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Rosemary Taylor, Adoption Hero Vietnam 1967-1975

By Patricia Palmer

April 2000 marks the 25th anniversary of Operation Babylift, the mass evacuation of Vietnamese orphans in the care of American connected adoption programs due to the imminent takeover of South Vietnam by North Vietnamese troops. Rosemary Taylor did not come to Vietnam to set up an adoption program or even to work specifically with homeless children. But when she saw firsthand the suffering and the dying of so many orphans of war, she established nurseries where infants's lives could be saved and babies and older children lovingly cared for until they could be sent abroad to adoptive families. Of the several adoption programs eventually operating in Vietnam, Rosemary Taylor's program was the longest running and most extensive.

Rosemary Taylor, an Australian high school teacher, went to Vietnam in February 1967 as an educational social worker and the first Roman Catholic to join a refugee service sponsored by the Australian Council of Churches. Two months later she left her first assignment and began to work as a volunteer at Phu My, directed by the Sisters of St. Paul de Chartres. Phu My was a refuge for some 1500 people, including the homeless, the destitute, the incurably ill, and the dying, and also included an orphanage and center for polio children. A small room at Phu My was to be Rosemary's home for the next eight years.

At Phu My Rosemary met a Swiss nurse who was involved in arranging the adoptions of a few orphan children into European families. Rosemary soon began helping with the adoptions by bringing the children ready to leave for Europe to Saigon from provincial orphanages, a challenging task due to the difficulty of finding transportation. When the Swiss nurse had to leave Vietnam at the end of 1967 she asked Rosemary to be responsible for the departure of several dozen children whose adoptions were still in progress. In her book "Orphans of War" (Collins, 1988) Rosemary Taylor told of her early months working with orphans in Vietnam:

By now I had visited a dozen other orphanages in Saigon and in the provinces and begun to appreciate the dimensions of the problem of abandoned and orphan children. Nothing in my previous experience or reading had prepared me for this. I was coming into contact with hundreds of newborn babies with no identity and no prospects. There were healthy and handicapped babies; the fully Vietnamese and the mixed-race; the legitimate and the illegitimate! Many of the orphanages were run by Vietnamese Catholic Sisters, who were mostly doing the best they could under the worst conditions in a situation that was never meant to be. The offspring of men arrive one at a time for a reason. These babies came by dozens each month to the already overcrowded orphanages. They were never the center of anyone's universe and never received the nurturing warmth of parental love. They often lacked the minimum necessary to animal existence. How much more did they lack the affection and stimulation needed to promote their human development. My instinctive reaction was to resist this destruction of personality and work towards getting as many of these babies as possible into the mainstream of human development. To give them caring parents was the first step." (p. 15)

In August 1968 Rosemary and a Spanish nurse decided to open their own nursery where they could give the intensive care needed for the survival of abandoned newborn babies and where they could implement standards of hygiene and child care without the frustration inevitable as foreign intruders in an already established orphanage. Their first "nursery" was merely a rented room in a rundown building in a rat-infested alley. It was called "To Am" - warm nest.

The organization that Rosemary Taylor developed in Vietnam was primarily a salvage operation, saving the lives of as many children as possible and then sending them to the safety of adoptive homes outside of Vietnam. Starting out by herself, her team grew to include fifteen foreigners, "American, Australian, British, French, German and Spanish nurses and administrators who with Rosemary worked around the clock, receiving little or no compensation” and 400 Vietnamese nurses, childcare workers, physical therapists, early childhood development specialists, maintenance personnel, and administrative staff.

By 1972 Rosemary and her staff were operating three nurseries--huge rented houses that could accommodate large numbers of babies or older children. During 1972 alone they placed over 500 children in adoptive homes, working in liaison with professional agencies in most countries and, in particular with Terre des Hommes in Switzerland, Germany, France, Belgium and Luxemburg. From 1968 to 1972 Rosemary and her staff managed to place a total of 1132 orphans, having arranged the majority of all adoptions of Vietnamese children during those years.

In 1973 it became necessary for Rosemary Taylor's program to register under an official name in order to "continue the work we had been doing without one." In March of that year Friends of the Children of Viet Nam (FCVN) was licensed by the Colorado Department of Social Services and signed a contract with the Vietnamese government. A year later, due to internal problems within FCVN in Colorado (which was comprised of a volunteer organization providing support for Vietnamese orphanages as well as the adoption agency affiliated with Rosemary Taylor's nurseries), the adoption agency staff resigned from FCVN and negotiated a new agreement with the Vietnamese government under a new name, Friends For All Children (FFAC).

Depending heavily on volunteer help in both Vietnam and Colorado and despite a perpetual shortage of funds, Rosemary Taylor's operation to save the lives of Vietnamese orphans continued to expand during the last years of American presence in Vietnam. The work in Vietnam was financed privately for the most part by supporters in the USA, Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Belgium, England, Italy, Sweden and Switzerland. Adoptive parents were viewed as part of the team to save the children, and adoption fees were kept to an absolute minimum: "All we ever requested as a "fee" for an adoption was barely enough to cover the most obvious procedural costs." (p. 91)

In November 1973 the work was expanded to a fourth and fifth facility. Added to the second To Am Nursery, Allambie for older children, and Newhaven Nursery were Hy Vong ("Hope") intensive care nursery and Rathaven (most aptly named), used as staff living-quarters, meeting place and warehouse. By this time Rosemary Taylor's program was employing a total of about 200 Vietnamese staff, some of whom had been trained as Mothercare nursery nurses.

An American volunteer wrote home in November 1974: "Rosemary is up to her eyes in work. She returned from Australia a bundle of energy and I would guess that her optimism dwindled in the first sixty minutes. Her task is enormous, overwhelmingly complex, completely impossible, and never-ending. Her spirit is remarkable, her methods courageous, breathtaking, hazardous and dictatorial. Without her the whole team would fold up. Because its structures comprise a complex maze of ingenious channels of operation totally dependent on her leadership: simple, forthright, autocratic and totally altruistic."(p. 126)

As the political situation in Vietnam deteriorated during the early months of 1975, it became clear that an evacuation of children already assigned to overseas families, as well as of other adoptable children in FFAC care, would be necessary in order for the children to join their adoptive families. Rosemary later wrote of the tense situation that existed by the end of March 1975: "No one knew how much time we had before Saigon would fall. Some thought it might be six months, others not as long."

There were now about 600 children under FFAC care in the four nurseries, including the remaining Cambodian refugees. The children were cared for in shifts by the 400 local staff and fifteen foreign staff nurses and administrators. Should the situation in Saigon deteriorate, the Vietnamese staff would be unable to report for work, and without them there would be no way in which the rest of us could cope. It would be physically impossible to transport so many children to the airport or to the helicopter pick-up points in the event of an emergency evacuation. The radio newscasts on Easter Sunday were reporting the panic in Danang and the clogging of all circulation; it could be much worse in Saigon: "No one considered leaving the children behind. It was accepted that if the children did not depart prior to a change of regime, they would never leave Vietnam for the families that awaited them in other countries. The only logical solution in Wende's mind [Wende Grant, director of FFAC in Colorado and at that time in Vietnam helping with the children] was to evacuate our children before there was an acute shortage of food and medical supplies, before Saigon could be flooded with refugees, before the fighting was too close to the city, and before the airport could be closed by shelling or a panic-stricken populace. Once this was clear, there was no time to be lost and everyone started working on this plan immediately. We prepared memos to the nurseries warning them of the departure and the need to pack supplies for three days. Each nursery was to submit to the office the names of resident children in permanent custody with notations concerning their travel fitnes." (pp. 151-153)

FFAC staff in Vietnam and Colorado tried in vain to charter a plane for the evacuation, contacting Pan Am and other airlines. On April 4 a call came from USAID in Vietnam, notifying FFAC that the US had authorized transportation for the Vietnamese orphans scheduled to leave Saigon and offering a US military C-5A departing that afternoon. Space for 230 children was offered, and FFAC was assured that the C-5A had seats, seat belts, oxygen and emergency evacuation equipment. Rosemary and her close friend and associate Margaret Moses discussed the plan and agreed to accept the offer.

Tragically the C-5A crashed within minutes of take-off. Seventy-eight children died and ten were hospitalized. Of the eight FFAC staff who had accompanied the children, only one nurse survived. Among those who perished was Margaret Moses, Rosemary's friend from their school days in Australia who had left her position with the education department in 1971 to heed Rosemary's plea to come to Vietnam to assist her in running the nurseries.

There was no time for Rosemary and the remaining FFAC staff to mourn, for immediate arrangements had to be made to evacuate the surviving children and the other children still in the nurseries. 324 children had to be prepared again for departure, new supplies packed and identities of the surviving babies confirmed. Rosemary Taylor wrote of that terrible time: "The living still had to be cared for; there was no time to dwell upon the tragedy. I myself was numbed beyond the possibility of emotion. All the remaining staff knew what had to be done and did it with a minimum of wasted words. In the back of my mind I knew that I could "think about it later," to use one of Marg's favorite phrases." (p. 175)

One day after the crash of the C-5A, FFAC children and escorts left Vietnam on a chartered Pan Am 747. This group arrived safely in the USA.

Rosemary and three other staff members stayed on in Saigon, rejoined during the next ten days by two other staff members who had escorted children out of the country. They closed Hy Vong, giving most of the equipment, furniture and food supplies to Phu My. But then more children poured in from provincial orphanages as the Sisters commuted back and forth from the Mekong Delta, bringing children promised to families in France and Italy. Over the next three weeks the population of To Am, Newhaven and Allambie built up again to maximum capacity, after most of the local staff had been dismissed and extra supplies dispersed. Rosemary continued to process normal travel documentation for as many individual children as possible, sending them out of Vietnam on either Pan Am or Air France flights which were still operating. On April 22 Rosemary was told that she and other foreign staff "would have to evacuate very soon if necessary without our, by now, 200 children. [Major B.] seemed surprised, but realized I was serious when I said that we would not leave without the children." (p. 199)

It was next to impossible to secure a plane to evacuate the remaining children. Finally on April 26, four days before Saigon fell, a small C-141 cargo plane was obtained for the, by then, 270 children. One of the escorts later recalled: "The older children were strapped in canvas seats along the side of the fuselage with one common seat belt to secure them. Approximately seventy-five children traveled in this fashion. The remaining children were placed in blankets spread over the metal floor. The tiny babies in boxes and baskets were placed in the rear of the plane with Susan [McDonald] and the other [far too few] escorts scattered throughout. We ran out of water one hour out of Saigon." (p. 203)

Again Rosemary stayed on in Vietnam to close the nurseries: "As the plane moved away with the last of our children, I felt only an immense sense of relief and freedom, such as I'd never before experienced. The burden of all those children for so many years had been weighing intolerably. (p. 208)

On April 29 Rosemary, two other remaining staff, and the young adopted daughter of one of them, left Vietnam on one of the last helicopters to take off from the roof of the American Embassy. They spent several days on a ship before Rosemary was finally able to fly to Colorado on May 7 to assist with all that was left to be done for the FFAC children and their adoptive families.

The Australian government subsequently awarded Rosemary Taylor the decoration “Member of the Order of Australia” for the work she accomplished on behalf of the children of Vietnam.

In 1979 she returned to Southeast Asia, with Friends For All Children, to assist in refugee programs and in projects for orphans, handicapped and deprived children in Thailand. Today Rosemary Taylor lives in Bangkok where she continues to devote her life to needy children.

The article originally appeared as part of the IAA adoption heroes series on Jan King's Inter-National Adoption Alliance web site.

Patricia Palmer is the mother of two sons from Vietnam: Robert, who spent his first 6 months at Newhaven Nursery, arriving in the USA in June 1974 (mentioned in Rosemary's book under his nursery name "John of the Cross"), and James, who came to the USA during the Babylift of April 1975 when he was about a year old.
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