The headline on top of the April 3, 1975 San Francisco Examiner on display in a new Presidio Officers' Club exhibit says it all: “For them the war is over…”
Photos with the story picture infants and young children who were flown from Vietnam to San Francisco's Presidio, the military base that became a processing center for rescued war victims during a 1975 evacuation known as Operation Babylift.
Four decades later, the Presidio exhibit “Operation Babylift: Perspectives + Legacies” is a vivid collection of memorabilia, records, charts and photos detailing the evacuation of the youngsters who were taken out of the war-torn country in the chaos surrounding the fall of Saigon.
President Gerald Ford authorized $2 million for the operation, in which 3,300 children were evacuated between April 3 and May 9, 1975. Of Babylift's 26 flights, 12 landed in the Bay Area. Six unofficial Pan Am flights brought children to the West Coast. Some 1,500 children were cared for in the Bay Area by more than 5,000 volunteers before adoptions were arranged.
At Thursday’s opening of the show, poet Lee Herrick, an adoptee from Korea, moderated a panel discussion in a room that overflowed with some 500 people, including adoptees, adopting parents and others who assisted with the operation. People involved with domestic and international adoptions of all kinds – not just the Vietnamese children on which the exhibit is focused – also attended.
Four speakers, children who were taken from Vietnam orphanages, described their complex feelings about growing up in their new homes and “being different.”
Cath Turner, from Australia, who was adopted at 5 months, called the experience a “heartbreaking loss and immeasurable gain,” while Jessica McNally of Oakland, who was adopted at 6 months, mentioned “chaos and gratitude.”
Mike Frailey, from Hawaii, who was adopted at age 8, said, “As the only Asian in a rural Missouri town, it was a difficult experience, being a child from the country of the enemy.”
On the other hand, Nol Meyer, a Los Angeles resident who was adopted at age 3, said, “Not looking Asian, I never faced racism, I could blend in.”
Beyond the difficulty adjusting to new families and new lives, and getting caught between two cultures, all four ended their presentations by expressing gratitude for their rescue.
“The Vietnam War was wrong, but Babylift was right,” said Turner.
“I gained education or even the chance to be alive,” said McNally, “We are so lucky, even if there is also deep sadness.”
Along with all their new country has given them, Frailey said, “There is also a sense of loss that needs to be looked at and talked about.”
IF YOU GO
Where: Presidio Officers’ Club, 50 Moraga Ave., Main Post, Presidio, S.F.
When: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays; closes Dec. 31
Contact: (415) 561-4400, www.presidioofficersclub.com