The Lost Children: Vietnam

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“Rejoice O young man, in thy youth…”
– Ecclesiastes (from Platoon)

 

I had a strange thought today.

Those of you who have been reading my blog know that I have two fathers: my Dad, George, who raised me; and Jim, my birthfather.

My strange thought today was about Jim.

Jim was in Vietnam from 1969 to 1970. He was based at Lai Khe, headquarters of the 1st Infantry Division and an important base for the outer defense of Saigon. The base had a sign over its gate that read, “Welcome to Rocket City”–in part because by 1970 it was, along with Khe Sanh, one of the most heavily-rocketed bases in South Vietnam.

Jim was in the Air Force, flying back seat as the weapons specialist in an OV-10 Bronco, the Forward Air Control “plane of choice” during the war. He and his pilot served the same type of duty as army scouts–ranging far ahead from the main detachment in search of NVA and VC troops. Once those troops were located, Jim, as the weapons specialist, would mark the target with white phosphorus. Then Air Force, Marine, or Navy aircraft–or artillery–would take over.

My strange thought came as I was watching the film Platoon this afternoon. I thought I remembered how many American soldiers died in Vietnam, but I wanted to be sure, so I Googled it. It was as I remembered: 58,220. I remembered the number from my teenage years, when I was fascinated by the Vietnam War and consumed anything I could find related to it–books, movies, TV shows, magazine articles.

But I never thought about the number. I knew it was a horrific amount of people, but I never thought until today that the majority of those killed in action were just kids–average age nineteen–who would never become husbands and fathers. I thought today about all the children that weren’t born because those 58,220 men were killed.

And then I thought of myself.

Jim survived. He wasn’t shot down. He didn’t crash. Despite being in a light, slow-moving aircraft far out in front of the main group for a full year, he did not go down. He survived.

Which means I survived, too.

A strange thought, like I said.

I’m here, but the children of thousands of other soldiers are not. This is devastating.

But this also means that I may have some role to play in the world, some purpose. As many Vietnam veterans themselves say, why did I make it when so many others did not? There must be a reason.

I suppose the children of veterans of World War II and Korea may feel the same way. A certain sense of grace or luck. Just one well-aimed rocket-propelled grenade, just one loose screw on a wing or engine part, and I would not be here.

I guess, in a way, we can all say that about ourselves. We would not be here if not for the ones who came before us. But there’s something about knowing your DNA survived a war when others did not that makes it different. They are the lost children of Vietnam–the ones who were never born.

As I said, I was always fascinated by the Vietnam War, even decades before I knew Jim served there. I cried at The Wall as an eighth grader, drawing stares from my classmates on a school trip. I felt something back then, staring at the black granite, I just didn’t know what.

Maybe now I do.

His Angel

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“He didn’t want you to be given up.”

Lori, my sister-in-law, Thursday night.

She was speaking of Jim, my birth father, and words he had spoken to her years ago about me–the child he called “his Angel.”

I didn’t know any of this.

I grew up knowing I was adopted. I grew up feeling like some essential part of me was somehow wrong, somehow missing. Off-kilter, out of step with the rest of the world. If the very people who created me were willing to give me away to strangers, then who would, really, want me?

But now I know Jim wanted me. And that has made all the difference.

I’ve cried a lot the last day and a half. Tears of finally feeling accepted. Tears of belonging. Not sad tears, at all. Tears of a sort of relieved joy—a feeling of fitting in at last to the place where I came from.

I have a picture of Jim from 1969, three years before I was born. The picture was taken at Lai Khe, South Vietnam. Jim is young and blond and confident-looking, leaning against a jeep with a cigarette in his hand. He has my cheeks. He has my chin. He has my hair. One of his grandsons, too, has my cheeks and hair. Mind-blowing, after a lifetime of being physically different than everyone in my family.

I never met Jim. He died before I was able to. We had a complex relationship in the years between my finding him and his death. He never told me what he told Lori. He never told me a lot of things.

He never told me I was his Angel.

But through the years, I’ve often thought of him as mine.

I miss you, Jim. Thank you for your words. I’ve heard you now, and it matters.

 

Operation Babylift

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Following on the heels of my post about First Lieutenant Sharon Ann Lane, I wanted to write about the heroism of another group of women at the end of the Vietnam War.

In the spring of 1975, commercial aircraft leaving Saigon were filled to capacity. The military, out of necessity, began offering seats on cargo planes to American civilians in an effort to get them out of the country.

But there was a special group of civilians, not quite Americans—yet. Vietnamese orphans, who had families eagerly waiting to adopt them in the United States.

Orphanages in South Vietnam were suffering gravely from a lack of basic medical supplies and food, and aid workers were scrambling to try to get as many orphans back to the United States as they could. The problem was transportation.

USAID (Unites States Aid to International Development) eventually came through and promised three Medevac flights for the orphans to be sent from a base in the Philippines.

But the day after this promise was made, April 4th, 1975, aid workers were told that one of the world’s largest planes was to be sent instead—the C-5A cargo plane. President Gerald Ford had heard about the plight of the orphans and authorized the use of the giant plane for what was soon termed “Operation Babylift.”

The plane was massive—six stories high. Under normal circumstances, it carried helicopters and tanks. It was not suited to carrying passengers. For this reason, aid workers decided that only children three years of age and older would be sent out on the C-5A, because only they could be properly secured.

Twenty-two infants were sent, however. They were chosen from among the very strongest, and were secured in the seats of the troop compartment of the plane.

Fifteen minutes after take-off, as the plane was approaching its cruising altitude, the back doors blew out. The pilot was skilled enough that, despite a lack of rudder control, he was able to turn the plane around and head back to Saigon. But he was unable to control his rate of descent, and the plane impacted in a rice paddy outside Saigon at 350 mph.

Approximately 130 passengers and crew were killed, including an estimated seventy-three children and thirty-eight women. All of the women who died worked for various U.S. government aid agencies at the time of the flight, with the exception of Laurie Stark, who was a teacher, and Captain Mary Therese Klinker, an Air Force flight nurse assigned to Clark Air Base in the Philippines.

The goal of these women was to get a group of orphans to loving homes in the United States, and they died in service to that goal. They should be remembered for their heroism. And the children should be remembered, too, for the lives they could have lived here in the States, after spending their early years in a country marked by war.

I was three years old in 1975, and I’m adopted. Were I born in another place and in other circumstances, I could very well have been on that plane.

To the women and children of Operation Babylift: we remember.

The Women:

Barbara Adams 
Clara Bayot
Nova Bell
Arleta Bertwell
Helen Blackburn
Ann Bottorff
Celeste Brown
Vivienne Clark
Juanita Creel
Mary Ann Crouch
Dorothy Curtiss
Twila Donelson
Helen Drye
Theresa Drye (a child)
Mary Lyn Eichen
Elizabeth Fugino
Ruthanne Gasper
Beverly Herbert
Penelope Hindman
Vera Hollibaugh
Dorothy Howard
Barbara Kauvulia

Captain Mary Therese Klinker
Barbara Maier
Rebecca Martin
Sara Martini
Martha Middlebrook
Katherine Moore
Marta Moschkin
Marion Polgrean
June Poulton
Joan Pray
Sayonna Randall
Anne Reynolds
Marjorie Snow
Laurie Stark
Barbara Stout
Doris Jean Watkins
Sharon Wesley

Virtual Wall

Operation Babylift Memorial

 

Sharon Ann Lane

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I usually write about ancient women on this blog—women from Classical times—because I’ve always felt like their contribution to history has been forgotten. But I recently came upon the story of another woman, a modern woman, whose story I think has also been forgotten. And I want to share her story with you because I think it deserves to be told.

Sharon Ann Lane. First Lieutenant in the United States Army. A nurse stationed at the 312th Evacuation Hospital, Chu Lai, Vietnam in 1969.

Sharon was born in 1943 in Ohio. She graduated from high school in Canton in 1961. After high school, she attended the Aultman Hospital School of Nursing, where she graduated in April of 1965. She worked at a civilian hospital before joining the U.S. Army Nurse Corps Reserve in April of 1968.

She received her army training at Fort Sam Houston in Texas, where all army nurses trained in the 1960s, graduating as a second lieutenant in June of 1968. Her first assignment as an army nurse was on a tuberculosis ward at the Army’s Fitzsimons General Hospital in Denver, Colorado.

On April 24th, 1969, she received orders sending her to Vietnam.

Sharon was sent to Chu Lai, the home of two army hospitals in the first half of 1969—the 27th Surgical Hospital and the 312th Evacuation Hospital. Sharon was originally assigned to the Intensive Care Unit of the 312th, but a few days later was moved to the Vietnamese ward. There, she cared for women, children, and the occasional POW. It was not an assignment most staffers wanted, but Sharon repeatedly declined offers of transfers to other wards.

In addition to her twelve-hour shifts on the Vietnamese ward, Sharon spent her off-duty time working with critically injured American soldiers in the Surgical Intensive Care Unit. According to those who served with her, she was “adored and respected” by everyone in the hospital.

Early on the morning of June 8th, 1969, the Viet Cong attacked the 312th with 122mm rockets. Sharon was just finishing up her night shift on the Vietnamese ward, when one rocket struck Ward 4—her ward. Sharon was struck with shrapnel in the chest and throat, and killed instantly.  She was twenty-five years old.

Sharon was the only female American military member killed by enemy action in the Vietnam War.

Although seven other nurses died in Vietnam, their deaths were the result of accidents or illness. Sharon gave her life the way so many of her patients had—at the hands of the enemy.

Following her death, Fitzsimons General Hospital renamed its recovery room in honor of Sharon, and a statue of her was erected in front of Aultman Hospital, where she had been a nursing student. Roads in Denver, Colorado and in Belvoir, Virginia have been named for her.

Approximately five thousand nurses served in-country over the course of the Vietnam War, most living in tough conditions doing a brutal job. They have been dubbed “Angels of Mercy” for their work.

But Sharon truly is an angel, if you believe in that sort of thing. She would be seventy-four today, retired from a long career as a nurse, most likely. But instead, she lost her life at a young age doing hard work for a country that, at the time, had little in the way of gratitude.

Thank you, Sharon. And God bless.

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Army History

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