western society and you go back to a country that’s very poor. You see the after-effects of the war.

"It’s like, 'These are my people. This is my home.' So seeing things like that was very upsetting."

"It would be great to find a parent or a sibling or any family member. It’s just all these unanswered questions."

Still, Ms Doecke admitted she didn’t care about her Vietnamese heritage until the birth of her first child at age 20.

"Mum would say sometimes, 'Do you want to go and have a look - go back and trace your family?' And I'd go 'No.' I'd say, 'Well, why do I need to? I've got you and I've got dad and I've got my brothers and sisters. It doesn’t matter'."

When Doecke realised she didn’t know what genetic traits she was passing onto her children, she knew she had to try to discover her roots.

"Until I had my first child, I had no interest," she said. "Each time I’ve had a child, I’ve taken a risk because I don’t know what’s in my past. So that’s been quite a difficult thing.

"It would be great to find a parent or a sibling or any family member. It’s just all these unanswered questions."

'Babylift is not the only thing about me'

But not all adoptees have an affinity with their homeland, or feel compelled to trace their ancestry.

Like Ms Doecke, David Alidenes was on the first airlift that arrived in Australia on April 5, 1975. Adopted by a second-generation Greek father and an Anglo-Saxon Australian mother, Mr Alidenes grew up in the affluent Sydney suburb of Strathfield. He went to a private school and lived in a large house with four other siblings.

"You could call it sheltered in a way, a closed environment. It probably protected me from a few of those harsher things in life," he said. "Growing up, I was just raised as a white Australian. I guess there was no real connection to anything but Australian culture."

Although he knew he was different, Mr Alidenes said being adopted or being part of Operation Babylift wasn’t – and still isn’t - part of his identity.

"I don't know if I ever thought, 'Oh I was part of Operation Babylift.' Most children don’t want that kind of attention all the time. In terms of me being part of that significance, that’s difficult to grasp, even today.

"I know it's a big thing but it's just been a little part of me," he said. "I'd never wanted it to be the only thing about me. I don’t ever want to be, just, 'Oh he’s that kid from that Operation Babylift'."

Click on the image to listen to David Alidenes' story

Mr Alidenes said he was blasé about his heritage – and his life in Australia – until he travelled to Vietnam for the first time at 25.

"I remember visiting a few orphanages and I guess I got a real feel for what life could’ve been like for me had I stayed or tried to grow up there," he said.

"I was probably a very angry young man. I didn’t have a great relationship with my mum and dad, despite all the great things that I got. It was probably when I really started realising what a gift I’d been given."

Mr Alidenes said he gave up on finding biological relatives years ago when he found out all records from his orphanage in Ho Chi Minh City were burnt during the war.

"I wouldn’t want to invest myself emotionally too much into the idea that it was possible. If you want to use the radar as an analogy, it’s more a distant ping," he said.

Operation DNA

Trista Goldberg is the founder of Operation Reunite, an organisation that helps adopted Vietnamese children find their birth family through paper trails and DNA testing.

While based in the US, the database is open to all Vietnamese adoptees around the world who are hoping to find a genetic match. Adopted Vietnamese International is another resource for Australian Vietnamese adoptees. 

"A lot the adoptees struggle with the decision to take a DNA test because they really don’t know what they will find," said Ms Goldberg. "Searching and finding birth families is never an easy process. It’s a very complex emotional struggle for most adoptees."

For some, like Mr Golding and Ms Doeke, taking a DNA test is their only hope. They're both currently in Ho Chi Minh City to mark the 40th anniversary of Operation Babylift with other adoptees, and will use the trip to continue searching for their biological family.

"I'm taking my 12-year-old son with me when go back to Vietnam [for the anniversary]," said Ms Doecke. "I said to him, 'This is what you need to see. You need to see where I was born. You need to see what could've been my life.'

"I feel so at ease when I go back at home to Vietnam – and I call it home. [Australia] is where I live, Vietnam is my home."

@linnytayls

 

 

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