SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) – If you walk down San Francisco’s Crissy Field on an average weekend you notice outdoor enthusiasts whizzing by on bikes and huffing their way to the Golden Gate Bridge, but you probably don’t notice an old padlocked building that was once the first home for hundreds of orphans just arriving in the United States.
It has been 40 years since the fall of Saigon – the final loss for South Vietnam in a long and brutal war. It was 1975 and the U.S. had officially ended war efforts two years earlier. The South was trying to hang on, but the communist Viet Cong were relentless in their drive south. By the end of April, 1,000 American citizens had to be airlifted from the city and 140,000 refugees were rescued by Marines. For many, what followed was a long journey that ended on the shore of the San Francisco Bay.
Harmon Hall now sits vacant and locked up just across Old Mason Street from the former military air field. But in 1975 it was a new beginning for orphaned children from the war, including three little girls who reflected on their 40 year journey with KPIX 5.
“I remember people telling me it was a big event landing in the Bay Area,” recalled Wendy Norberg.
“I know the reality if I had stayed in Vietnam I would have probably died,” suggested Trica Houston.
“I always felt incredibly blessed and the older I get I feel more blessed,” said Lara Price.
In April the three arrived in the Bay Area with hundreds of other children in a series of historic flights called Operation Babylift.
“It was one of the greatest humanitarian efforts of the 20th century,” says Ross Meador, who worked in the Vietnam orphanage and supervised the flight. “It was a scary time. We knew we were going to have to leave and we were desperately searching for a plane.”
The first flight landing as captured live by only KPIX.
The cargo plane arrived late at night at Oakland International Airport. On board, spread out on blankets, were 57 kids from a single orphanage. Many of the children living in the orphanages were Amerasian, fathered by American soldiers.
“There was rumored that they were going to kill all of these babies that were maybe “half,” said Lara.
Then Ed Daley entered the scene. The gun-toting hard-drinking president of World Airways agreed to take kids out on his own dime.
The U.S. government tried to stop him, even as the plane taxied for takeoff.
“They shut the runway lights off saying you’re not cleared to take off. The story is Ed Daley said ‘Oh yeah? Just watch me,” recalled Meador.
The government later authorized $2 Million for the airlift. At SFO Gerald Ford even arrived to take a baby off of a plane.
Lara Price was also on that flight.
“They all brought the babies into the Presidio,” Lara recalled.
- New Exhibit at Presidiohttp://www.presidioofficersclub.com/exhibits/special-exhibits/
- Operation Reunite http://operationreunite.org/
- Lara Price http://www.laraprice.com/
- Tom Miller http://milwaki.com/
- Flower of the Dragon https://www.facebook.com/pages/FLOWER-OF-THE-DRAGON/277886167306
- Watch KPIX 5’s special, FLIGHT FROM SAIGON: 40 YEARS LATER, on April 30th, 2015
Thousands around the Bay Area offered to help out at Harmon Hall, from conducting health exams to welcoming the kids into their own families.
Wendy recently returned to Vietnam and photographed her orphanage.
Lara would be adopted by an Air Force family. She still wants to know if she has any family in Vietnam.
“Just to touch your own flesh and blood is something that I wanted to do in this lifetime,” she said.
Also wanting to know more is teacher Tricia Houston, whose birth documents said her father was American and her mother was a Vietnamese maid. She recently took a DNA test to determine her ethnicity.
“100% Asian. 100% Southeast Asian that was a shock,” she recalled.
An even bigger shock came when she learned she was a DNA match for a Vietnamese man, her father, who had been searching for her his entire life. They were recently reunited.