'Babylift' orphans make journey to Vietnam

April 2, 2010 12:00:00 AM PDT
April 2 is the 35th anniversary of the first "Babylift" flight, which carried orphans out of Vietnam and the flight that landed at Oakland International Airport.

Many of the orphans are back in Vietnam on an emotional journey.

In the spring of 1975, chaos was spreading in Vietnam. The Vietcong was advancing quickly and South Vietnam was falling.

Caught in the middle were the innocent waifs of war: the orphans -- many of whom were fathered by American G.I's. Rumors swept the city that the Vietcong would massacre them.

"You got a nursery full of babies. Do you lock the door or leave it open? Do you prop a bottle in their mouths as you drive away?" orphanage administrator Ross Meader said.

That was unthinkable for Meader, who worked in Saigon at an orphanage run by the group "Friends of Children in Vietnam." He was frantically trying to find a plane that would evacuate the children.

"We weren't able to find a plane that would take our kids out until we met Ed Daly," he said.

Daly was the tough talking, pistol packing owner of World Airways, a key military contractor whose planes flew out of Oakland Airport.

"He had a bottle of whiskey on one side, a pistol on the other side and when I say he was holding court at the airport, that's really what it felt like," Meader said. "We went up to him and explained that we had orphans and that we heard that he might have a plane able to take them out. Daly kind of winked and said, 'I think I can take care of that.'"

On April 2 with the threat of a Vietcong attack, Daly's cargo plane took off in the middle of the night with 57 orphans.

The stretch DC-8 had no seats, only cargo nets stuffed with pillows and blankets. The plane landed in Oakland. It was the first to fly Vietnamese orphans out of the country.

Greeting them at the tarmac were their new parents. One by one, the children were placed in their waiting arms and taken off the mercy flight.

Eventually, more than 3,000 children would be flown to the U.S. through 'Operation Babylift.'

"It's a blessing that this babylift happened and I'm grateful everyday for the baby airlift happening because my future would have been different," Vietnamese adoptee Lyly Koenig said.

Koenig was only a year old. She was adopted by the Koenig family from Missouri.

"I grew up in a small town called Festus, Missouri, which is 38 minutes south of St. Louis on the Mississippi River," she said.

The 35-year-old aspiring fashion designer says she grew up in a loving family and was treated just like any other kid.

"None of my family members, none of my extended family members made me feel or ever, ever said anything to me that made me feel like I was different. I was just their cousin or I was their sister," Koenig said.

Five years ago, Koenig went back to Vietnam for the first time with other adoptees. It was the 30th anniversary of that fateful flight. She says finding her past was overwhelming.

"Seeing Vietnam and especially the orphanage was...it sort of brought me full circle in a way. It felt like I was going home," she said. "I felt you know, I looked around and everyone looked like me for once."

Koenig, her mother Karen and other adoptees are back in Vietnam this week to celebrate the 35th anniversary of the 'Babylift.'

"Being able to go back and learn more about my country and my birth country and sort of filled out more of who I am and all that I think, that's the fairytale part of it. And the ongoing story is moving on and adopting my own child and continuing the legacy of Vietnam," she said.


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