Vietnam 'Babylift' Orphans Set to Return
By ERRIN HAINES
The Associated Press
Sunday, May 15, 2005; 5:47 PM
ALPHARETTA, Ga. -- Tanya Bakal has spent much of her life running from Nguyen Thu Kim Phung. Three decades ago, she left that name in Vietnam, along with her biological mother and her culture, when she was airlifted out as part of the wartime "Operation Babylift." Next month, she hopes to find them all.
Bakal's search will take her more than 9,200 miles away to Saigon, now renamed Ho Chi Minh City, with 19 other orphans from the first wave of the effort that eventually brought more than 3,000 Vietnamese children to the United States.
They don't speak the language, many of their names have changed and some _ including Bakal _ don't even know their real birthdays.
"Everyone has a beginning," said Bakal, who believes she is 31. "I want to find mine."
As a toddler, Bakal was among the 57 children _ mostly babies, all orphaned or given up by their parents _ on the April 2, 1975, flight made by Ed Daly, former president of World Airways. The plane took off from a pitch-black runway, and its lights were kept off in the air to keep the Vietnamese military from shooting it down.
News of the flight traveled quickly, and the next day, President Gerald Ford was deluged with telephone calls to do something to save the children of Vietnam. The government brought thousands more children out of Vietnam as Saigon was falling that April.
Shirley Peck-Barnes, author of "The War Cradle," which documents the legacy of Operation Babylift, calls it the greatest humanitarian gesture of the last century.
"This is the one thing about the Vietnam War that made Americans feel relief," she said. "They were saving children."
The Vietnam flight next month was arranged by Atlanta-based World Airways for 20 of the orphans on the first flight.
Bakal almost didn't make that trip. She had been set to board a C5-A cargo plane that crashed a few days later, killing almost half the 330 adults and children on board. Instead, she was among those hastily boarded on the World Airways flight.
Until recently, Vietnam was just a birthplace for Bakal, her journey out of Saigon simply a footnote in her life, not a defining moment.
She was adopted by a white couple, Reed and Laura Dilbeck, a flight engineer and a hypnotherapist, and grew up in the then mostly white Atlanta suburb of Marietta trying to blend in, wanting a face to match her Southern twang.
As a teenage cashier working at a grocery store, she was called a "gook" by a war veteran. She spent years wishing her eyes were wider, rounder, more Caucasian.
"All my life, I never wanted to find them," she said, referring to her Chinese mother, who lived in Vietnam, and father, whom she believes was an American soldier.
It was a feeling shared by many of the Vietnamese adoptees growing up, said Peck-Barnes.
"A lot of the kids still feel a great loss of their culture. Many have Americanized and don't want to go back," she said.
Vietnam War adoptee Wendy Greene, who will be on the flight with Bakal next month, has been to Vietnam before and is making the trip with her adopted mother, Cheryl. She says she's not searching for her biological roots.
"I never really needed to go down that road," said Greene, 30. "I want to thank all the heroes that got us over here. That's what's most important to me. We really are all miracle babies."
Long before talk of a return to Vietnam, Bakal, now a mother of three, began searching for information about her birth mother.
She has collected mementos from her past: her original passport from Vietnam, the picture of her as a smiling baby, newspaper clippings recounting her story.
For weeks, she has run an ad in a Vietnamese newspaper with her baby picture, hoping her biological mother would recognize it and come forward. Bakal is hopeful that her return will also mean a reunion, or at least answers to questions she is now ready to ask.
"I took this for granted when I was growing up, but now I really feel like I'm a part of history," she said. "It would be so neat to be out there and actually meet my mother."