Her given Vietnamese name is Nguyen-Thi Van, or “Sky Girl,” and she soon lived up to it, flying nearly 9,000 miles at the age of five months. In 1975, little Thi Van was loaded on a plane and barely escaped an unknown future in Vietnam. The mission, called Operation Babylift, airlifted at least 1,700 Vietnamese orphans to new American homes just before Saigon collapsed.
It will soon be the 25th Anniversary of the Fall of Saigon. Many of the orphans airlifted from Vietnam during Operation Babylift grew-up in the U.S. with stable families, earned college degrees, and found prosperous jobs. But now, even in adulthood, at least one of these orphans still wonders about her natural parents and the conflicting cultures of the Vietnam War.
In April 1975, as Communist troops surged to cut off South Vietnam, Thi Van and 150 orphans were packed inside a plane in Saigon bound for America. Infants were lined up three to a box, while foster parents kept a close eye on the toddlers. The little girl arrived at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport on Sunday, April 6, 1975, just weeks before the fall of Saigon, one of the last planeloads of orphans to escape before the American flag came down in Vietnam.
“I was really lucky I was one of (the babies). I got out. Orphans with mixed parentage or no fathers to claim them oftentimes lived on the streets. The babies that came out of there were a good thing from a bad situation. They were saved from living on the streets like rats, because that’s what happened when you didn’t have a legitimate father or weren’t full Vietnamese,” said Ms. Burns (formerly Nguyen-Thi Van).
While growing up in small-town Iowa, Ms. Burns was one of the only minorities. She remembers being called names, but admits it was never a huge issue, although entries from her diary at age 17 indicate otherwise.
In those teenage years, feelings of racial alienation no doubt came to the surface in her diary. But perhaps from these ambiguities, Jane was reticent to express them out loud. Her adoptive father, said Jane showed little early interest in examining the history of Vietnam. But in her later adolescent years, Ms. Burns discovered the musical Miss Saigon, which opened up a whole curiosity towards her ancestors.
Ms. Burns began to notice different colors in parts of her hair. A shade of brown emerged amongst the black. And it was not a dye from the beauty parlor either. She compared it to the hair of her adopted Vietnamese friends. It was different; not the usual jet-black color you would expect in an Asian.
“At that time, I was conscious of people generalizing and stereotyping. For example, I couldn’t get certain parts in a play. The toughest part was feeling like I didn’t fit in. Sometimes, I wished I were white. When I looked in the mirror, I didn’t see Asian. It wasn’t all bad though. My unique look helped me in some ways, but I struggled with it for a couple of years. Now I don’t think about it as much. I’m glad to say I’m half. I can fit into both worlds.”
Her Vietnamese friends also said her facial structure was more Eurasian. This made Ms. Burns wonder even more. What if her real father had been an American GI? Maybe that’s why her birth mother had to give her up for adoption. Ms. Burns began to do research. She watched Miss Saigon repeatedly. She read LeAnn Thiemann’s book "This Must Be My Brother," which told the story of Operation Babylift. She read and watched The Joy Luck Club.
But one of the most cathartic experiences came after delivering an original poem for a speech contest her senior year of high school. The lines moved nearly everyone to tears.
“I just think it’s amazing that any woman could give up a baby. I wish I could somehow thank her for it,” said Ms. Burns, “but who knows where she is living and I suppose it’s a reality, that she was a prostitute and my real dad was a soldier. It’s the kind of love story I like to think about. I just feel really lucky I was one of the babies who made it out.”
Missionaries in Saigon later confirmed that Ms. Burns’s birth mother left her in a hospital after giving birth. This was a common happening during the Vietnam War and her parents knew these circumstances before the adoption process. It left an indelible mark on the psyche of Jane Burns.
“I would like to go back to Vietnam some day. I want to see what it’s really like,” said Ms. Burns.
Bob Burns, Ms. Burns’s adoptive father, did not push his daughter to explore her heritage over the years. “I remember pointing out TV programs and books and other things on Vietnam, but Jane, at least in the early going, had no real interest. We really brought her up like the two boys. But I would say her poem and the themes of Miss Saigon showed some deep thought and contemplation in the later years.”
In the early seventies, Bob and Ann Burns wanted a third child, a daughter. So they worked through the adoptive process for more than a year with the Holt Agency, which specialized in the adoption of Asian children. The Burns, having adopted two children previously, met the parental requirements and finally got their wish. They expected Baby Thi Van’s arrival on Operation Babylift, during the later half of 1975.
But the Vietcong forced the airlift to rush its timetable. Planeloads of children were forced out of Vietnam many months ahead of schedule. Instead of waiting until later in the year as planned the Burns family found themselves summoned to Chicago’s O’Hare Airport on Saturday, April 5, 1975. Their baby was scheduled for arrival that Sunday.
Saigon in April of 1975 was like Dien Bien Phu all over again. Americans and South Vietnamese scrambled for safe passage out. The government was teetering on collapse and seemed likely to fall any day. Mr. Burns readied his family for the trip to Chicago with a feeling of apprehension.
Then they received a phone call.
“I could tell something was wrong by the voice on the other end. The caller said a plane full of kids from Saigon had crashed. There were a few injuries and some deaths,” said Mr. Burns.
Fearing the worst and wanting some kind of confirmation, Ann Burns called Iowa Congressman and future Senator, Tom Harkin. Harkin’s Washington office was able to determine that Thi Van, the “Sky Girl,” was fine. She had been on a different plane after all. The Burns family, including Doug, 5, and Tom, 3, breathed easier, but they still hadn’t seen their newest edition arrive safely.
“With the plane crash and the political situation, there was such a heightened sense of anxiety by the time we finally got to the airport. And the fall itself could have come at any day,” said Mr. Burns.
The airport terminal hit a fever pitch as the first babies came off the plane. Television lights shined brightly and camera bulbs flashed as each foster parent carried the infants out. The media uproar blinded the family. The Burns had received interview requests before they even left for Chicago. The coverage peaked to a crescendo at the airport and continued until much later, when little Jane was back with the family in Iowa. One photo of Mrs. Burns kissing her new daughter made the UPI Wire and the front page of several newspapers. The history and symbolism of the “media” moment almost seemed to overshadow everything else. Mr. Burns wondered about his family’s role.
“Why us? I remember asking. We were no different than any other family who adopted. We’d just adopted two boys, now we had a cute little Asian girl, I mean what’s the difference and what made us special?” he asked.
But to a world used to decades of bloodshed between whites and Asians in Vietnam, the Burns family was special. They offered a clean break from a war-torn past and gave many a new reason for optimism.
“I still remember looking at all those brown babies and wondering which one was ours,” said Mr. Burns. “Once you get that baby in your arms you knew it was going to be OK. She was going to be ours. To provide a home for a child who didn’t have one, that is a good feeling.”
“I never stopped to think how lucky I was just to have gotten out,” said Ms. Burns.
Jane Burns, 25, the “Sky Girl,” teaches English as a Second Language in an elementary school in Iowa and is working towards a master’s degree in that field. She also helps conduct a drama workshop for underprivileged children. The “Dream Players” are made up of several Vietnamese-American students. Teachers from similar backgrounds, such as Ms. Burns, help build self-esteem.
“The children are surrounded by positive role models. I wish I could have had someone who was also Vietnamese when I was growing up. I wouldn’t have felt so isolated,” she said.
Ms. Burns has stayed in touch with other orphans from Operation Babylift over the years, even reuniting with another orphan this month. She plans to begin her poetry again, and maybe someday take that trip to Vietnam.
To commemorate the 25th Anniversary of the Fall of Saigon and Operation Babylift, the children who left Saigon in 1975 and their adoptive families will meet again in Baltimore, Md. The reunion will be held during the weekend of April 29, 2000.
© 2000 Copyright Brent Eastwood
Brent Eastwood is a freelance writer, current graduate student in journalism, former television reporter, and specialist in the West Virginia Army National Guard. He may be reached at <email@example.com>.
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