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Helping and Loving Orphans : Betty Tisdale's Story : Operation Babylift

By Betty Tisdale

Betty Tisdale arranged the transport of more than 200 children from the An Lac orphanage to the United States, up to the end of the Vietnam war.

In the sweltering heat of Saigon, I walked into the An Lac Orphanage, filled with 400 babies and toddlers, and knew my life as a “swinging single in New York City” was over as I searched for my true destiny. My eyes took in the rusty cribs, with chipped enamel and no sheets. Hammocks made of rags were strung between cribs, two and three babies to each crib, their bodies covered with sores, their bony fingers reaching out to … me? I could not erase them from my mind and heart, and so began the lifetime of “babies.”

Many people have others in their lives who have inspired them to do things they ordinarily would not do. Dr Tom Dooley was that inspiration for me. A naval doctor, he set up jungle medical clinics throughout Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam, and established An Lac Orphanage in Saigon. Dr. Dooley wrote books and raised money to support his medical camps and orphanage. I first met Dr. Dooley while I was working for Senator Jacob Javits in New York. Encouraged by his books and philosophy of helping others, I visited him in his hospital room while he battled cancer. I offered my services and volunteered my secretarial skills in helping to open and answer his mail. When Dr. Dooley passed away from cancer one day after his thirty-fourth birthday, I took over supporting An Lac Orphanage.

I visited the orphanage at least once a year, and I helped Madam Ngai, a brave Vietnamese lady who traveled south from North Vietnam during the Vietnam War. She collected the abandoned and neglected children and cared for them with the help of Dr. Dooley. I was at this orphanage that I met Dr Patrick D. Tisdale, a colonel in the Untied States Army. Dr. Tisdale was widowed and had five boys ranging from five to twelve years old. At age forty-nine, I married him, and I had quite a family!

I guess you could say I was orphaned as a child. My father died when I was young, and my mother had tuberculosis and was placed in a sanitarium. My three sisters and I were spread out among different family members, and I lived with my auth. Maybe that’s why, even with an instant family of vive children, I felt compelled to adopt a girl.

One night, I stood in the An Lac Orphanage nursery, feeding a baby. Then, as if a searchlight stopped over one crib, there lay a little two-month-old baby girl. She looked up at me with laughing eyes, with lashes like black satin fans and round cheeks, and hair so black it looked almost blue. I scanned the room and realized this was the only baby awake. Walking quietly to the side of the crib, I scooped her up wile she looked directly into my eyes, and I knew at that very moment this was my daughter. My mind raced at all the things I needed to do to bring Mai, the name Madam Ngai gave her, home. As I held Mai and cooed, Madam Ngai brought me another child wearing a ragged dress.

“You take Lien, too,” stated Madam Ngai. “She will be good at helping you.” I had discovered that Madam Ngai very seldom asked, but rather insisted. However, in this case, she was right. There was no way I could turn my back on this severely malnourished four-year-old girl with sores and disease covering her body and hair ridden with lice. Her head was flat from being left in her crib on her back too long as a baby. Where Mai had shiny onyx eyes, Lien’s were dull and emotionless. As I cleaned her up, I could see what a beautiful child she was.

That was only the beginning. After bringing Mai and Lien home and seeing how the boys took all this in stride – babysitting, changing diapers, playing with their sisters – I knew I needed to help more child. IN a subsequent visit, I sat on the floor feeding a three-month-old who was so tiny she looked three weeks old. Her entire length extended from the crook of my elbow to the tips of my fingers. I knew she would die if she stayed at An Lac. At that time, Madam Ngai and I put our little babies who passed away in shoe boxes to be buried by the local hospital I could not see my little one in a shoe box, so I took her to a friend of mine at the British Embassy and left her there until I could complete the paperwork. Three moths late, Thu Van became the third baby girl in our ever growing family.

The following year, when we delivered van loads of supplies to the orphanage, we adopted two more girls: Xuan, a healthy, beautiful seven-year-old girl, and Kim Lan, a very sick baby. Like ThuVan I knew she would also die in the orphanage if I left her there. I made arrangements for Kim Lan and Xuan to fly out with Pat and me. While in the Philippines, Kim Lan’s stomach began to balloon, and Pat rushed her to the Army hospital, where she died, connected to multiple tubes in a incubator.

Devastated, yet never discouraged abut saving more children, I immediately called Madam Ngai and asked her to find me another child. Three moths later I brought home another baby who we also named Kim Lan. She was so incredibly malnourished that people cried when they saw her. She looked like a skeleton covered by a thin layer of skin. Like ThuVan, she looked only a few weeks old instead of there months old, yet she flourished into a healthy child.

I did not adopt anymore children after Kim Lan. Whether it was because there were no more rooms in our house or because I finally had an even number, I realized my family was complete. Btu my work with An Lac continued as I made what would be twenty-seven trips to Vietnam.

In 1975, when Saigon was falling, I left my ten children and headed for Vietnam, determined to rescue the children at An Lac. I had no idea how, but that had never stopped me before.

Because I was not an adoption agency, I did not have access to military planes provide for Operation Babylift. I called Pan American Airlines, but the fee was cost-prohibitive. And where would the babies go when I got them to the States? Because Fort Benning was in my home state of Georgia, I called the general there. He did not return my calls, so I called the Secretary of the Army. He did not return my calls so I called his mother! I told her I was leaving for Vietnam in the morning and begged her to help me.

When I got to An Lac, I promised Madam Ngai that I would save our children.  I went to the office of the ambassador and begged for their lives. He said that if I gave him a list of names, an if each baby had a birth certificate and a legal name, he would get me an Air Force plane. I said, “No problem,” and raced to the local hospital to get some blank birth certificates./Since orphans were denied legal birth certificates and dint’ even have legal names, we made up both! Frantically, two days later, we loaded 219 chidden onto two planes and headed for the Philippines for a layover. It was only there that I heard from the generals’ mother that a school in Fort Benning had been converted to care fo the children. In the United States, I contacted Tressler Lutheran Adoption Agency. They eagerly provided stacks of applications of waiting adoptive parents, and within thirty days, every one of the children was in their new home.

For more than fifty years, I have tried to make a better life for “my” babies” – in Vietnam, Mexico, Colombia, and now Afghanistan through my organization H.A.L.O., Helping and Loving Orphans. Far from a “swinging single” in New York City, I have found my destiny.

Continue reading about An Lac Babylift.

This article by Betty Tisdale is excerpted with permission from the inspiring book, Children Soup for the Adopted Soul.