Operation Babylift: 44 years later, American ‘orphan’ meets Vietnamese mother

By Anh Ngọc, Mai Trang   November 21, 2019 | 08:06 pm PT
Leigh Boughton Small stared at the stranger in shock.  The stranger was showing her a photograph on a video call from halfway across the world.

It showed a young woman holding a baby with golden hair, brown eyes, and chubby face. The baby was Small and the young beautiful woman was the skinny old woman pointing to the photograph. That skinny old woman was her mother and the photograph was taken 44 years ago.

Her mother’s name was Nguyen Thi Dep, a name Small would struggle to get her tongue around, having spoken no Vietnamese.  

In fact, Small would struggle to pronounce her own name, Nguyen Thi Phuong Mai – one she’d not used until that day in September, when her life was shaken up for the second time. 

The first instance of her life turning topsy turvy is something she has no memory of. She was just three years old then. 

But memories, guilt, fear and hope were all that her mother Dep had clung to 44 long, torturous years. "It was a bewildering moment. I had never seen or had any memory of my mother. This was something I’d never expected," Small told VnExpress

Dep (L) and Small when visiting the Mekong Delta together. Photo courtesy of Small.

Dep (L) and Small when visiting the Mekong Delta together. Photo courtesy of Small.

Dep remembers the day she left Small at an orphanage amidst the confusion, tumult and fear that prevailed as the Vietnam War came to an end, with the fall of Saigon imminent. 

Thousands of fearful mothers left their kids in April 1975 to Operation Babylift, a controversial mass evacuation of "orphans" from South Vietnam to America and other countries ordered by the then U.S. President Gerald Ford. Small was one of them.

Small was adopted by a family in Massachusetts and had a peaceful childhood with holidays and weekends spent watching baseball with her adoptive parents and three siblings, one of whom is from the Philippines. 

After high school, Small moved to Maine for college studies and has lived there since. 20 years ago, she got married and now has 18-year-old twin sons and a 16-year-old daughter. 

Life in the seaside town of Scarborough passed without incident until two months ago, when Small got a message from a total stranger. "I believe we are siblings and your Vietnamese mother is looking for you," the message said. 

It turned out that a Vietnamese man discovered Small's half-sister by following up on a 2011 obituary of an American war veteran named Joe. 

DNA tests proved that Small and that woman were indeed Joe’s daughter and that she was the one Dep had been looking for, for 44 years. 

"We talked continuously for 4 hours. I was shocked to know my mother has been looking for me all these years," Small said. 

Dep told Small her birth name, Nguyen Thi Phuong Mai, her birth date, January 5, 1972, and the story of her falling in love with an American officer named Joe. Three years into their affair, Dep discovered she was pregnant right before Joe’s mission was over and he had to return home. After exchanging letters for a year, they lost contact. 

The very day after she left Small in an orphanage, Dep rushed back to get her daughter, but it was too late. She did not even know where her child had been taken to. One of the first planes in Operation Babylift had crashed, killing a few children, so there was fear that her daughter might not have survived. 

Dep tried to do everything she could to find information about Operation Babylift. She asked people coming to Vietnam, asked the U.S. Embassy in Vietnam, turned to U.S. ambassadors and even wrote a letter to the U.S. president at the time. She asked her friends in the U.S., and had her DNA tested. But all her efforts were in vain. 

"It saddens me knowing that for the last 44 years, my mother did not get married or give birth to another child so that she could devote her time looking for me," Small said, eyes filled with tears. 

After learning about what happened in the past, Small understood why her mother had decided to give her away and came to respect the decision. 

"My mother was tormented about giving me away. She was always concerned about whether I was still alive or happy. That concern was a burden on her mind, all these years".

The union with her daughter, although strange and awkward on video call, lifted Dep's mental burden and for Small, the fact that she could finally find her biological mother alive and well was also something that exceeded her imagination. 

In the last two months, Small's life has been filled with a wide spectrum of emotions. Above all, however, she feels she is luckier than other Operation Babylift children still yearning to find their roots. 

Small hopes that her story will help others in the same situation understand the circumstances under which their life took such a drastic turn. 

"Not all people have a happy ending like mine. However, my story may bring them some hope, including my Filipino half-brother," Small said. "He also wishes to connect with his biological parents".

For all her yearning to know what had happened, Small had always been confident that her biological mother loved her, because that is what her adopted mother told her. 

However, "I was always curious about how I ended up in  Operation Babylift. What the real circumstances were. I never doubted the decision was made out of love and concern for my safety. But I wanted to know more. Do I have siblings, are my parents still alive, where are they all now? 

20 years ago, she also made an attempt to find out who her real mother was and what had happened to her. That trip did not get her anywhere, and she thought it was not meant to be.

She has since returned to the country again along with her husband and children. "I felt that I needed to see my mother as soon as possible. I was worrid about her health."

Not an easy aftermath

Dep (C) with her daughter and grandchildren. Photo courtesy of Small.

Dep (C) with her daughter and grandchildren. Photo courtesy of Small.

Small and her family have been in Vietnam with her mother for five days. She said there are a lot of emotions revolving around it.

"Meeting (my mother) was wonderful but as expected, a relationship cannot just happen. She remembers me as a child and I believe it was hard for her to relate to this adult that she now sees.  

She was surprised at how her mother remembers so many details about the three years she was with her. 

"My mother just showed me the pictures and letters that she has from those three years. She was very excited to meet her grandchildren and my husband."

"Since I found my mom, I have learned a lot more. I only used to look at the positive side of it. Babies were being saved. But I have learned the sad, darker side of it. The biological parents were essentially erased from a lot of the babies being sent over."

Despite a short visit, given their busy schedule in the U.S., Small was happy that ultimately, she and her mother could connect and build a new relationship from now on.

"Which I look forward to."

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