Betty Tisdale's Heroic Orphan Airlift

In 1975, Tisdale arranged to have 219 orphans airlifted out of Saigon.

April 30, 2010, 5:15 PM

April 30, 2010 — -- Thirty-five years ago, the press called her the angel of Saigon -- and hundreds of American families still do.

In the spring of 1975, the fall of Saigon was imminent. Civilians were desperate to get out of Vietnam, and one American woman, Betty Tisdale, was desperate to get them out -- especially the children.

"The first time I went to Vietnam and I found An Lac [orphanage] and they opened the gates to the orphanage, I couldn't believe my eyes," Tisdale said. "I walked into the nursery and I saw babies in rusty cribs with no diapers or rag diapers with one pin."

"I had to help these children. That is what started the whole thing," Tisdale added.

Tisdale spent years raising funds and volunteering for the An Lac orphanage. She raised money, gathered donations and made several trips to Vietnam herself.

But in 1975, as the Viet Cong drew closer to Saigon, hundreds of the orphans' lives were at stake.

"I knew I had to go over and bring those children back," Tisdale said. "I had no idea how to do -- where I was going to put them. I had to find planes, a place for them, find parents for them."

She needed permission from the South Vietnamese government to let the children leave the country. Finally, the government agreed to let children under the age of 10 go -- as long as they had birth certificates to prove their age.

"We really didn't have birth certificates," Tisdale said. "So we went out and got blank certificates and filled them all in."

Tisdale needed a place for the children to stay once they arrived in the U.S., so she picked up the phone and called the secretary of the Army.

"He didn't return my call, so I called his mother," she said. "She said, 'I'll do the best I can.'"

That's how Tisdale found a school at Ft. Benning, Georgia, that promised to house the children.

She then persuaded the American Air Force to find planes and the exodus of the orphans of An Lac began.

Babies and children were loaded onto the planes. The babies, some newborns, were carried handmade baskets and then transferred to cardboard boxes that were placed on the floor.

To visit the website of Tisdale's charity foundation, click here.

Rescued An Lac Orphans Thrive Today

In all, 219 were airlifted out of the country, and all were adopted within 30 days of arriving in the U.S.

"Without her, I wouldn't be here, bottom line, and it's just a blessing to have had the opportunities I've been given," said Dan Burkholder, who was a baby on the airlift.

"There are few people who I think dedicate every minute of their life to helping other people," said Vikki Sloviter, who was also on the airlift. "I think few people can say what an impact one person has had in so many lives."

Many of the children from An Lac now have successful careers and are raising families of their own.

"She's given us such a gift, and I think it's our obligation to just live quality lives and do our best," said Adam Strouse. "That's the best gift we can give her."

"We were all her children, and she would come and give you the warmest hug and say you know you have another mother in me," said Elizabeth Berg.

Tisdale, who adopted five orphans of her own, is now 87 and is still devoted to helping children in orphanages around the world. Next week, she plans to travel to Haiti to help children orphaned by the earthquake.

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