During the collapse of South Vietnam in 1975, a mission began to evacuate more than 3,000 orphans from Saigon in the face a massive North Vietnamese offensive. In her own words, Veterans Advisory Council member Kay Matthias shares the story of the adoption of her daughter, Nguyen, who arrived in Australia as part of Operation Babylift.
In late 1974, some months after my husband Rob and I lost our youngest son Ben to cot death, we decided that we would apply to adopt a Vietnamese War Orphan. Even before Ben’s death I had become very interested in the plight of war orphans in Saigon, due to my brother’s involvement at the time.
After serving a term in Vietnam, he returned and worked with an American woman to establish an orphanage in Saigon (now Ho Chi Min City), where it was estimated that there were around 1 million war orphans.
Given the war was escalating at the time of our application, the South Australian Department for Community Welfare approved our application to adopt an overseas child very quickly.
At the time, it was customary to be allocated a child by the Department, and although the processing was completed in Vietnam, the adoptive parent would cover the costs of care for the child until they arrived in Australia.
We assumed this would be the path that our journey would take, however it was clear in early 1975 that the war was escalating and would likely be won by the communists in the north very soon.
Just prior to Easter that year, I received a call from Dr Eric Nicholls who established the Australian Society for Intercountry Aid Children. Dr Nicholls had worked for some years organising adoptions from Vietnam to Adelaide. In fact, he and his wife had already adopted several children.
Dr Nicholls explained that Saigon was falling quickly and asked if I could submit my notarised paperwork to him in Adelaide on Easter Saturday, as he would be leaving for Saigon on Easter Monday.
From this point it became a waiting game. Waiting to see whether we would make it to Saigon to collect our child and waiting and watching daily media accounts of the terrible events of the war. Contact with Dr Nicholls was very difficult, so we had no choice but to continue waiting.
On 22 March 1975 it was announced that the United States would begin to airlift 10,000 refugees a day from Da Nang, and in April 1975 the Australian and Vietnamese Governments agreed to begin airlifting orphans from Saigon to Australia. So began Operation Babylift, which would also evacuate babies to many other countries.
In a devastating turn of events, the first plane heading to the United States crashed only minutes after take-off from the Saigon airport, killing 143 babies and volunteers. This included two volunteers from Adelaide, one of whom was well known nun, Sister Margaret Moses.
With the announcement of Operation Babylift, although we still hadn’t heard from Dr Nicholls, we were very excited anticipating that our child would be with us soon. However, because of the fatal crash of the first Babylift, President Thieu of South Vietnam called a halt to any further departures. We were devastated at the time, but only days later President Thieu agreed to reverse his decision.
The Babylifts recommenced, and on 5 April 1975 I received a phone call from an official in Sydney to say that a child had arrived for us. He was unable to give me any other details apart from her name, which was Nguyen Thi Le Hang. My brother who was staying with us at the time was able to give us the wonderful news that her name indicated it was a daughter.
Nguyen’s Certificate of Admission to Australia
From accounts shared by the nurses and officials who accompanied the children and babies, it was a horrendous journey. The babies travelled in cardboard boxes, and all children had to be attended to during the flight. Sadly a number died enroute. The first leg was in an Air Force Hercules to Bangkok, the second aboard a Qantas flight to Sydney.
Arriving in a new country
While we were delighted at the prospect of welcoming a child from Vietnam into our home, there were many in our community who were concerned that these children were being removed from their country of birth to a strange new country.
Many of the children had serious health issues and some of the babies were only days old.
After arriving in Sydney for initial processing, the children were flown to hospital in Melbourne for processing and health checks. Most were admitted but some were able to continue to their new homes.
During this period we were not allowed to have any contact with our child. I received one phone call that advised she had several health issues, had been left in an orphanage at birth, did not have a name or a date of birth. The officials processing Nguyen named her and neurological tests in hospital estimated that she was around 11 months old.
This time in hospital in Melbourne must have been quite horrific for these children, who found themselves in a strange new world where people spoke a different language, and everything was not as they had known.
I remember one account by a nurse on a particular day when she had taken the children their lunch. She returned to the ward just minutes later and there was no sign of any food. She could not believe that they could have eaten it so quickly, and on further investigation found food hidden in all sorts of places. She deduced that as they were not used to regular food, they had hidden some for later.
The call we were waiting for
On 13 May 1975 we received the call that we were waiting for. Our daughter would arrive in Adelaide the following day.
Early the next morning, Rob and I, together with our three sons, excitedly left our home in Mount Gambier to travel to Adelaide to meet our daughter.
Nguyen 6 months after her arrival to Australia
She arrived amidst utter chaos as paperwork was being completed and babies and young children handed to their adopted families. My first impression of Nguyen was of a very tiny, and understandably confused baby. She was beautifully dressed in clothes generously donated by Myer.
Given that she did not have an official birth date, we made that day her birthday. She was officially one year old on the day we picked her up, 14 May 1975.
We did not return to Mount Gambier that day, but instead decided to go to Auburn in the Mid North to stay with my parents for the night.
The car trip was challenging as Nguyen had obviously only travelled in a vehicle on the way to and from airports, both experiences that would have been very frightening for a small child. She had also just been handed to complete strangers, which must have been terrifying. She struggled for most of the way to Auburn.
The next few days were quite something for us all. Nguyen made no sound. Unlike most babies, she did not cry for attention as it was never forthcoming in Vietnam. She lay motionless in her cot but did drink her milk. Six days later she smiled for the first time – we were elated!
Once we returned to our lives in Mount Gambier, she gradually overcame her health issues, learned to sit up and walked six months later. She was a delightful child and brought much love to our family.
Nguyen with her brothers Simon, Jeremy and Robbie
When I think back, I recall that when our son Ben died, our youngest son Simon asked the Priest at his funeral why he had died. The Priest had replied, “I don’t know Simon, I feel angry with Him at the moment, but one day we may know.”
A few months after adopting Nguyen, the three boys, Nguyen and I were driving home after basketball practice. Simon in the back seat said, “Mum do you remember when Ben died, and the Priest said one day we may understand?” He continued, “I understand now – it was so we could get Nguyen.”
Fifty years later Nguyen is a very happy wife and mother of two beautiful daughters. Our family is forever grateful to be chosen as her family and for the joy she has brought into our lives.