An Lac orphans reunite in Columbus after 35 years

By Lily Gordon
For The Associated Press

COLUMBUS, Ga. (AP) — Jason Robertson doesn’t know his birth date or possess a single memory of his mother or father.

He was only 3 years old when he was scooped off the streets of Saigon and brought to live in An Lac Orphanage, located in the city’s slums.

That all changed in 1975 when an American woman named Betty Tisdale organized and executed the single largest airlift from one orphanage in history. Using forged birth certificates, she helped 219 orphans escape their war-torn nation to begin a new life in America.

This weekend, 65 of those Vietnamese orphans will reunite in Columbus and Fort Benning where 35 years ago, they were welcomed with open arms.

Together, they will learn about their heritage and reconnect with Tisdale, some for the first time in decades. Joining them will be Nguyet Balin, the adopted daughter of the late actress Ina Balin. Balin was one of the oldest children rescued from the orphanage and helped care for the infants, Robertson said.

Just days before the fall of Saigon, the orphans of An Lac were transported on two Air Force flights from Vietnam to the Philippines. They boarded non-military airplanes and flew first to Hawaii, then into Los Angeles, and finally to Fort Benning.

On a Friday in early April, the planes landed at Benning’s Lawson Army Airfield. Soldiers, nurses, and volunteers flocked to the children, wrapping them in blankets, hugging them, and comforting them with reassuring smiles.

Within a month, all of the orphans were adopted by American families around the country.

Jason Robertson’s new family lived in rural Alabama.

Bill and Wanda Robertson gave their son a new identity and a birthday: Dec. 30, 1970.

“I always joke around that my adoptive dad must have been a businessman because he wanted the tax write-off that year,” Robertson said.

It was clear from the moment he arrived that Robertson had endured the traumas of war. Like many of the other children, he was malnourished, struggling to overcome developmental delays. He also suffered from night terrors and frequent, vivid flashbacks.

“So literally, I’d be lying in bed sometimes and I’d look across the room and see children crawling around on the floor,” Robertson said.

As a dark-skinned Vietnamese kid growing up in a white family and predominantly white community, Robertson struggled to fit in. On the inside, he felt like every other American kid, but his skin color was a constant reminder that on the outside, he was nothing like his schoolmates. At such a young age, Robertson had a hard time processing the racism and ridicule he encountered, so he internalized his feelings. Other children would ask who he was and why he was there. Any mention of Vietnam was likely to set one or more of his classmates off on a tirade. Soon, he began telling people he was Mexican to avoid such confrontations.

“It was usually pretty negative because the kids would repeat what they heard on TV or the comments of their parents around the house,” Robertson said. “There were times when kids weren’t very nice about that.

Kids would literally say, ‘You’re the reason my uncle’s an alcoholic.’ Or, ‘My granddaddy came home all crazy because of your country.’ ”

It wasn’t until his son, Nathan, was born in 1998 that Robertson really began to think about his past. He wondered if he had any living blood relatives. Was he abandoned by his parents? Who was he?

In 2000, weeks after the birth of his second child, Robertson attended an international adoption reunion in Baltimore, where he reconnected with several An Lac orphans.

“We just had an instant bonding and understanding because we knew where each other had been,” Robertson said. “It didn’t matter that we grew up on other sides of the country. We knew we had the same beginnings. It was like we were brothers and sisters.”

Betty Tisdale also attended the Baltimore reunion. It had been 18 years since Robertson had seen or spoken to the woman who rescued him. Meeting other orphans and spending time with Tisdale gave him a real glimpse into a life he’d long forgotten. It left him wanting to know more. In 2005, Robertson traveled to Vietnam to retrace his roots. Tisdale happened to be visiting the country at the same time. Together, the two toured what was left of An Lac Orphanage.

“We literally walked together hand-in-hand right up to the orphanage, and she walked me around and said, ‘This is where you guys used to crawl around.’ It was very nostalgic. Very emotional.” Robertson’s trip to Vietnam changed his perspective on his native country and its people. He also gained a new appreciation for what Tisdale did for him and the other An Lac orphans.

“All I could think about when I was flying home, first of all, was how grateful I am that she did what she did,” Robertson said. “I’ve had all the opportunity in America. That’s the key I tell kids in elementary school. You can overcome anything in this country; any kind of background, skin color, poverty. Any child here has opportunities. You see in Vietnam, I couldn’t have overcome any of those, but here you can. So you can’t use your childhood as an excuse not to succeed here in this country.”

Tisdale’s humanitarian work on behalf of Asian children was inspired by Dr. Tom Dooley, renowned for his compassionate care of the sick and homeless in Southeast Asia. In 1961, after Dooley died of cancer, Tisdale traveled to Vietnam to work at An Lac Orphanage. What she found were infants sleeping in hammocks made of rags strung between rusty cribs. There was no electricity and no running water.

In 1966, the U.S. Army’s 1st Infantry Division, 121st Signal Battalion descended upon Saigon, and eventually discovered the orphanage. “They came in and they were taking kids to the zoo, giving them a Christmas party, and things like that, so I started begging,” Tisdale said.

She persuaded the GIs to wire the facility so it had electricity, install showers, and reinforce some of the buildings. They brought medical supplies and a doctor, and installed a washer and dryer as well as a stove.

They were humanitarians by day and warriors by night, and the children loved them.

“The kids learned to accept them and play with them, and it was just wonderful,” Tisdale said.

In February 1975, Tisdale brought her own children to Vietnam to meet Madame Vu Thi Ngai, the director of An Lac. She began hearing reports about the imminent fall of Saigon.

“It was about the beginning of April that I decided that I’m not going to let these kids be left behind,” Tisdale said. “So I decided that I was going to go over there and bring all the children over.”

Tisdale felt Fort Benning was the logical place to establish a make-shift reception center for the orphans, as she was living in Columbus at the time and had close ties to the installation. Her first call was to the commanding general. She then tried to contact Bo Callaway, the secretary of the Army. Never one to give up on anything, Tisdale finally reached Callaway’s mother, who said she’d make sure Fort Benning was ready to receive the orphans.

Tisdale initially planned to bring all 400 orphans from An Lac. The Vietnamese government told her she couldn’t take anyone over 10 years old out of the country. It was a heartbreaking setback, but one she worked around by forging birth certificates.

“I put a lot of kids on [the plane] that were over 10 because they were tiny. Gosh, they were tiny,” Tisdale said. “And no one checked the papers that I had. I mean, I could have brought the whole orphanage.”

In total, 219 children and infants boarded two planes out of Vietnam in early April.

About a week after landing in Los Angeles, Tisdale and her husband paid $21,000 of their own money to charter a United Airways plane that would fly them all from Los Angeles to Fort Benning. Once on the ground, volunteers from around the community came to care for the children.

“When we got into Fort Benning, the wives just worked around the clock and they fell in love with [the orphans],” Tisdale said. “Every one of them wanted to adopt. They would get one particular baby and they would rock them and feed them and change them. It was just beautiful. I can’t say enough about the Army, the Army wives, and the volunteers. They were just great.”

Robertson expects this weekend’s reunion to be an emotional experience for everyone. Buses will take the group today to Columbus’ Parkhill Cemetery, where Madame Ngai is buried. A memorial ceremony will take place later in the day at the National Infantry Museum and Soldier Center. ♦

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