Orphans in Last of the Annamese

As one reviewer pointed out and as Jim Bohannon mentioned when he interviewed me, orphans appear and reappear in Last of the Annamese almost as a leitmotif. The story starts in an orphanage, and three of the principal characters in the novel volunteer, during the course of the story, to work with orphans.

Last week I spoke at the Author Fair in St. Mary’s County, Maryland. A member of the audience, who had read Annamese, asked about the orphans. Had I, the questioner wanted to know, been a volunteer like the characters I wrote about?

The answer was yes. I worked in an orphanage very much like the one in Saigon that I described in the novel. Most of the orphans were Amerasian, fathered by American GIs with Vietnamese women. They were, for the most part, smaller than normal children their age, due to undernourishment before they arrived at the orphanage. Many were hideously crippled, sometimes from poor care before they were abandoned or after their mothers were killed or disabled, sometimes from having been caught themselves in combat. The greatest gift I could give them was to help them smile or even laugh.

President Ford arranged for a program called Operation Babylift to evacuate as many orphans as possible from Vietnam before the North Vietnamese took what was left of the country. We all knew that the strongest motivation for that effort was that so many of the orphans were Amerasian and the North Vietnamese would treat the half-American children cruelly. As reported in Last of the Annamese, the first Operation Babylift flight was scheduled for 4 April 1975. The aircraft was the C5A Galaxy, the largest plane I had ever seen. It crashed immediately after takeoff. Seventy-eight orphans were killed.

Their loss—and the North Vietnamese capture of those still in Vietnam after it fell—are among the many things I grieve about from my involvement in the fall of Saigon.

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