Forty years after the vietnam war ended the remarkable story of a baby girl airlifted to a new life in Sussex

Forty years ago this week, the bloody war in Vietman was entering its final stages. During the twelve year conflict, a quarter of a million children had been orphaned and abandoned. One hundred were flown to new lives in Britain in the controversial “Operation Babylift”. Malcolm Shaw has been to meet one of the orphans Viktoria Cowley, to hear her remarkable story.

Last updated Thu 30 Apr 2015

Story on ITV Meridian news

Vietnam Babylift Interview BBC World Service – 06.04.2015 (40 years on)

Forty years ago the United States launched Operation Babylift, the name given to the mass evacuation of children from South Vietnam at the end of the Vietnam War.  The US President at the time, Gerald Ford, gave his commitment to help children leave the country:

“I have directed that money from a $2m special foreign aid children’s fund be made available to fly 2,000 South Vietnamese orphans to the United States as soon as possible.”
By the time of the final flight out nearly three and a half thousand infants and children had been evacuated to the United States and other Western countries.
Viktoria Cowley was among the hundred-or-so children who were brought to Britain with the help of the Daily Mail newspaper, so what does she know about her background?
“I was the product of a Western serviceman and a Vietnamese lady – like a lot of the orphans, we were the result of affairs, I guess.  It was a sad situation but my mother couldn’t or didn’t want to, wasn’t able to keep me.  So as a baby I was taken to an orphanage where I could better looked after and it was there that my adoptive father found me.”
How did you find out about your biological parents?
“I don’t know anything.  I’ve been to Vietnam and I’ve gone back to the site of where my orphanage was, which is now an elementary school so the orphanage no longer exists but I have met up with one of the monks who worked in the orphanage and she remembers the day that my mother dropped me off at the orphanage as a baby in arms explaining that the situation was very sad and there was no father involved and there I was left.  No-one actually came in to see how I was from that day onwards.”
So as far as you know they could both be alive?
“I guess so.  But there are no records to suggest one way or the other.  All the names of the children in the orphanage were changed, there are no records now – they’ve all been destroyed at the end of the Vietnam War when the orphanage shut down so there’s nothing that exists that will tell me one way or the other.”
Aside from the usual questions adopted children must ask about their birth parents in the circumstances there is a political dimension to what happened to you – is that something that you have dwelled on at all, that the question of why you were airlifted and was it purely humanitarian or was there something else going on?
To be honest with you, no one’s really talked about that, the only people that actually think that way are people who aren’t adoptees.  Because we just think about it as having such a wonderful life in the Western world, one that is so much better and richer and with so many more opportunities than we probably could ever have in Vietnam so we’re just grateful for the position that we ended up in because we realise that actually we might not have survived had we stayed in Vietnam.”
And are you going to continue your search for your birth parents or do you think you’ve reached a dead end?
“‘Dead end’ is probably not the word that I would use, I would call it ‘coming to a conclusion’ because I’m happy with the family that I have.  When I was there is 2010 I released that I didn’t actually have room in my life for another mother – even if I did find her – because I have one.”
What would you say that Vietnam means to you now?
“Because I’m surrounded by people that look like me, I felt that I belonged all of a sudden – but the Vietnamese, they look at you and they know that you’re a tourist.  It’s quite bizarre, you’re a foreigner in England and you’re a foreigner in the country that you were born in so do you actually belong anywhere?  It’s a really strange feeling.”
Viktoria Cowley there, one of the babies who were airlifted from Vietnam 40 years ago.

Interesting Links

40th Anniversary of Operation Babylift

This Monday marks the 40th anniversary of the day that nearly 100 orphans were airlifted out of Vietnam following the end of the Vietnam War. First of all, I just can’t believe I’m old enough to celebrate 40 years of anything, and secondly, since the 35th anniversary so much has happened.

I’ve met up with a great many Vietnamese adoptees, both from the UK airlift, and airlifts arranged globally and it’s clear that we all share a common ground and common feelings.  Meeting the Adoptees in Vietnam for the 35th was a magical experience, spiritually, emotionally and personally.

I was also involved in many radio interviews, a local interview on BBC South East, featured on BBC1’s Inside Out and even an interview on BBC News 24, which all covered the story of the Babylift 35 years on. Inside Out followed my journey to Vietnam as I tried to find some more information surrounding my orphanage and parentage. 

I have met up with Brian Freemantle, the then Foreign Editor of the Daily Mail who played an instrumental part in the Airlift UK bound. This was a very important meeting for me as it added another angle and further depth to the story, since all the adoptees were babies and young children, so it was important to receive an adult’s version of the story from right inside where the action occurred. 

I’ve also met with David Tolfree who volunteered with Project Vietnam Orphans (PVO) in Vietnam.

I fully intended to go to Vietnam again this year for the 40th anniversary, however with my son being so young, thought it was not the best timing, and perhaps rather overwhelming for him. I’ll take him one day in the next few years, when it won’t be so daunting for him with so much action, can handle the heat better and hopefully make the 45th anniversary in 2020. I think it’s important for the second generation to find out about their roots.

It was hoped that BBC’s The One Show would cover the story, however, disappointingly, they have decided to run with a story about Dark Horse.

Alternatively, BBC World Service will be picking up the story with a radio interview on Wednesday with some other adoptees sharing their stories also, hopefully with some adoptees in Vietnam right now.

I keep getting asked about the spelling of my name and I’d like to confirm that my name is spelled Viktoria, not Victoria, the conventional spelling. I’ve always been different and I love being different!

Sussex Press Agency Debuts On BBC Inside Out

An Eastbourne woman’s journey to find out her past in Vietnam is the story behind a BBC Inside Out which was featured on BBC1 Monday 9 November 2009.

Co-Produced by Paul Gibson from the Sussex Press Agency, the piece which was screened by BBC1’s Inside Out South-East is part of a longer documentary which highlights Viktoria Cowley’s journey to find out her background, after being adopted from Vietnam during the fall of Saigon in 1975.

Above: Polly Evans and Rob Smith from BBC South-East Today talk to Viktoria Cowley Live on the programme.

Viktoria was one of the 99 babies airlifted to the UK during Operation Babylift which was organised by the Daily Mail. 34 years later, Vikki has set out to discover her past and meet as many of the other adoptees who were on the same flight as possible. BBC Inside Out will feature Viktoria discovering a photograph of herself on the front page of the Daily Mail in 1975, and travel to London to meet a group of other Vietnamese Orphans.

April 2010 marks the 35th Anniversary of the airlift, and thousands of people will travel to the country to re-unite and mark this special anniversay. 2,500 babies were airlifted from the country during the Vietnam war, but only a handful came to the UK.

BBC Inside Out will also be producing a 30 minute special programme inconjunction with the Sussex Press Agency early next year as the crew travel to Vietnam with Viktoria.

Over a two day period, Viktoria Cowley completed fifteen radio interviews and one live television news discussion programme. These were as follows:

BBC Radio Kent, BBC Radio Sussex, Sovereign Radio, South-East Today, BBC World Service, BBC 5 Live, BBC Wiltshire, BBC Radio Derby, BBC Radio Berkshire, BBC Radio Scotland, BBC World Today Programme, BBC Five Live, BBC World Service. Other Coverage included; Eastbourne Herald, Hastings Observer, Bexhill Observer, BBC Magazine.

The programme is also expected to be screened on BBC World Asia in the near future.

Read more about Viktoria’s story

You can also listen to two of the interviews for a further 6 days:
BBC Radio Sussex: Monday 9 November 2009 – The Breakfast Show – click through to 2hrs 12 mins.
BBC Five Live: Tuesday 10 November 2009 – The Breakfast Show with Nicky Campbell – click through to 2hrs 39 mins.

Read more about the Sussex Press Agency.

Viktoria attempts Vietnamese Cuisine

A Ticking Off!

I have realised that my writing style and writing frequency has changed over the course of the time I’ve been sharing my thoughts and feelings with this blog.

One reason is time. When I did my creative writing course a few years ago, I was warned that this would be one of the main excuses for not wiriting and was encouraged to not surrednder to this – I HAVE TO MAKE TIME TO WRITE!

However, being too busy (another excuse stemmed from the first) with the documentary in different ways; filming, making and keeping contacts, trying to find out personal information from different agencies has made it difficult to write and I must admit I’ve sort of forgotten a bit about it.

So here I am, having given myself a slap on the wrist and an apology to you for not keeping you up to date – my next entry will be the wonderful reunion I spent with other Vietnamese adoptees in London last weekend.