Tia Keevil was about 4 years old and living in an orphanage in Saigon — now Ho Chi Minh City — in April 1975 when President Gerald Ford ordered U.S. troops to evacuate Vietnamese-American orphans like her before the city fell to advancing Viet Cong and North Vietnamese troops.
She and other men and women who were touched by what became known as “Operation Babylift” gathered in lower Manhattan Saturday to remember that mercy mission and to say “thank you” to the Vietnam veterans who ferried them to safety 42 years ago and helped transform their lives.
“I appreciate all of them, and am very proud of what this country did,” said the 45-year-old Adelphi University graduate who now lives in Flushing.
The gathering, at Vietnam Veterans Memorial Plaza between Water and South streets, featured “Children of the April Rain,” a play about the chaotic evacuation during the final frantic days of the Vietnam War, during which an aerial flotilla of military and civilian aircraft made repeated flights throughout that April to ferry children from Saigon.
The first flight ended tragically when a huge U.S. Air Force C5-A carrying evacuees crashed shortly after taking off from Saigon’s Tan Son Nhut Airport, killing more than 100 of those aboard, including 78 of the orphans. The last plane left Vietnam on April 29, 1975 — one day before North Vietnamese troops swept into Saigon.
Susan Winterbottom, now 76 and a retired Lindenhurst educator, recalled the moment she first met her adopted son. She recalled worrying that the crash would end the rescue effort and scuttle her adoption. But then, while she was teaching a third-grade class at the Kellum Street School, she got a call telling her to hurry to the airport.
“They brought him off the plane and all they wanted from me was to see my driver’s license,” said Winterbottom, whose adopted son Andrew grew up, joined the Marines, and is now a police officer in Houston.
“I was thrilled, absolutely thrilled,” Winterbottom said. “He was quiet. He didn’t cry. And I didn’t want to frighten him.”
The operation relocated some 3,000 children — many of them the offspring of American troops who had been stationed there — to adoptive families in the United States, Europe and Australia.
Victoria Sharma, 51, now a Queens Village real estate agent, was an 8-year-old American citizen living in Vietnam at the time. Her father, a U.S. government employee, had adopted a Vietnamese girl. But with communist troops quickly closing in, and no legal visa in hand, Sharma’s family was forced to smuggle the 4-year-old adoptee out of the country.
Sharma’s parents used a waterproof marker to write contact information on the child’s belly and back, and rushed her to a Babylift plane. With only seconds remaining, Sharma’s mother tossed the little girl into the arms of a Babylift aircraft crew member and prayed that she would safely reach her father, who was waiting in San Francisco. The family followed shortly after on a commercial flight.
“It was absolutely terrifying, because I didn’t know why my parents sent her off without us,” said Sharma, who read a portion of the script during Saturday’s performance. “And my sister wouldn’t talk to my mother for two weeks after we were together again.”
The mass evacuation had its critics. Several theologians labeled the evacuation an effort to ease guilty feelings Americans felt over their involvement in a war that claimed the lives of as many as 2 million Vietnamese civilians. John Bennett, a former president of the Union Theological Seminary, said in a 1975 statement signed by five other prominent theologians that it would be better to allow the children to grow up in their home culture.
But Lana Noone, 70, a classical flute player living in Garden City and a principal backer of the play, said she arranged to adopt one of the orphans after she and her husband struggled to have children.
“The Vietnam War was so political, but this wasn’t political,” she said of her decision to adopt a Vietnamese child. “This was just about a kid being in harm’s way.”
Keevil, who has visited Vietnam as an adult, said she is happy with her life as a Vietnamese-American adoptee living in the United States. She works as a nurse in the Bronx, and is raising a daughter of her own.
Keevil said she helped produce the play as a way of saying ‘thank you’ to Vietnam veterans who helped bring her here.
“I don’t regret that I didn’t stay over there,” she said. “It’s good that they see the children who survived and thrived because of what they did.”