FORT BENNING, Ga. – Thirty-five years ago the tricommunity came together to help 219 orphans of the Vietnam War. On Saturday, nearly 60 of these orphans will return to Fort Benning to revisit their first steps on American soil and to meet Betty Tisdale, the woman who helped coordinate their airlift from Vietnam in the days prior to the fall of Saigon.
Rescued orphan Jason Robertson is organizing the first reunion at Fort Benning for the orphans of An Lac. “It’s going to be exciting and emotional,” said Robertson, who was adopted by a family in Salem, Ala. “For many of the orphans, this may be the first time they’ve seen Betty since the airlift … Many of them know very little about this part of their history — most were 6 weeks to 1 year old. They know they were rescued but they don’t (remember) coming through Fort Benning or a community coming together for 30 days to baby-sit them, change their diapers and feed them — Wilbur Elementary was a temporary pediatric ward for 30 days.”
Robertson, author of Rice to Grits, has arranged visits to two places on Fort Benning: Lawson Army Airfield, where the planes landed in 1975, and Wilbur Elementary School. The group will travel to Parkhill Cemetery in Columbus to visit the grave of An Lac orphanage’s founder, Madame Vu Thi Ngai, who lived with Tisdale until her death in 1978. A ceremony at the National Infantry Museum from 2 to 4 p.m. will be open to the public. Special guests include Tisdale, who will fly in from her home in Seattle, and Nguyet Balin, the adopted daughter of the late actress Ina Balin. Nguyet was one of the older orphans at An Lac and one of three adopted by the actress.
Tisdale first began making trips to Vietnam in 1961 to help maintain clinics for the sick and homeless after being inspired by the work of the late Dr. Tom Dooley, who tended the sick in Southeast Asia, according to her biography.
Digital Access For Only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
Tisdale’s trips included visits to the An Lac orphanage, where she helped teach English to the orphanage’s 400 children.
Tisdale established an organization to raise money and supplies to support the orphanage, which was run by Ngai. Ngai is credited with bringing in orphans off the streets after their parents were killed. After meeting and marrying COL Patrick Tisdale, Betty moved to Fort Benning, where she continued her work and coordinated the evacuation of orphans as the communists neared Saigon.
In the days prior to the fall of Saigon in 1975, Ngai, Tisdale and Balin, one of the orphanage’s board members, worked to evacuate the orphans.Because the Vietnamese government restricted the evacuation to children 10 years and younger, they were only allowed to evacuate 219 children, Robertson said.
All of the orphans were adopted and spread across the U.S. within 30 days of arriving at Fort Benning. Robertson said he hopes the reunion will bring them together once again.
Tisdale was the subject of the 1980 film The Children of An Lac, starring Shirley Jones. Tisdale continues her work to help children displaced by war. For more information, visit www.bettytisdale.com.