|The biography of a boy whose life was diverted by war and circumstance
|Billy is my friend, the child of an American pilot and a Vietnamese woman whose unsuccessful marriage was tested during an
unpopular war in a troubled moment in both our country's histories.
Born in Saigon at the height of the Vietnam War in 1965, his birth had been flawed by complications which left him fighting for
his life. The challenge to his well being was a cranial facial anomaly which affected more than his skull, neck and face. His
circumstance required immediate attention, and while only days old he underwent several operations to correct his breathing
and to refashion his palate. Thankfully, his father had access to military resources which provided for the necessary flights to
and from a Japanese hospital.
Billy has only a few indistinct memories of his early childhood or of the divorce of his parents. He remembers the love of his
mother and father and the care given him by his new stepfather and half brothers and sisters. A smart and curious youngster,
he advanced with his peers in the Saigon neighborhood's Catholic school system. He remembers it as a happy time with a
feeling of security; and he enjoyed the warmth of his loving family and friends. But the ever present war was creeping closer
to his home, and the threat of the society's collapse was weighing heavily on the minds of his parents. The increasing worry
his mother felt for his safety was carefully hidden from him.
In 1975, the spring of his 10th year, the fourth grader’s familiar and comfortable life abruptly unraveled. The army of the
National Liberation Front had begun its march south, unchecked in its advance. The US had earlier abandoned the unpopular
war, and any American soldiers who still remained in the city were only there as advisers. That meant there was no safety net
for the citizens of Saigon. With news of the approaching army, panic spread, and with it the fear that the 'left behind' children
of American soldiers would be dealt with cruelly if discovered.
Billy's mother, fearing the worst, frantically tried to find a way to save him from that uncertain peril. She was told that there
was an ongoing mission to fly mixed race orphans and other children out of the country, but she was miles from the airport.
Without hesitation, she prepared a small bag with clothes for him, some identifying papers and a wallet containing ten dollars.
Then she grabbed his hand and together they hurried out of the house and into the street amid the chaos of people fleeing
the city. She pulled him along, half walking, half running, seemingly going nowhere. Amazingly, she was able to get the
attention of a soldier in a passing US military jeep making its way through the crowd. She showed him Billy's papers and
begged him to take her son to the airport.
Whisked off his feet, Billy was placed onto the back seat of the jeep while still clutching the items he was given. He recalls
vividly his mother’s face as he sobbed and pleaded to her, restrained by the soldier. As he was driven away, he saw her
frightened eyes and her tears, and watched as she bowed her head to hide them from him. His last glimpse was of her
stealing a look his way after she had turned to walk back to their family home, without him.
As in a dream, Billy's world became ever more surreal. The bewildered boy was taken to Tan Son Nhut Air Base and placed
with a group of children who were also awaiting their unrehearsed evacuation from Vietnam. Orphans, at-risk and mixed race
kids, all under the age of 10, were hurriedly assembled for departure to destinations around the world. The humanitarian
name for the mission was Operation Babylift and by the 21st of April the pace was urgent, especially after the tragic loss of
the first flight and its crew and precious cargo just 17 days earlier.
I can only imagine the desperation that Billy felt at his sudden separation from family, or the anxious thoughts that must have
spiralled through his mind even at the sight of the giant jet transport that he was ushered into. He told me how his heart
raced at the horror of the moment when the engines came to life, and then of his feeling like a helpless captive as the beast
roared down the runway taking him farther from his home. Amidst the sea of tiny, terrified souls and their adult protectors, he
found that he was alone, with no familiar face to comfort him.
During the flight, Billy sat unrestrained on the aft deck next to the loading ramp doors. The urgency of the moment left little
room for procedure and an unexpected pressure drop suddenly caused him intense and unyielding pain. As blood trickled from
his ears, Billy's world collapsed into a permanent and muffled silence. Dazed and ill he lay unconscious on the floor while the
monster flew unrelentingly onward, taking him toward a soundless and unfamiliar land and a dark indefinite future.
Billy was processed under Operation Kids at Clark Air Base in the Philippines. He was then flown from Manila to the
United States, the country of his birthright. In California, doctors examining him did not realize his deafness was due to a
recent injury and because of his other physical impairments assumed it was inborn. Placed within a foster home, Billy waited
for a permanent sponsor. After several months passed, his paternal grandmother in New Jersey was located and informed
about his situation. Without a second thought, the 64 year old widow took it upon herself to raise him.
In September Billy was fitted with a single hearing aid. The damage to his right ear was too severe to correct. School officials,
believing he had a mental disability, put him into the second grade: his deafness and silence once again misinterpreted. Not
only did he have to adjust to mechanically amplified sound for the first time in his life, he had to do it while learning to
communicate in an unfamiliar language.
When he was 14, he became increasingly depressed by the taunts of younger classmates, teasing him about his age and
physical differences. Concerned, his grandmother petitioned his father’s help to pay for his first cosmetic surgery. Over
two years, surgeons rebuilt his misshapen cheek and jaw and reconstructed his eye socket so as to align it with the
other. Billy still bears the scar across the top of his head where they cut his scalp from ear to ear and pulled his face
from his skull. Another scar spoils his chest over the rib where pieces of bone were taken for the repairs. But the
attempt to improve his appearance also damaged some nerves and caused his eyelid to be fixed in an open stare. A
small part of his lip and tongue remain paralyzed to this day. The undesirable outcome only troubled him more.
In the late 80’s he graduated high school with his class. Not long after, his grandmother, the guiding influence of his childhood
and adolescence, was stricken with a debilitating illness and died. Once again, the comfort of family was lost to him.
Devastated and homeless, he wandered without purpose and suffered from extreme depression. A rescue mission friend
helped him gain entrance to a program where he would receive the counseling he needed and over several years his situation
improved, but his day to day life continued to be a struggle.
His choices for employment were limited by his appearance and his own perception of being a failure. Usually hidden from
the public in behind the scene, short term jobs, he labored to maintain his independence. Depressed and totally alone, he
sought out his estranged father. The rejection he received pierced his heart, but it also empowered him to re-establish the
bond with those he considered to be his real family and to find the mother who was lost to him.
In 1997, Billy dialed the number on an old photo he found in his childhood wallet and after 22 years of separation, heard his
mother's voice once again. For her, it was the first she knew that he had survived that day in 1975. A few months later he
returned to the city of his birth to meet his Vietnamese kin. The reunion and all the engaging moments of his trip were
captured on film by his older half brother and the videos remain a dear memento. He visited again in 2000 but did not find
fulfillment. His homeland and its customs are foreign to him, and he is unable to speak or understand his mother's language.
In early 2002, troubled by his conflicting identities and knowing that he didn't quite fit either culture, Billy relocated to the
West Coast to start his life over in new surroundings, and to hopefully leave his pain behind.
When on vacation that Summer, I first encountered Billy sitting alone on a park bench. He shyly averted his gaze when I
spoke to him, preferring instead to stare at the ground nervously anticipating an imaginary judgement of his appearance. He
simply responded he was “fine” when asked, but he would later come to tell me that deep inside he felt shame for his physical
differences; for not being normal. To this day he remains uneasy in public and quickly times out, as he puts it.
After learning his story, I was compelled to help him any way I could, but gaining his trust and becoming his friend wasn't
easy. Always guarded, he kept his feelings and thoughts hidden, fearing another of life's betrayals. Anger was the emotion
he showed the world, but I could sense the aura of his gentle heart.
Back then, we lived 200 miles apart, but I visited him regularly. His residence, a tiny aging travel trailer, was falling apart and
his living expenses had become a burden for his wages. He often would have nothing in the cupboard to eat, so I made it a
point to restock his pantry before I left. Later I discovered that he had been sending his food money to his mother.
The last Saturday in November he called to say he was sick and needed help. When I arrived, he told me he had been ill for
days and had to struggle even to get to the phone. The slightest movement caused him to convulse violently. I called his
doctor and then took Billy to the hospital where he was diagnosed with severe vertigo. The frequent dizzy spells he suffered
previously were never this debilitating. Concerned for his declining health, I suggested he come live with me. We moved him
home on his birthday in January.
Since that day, we meet his challenges as a team. The boy whose life had been suspended in time, violently and irrevocably
interrupted by war, is now a relatively happy, confident and secure individual. Best friends even though I am nearly 20 years
his senior, we share our house with a very tolerant cat. These days Billy pursues his hobbies with passion and has returned
to playing his violin, an instrument he learned in high school. His other interests include origami art and photography.
While I wasn't called for service in our country's ill-fated war in Vietnam, the possibility of it was always a concern. I still recall
the relief I felt when the President withdrew our troops and gave me back my sense of future.
Soon afterward, the news of the fall of Saigon became one more banner headline to help finalize a dark episode in our
nation's history. However, for Billy that event was life altering. While it marked an end to a split society’s arduous conflict, that
day in 1975 became the starting point of his enduring personal struggle for survival and acceptance.
I am honored to be a part of Billy's life. What I am most proud of, is that in private, he calls me Dad. ©2006 Billy's friend, mike
|Billy at 1 year old with family
|Billy at 2 years old with mother
|Billy at 10 years old in NJ
|Billy at 11 years old with second grade class
wearing the number 12 t-shirt
|Saigon 2000 family reunion
|Saigon 1997 - reunited after 22 years
|Saigon, Vietnam - 1960's
|Princeton, New Jersey, USA - 1970's
|Thank you for reading my story.
|1998 in New Jersey
|2004 air show - the monster jet revisited