Adoptee Thuy Williams was 5 years old when she was evacuated from Vietnam on an Operation Babylift flight in April 1975. More than 47 years later, Thuy looks back on the events of her early days — and on the events that have shaped her remarkable life.
In 1975, the Vietnam War had raged for decades. But by April of that year, the conflict had reached a turning point. North Vietnamese troops were closing in on the South, and the fall of Saigon, which would effectively end the war, was imminent. In April 1975, U.S. President Gerald Ford issued an order called Operation Babylift.
Between April 3-26, more than 3,000 Vietnamese orphans, many fathered by U.S. military personnel, would be airlifted to safety and united with adoptive families in the U.S. and other western countries. During this effort, three Pan Am flights were chartered by Holt International to safely evacuate children from Vietnam into the United States.
Here is the story of one child whose life — and destiny — were changed by Operation Babylift.
On April 4, 1975, a 21-year-old Vietnamese woman named Ho had reached a turning point in her life. Ho was the single mother of a 5-year-old daughter, Thuy, whose father had been a U.S. Marine serving in Vietnam. In the days leading up to the fall of Saigon, Ho had heard rumors from a brother, a North Vietnamese army general, that all “Amerasian” children would be killed at the end of the war. Since Thuy was an Amerasian child — half American, half Asian — Ho set about trying to save her. She turned to another brother, who worked at the U.S. Embassy in Saigon, and he was able to forge exit papers on Thuy’s behalf, claiming that she was an orphan with no living parents.
On April 4, Ho brought Thuy to the Tan Son Nhut Air Base in Saigon and put her on a C-5A military cargo plane bound for the United States. But shortly after Thuy boarded that plane, she was removed from it, as the flight had too many passengers. Thuy was scheduled to travel the following day, April 5, on the next Operation Babylift flight out of Saigon.
As it turned out, the change in travel plans likely saved Thuy’s life. Shortly after takeoff on April 4, the C-5A plane — with more than 300 passengers on board — suffered a mechanical failure and crashed near the Saigon River. Sadly, 128 people died, including 78 children. In the chaos, Thuy’s mother was told that her daughter had perished.
The next day, however, Thuy flew to the U.S. on a chartered Pan Am flight alongside another 324 infants and children — including survivors of the C-5A crash.
Thuy was not on a Holt-chartered flight and did not join her family through Holt. During the Babylift, many organizations and agencies evacuated children. But Holt was unique in that local staff only evacuated children who were already in the adoption process with families in the U.S.
Thuy did not have an adoptive family waiting for her when she arrived in Portland, Oregon, in April 1975. Instead, she first stayed with a foster family.
“My parents had been in church one day when they heard about Operation Babylift,” says Thuy, now 51. “They had agreed to foster a 6-month-old, and their friends from church had donated a ton of baby items, including a crib and diapers. But when my mom came to pick me up, she was met by a 5-year-old girl!” Undeterred by this change in plans, Thuy’s foster parents, Jenny and David Williams, decided to not only foster Thuy but to adopt her — giving her a permanent home in Oregon.
Adapting to Life in the U.S.
Thuy’s first weeks in the U.S. were anything but easy. The emergency evacuation and rushed adoption process of Operation Babylift left little time for adoptive families to learn how to support and care for children who had faced trauma or were simply experiencing culture shock. “For the first two weeks in America, I would eat nothing but rice, even though my parents tried to get me to eat other foods,” Thuy recalls. “My parents didn’t speak Vietnamese, and I didn’t speak English. My mom got a Vietnamese translator, but I wouldn’t speak to her.”
In time, however, Thuy began to assimilate to her new life in Portland. She was fascinated by the simplest of things, like learning to use a flush toilet or by the concept of tap water. (“My mom says I flooded the bathroom once or twice with this thing called ‘running water,’” she recalls.) Thuy became enamored of American TV and pizza. And when she started school shortly after her arrival, Thuy made friends and learned to speak English. She learned to play kickball and soccer.
But mostly, Thuy learned to feel safe in her new environment. “In Vietnam, I lived mainly with my grandparents, and I remember feeling loved,” she says. “But I also remember being hungry and scared.” With a war going on around her, Thuy heard bombs and gunfire, and witnessed people being shot to death. She even believed that her mother had died, based on the information in her exit papers. As a result, Thuy wanted nothing to do with her Vietnamese heritage and vowed never to return to her birth country.
Instead, she focused on her adoptive family — her parents and two younger sisters, Michelle and Becky; her school friends, who’ve become lifelong companions; and playing sports, such as soccer. In high school, she even landed a spot on a Junior World Cup soccer team.
Thuy grew up in a predominantly white environment in Portland, but says she faced no racism from her family, friends or community. “I’ve heard the horror stories from [other biracial] people involved in Operation Babylift, who were treated badly in homes and in schools,” she says. “Some kids had it really hard. But I’m so thankful for my family and community, because I honestly didn’t learn about prejudice until I joined the military.”
In 1990, after one year of Bible college, Thuy decided to enlist in the U.S. Army at the age of 20. She had always wanted to join the military to honor her birth father — a Marine — and to honor America. “I love America, I always have,” she says. “I’m aware of the privilege of being here.” For eight years, Thuy worked as a tank mechanic, stationed primarily in Baumholder, Germany. She was happy to serve her country but admits that her military career was tough. “I was working in a very male-dominated profession, and I had every strike against me. I was female, half Asian and half Black.” Thuy was the target of racism for the first time in her life.
In 1998, she decided to leave the Army and return to civilian life. Thuy became a sports coach, public speaker, mentor and missionary, eventually leading some 30 humanitarian trips to impoverished countries around the world. She focused her outreach on helping kids who’d faced trauma — in the U.S., in war-torn countries and in refugee camps abroad.
Returning to Vietnam
In 2001, Thuy’s life took an unexpected turn. Thuy has a biological cousin, My, who also fled Vietnam during Operation Babylift. My grew up in Portland, not far from Thuy, and the two girls formed a deeper connection after high school. In 1999, My decided she wanted to search for their birth relatives in Vietnam and eventually met someone who could help her — a Vietnamese-American woman who spent half the year in America and half in Vietnam.
One day, this bilingual friend asked to see the girls’ immigration papers in hopes of getting some background on their birth families. When looking over Thuy’s papers, she read the first page in English, which stated that Thuy’s mother had died. But delving deeper into an additional 50 pages, written in Vietnamese, she found an address in Saigon. The next time this woman traveled to Vietnam, she went to that address and discovered something remarkable: Thuy’s aunt and uncle still lived down the street, and her mother was still alive. There would be an opportunity to meet them!
“To be honest, I didn’t want to go back to Vietnam, but My was adamant that we go,” Thuy says. Eventually she relented, and in 2001, Thuy and My returned to their homeland. When they arrived at the airport, the girls were greeted by their birth mothers, as well as some cousins, aunts and uncles. Thuy’s grandparents, who had been her primary caregivers, sadly had died.
Thuy was 31 at the time and had no memories of her birth mother, Ho. “I basically had this stranger grabbing me and hugging me all the time!” Thuy says of her mother’s embraces. For so many years, Ho thought that Thuy had died.
Thuy and My stayed in Vietnam for about 10 days during that 2001 visit. While My enjoyed the experience, Thuy found it difficult. She visited her mother’s house — a tin hut with no running water or electricity, located in a small village two hours outside of Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon). “Seeing her in such poverty was a gut punch to me,” Thuy recalls. Confronting her past, with all of its trauma, was heart-wrenching as well.
“When I came back from Vietnam in 2001, I was really more damaged than when I first came here [in 1975],” she says. “I never wanted to go back, but when I did, I saw the situation I could have grown up in, or actually have died in. It was really hard for me.” Visiting Vietnam also brought back a flood of memories for Thuy, of being hungry, being alone and feeling like an outcast as a biracial child. “I felt I wasn’t wanted or good enough to be me,” she adds.
Shortly after returning to America, Thuy — at the strong urging of a concerned friend, Jody — enrolled in a Christ-based healing program called Imago Dei. Over the course of five years, Thuy peeled back the layers of her trauma, dealing with issues of abandonment, food insecurity and war.
Then in 2009, Thuy and Jody went to Vietnam and returned to the places she once lived. Thuy walked down the alleyway where she saw people killed, and stood in front of her childhood home. She prayed over these places, and over her sadness, insecurities and trauma. Finally, Thuy and Jody went to the airport in Ho Chi Minh City, where Thuy had boarded a plane on April 4, 1975. “I began bawling, thinking I could have died that day,” she says. “I began thinking I could have been left in Vietnam and had a horrendous life. Many [biracial] kids that were left behind became prostitutes, street kids or complete outcasts. I could have grown up like that, or I could have died, from malnutrition or something else.”
As Thuy prayed over the turns her life had taken — being placed on a different flight, growing up in America with a loving family, friends and opportunities — she asked God why he had saved her. “I suddenly saw an image of an angel taking my hand and walking me down the steps of the first plane and up the steps of the plane the next day. I heard a voice saying, ‘I’ve always been here. I’ve had a purpose for your life, and I love you,’” she says. “It was such a powerful moment. I finally felt the weight of my past leave my shoulders, and I cried.”
A Second Chance
Thuy has returned to Vietnam several times since that trip in 2009 and has developed a relationship with Ho, now 69. “To be honest, I had to learn to love my birth mother,” says Thuy. “But I’m thankful she wasn’t selfish and wanted the best for me, and I’m grateful for what she did.” Since their meeting in 2001, Ho has been learning English so that she and her daughter can better communicate, and Thuy has helped her birth mother financially. Ho now lives in a house that she loves in Ho Chi Minh City and has worked as a nanny for the past five years. “She’s doing really well,” says Thuy, who hopes to make another visit to Vietnam to see her birth mom as soon as Covid-19 restrictions lift.
On the other side of the family tree, Thuy has never met her birth father. But in 2020, Thuy discovered through Ancestry.com that she has seven half-sisters, one of whom lives four hours away in Medford, Oregon. Thuy has become very close to this sister, Siane, and has learned that her birth father is now in his 80s and in poor health. Thuy has seen only one old photo of her birth dad and has no plans to meet him at this time.
On April 24, 2022, however, Thuy did connect with another important part of her past. At an event presented by Holt International and the Pan Am Museum Foundation, in honor of the 47th anniversary of Operation Babylift, Thuy met some of the passengers who were aboard her flight out of Vietnam. They included other adoptees, flight attendants and medical professionals who were with Thuy on that fateful day. Also in attendance was Al Topping, Pan Am’s director of South Vietnam and Cambodia in 1975. Topping had helped organize Pan Am’s Operation Babylift flights out of Vietnam, in addition to another evacuation of almost 400 families shortly thereafter.
While Thuy had met other Operation Babylift adoptees at a prior event in Vietnam, this was the first time she was in a room with people who shared — and shaped — her destiny. “It’s hard to describe what that was like,” says Thuy, who found the evening so emotional. One of the highlights was talking with Topping, whom she describes as “a hero and so humble.” His actions saved the lives of so many people — including her own, she adds.
Looking back over her life thus far, Thuy recognizes that she’s been given a second chance, and as a Christian, she feels God has a purpose for each of us. Thuy’s purpose has been to be a sports coach, a mentor, a sports missionary, a good friend and family member. She has started a nonprofit called Breaking Boundaries, which takes kids from rural parts of America to Africa to do community service projects. She is also the general manager of the Uganda Women’s National Lacrosse Team. In June, the team will travel to the United States to participate in the World Lacrosse Women’s World Championship — making it the first women’s team from Africa to ever compete in such a competition.
As Thuy says, “My purpose in life is to have a positive impact on others — and so far, my life has been quite a journey!”
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