Amerasians Recall Historic Vietnam Flight

ByABC News

April 30, 2005 — -- Thirty years ago, South Vietnam was collapsing -- as North Vietnamese forces closed in on Saigon while the U.S. government, exhausted and disheartened by years of war, stood by.

"A vast human tragedy has befallen our friends in Vietnam and Cambodia," President Gerald Ford said.

Matt Steiner and Roger Castillo were children in Saigon -- orphans then known by the names Huang Van Long and Minh Tsi Phun -- preparing for a journey that would change them utterly.

Like thousands of other children, Steiner and Castillo were Amerasian, with Vietnamese mothers and American fathers. Abandoned or orphaned, despised by many in their country for their mixed parentage, they needed homes.

And so began "Operation Baby Lift," a U.S. effort to fly thousands of Vietnamese children to America for adoption.

Last weekend in Washington, there was a reunion for many of the 2,500 children, including Steiner, who was 9 at the time, and Castillo, who was 6.

"This is the first time we've seen each other in 30 years," Steiner told ABC News.

"Being in the orphanage," Castillo said, "that was our home. Matt was my family. He could be my -- he was my brother.

The two left Vietnam for good on April 5, 1975, three and a half weeks before Saigon fell to communist forces on April 30, 1975.

"I remember us being rushed to get dressed," Castillo said. "I remember us rushing to eat, and we were put in a bus, and we went to the airport."

"I could see the steam rising off of the airport asphalt runway," Steiner added. "And it was probably 100-plus degrees."

"People started clamoring up the steps, bringing us babies," said Karen Walker Ryan, then a Pan Am flight attendant who volunteered to go to Saigon for the operation. "Women had several babies in their arms and they would hand them to us. We'd put 'em in seats and go get another handful of babies. And we had them under the seats. We had two or three under seatbelts. It was absolute chaos."

There had never been a flight like it.

"A 747 is the size of a football field," Ryan said. "And it was just wall-to-wall babies and children."

Steiner remembers having "a lot of mixed emotions."

"I was sad because I was leaving the only family member that I knew at that time, which was my grandmother," he said. "But I was also excited and anticipating meeting a new family. I wanted to become an all-American boy."

Castillo's first memory of America was "how cold it was."

Steiner and Castillo split up that day. They each found loving families in America, and each has now started his own family.

Steiner said the lesson of their long journey is simple.

"This country is a wonderful country where you can be anything that you want to be if you really put your mind to it," he said.

Both Vietnamese boys, who became American men, are living that dream. Matt Steiner is an emergency room physician in Indiana. Roger Castillo is an emergency room physician's assistant in Montana, and they both say they feel like they're giving something back.

ABC News reporter Terry Moran and producer Nils Kongshaug originally reported this story on "World News Tonight" April 24, 2005.

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