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.

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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.
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Author: Viktoria Cowley

Viktoria Cowley has a birth certificate to prove she was born, however, the date of this she knows not to be true. In fact, she knows very little about her first few years of life before she was adopted by a British family, father Douglas and mother Jennifer and brother Jonathan. What she knows about life before this is still a mystery, Viktoria was in the Lam Thi Ny orphanage in the district of Gia Dinh, Saigon, having been supposedly 'abandoned' by her mother. Viktoria does not know her birth name as it was changed when she entered the orphanage to Lam Yen Hang, neither does she know when or where she was really born. Her parentage is also a mystery - having been told two conflicting stories, however, following a DNA test, both stories have been proven to be untrue, and instead of being 100% Vietnamese, is only half Vietnamese so can only assume she is the product of a serviceman and Vietnamese mother. Viktoria's adoptive father worked for the British American Tobacco company in Vietnam at the time and had chosen her from her orphanage and started the adoption process back in 1974. Douglas had finished his tour of duty at the end of 1974 and had made arrangements for Viktoria to be accompanied by a friend to the UK in June of 1975, however by that time, Vietnam was coming to its end and the careful arrangements were no longer going to work. Operation Babylift started and Viktoria was flown to the UK when the then-Foreign Editor of the Daily Mail, Brian Freemantle, instigated the UK Babylift, helping to bring 100 Vietnamese orphans to safety. She quite often refers to herself as being "the baby in the middle" of three on the front page of the Daily Mail of 7 April 1975. Viktoria lives with Paul and they have a son, Harry, named after Brian Freemantle (Brian's middle name) in recognition of Operation Babylift. She often states she doesn't know whether she would be where she is today if it hadn't been for him as all records and information had been destroyed and she wonders if she would have even made it to her 'forever family' had he not stepped in. Harry still remains Viktoria's only genetic connection that she knows about to date. Viktoria has appeared on many media programs over the years, including BBC One: Inside Out South East (2009), BBC One 'Airmail Orphan' (2010), BBC One South East Today (2009), BBC News 24 (2010) BBC The One Show (2018) and has done various radio interviews, including BBC Radio Five Live with Nicky Campbell (2010); BBC World Service, BBC Radio Scotland. Viktoria has various online resources for collating and sharing information with others and is attempting to write a story based on her Operation Babylift beginnings.

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