- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 15, 2015

For adopted children like Michael Marchese, family reunions have meant reconnecting with lost relatives: He has found his elder sister and his birth mother, whom he hadn’t seen for decades.

Under the protection of a South Vietnamese orphanage in 1975, he was 3 years old when he was placed on a chartered plane bound for the United States.

“I am very fortunate,” the married father of two said. “I landed safely in America and was adopted by a wonderful family, the Marcheses. I only wish that all adoption stories could be as successful and rewarding as mine.”

Mr. Marchese was one of more than 3,000 young Vietnamese children who were rescued during Operation Babylift in April 1975 and sent to adoptive homes as communist North Vietnam overran the South Vietnamese government.

A 40th anniversary reunion of the children of the humanitarian effort is planned for November in Washington, said an official with Holt International Children’s Services, which brought more than 400 orphaned children out of Vietnam in the rescue effort.

The boundless altruism of the baby lift — which continued with government, private and commercial flights until April 29, the day before Saigon fell to the communist North Vietnamese army — continues to inspire him, said Mr. Marchese, who was put on a Holt-chartered plane to be adopted by the Marchese family of Philadelphia.

PHOTOS: Vietnam 'Operation Babylift' marks 40th anniversary

“I can never thank Holt enough,” he said. Without the baby lift, he said, he would have either died or grown up on the streets because he was left in the orphanage — a presumed safe haven against the anti-U.S. Viet Cong.

“My mother’s biggest concern” was that the Viet Cong were gathering up boys who didn’t look fully Vietnamese and “taking them to camps or actually shooting them,” he said.

His birth father, known only as “William” — as labeled on his jumpsuit — was an Air Force mechanic, “and I really don’t look Vietnamese,” said Mr. Marchese, now a commercial real estate broker in New Jersey.

“So many of the [baby lift] children are Amerasian, and that would have been an especially great hardship for them,” said Susan Soon-Keum Cox, vice president of public policy and external affairs at Holt International Children’s Services.

“The fact that they were not full Vietnamese, and obviously fathered by a soldier or an American, was going to put them at risk when there was no one there to protect them. And certainly, for the mothers, it would be difficult,” she said.

A logistical challenge

Operation Babylift began on April 3, 1975, when President Ford said $2 million would be allocated to a special foreign-aid children’s fund to fly some 2,000 South Vietnamese orphans to the United States “as soon as possible.”

The announcement sparked a flurry of activity: Vietnamese authorities — who in previous years preferred to place children with Vietnamese families and had not supported international adoption — wanted paperwork on each child. Also, children 11 and older were not permitted to be airlifted, which meant some siblings were separated.

U.S. government planes were expected to ferry the children. However, Ed Daly, president of World Airways, quickly pledged and used his aircraft to assist in the airlift, despite U.S. and South Vietnamese concerns that the “rice cargo plane” was “unsafe and unsuitable” for babies and children, according to an April 3, 1975, letter to the White House from the U.S. Agency for International Development.

Mr. Daly was alerted to the Vietnam orphan crisis by his daughter, who worked for Friends For All Children. He insisted that a DC-8 that had been flying rice to Phnom Penh and was returning to the U.S. was a good solution.

“Hell yes, we’ll turn it into a flying crib. We’ll get doctors and nurses and take all the kids,” Mr. Daly said, according to a 2009 article by Larry Engelmann in Vietnam magazine.

World Airways carried dozens of children — many from the Friends of the Children of Vietnam program — on each of its flights to the U.S.

Holt, which had been in Vietnam for years, had more than 400 children to move, so it chartered a Pan Am 747 for an April 5 trip that included a $185,000 insurance policy. The decision possibly spared those children from tragedy.

‘A bittersweet time’

On April 4, a U.S. government C-5A cargo plane took off with more than 200 orphans and some 40 adult caregivers. When a door malfunctioned shortly after takeoff, the “mercy flight” crashed near the airport, killing 78 children and about 50 adults.

A Pan Am flight chartered by Friends for All Children landed safely in San Francisco on April 5 and was greeted by the president and first lady Betty Ford. The Holt-chartered plane soon followed and arrived in Seattle after midnight.

“It was in many ways a bittersweet time, full of layered emotion,” said Lucinda Muniz, a social worker who received the Holt children at the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport that night.

Many children’s adoptive families had poured into the airport, and more than 100 children boarded Pan Am flights to other cities, escorted by Pan Am flight crew volunteers. Another 144 children went into temporary foster care in Washington, and about 18 were hospitalized, “chiefly for observation,” Ms. Muniz recalled in an email to The Washington Times.

“There was excitement and there was sorrow. We recognized that, especially for the older children, their journey was just starting. It was ineffably profound,” she said.

Throughout April, about 2,000 children were transported to homes in the United States, and 1,000 others were flown to Europe, Australia and Canada.

The last flight was on April 29, when Holt adoption advocate Rosemary Taylor left the country, according to a historical article written in 2000 by John Aeby, the late director of communications for Holt.

“What saddened me was that Holt had to leave behind some of our Vietnamese staff and foster parents,” said Glen Noteboom, a Holt staffer who safeguarded the adoption records until he, too, was evacuated.

Birth mother sent to camp

On April 30, 1975, the windows of escape closed as North Vietnam’s communist fighters swept into Saigon, and the final helicopters lifted off from the rooftop of the U.S. Embassy.

The death toll of the Vietnam War is estimated to be 1 million to 3.6 million people. After the war, some 250,000 South Vietnamese were executed, 1 million to 2 million were sent to re-education camps, and hundreds of thousands of “Vietnamese boat people” died at sea while fleeing the country.

Mr. Marchese’s birth mother was sent to a re-education camp.

“A bunch of the villagers ratted her out” for having two children by an American serviceman, and she was pressured to talk about it, Mr. Marchese said. “But she wouldn’t say anything” and spent about six months in the concentration camp.

It turned out that his elder sister, Tina, also was raised in the United States and had been searching for her little brother for decades. She last saw him playing with a truck by himself in the Holt orphanage.

He and his sister reconnected in 2000, and she helped Mr. Marchese meet his mother in 2006 in the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.

“My mother kept apologizing to me — ‘I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry,’” he said. “I just told her, ‘There’s nothing for you to apologize about, for you basically saved my life by sacrificing, giving me up. I’m back. I’m alive. What you did worked.’”

• Cheryl Wetzstein can be reached at cwetzstein@washingtontimes.com.

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