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Page last updated at 12:02 GMT, Tuesday, 10 November 2009

The babies airlifted out of Saigon

Three babies on the plane
Viktoria Cowley, centre, during the airlift

Viktoria Cowley was just a toddler when she was airlifted out of Vietnam, one of 99 children plucked from the war-torn country by the Daily Mail. Now she is trying to reunite the scattered evacuees.

Viktoria Cowley doesn't know how old she is, but she thinks about 36. Orphaned at a young age during the Vietnam War, she doesn't even know her parents' names.

Looking at 1975 Daily Mail, headline: "Touchdown midnight"
Vikki spots herself in the Mail's 1975 report on the airlift

Her earliest documented experience dates from April 1975, when she appeared on the front page of the Daily Mail, aged about two. She was one of 99 babies and children airlifted out of Saigon in the newspaper's mercy mission as the Vietcong advanced at the end of the war.

The headline declares the orphans safe saved from an uncertain future and a potentially terrible fate.

Now, three decades after her arrival in Britain, Viktoria, known as Vikki, of Eastbourne, has recently embarked on a mission of her own - to reunite her fellow travellers. She has made contact with 15 so far.

The first she found after many weeks searching online for information about the airlift. "I eventually found my first gem - someone who had a very similar name to mine and was in the same orphanage as myself in Saigon. I soon connected with her online and made my first Vietnamese adoptee friend."

And now she wants to find the remaining 83.

"I'd love to be able to get in contact with them, share their story, just find how much they know about themselves, about the airlift."

Sense of self

The airlift took place in April 1975 and was the brainchild of then Mail editor David English. It followed an evacuation of more than 2,000 orphans to the United States, ordered by President Gerald Ford, many of whom were thought to be children of US soldiers.

Vikki's story was broadcast on 9 November by BBC South East Inside Out
Watch it on the iPlayer

Of the 99 children brought to the UK, not all were orphans and many still had family in Vietnam. Their ages ranged from just a few months to teenagers.

Vikki herself was destined to join a family in Seaford, a seaside resort in East Sussex. Douglas Cowley, who was working in Vietnam at the time, had chosen to adopt her with his wife, Jennifer.

She was formally adopted on 6 January 1976 - the day she celebrates as her birthday - and now works as a tape summariser for Sussex Police.

But Vikki has only recently started to delve into her past. For a long time she didn't want to find out more, fearing the details could be both painful and hard to come by.

Vikki as a baby with nurse in Saigon
An infant Vikki at her orphanage

"I was happy with my life as it was and I knew that to find any answers to my questions could quite simply be a fruitless task. I was in a sort of identity crisis. The fact that I wasn't loved. The fact that I wasn't wanted. But when I was adopted, I was wanted and I was loved.

"When I was very little my parents would tell me about my adoption as we were gathered around the dining room table after our Sunday roast meal. The only thing I'd ever want to hear was how special I was and how my father chose me out of all those children."

And for a long time, she feared what might happen if she returned to Vietnam to look for answers.

"The Communists would never let me leave again. A life trapped in an unknown country, speaking a language I didn't understand, and out of the security of something that had become so safe, so secure, was absolutely terrifying. This single fact bore so deep into my mind it formed a permanent barrier, became the immovable wall that wouldn't let me be inquisitive to anything that happened before my life in the UK.

"This single fact prevented me from learning about a culture that I could quite easily still have been involved in, or could have embraced and nurtured within me."

All that has now changed. Vikki uses social networking sites to forge links with other expat Vietnamese - and track down fellow evacuees - and plans to visit her homeland for the first time next year.

"Now I want to find out what really happened. I want to find out what made me, me.

Vietnamese boat people
I have been confused with the boat people - but they came over well before the airlift was even thought of. I was an orphan and I'm an adoptee, not a refugee
Viktoria Cowley

"I may never find all the answers to my questions as not all the facts were written down or recorded, so a great deal of speculation has to be applied. That's why the other adoptees are invaluable. With their facts and speculation, I can try make some outline of what I think my story may have been."

Vikki now finds herself on an emotional journey as she attempts to piece together a past she shares with the others airlifted to safety.

"As I share and connect with more and more people, my love for my mission continues to grow. I also feel a growing concern for my contacts - reaching out to help others who haven't been as fortunate as myself, offering help and guidance in making new connections."

And if her search for more information about her earliest days comes to naught, compensation comes in the form of those she has met along the way.

"I know that I have friends for life through this very special and very unique fact: that we started our lives in unfortunate circumstances.

"It's almost like [the baby airlift] was a pane of glass that has been dropped and shattered on touch-down in the UK. I'm trying to get hold of all those shards of glass to make it one again."

Below is a selection of your comments.

I was on the same Daily Mail airlift from Saigon in 1975. I was adopted here and have had an amazing life. I consider myself very English but have never forgotten my Vietnamese heritage. I returned to Vietnam in 2000 and had an amazing time. I didn't go looking for my past but went to discover the culture. My life and home for most of the last 34 year has been England and I wouldn't change it for a moment. I consider myself incredibly fortunate to have grown up in a loving family with incredible privilege and opportunities I might not have had if I had stayed in Vietnam.
Van Lambie-Nairn, London

During the evacuation of Saigon, as a teenager I lived on a US military base in Hawaii. My mother one evening came home from her British Wives Club meeting and asked me to help with the babies coming out of Vietnam. The BVC had volunteered to meet an incoming plane of children and 'baby-sit' them during a stopover.
At 2300hrs we went to the military airfield to a large aircraft hanger with a plane inside. There were tables arranged along a walkway up to the aircraft steps and at each table we were issued with a nappy at one, change of clothes at the next, bottle of milk and a toy at the last; we then ascended the steps to the plane with the instruction to choose a child and then come back and play and cuddle them until the plane was refuelled and ready to leave.
I still remember the picture before me vividly. All I could see was row upon row of tiny children, some so small they could not sit up and were asleep in cardboard boxes. One or two were slightly older and tired and confused. Many were obviously mixed-race; some of the children were covered in nasty rashes; one little boy's head swollen from meningitis and he was rushed off to hospital. It was the first time I had ever seen cleft palates. Each child had a paper label on them with his/her name and where in the world they were going. I chose my little girl like I was choosing a doll and took her down for my two hour babysitting duty. She was happy and healthy and hungry.
I have often wondered what my little baby is doing now, if she had a happy life with a good family. I would love to have the opportunity to meet her but as there were no records kept I will never have that chance.
Chris Gridley-White, Surrey

I worked with one of the refugees called Sang when he was a young man. His adopted mother, Rachel Anderson, wrote a book about her experiences of raising him in an "alien" culture. It was called For the Love of Sang and was broadcast in the BBC's Book at Bedtime series. Good luck with the search.
Martin Claxton, Norwich

Although I am not one of the 99 babies airlifted by the Daily Mail, I was on the last plane out of Vietnam before the South fell to the North. I was with a group who included Rosemary Taylor a lady who worked tirelessly in Saigon during the war. I was adopted by English people and was brought up London. I have one Vietnamese friend who lives in Virginia, US. Like Vikki I don't know when I was born exactly.
Tiffany, Littlehampton, West Sussex

I was a pro bono member of the group of lawyers who filed a lawsuit against the US Government and adoption agencies to require them to investigate whether the "Orphan Airlift" children should be returned to their families (some of whom had escaped to the US). Many families had given their children up in panic at the end of the war or had not given permission for their children, who were temporarily placed in orphanages for economic reasons, to be adopted. The judge dismissed the lawsuit saying sorting this out was "too complicated" and sealed the records (and fates of the children).
Tom Miller, Berkeley, California

This is fab - I have a lady who I look after who came in with the airlift. She is profoundly disabled and I know of many others who are the same. It would be lovely to hear from Vikki and to find out more about where the orphanage is located. This has brought a tear to my eye.
Margaret Goodwin, East Sussex

As an eight-year-old in 1975, this event had a marked impact on me, in part due to a local family adopting a Vietnamese girl. I've often reflected on the issues which that young girl will have faced, which Vikki also mentions - the loss of parents, identity, place and not having a known birthday and a sadness that there might be no way of finding answers to those questions. I visited Vietnam five years ago, a beautiful country, with beautiful people and somewhere amongst the population are relatives of all those who fled, who might be unaware that somewhere they are alive. Vikki I wish you well in your search.
Chris, Guildford

It is right for her to search for the rest of the airlifted babies. It is in her interest that she keeps searching for them to identify them all so that she can form a Vietnamese community in UK. Equally I think the authorities should airlift babes in war-torn countries for childless couples who are dying to have children to extend "hope" to the hopeless in this world.
Yok-Lan Parker, Hoddesdon, Herts

Growing up in a small town in Vermont, a friend of the family adopted a baby girl from Vietnam. It all happened quite suddenly, but in those days many things happened with very little explanation so we just accepted her and welcomed her into the community.
Candace, New Jersey, US

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