THOUGH SET IN THE MIDST OF POLITICAL STRIFE AND BLOODY WAR, HISTORICAL GEMS SUCH AS THE STORY OF BUNG-LY AND HIS LITTLE CESSNA BIRD DOG, AND THAT OF OPERATION BABYLIFT, DESERVE TO BE REVEALED, AND KEPT ALIVE WITHIN BOOKS FOR GENERATIONS YET TO COME.
The years of the Vietnam War, though a dark and unsettling time, are still alive in the hearts of those people who were touched by its horrors and its triumphs. I was a child during those years, a mere thirteen years of age when it concluded for the Americans in 1975, but it shaped my worldview and taught me hard lessons, and completely transformed, for good or ill, the lives of millions.
I was the youngest of seven children in a very ordinary family. I had five older brothers, the eldest of whom enlisted in the United States Navy in 1968. He served for a couple of years as a radar man on the destroyer, the USS Towers, and then inexplicably, in 1970, volunteered for a dangerous river patrol mission in South Vietnam. He was killed in May of 1970 when Viet Cong guerillas, hidden along the banks of the Dam Doi River, attacked his swift boat patrol. I was eight years old at the time, and my life and the lives of everyone in my family were changed forever.
As a result of the loss of my eldest brother, and the Vietnam Era tumult in America, I developed a curiosity about the war itself and wanted to dig deeper and know more about the experiences of the individuals who actually endured its terrible style of jungle warfare. As an adult I met a friend who had served on the carrier USS Midway during Operation Frequent Wind, the code name given to the evacuation of Americans and refugees out of Southeast Asia. He described how, at the very last moment before the Midway left the South China Sea, a tiny airplane packed with a Vietnamese pilot and his family, landed on the deck of the Midway. He described how the captain of the Midway had ordered the Huey helicopters cluttering the runway to be pushed into the sea to make room for the little airplane, and how, upon its safe landing, the crew of the vast ship encircled the little family, shouting and cheering with triumph and relief.
I was deeply moved by the story, and a little flabbergasted that I had never heard the account before. The heroic rescue of Major Bung-Ly and his family is well-known to those who were on the Midway, but I felt compelled to share this story far and wide, especially with young people. In my research I discovered that no depictions of the miraculous landing of Bung-Ly’s Cessna O-1 Bird Dog existed in literature for children, or even teenagers. And so, I set out to correct a shameful omission of history and enshrine the story of the “Little Bird Dog and the Big Ship” within the pages of a children’s book.
I found a publisher who was willing to contract for two books and so decided to do a historical non-fiction series titled “The Heroes of the Vietnam War: Books for Children.” Book one of the series, “Little Bird Dog and the Big Ship” was published in the spring of 2012, and book two, “Saving the Vietnamese Orphans,” was published the following September.
My personal memories of the end of the Vietnam War were somewhat foggy. Nevertheless, I could recall some details of Operation Babylift, the heroic humanitarian airlift that took thousands of orphaned and unwanted children out of Southeast Asia in April of 1975. My most poignant remembrance was of the disastrous first flight of Operation Babylift during which a C-5 Galaxy carrying hundreds of children, crewmen, volunteers and reporters lost its rear hatch due to a mechanical malfunction.
As a grown woman, I was fortunate to meet a gentleman during my travels who had been a flight engineer on that doomed initial flight of Operation Babylift. He survived the crash which sent the massive aircraft into a rice field outside of Saigon, taking the lives of hundreds of children and adults. His memories were vivid, and though difficult, he shared them with me in a series of interviews which became a reference for my second book.
My research efforts for “Saving the Vietnamese Orphans” connected me with many key figures of Operation Babylift including Captain “Bud” Dennis Traynor, the pilot of the C-5 that crashed, Betty Tisdale, the “Angel of Saigon,” and Lana Noone, the adoptive mother of two Vietnamese orphans and one of the founders of the Asian-American adoption network, which blesses the lives of orphans and adoptive families to this day. President Gerald Ford was the leader and advocate, an adopted child himself, who made Operation Babylift possible through funding from the U.S. Government and military support for the humanitarian agencies which coordinated this incredible undertaking.
My curiosity about the Vietnam War and those who served has uncovered more than just the harsh and traumatic events of conflict. Treasures of heroism and compassion have emerged as well. Though set in the midst of political strife and bloody war, historical gems such as the story of Bung-Ly and his little Cessna Bird Dog, and that of Operation Babylift, deserve to be revealed, and kept alive within books for generations yet to come. As the author of “The Heroes of the Vietnam War: Books for Children,” one of the questions I am asked most often is, “why did you choose the Vietnam War as the subject matter for children’s books?” My answer lies in the fact that through the clouds of confusion and turmoil surrounding the Vietnam Era, the light of valor and compassion still shines forth from the lives of those who were saved by the efforts of heroes.
By Marjorie Haun 5/24/15