|The biography of a boy whose life was diverted by war and circumstance
|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
|Ho Chi Minh City 2000 family reunion
|Ho Chi Minh City 1997 - reunited after 22 years
|Saigon, Vietnam - 1965 - 1967
|Princeton, New Jersey, USA - 1976
|Thank you for reading my story.
|1998 in New Jersey
|2004 air show in California
|Beginning in 1962, American military C-123 transport planes sprayed about 20 million gallons of herbicide over the countryside of South Vietnam
in a nine year operation they code-named "Ranch Hand".
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 in 1965, Billy's birth was marred by physical defects and severe complications, which left him fighting for his life.
His circumstance required an immediate tracheotomy, and while only days old, he was flown to Japan where he underwent
several operations to further correct his breathing and to refashion his imperfect palate. Challenging his well being was a cranial
facial anomaly which had deformed his skull and the right side of his body, face and neck.
He has only a few indistinct memories of his early childhood or of the divorce of his parents. Billy does remember the love of his
mother 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. In March, the city was under attack and being shelled. 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 military jeep making its way through the crowd. She showed him Billy's papers and begged him to take her son to
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 18th of April the pace was urgent, especially after the tragic loss of the first flight and
its crew and precious cargo just 14 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.
Due to overcrowding on the flight, Billy had no seat or restraint. He was placed in the cargo bay and wrapped in a blanket at the
end of a row of wall mounted seats, a pillow propped against his back. He remembers being next to the loading ramp doors.
During the flight, 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 C-141A 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 2001, 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.
In the summer of 2002, I was early for an appointment I had at a regional hospital in the city where Billy lived. I encountered
him sitting alone on the only bench outside, so I sat down and struck up a conversation. 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 it was obvious to me he wasn't.
After learning his story, I was compelled to help him get over his depression, 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 would stop by to see him during my weekly visits to the city. 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 in Vietnam.
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 together; and we're still best friends even though I am nearly 20 years his senior. The
lost boy whose life had been suspended in time, violently and irrevocably interrupted by war, is now a relatively happy,
confident and secure individual. He pursues his hobbies with passion and has returned to playing his violin, an instrument he
learned in high school. His other interests include origami 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.
On April 30, 1975, the news came of the fall of Saigon. For me, it was one more banner headline to help finalize a dark episode
in our nation's history; and for the Vietnamese people, it was the end of a split society’s arduous conflict. However, for Billy, that
single event became the starting point of an ever constant personal struggle for survival and acceptance.
I am honored to be a part of Billy's new life. What I am most proud of, is that in private, he calls me Dad.
©2006 by Billy's friend, Mike
|sister jet of the C5A that crashed on the 1st Babylift flight