As a nation primarily of immigrants, we have come from places around the globe, seeking economic opportunities, religious freedom, adventure. At times coming to American means escaping possible or certain death.
We have come at various periods in our lives: as fetuses in our mothers’ wombs, as young children, or as adults. Or we are descendants of those who came decades or centuries ago.
As the Vietnam War ended in 1975, questions arose as to what responsibilities we had to the South Vietnamese who had supported us. Does this make you think of today’s questions about our responsibilities to those in Afghanistan who worked with us as we are in the final weeks of ending our stay there?
One of the issues as we lost the war Vietnam, and the North Vietnamese Army was closing in on Saigon, was the fate of babies and young children in the orphanages. What would happen to those who had been fathered by American servicemen, those who were obviously bi-racial.
On April 4, 1975, amid all the chaos in Saigon, a C-5A Galaxy departed from Tan Son Nhut Air Base with an estimated 145 orphans in the troop compartment of the aircraft, 102 orphans in the cargo compartment, and a group of 47 designated as “other” in the cargo compartment. “During climb out, the aft pressure and ramp departed the aircraft causing hydraulic lines and flight control cables to be severed. Due to the lack of any normal pitch control system, the pilot had extremely limited control of the aircraft and crash landed in a rice paddy/marsh area 2 NM NE of Tan Son Nhut Air Base” (a report from the Department of the Air Force: Headquarters Air Force Safety Center). The aircraft broke into four parts. Of the estimated 330 on board, 175 survived, and 155 died.
One of the orphans who survived the crash was Mindy (Kelpe) Eubanks — whose birth record lists her as Mai Thai Hong Hoa. How do I know Mindy? I’m one of those Americans who is interested in the history of our involvement in the Vietnam War. For years I have been writing and publishing the stories of some of the veterans of that war who live in the Miami Valley of Ohio.
My latest research project has, however, taken me out of the Miami Valley as I’ve interviewed, among others, the pilot of that aircraft that crashed, some of the flight crew, and some of the orphans who survived the crash. Today, I read a copy, heavily redacted, of the official investigation of the crash which I reference above.
This column, however, is about Mindy, a resident of Cape Girardeau, Mo., a St. Louis Cardinal fan, a mother of two, and one of the most patriotic persons I’ve ever known. Mindy indicates that one of her most precious memories is of sitting on her adoptive mother’s lap while waiting to be naturalized.
Her mother, Jeanne, was a nurse and a scrapbooker who sent medical supplies to third-world countries. She and her husband, Jimmy, had two biological children, three years apart, but wanted to adopt. Mindy believes the date of her birth is March 10, 1974, and that she was 13 months old at the time of the crash, but she knows, thanks to Jeanne’s careful records that she wore newborn clothes until she was two years old.
April 19, 1975, is the day on which Jeanne and Jimmy came into her life, and Mindy reports, “I was malnourished, looked like an Ethiopian, couldn’t stand, and had every disease you could think of: anemia, severe chicken pox. I had no hearing in my right ear, and at age 10 had my hair shaved off and my eardrum reconstructed. After I learned to walk, I had night terrors and ran around the house screaming. As late as 2009, for a few months, I’d wake up with nightmares of babies on fire.”
She was asked at the 39th anniversary of the crash by personnel at television station KFBS 12 to talk about the crash. Mindy says, “The interview turned out to be two minutes, and I wouldn’t even look at the camera.”
She’s more open now and tells me that since the crash, she has flown only three times and then “only under heavy medication” — in 2000 with her husband to Las Vegas; in 2016 when her brother took the family to the Bahamas; and in October of 2020 when her daughter Lindsey married. She says that during the 2020 flight, she “kept thinking about Patsy Cline’s plane crash.”
After graduating from Cape Central High School and a time in what she calls “secretarial science school,” she is currently the Executive Administrative Assistant to the CEO and the CFO at the Gibson Recovery Center.
She always wanted children and had planned to adopt, but in addition to Lindsey she has a biological son Aaron, with her husband, Matt Eubanks. Her son is referred to as “Jackie Chan” by his teammates at the private school he attends where he is pitcher on the school’s baseball team. He inherited his father’s height and build and Mindy’s Southeast Asian features.
I ask Mindy the question I do of all the orphans I’ve interviewed: What about DNA testing? Her response is “I have no interest in finding my biological parents. If I had been raised in a bad family, maybe I would. I have a family. My mom and dad are my mom and dad. They taught me the importance of God, family, and work. If someone appeared claiming to be my parent, I’d say, ‘Why are you here? Where have you been for the past 47 years?’”
She continues, “I have survivor’s guilt. Why did I live when so many died on that April day in 1975? I’ve had COVID-19, and I survived. Why?”
Immigration. It’s complex. There was dissent on the process of exiting Vietnam and on who should be evacuated with Americans. At times, President Ford became upset with the opposition to his plans for withdrawal.
We are currently reading reports of interpreters who have aided the U.S. fearing for their lives as the Taliban forces regain control, feeling abandoned after helping us in this 20-year war in Afghanistan. Do we have an obligation? If so, what is the nature of that obligation?
In conclusion, I believe President Ford’s initiative to get orphans out of South Vietnam orphanages was a proper course of action. Others disagree. Seldom is any action simple. As an educator, I encourage my students to explore the issues and assign weight to their arguments before coming to conclusions. I think we need more of that approach.