As my friend Carol Dey and I rode through the dusty streets of Saigon in a creaky VW bug on April 26, 1975, I was sure we looked exactly like what we were: a couple of Iowa homemakers. Three months earlier, when Carol and I had each agreed to escort three Vietnamese orphans to their American families, the trip seemed exciting but safe. My husband, Mark, and I had applied to adopt an orphan ourselves, in the future. We all wanted to somehow make a difference. How were Carol and I to know we would arrive just as Saigon was under siege?
Bombs were falling less than three miles from the city, and citizens streamed past our car, their worldly possessions tied onto pushcarts or onto their backs. But our driver, Cheri Clark, the overseas director of Friends of the Children of Vietnam (FCVN), seemed more excited than scared. From the moment we landed, she pelted us with unexpected news.
"Did you hear President Ford OK'd a giant babylift as a last resort to save these children? Instead of taking out six orphans, you'll be taking home 200!" Carol and I looked at each other in amazement.
"We were able to get a planeload of children out yesterday," Cheri continued. "At the last minute, the Vietnamese government refused to let it go, but the plane was already cleared for takeoff--so it just left! That's 150 children safe in San Francisco!"
Even our years as nurses hadn't prepared us for what we found at the FCVN Center. Every inch of every floor was covered with blankets or mats--each of which was covered with babies--hundreds of crying, cooing infants, each orphaned or abandoned.
Although jet lag threatened to overwhelm us, Carol and I were determined to help prepare the children for the next day's airlift. Ours was scheduled to be the first airlift out. Each child needed clothes and diapers, a checkup, and a legal name. The devoted volunteers--Vietnamese and American--worked around the clock.
It seemed my worst fears and deepest desires came true on the same day. Wouldn't our daughters be thrilled if I came home with their new brother! But...how could I choose a child? With a prayer on my lips, I entered the next room.
As I meandered through the sea of babies, a child crawled over to me wearing only a diaper. When I lifted him to me, he nestled his head into my shoulder and seemed to hug me back. I carried him around the room, looking at and touching each baby. Upstairs, the hall was carpeted with more infants. The little one in my arms seemed to cuddle closer as I whispered a prayer for the decision I was about to make. I felt his shallow breath as he embraced my neck and settled into my heart.
"Hello, Mitchell," I whispered to him, "I'm your mom."
The next day, we got the thrilling news that our flight had been cleared to leave that afternoon. Together, all the volunteers packed up the 150 children still remaining.
Babies were placed three or four to a seat on an unused city bus for the first of several trips to the airport; Carol and I rode along. Again, a disaster. We arrived at the airport to find that Vietnamese President Thieu had canceled our flight. Trying not to panic, Carol and I helped unload the babies into filthy Quonset huts in the stifling heat. Would we never get out? Would we all die in the siege of Saigon?
Finally, Ross, an FCVN worker, burst in. "President Thieu is allowing only one flight, and it's got to leave immediately. Let's get these babies loaded on--and you, too!" he said to Carol and me. Our chance to leave!
"No," I said, "I left my son back at the center for a later bus. I've got to go back and get him."
"LeAnn," Ross said, "you see how things are. Leave while you can. I promise we'll try to get your son out to you."
Yes, I saw how things were. "I won't leave without Mitchell!"
The next morning, we learned that in retaliation for the earlier unauthorized takeoff, our agency would not be on the first flight out after all. We would be allowed to leave only when--and if--the Vietnamese government permitted.
"There's nothing we can do but wait and pray," Cheri said calmly. We all knew that time was running out for the Americans and orphans in Saigon.
In the meantime, Carol and I joined other volunteers hastily preparing children for another flight that had been cleared, this one going to Australia.
In scorching heat, we loaded babies into a VW van from which the middle seat had been removed. I sat on a bench seat with 21 infants packed around my feet; the others did likewise.
We arrived at the airport to find traffic at a standstill. An enormous black cloud billowed into the sky in front of us. As we passed through the gate, we heard a terrible rumor: The first planeload of orphans--the plane we had begged to be on--had crashed after takeoff.
It couldn't be true. We chose not to believe it. We had no time to worry as we went about the task of loading fussing, dehydrated babies onto the flight to freedom. Carol and I stood together holding hands while the plane took off. One planeload was free!
Our joy was short-lived. We returned to find the adults at the center in stunned grief. Cheri haltingly confirmed what we'd refused to believe. Hundreds of babies and escorts had been killed when their plane blew apart after takeoff. No one knew if it had been shot down or bombed.
Relief workers and babies! Who could do such a thing? And would they do it again? Overcome, I sank onto a rattan couch and sobbed uncontrollably. The plane we had fought to be on had crashed, and so had my faith. I had the terrible feeling I'd never see my husband and daughters again.
That evening, Cheri beckoned me. Even in a world of drastic surprises, I was unprepared for her words: "In the satchel of papers you brought over were your own adoption papers. Instead of waiting to be assigned a son, why don't you go and choose one?"
"Hurry, then," Ross said. "I'll hold the plane as long as I can, but we can't ruin these other children's chances."
I ran to the bus. The driver screeched recklessly through the chaotic city and delivered me a mile from the center. The strap of my sandal broke and the shoe flapped wildly against my ankle. I took it off while still running. My side ached fiercely as I raced up the stairs to the center.
"The plane..." I gasped as Cheri eased me into a chair.
"I know. I just got off the phone with the airport."
Cheri grinned. "The plane will wait for you!"
I beamed a smile while gasping for breath.
"Not only that--we can take more babies for this flight--and a second flight has been approved, as well!"
Tears streaming down my face, I found Mitchell and held him close. I made a silent vow never to leave him again.
A few hours later, I felt my heart pound as I boarded a gutted cargo plane. Twenty cardboard boxes formed a row down the center, with two to three infants per box. Toddlers and older children sat belted on the long side benches, bewilderment on their faces.
The doors were closed; the engine's roar was deafening. I couldn't remove the image of a black cloud from the downed plane from my mind. A panic came over me, and I gripped Mitchell closer. I prayed the Lord's Prayer as the plane taxied down the runway. Then...we were airborne. If we could only live through the next five minutes, we'd make it home.
Finally, the captain spoke. "We're out of artillery range. We're safe. We're going home!" Shouts of joy filled the plane.
As I thought of the chaos of war, I prayed for those we'd left behind. And then I uttered a prayer of thanks that Carol and I had been allowed to make a difference, in a bigger way than we'd ever dreamed. We were all headed for lives filled with new hope--including the son I hadn't known I had.