Leigh Small

& Operation Babylift

In 1975, two years after America withdrew from the brutal Vietnam War, the forces of communist North Vietnam were marching southward. This development in the war created many hardships for those caught up in the war—food shortages and homelessness chief among them. The South Vietnamese ambassador to the United Nations appealed the international community for aid in the refugee crisis, particularly in the capital of Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City).

The appeal led U.S. President Gerald Ford to take a dramatic step: the U.S. would evacuate over two thousand children from Saigon and relocate them to the United States—over the course of a month. This relocation came to be known as Operation Babylift.

The challenges, both logistical and diplomatic, were immense. Planes normally used for cargo needed to be fitted with seats sourced from all across the United States. Humanitarian organizations were using the same airfields as cargo planes, sometimes without authorization. Needs for fuel, scheduling, and childcare all pressed up against the impending threat of attack.

In the United States, the response was mixed. Many families immediately signed up to care for these children on arrival, but some people had other concerns. Was the evacuation even necessary? Was it in the children’s best interest? Were these children all orphans, or were they only temporarily left in orphanages by families that meant to reclaim them once the time of hardship had passed?

The situation was further complicated by safety concerns during the evacuation. One plane carrying over 300 people (including crew) began to disintegrate over the South China Sea shortly after takeoff, requiring a crash-landing back in Vietnam. Many children were saved by the heroic work of the airplane’s crew, ignoring their own injuries in their efforts to pull children from the wreckage.

In response to the plane crash, President Ford offered the words, “Our mission of mercy will continue. Other waiting orphans will make the journey. This tragedy must not deter us from offering new hope for the living.”

In the time since Operation Babylift, many of these war children, now grown, have reunited with their biological families. Recently I talked with Leigh Small, one of the children in Operation Babylift, now married and with children of her own.  She generously shared her story. 

Mary: Please share with me something about your childhood and your growing up. 

Leigh: Yes, I was adopted when I was just over three years old, into a family who lived in Massachusetts. I moved around a little bit in New York City and New Jersey. My dad was in the Coast Guard.  I graduated from high school in New Jersey, and then I puttered around there. Then I decided to go to college at the University of Southern Maine. I had a family member up here, so it was just a good connection to do that. My husband is from Maine, so when we met, we stuck around here. We’ve been married for 21 years, and we have three kids.

Mary: Adopted at three.  Do you know why it took so long, Leigh?

Leigh: Too well. Yes, it was part of my learning everything [about my past]. My mother had fallen in love with an American soldier when she was, I think, 19 at the time, and he was a little older. He had been stationed over in Vietnam three times, and they had kept this relationship going. But he had a wife in the United States. And the last time he was there, he found out that my mother was pregnant. On his way out, he made promises that he’d be back, et cetera, et cetera. She kept sending letters, and they were being returned.

She was the oldest of nine children. In the next three years, my grandmother had passed away. Her father was sick. And with the fall of Saigon she had lost her job. She had worked for the government, the American government, but she lost her job. The promise of my father coming back was dimming. So, she had to make that decision one day. She had heard that there was an organization that was getting children moved out of the country, for fear of the communists coming in and retaliating against any babies or against anyone who helped the United States. For all those combinations of reasons, she made the decision that she was going to give me to this organization.

Mary: Wow. So, she kept you until you were three.

Leigh: Yes, I lived with the whole family until then. My grandfather apparently helped raise me while my mom worked for the Army. And when he started to get sick and they were running out of money, it was too much for her to bear with everything. And she was also just scared of what would happen when the communists did take over.

Mary: At some point, you decided to search for your birth mom and did a DNA test through Ancestry?

Leigh: Yes. I was always curious, and as I got older and had kids on my own, the curiosity became stronger. And it’s more important to know my medical history with children as well. I put my DNA test in probably four years ago and hadn’t really heard anything. The results were pretty vague.  I had a lot of third and fifth cousins.

Mary: Then what happened?

Leigh: Then on the 24th of September last year, I got a <ding> email from a woman named Bonnie who wrote, “I’ve been contacted by someone who’s helping your mother. She has been looking for you for many years.  I think I’m your half-sister.” She wrote, “Here’s my number. Call me. I’d love to talk to you.”

It was about four o’clock in the afternoon. I’m starting to make dinner, and I’m not expecting anything of it. I’m resolving it in my head that nothing was going to come of it. It was too out of the blue and shocking, to say the least.  Honestly, at first, for the first half hour, I was like, “I don’t know if this is for real.” I was just very nervous.

Mary: But you did decide to contact your half-sister?

Leigh: Yes, and when we talked, my half-sister had all the right information. She had my Vietnamese name. She had the fact that I was born out of the war. Just knew everything about me. Within 20 minutes, she had sent me pictures that she’d received from this gentleman who was helping my biological mother to find me. The minute I saw this picture of my mother and this two-and-a-half year old child, I knew, “That’s me.”

Mary: Did you talk to your biological mother on the phone?

Leigh: Yes. That day my half-sister Bonnie said, “I have your mother’s phone number, if you’d like it.” So, that evening, my husband had gotten home, and we called. Here I just randomly got this number, it felt like. When I called, she was on her way to work. You could tell she was out, on the street. She said, “Hello, hello?” And I said, “Hi, my name is Leigh. I got your number from this person. My real name is Lei Mai. I think I’m your daughter.”

She was hesitant because there had been some American companies helping her, people who had come from the war who wanted to help reunite these Operation Babylift babies to their American fathers and vice versa. She had connected with a child from Canada who had my same name, had the same information, and it ended up not being the right person. So, she was hesitant. And I said, “No, I can tell you, that picture is me.”

At that point, it was a little awkward, but she said, “I love you. I’ve been thinking about you. I’m so happy.” We had to end it, saying, “I’ll send you pictures. We’ll talk more.” It was really a surreal moment. I don’t think it ever really goes the way you think it’s going to go. It’s not that movie moment. There are so many emotions and so many fact-checks that you both have to do before you really resolve yourself of all those feelings.

Mary: Did she tell you your father’s name?

Leigh: She did. His name was Joe O’Neil. She had gotten information about him from a local Vietnamese man who used to live in Saigon, who now lives in Florida, and who helped with the research. My mom’s story had become very popular in Vietnam. She had, for the last 10 years, proactively contacted the media, and tried to contact the U.S. government. She was getting older—she is 71 now—and she really, really pushed her search.  So, this man said to my mother, “I’m going to help you. I’m in America. I can connect.”

He got my dad’s name from her, found the obituary in South Carolina, and found my half-sister’s name in the obituary. He contacted all the Bonnies [with her last name] that he could and finally connected with the right person. He had to convince her for quite some time to agree to get involved because she had no idea her father had this child. She was hesitant to do it, but finally she did. And within a day, my name popped up.

Mary: So, in finding your biological mom, you learned some things about your father, Joe O’Neil.

Leigh: Yes. He had died unexpectedly and quickly, about eight years ago, of a blood clot, I think. I learned that my biological dad and his wife had divorced. He never remarried. However, he did have custody of my half-sister, Bonnie. He was, I get the impression, scarred. He had seen a lot that had devastated his soul, had regrets. He pretty much lived on a motorcycle, went to dive bars, hung out with a lot of vets. And he and my half-sister traveled around a lot. They lived in a lot of places. He had these little jobs that he would take, and then they’d move again. So, he never put down roots. He was in and out of relationships. I think he just never really found his grounding again, after the war. But after COVID restrictions lift, I want to meet more with Bonnie, learn more about him, his personality, and what transpired during those times.

People sometimes ask, “Oh, are you sad over the decisions [that were made about your]? Are you angry?” I can’t ever put myself in my mother’s or my father’s position, and what they both went through and had seen and heard—it is just beyond anything my life even came close to. So, there’s no way I could judge any decisions or any lifestyles that happened after that.

 Mary: You later went to Vietnam to meet your biological mother?  How was that trip?

Leigh: The initial meeting was odd. We went to the hotel room, she came in, and it was awkward. When I look back at those moments, I realize that she was so nervous and so scared of scaring me away, and she didn’t want to be that typical mother who falls to her knees. We ended up going to the house and meeting the family that I was actually raised in until age three.  I have an extended family over there of about 50 people. They all were incredibly welcoming and loving. We had a huge lunch that they made us, they played guitar music, and my uncles told me stories of how I’d run down this alleyway. And I’d sleep on this couch. It was really incredible to experience all that.

But my mother, the visit . . . it wasn’t all roses . . . She wanted to talk about what she was doing for work back then and how proud she was of the work she had been doing . . . it seemed a bit like she’d become frozen in time back then.  

Mary: Do you communicate with her now?

Leigh: Yes, we talk on Facebook. We bought her a phone when we went over there and set up an account on Facebook, so she could follow our children’s, her grandchildren’s, activities, and we could be in touch.

She never remarried. She’s always had a family, my uncles and my aunts, to be around her, and they’re very comfortable in terms of the lifestyle in Vietnam. She had been still riding her bike three miles a day and working as a custodian in an elementary school, at the age of 70.  And it’s brutally hot over there. Now she doesn’t have a job because of COVID. So, we have just wanted to help and make sure that she didn’t feel the pressures of that. They live very simply, and she likes that way that she lives.  But I certainly feel some type of responsibility to make sure she doesn’t have to work like that anymore.

At first, I was happy. Then survivor’s guilt hit hard. Here I was, living this amazing American life that she had sacrificed for.

Mary: Leigh, how are you doing with all this?

Leigh: I’m better now. It was very difficult for the first three months. At first, I was happy. Then survivor’s guilt hit hard. Here I was, living this amazing American life that she had sacrificed for. I had assumed that she had probably fallen in love again and married again. I didn’t know she had held onto being abandoned my father, and then losing me, and then losing the United States government—everything that had been good for her at that time had left or had fallen apart, and it was hard for her to move on.

Mary: How did your parents feel about you visiting your biological mother?

Leigh: Oh gosh, my mom has been trying to get me to search more into this for years. She’s emailed my biological mother. They’ve talked back and forth, and they’ve sent letters. I’ve always felt blessed in that way, that she was appreciative of my biological mother and never felt threatened.

Mary: For you, it has to have been difficult, at that age of 3, to have opened your heart to a new beginning.

Leigh: Yes. I was fortunate that way. I was always raised with the message, “You were adopted. We chose to have you in our family. We wanted to have you in our family.” And it was not hard for me to be raised in America. I did not feel different. Number one, I look American. Number two, because of my dad, I was pretty much raised on a military base, so there were a lot of ethnic differences, and there were also Filipino families.

I had such an amazing life in America. I never really thought about the damage that was probably done to me with being three years old and all of a sudden, just getting . . . She literally walked me into Saigon and dropped me at a building and gave me a hug, and that was it. And I guess she came back one other time to see me. And then she realized she couldn’t keep doing that. And then, that was it.

I certainly look at some things in my personality and realize that it did affect me, even if I didn’t see that outwardly.

Mary: Are you in contact with anybody in the Operation Babylift? Other children?

Leigh: Oh, yes. It was amazing. I was getting messages from Indonesia, and from many who have heard my story. One person wrote to say, “I was one of those nurses on a plane.”  And the DNA is so important to all these stories and all these mothers. My husband’s employees, for a Christmas gift, bought 77 DNA kits for one of these organizations that help babies reunite.

Mary: After all this, are you glad you have gone through all that you did?

Leigh: Yes, I am glad. After all this, my mother is no longer the woman who’s looking for her child. And I think, “Oh, my gosh. I’m actually the woman who did have a reunion with her biological mother, and who did have all those feelings, and went through all this. Now what?”  It has certainly given my life a different perspective, which sounds a little hokey, but I just appreciate a lot of what I have and the sacrifice that people made. I’m not going to complain about things in my life, because I’ve seen what my mother went through. She made that sacrifice, and I got the best of all of it.

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