Betty Tisdale, “Angel of Saigon” Operation Babylift and Helping And Loving Orphans (HALO)

Betty Tisdale & Operation Babylift
Interview by Miae Kim
Tape Sync by Scott Bartlett of Jack Straw Productions
Date: 12/1/04
1 CD, 18 Tracks

TRACK 1 – 1:32

BETTY: I am Betty Tisdale. I am founder of an organization called HALO, Helping And Loving Orphans that’s only about four years old. And before that I had worked in Vietnam from 1961 until Vietnam fell in 1975 and then went back again and I’m there now.

Do you have to ask my age?

Oh no, I don’t want this public.

Okay, I am Betty Tisdale and I’m the founder of HALO, Helping and Loving Orphans

(phone in background)

Excuse me a minute, Miae. I completely forgot about this.

TRACK 2 – 1:51

Okay. I am Betty Tisdale. I’m the founder of an organization called HALO, Helping and Loving Orphans, and prior to that, my first trip to Vietnam was in 1961 and I went there every year for fourteen years until 1975 when I airlifted the babies and then went back, I guess it was in 1995 or ’96 and continued helping with the orphans.

I, well, I went to Vietnam because I had read a book written by Dr. Tom Dooley called “Deliver Us from Evil” and he spoke of his experiences as a young navy doctor in North Vietnam helping the North Vietnamese flee to the south. And the book was so vivid and so heartrending that I decided that I wanted to help him. So I offered my services as a secretary – I was living in New York City. And I started to write letters for him and so on and became so involved that as a young doctor, he was only 33, he died one day after his 34th birthday of cancer. And I continued, I made my first trip then in 1961 right after he died, to go to Vietnam to see exactly what he was talking about.

Well, the thing was, I didn’t even know about President Ford at that time. Since I was so involved with Anlac Orphanage, that’s A-N-L-A-C,

TRACK 3 – 7:11

for 14 years, and we had over 400 children, I decided that I did not want to leave them in Vietnam if I could possibly get all 400 of them out. And since I was not one of the seven recognized adoption agencies, I had to do this on my own. I was not involved with the government. The government arranged, I guess with President Ford, that these agencies could get their children out but I was not involved in that. So I had to try to get my own planes, get a place for them, make sure that they got adopted, all of that, on my own.

It was called Babylift because I came out at about the same time some other organizations came out. Actually right after Rosemary Taylor’s C5A crashed, I was on my way over to Vietnam at that time. But she was also one of the recognized agencies and I was not.

Oh, I was sickened. I didn’t know what to do and at that time I thought, I think we all thought it was sabotage or something like that, but I wasn’t going to let it bother me because I was trying, I called Pan Am, I called other agencies to see whether I could get hooked on to theirs but I couldn’t. so I went over to Vietnam on a Tuesday, I arrived on a Tuesday and went directly to Ambassador Martin and said I’m taking 400 children out and I have no way to get them out, can you help me? And he had known me me, I’d gone to him many times for other things and he said if you can get the manifest signed by the Vietnamese government, I’ll see that you get some planes, and these were then air force planes that he was talking about. So I took the manifest, which had about 400 names on them, to the Vietnamese government on Wednesday, the next day and Dr. Dan said Miss Tisdale, I’m sorry, I can’t sign this, and this was about ten days before Vietnam fell and I think the Viet Cong or the North Vietnamese were within about twelve miles of the city. And I said, he said you can’t take out any child over ten. And I said why? And he said because we’re going to hang on, we’re going to hold out. He said we’re going to get help and we’re not going to let the North Vietnamese take over. So I had to take the manifest back to the orphanage, Madam Nigh who was the directress was adamant, she wanted all the children out or none. And I had a big argument with her, saying I would come back for the rest of them. And so we revised the list and naturally, Vietnamese are very tiny. And we didn’t have birth certificates, that was the other thing that he said, he said you have to have birth certificates for every child. And we didn’t have birth certificates because these were abandoned children. They were left at the gates, nobody knew where they came from, they were given names and so on. So we revised the list and we made up birthdays for all of them and we didn’t have birth certificates so I went to the hospital and I said I need birth certificates and they gave me a whole big stack of them and we went back to the orphanage and filled them all out. So since we didn’t have birth certificates, I took out a lot of children who were over ten and it bothered me that no-one ever checked that list at all, I could have taken out 400. But anyhow we revised the list and I got 219 on the list and took it back to Dr. Dan. He okayed it. Then I took it back to Ambassador Martin, that was on Thursday. And he said okay, Betty, be ready to leave at 11 o’clock tomorrow morning. Now, I had arrived on Tuesday night, so I went until Thursday, 11 o’clock they sent busses, army busses to the orphanage and all the children were dressed in new clothes that Madame Nigh had stuck in the back of the orphanage. And they were crying and the babies, I had babies in baskets but they didn’t allow me then to take the baskets on the plane, they had to transfer the babies to boxes to be strapped down and that’s how we got the kids out. And they gave me two planes. Two I forget what they were. What kind of planes they were. They were cargo planes, though. And these children had never left the orphanage, let alone get in an airplane. So they got sick and they were throwing up and also Ambassador Martin said you have to have one escort for each ten children and I said no problem, but I couldn’t get anyone. I made an announcement, free trip to the United States for anyone who wants to take care of a baby. I got one Australian and he said okay, I’ll change nappies until we get to the Philippines. So I left with him and one of the crew who were feeding babies and so on. And that’s how I did it. Then we got to the Philippines and the servicemen’s wives had gotten together and we changed the kids clothes and they had their names on nametags on their little outfits and of course they all went into a bin to be thrown away and so I lost all their names and I practically walked across the Pacific trying to identify which baby was which and which child was which and so on and by the time we got to California, we got to Los Angeles, it was so hot. We had to wait for the mayor to get on the plane and in the meantime one of my babies died. It was a twin and they took about thirty of my children and put them in various hospitals because they had never seen malnourished children as small as that. My youngest daughter was not on that babylift but she weighed less than five pounds at three months old. So they’re tiny and our public health people hadn’t seen babies that small. So they took about thirty of them and from there I had to get a plane, my husband who was in Columbus, Georgia waiting for me, got a plane and we paid $21,000 for a United Airlines plane to take the rest to Fort Benning, Georgia where we arrived.

At Fort Benning they were

TRACK 4 – 1:18

housed in a school and before I left I tried to find a place to put them. I was thinking I was going to get 400. So we were right near Fort Benning and I was in Columbus, Georgia so I noticed that they had empty barracks and I called the general to see if they had any barracks to put the kids in. And I also called the Tresler Lutheran Adoption Agency to come down and arrange for the adoptions, since I was not an adoption agency. So I called the general and he never returned my call and I thought well, I’m going over his head so I called the secretary of the army, Beau Calloway in Washington DC and he never returned my call so I called his mother and his mother said Mrs. Tisdale, I’ll do the best I can and I did that the day before I left Columbus. So when I got back they had arranged for a school, a whole school with a playground and all that for the children. They were there less than a month and they were all adopted within a month.

Mostly into Pennsylvania.

TRACK 5 – 0:48

I don’t, from then on. Because there were quite a few in the Columbus area although to tell you the truth I guess the Department of Human Resources didn’t want too many of the Asian children in Georgia. And so most of them were adopted outside of Georgia. I can say nasty things about them but I won’t.


TRACK 6 – 5:12

Well, I never heard that, and I don’t know what helicopters she’s talking about because none of the children were on helicopters, they were all on planes and the adoption agencies were well taken care of once they got to the states, because they were adopted through agencies and agencies are sticklers for rules and regulations and so on, and they had lists of people who had been wanting to adopt for years, and that’s the way with Tresler Lutheran. I chose Tresler Lutheran Adoption Agency because they place hard-to-place children and since a lot of mine were older most people don’t want older children. They want babies. But they were all adopted. And as far as I know they seem to be fine. I get visits from all of them. Not all of them, but I get visits and I have pictures in my house of the children that have come to see me and so on.

Oh yeah, they come back to see me. I have emails from them and so on. One of the babies did my website. Another one, Jared, writes music and poetry and I’m in touch with him. I’m in touch with so many of them, really. I can’t give you names but I have all their, I take pictures of them and Vicky is one. Vicky is a baby, she was a baby, she was about two years old, I guess, two, three years old when she came over. And she was adopted by a University professor and a federal court judge, and her mother was the judge. And highly educated and she was given the best of everything and even when her mother went to Vietnam for a visit, she didn’t want to go. She sort of suppressed the fact that she was Asian. Until she grew up, and then she saw something in Life magazine, of all the people in the United States, who would you like to meet? In 50 words or less or something, and she said I’d like to meet Betty Tisdale, the woman who saved my life. And so Life magazine and Dateline got together and brought her from Pennsylvania to Seattle to meet me for the first time, and we cried and we looked at pictures and now she has two babies and I went to her wedding and they may have this feeling, mine didn’t have this feeling of being different, because they grew up with me and it didn’t matter what color or anything like that and I don’t know, my children seem to be different. I have one, my older child, who is, she was about seven or eight when I adopted her in ’72. She decided she wanted to live in Hawaii when she grew up because everybody looked like her. And so that, she was the only one. But the others have gone on, graduated from George Washington University, Penn State, all of that. One is a teacher, one is the vice president of Morgan Stanley and so on. They’ve done well. Of course they don’t all live here in Seattle, which I make them feel guilty about…

Yeah, they’re good kids. And the ones that I’ve met are, I don’t know the family history of a lot of them because they were placed by an agency but the agency had gotten home studies and everything and had gotten everything ready for these children to be adopted. The people who were the head of Tresler Lutheran adopted eighteen children. They were just wonderful. Some of them had polio and so on. The people that want to adopt really want to adopt children. Madame Nigh, who was the directress of Anloc orphanage, was reluctant to have her children be adopted because she had this feeling that people only wanted someone to work in their home or someone to be slaves. She would never allow a solider to adopt because she thought they were going to do other things. And the Asian mind is a little bit different than Americans as far as adoptions.

TRACK 7 – 1:46

Oh, do you know who it was?

Oh, wonder what his name is.


I went after twenty years, I went back and I took my youngest daughter, Kim Lon. And I said we don’t know who your biological parents are or if they’re still alive, but maybe we can go to the hospital and dig up something and I said are you interested and she said no, you’re my mom and that’s all I care about. Now, I know there are quite a few Vietnamese children who want to go back and find their biological parents. And if you saw “Daughter from D’nang” that is a very sad story and I have feelings about that girl. I just don’t think that she was nice to her. She found her mother and to me, if any of my children could find their mothers they would find that the only reason they gave them up is they wanted to save their lives and this mother gave up this child to save her life and then this woman treats her like dirt. Terrible.

It was.

TRACK 8 – 2:27

Oh yes, that was wonderful. I only knew, see I brought out Madame Nigh the day Vietnam fell. I got her out through her ambassador. And her assistant Miss Took and a couple others. And I brought them out and they lived with me. So I had ten kids plus all of them and it was through Miss Took, who kept in touch with some of the older children and she gave me their names and so on and I looked one up and I wrote to him, and I said I’m coming at a certain date, could we arrange to meet? Well, she got about 60 of them together and oh, they were wonderful. We went to somebody’s little hut on I guess it was his farm, he kept pigs and everybody got together and in the bus, I rented a bus and in the bus going out there, I don’t speak Vietnamese, and they started to sing Jingle Bells, Old MacDonald had a farm, and Row, Row, Row your Boat, which was to let me know that they hadn’t forgotten me. Because that’s what I used to teach them. Oh, it made me cry, made me cry. So I see them, we have a reunion every year, I go back every year. We have a reunion, now I meet their children and their children are doing well. Their still having a hard time but the children go to school. They couldn’t go to school because they had no identity. They had no papers and according to the Communist government over there, if you don’t have any papers, you can’t go to school. But their children do and I’ve sent money for you might say scholarships. As long as they keep their grades up, there’s no charge for school over there. But they don’t give them any money for paper, pencils or books. So for about 300, or 350 dollars someone can go to school, a higher school so I ask for that from some people for their children.

Yes, uh-huh.

TRACK 9 – 1:59

When I married my husband, whom I met in Vietnam, he was a pediatrician but he was chief of the first infantry division medical battalion and he and his corpsmen used to come to the orphanage once or twice a week and examine the children, take care of them, sometimes they took them to the zoo. I would, I asked them if they would put in indoor toilets and so on, which they did, they were marvelous. Anyhow, his wife died and he came back and he had five little boys so he asked me to marry him and I was a secretary all my life, I didn’t even know how to cook, and I said yes, it would save me a lot of time if I had five little boys. And seven months later I was going back to Vietnam and we started adopting the girls and within a year, year and a half we had five little girls and that’s how we adopted the children.

It was a learning process for me as well as them. The little girls were adorable, I mean I would walk down the streets or take them shopping and everyone would say oh aren’t they beautiful, they’re beautiful, and the boys took care of them. The boys were ages five to twelve so it seemed like each boy had their little favorite and they would do things, give them their bath or whatever, and even to this day, Sean was the surrogate father for Tuvan at Wesleyan University and Patrick took care of one of the others and James took care of Mai Laura when they were in college, they’d be sending them money and so on, so it’s a loving family.

TRACK 10 – 2:14

Yes, I did because I felt that they certainly looked Vietnamese and I didn’t think they looked like a Debbie or a Suzie or anything like that, but I gave them Caucasian middle names so they could choose. Like Tuvan is Tuvan Elizabeth, she never goes by that. And Mai Laura is Mai Laura Tom Dooley Tisdale and I gave her Tom Dooley’s birthday. I gave them all their birthdays too because we didn’t have real papers for them. So I switched Swan’s birthday from April to December one year, depending on how she was doing in school.

No, the culture didn’t. I mean they love Vietnamese food, I love Vietnamese food, it was hard to get Vietnamese food in Georgia so I would get recipes and so on. But no, it wasn’t that. I had been to Vietnam for years, before I adopted and I learned to love those children. Those babies were my babies and I would have taken them all if I could have. I would have adopted all of them. I adopted one baby in ’72 that, I always took babies that looked like they might not survive and this one little baby, I named her Kim Lan, and when we got to the Philippines we had an overnight there. I was on an army plane with my husband and we rushed her to the hospital and she died two days later. So then I called Madame Nigh through at the embassy I had them patch me through to her and I asked her to give me another baby and I named her Kim Lan and that was where my daughter Kim Lan came from.


TRACK 11 – 1:54

Yeah, that was the reason. I was under the impression, as most people were at the time, that the communists, that there would be a bloodbath. That even Madame Nigh heard that she was on a death list and anyone that had received help from the Americans would be killed. This is the feeling that we all had and that was why there was such a rush to get the children out and you’ve seen news pictures of the Vietnamese clambering up the walls of the embassy trying to get out, because they were deathly afraid that they would be killed. As it turns out, they weren’t killed but a lot of them were sent to re-education camps. All of the soldiers that fought in the south were sent to re-education camps. Anyone that had anything to do with Americans and the American government were sent to re-education camps. And the older children I left behind were all sent to re-education camps and one of them became a nurse after that. They sent her to do a menial job at a hospital and she later became a nurse and I’m working with her now, I’m building a clinic in a village in the jungles for the ethnic minority, because they have nothing over there. So a lot of them had a hard life but they’re coming out of it and that’s because their children are getting an education. But we were all afraid. As it turned out it didn’t turn out that way. They had a hard life, but still they weren’t killed.

TRACK 12 – 1:36

Well, I don’t know much about them but they were all sent to re-education camps and they were being indoctrinated in the communist life, in the communist beliefs. So from what I’ve read, I haven’t even heard this from the children, that they had to listen to lectures constantly about communism and then they were made to do menial labor and then eventually some of them escaped. The doctor who signed the papers for me to get the children out was in a re-education camp and he finally escaped to Thailand and got a message to me and I got the international rescue committee to help me get him over. And he finally ended up in San Diego. He was a doctor, and I helped him get his certification in the United States. Wonderful man, wonderful man. I couldn’t have gotten the children out without him. He had to sign the papers. They had to be signed by a Vietnamese official.

My what?

Oh, HALO, Helping and Loving Orphans? Well, I started that in Vietnam, and I started

TRACK 13 – 3:30

by giving the children, seeing that they got to doctors, a lot of their…there’s a group of doctors with Face the Challenge, they come over and do facial surgeries and there are quite a few cleft palates and facial problems with kids and they started taking them. And then I went to Kwang Nigh, which is where Tom Dooley had his clinic, and I asked them how much it would cost to build another building, because they were very crowded, and they said it would cost about $24,000. And I raised the money and they built this beautiful building that took fifty new children off the streets. And so then after that I built a nursery for $12,500 and this past year went over and donated this vocational school. And the trend now is that they want the children to learn a trade so that children in orphanages are not thrown out on the streets when they are 15, 16, not begging then, they can at least have a trade, so this new vocational school has sewing machines and a room with all electrical equipment so that the boys can learn, and so I’m building another, I have another one just completed up in Bau Lam and that’s for the ethnic minorities and then Swan, one of my Anloc, the one that’s a nurse, said that they don’t have a clinic or a well at Fuk Long, so I’m putting in a clinic there. So I raise money to do things like that and I decided to help the children in an orphanage in Bogota, that’s all disabled children and then I have an orphanage in Mexico that is in dire need of everything and then I went to Afghanistan last year where I’m helping a physical therapy clinic because the children have no way if they step on a mine or something like that, to learn to walk, so the physical therapy clinic helps them. And I’m going to try to help the maternity hospitals because they have the highest rate of death among babies in the world, I think. So that’s where I am today. Raising money. I’m a beggar. And you can see my website, you know what my website is.

Not everywhere. But I know eventually I’ll be in Iraq, once we quit bombing that country to pieces. It’s a shame, it’s a shame what we’re doing.

You can tell my political leanings.

It’s a shame, it’s a shame. You can’t level a whole city or village or whatever they’re doing and expect the people to come back to build their lives again, you know? And the children are suffering. So we can send over Christmas boxes. What good is it going to do in March and April? They don’t even celebrate Christmas.

TRACK 14 – 1:59

In the beginning, I was all for the war. I had this feeling about the communists, what they do to people and so on. But after a while I realized they only wanted one country and they wanted to be united. And it’s like our civil war, the north and the south. You want to be one country, and although it’s communist now they are one country and they are surviving and companies are going over there and helping them economically. It’s still a communist country, so you have to be careful what you say, I’m sure, but by and large, I think once the French left, we should have left them alone, period. Because the French kept them as slaves for one hundred years.

I can give you a history lesson on that one.

Yeah, I was sorry. I mean we bombed out villages. Whatever we did, they did and so on, and children got separated from their families, parents died. It’s cruel. Women and children are the victims of wars. We can have twelve hundred of our soldiers are being killed, but how many mothers and children are being killed over there. Terrible.

Well, at the time I thought it was a wonderful idea

TRACK 15 – 5:02

to save the lives of these babies. And they weren’t all babies, as I say, some of them were ten, twelve years old, but they’ve, it seems to me they had the, if you could see the pictures of the children I left behind, as adults, with their own children, there is a hundred percent difference in what they look like and what the children who were raised here look like. At least our children are taller, stronger, and have a good education. Whereas they have had a very hard life, very hard. Twenty dollars a month is about the maximum of what they can make. But their children are going to survive and the country’s going to be better for it. Swan’s son works for a coffee company and he’s a biologist. I said how much do you make? His name is Dyung and he said I make a hundred dollars a month, and he is so proud of that. And I say I am so proud of you because you got your education. It was great. So they are surviving. It will be a good country after a while. It is now, not bad. I don’t mind going back there. The only thing I don’t like is the heat. But other than that I love everything else.

My last will and testament.


I just, I don’t know if I have any last words because I haven’t finished yet, but I love all the children I brought over, some of them kept in touch with me. Most of them did. I think they are better off here but I’m sorry that they’re unable to find any biological families because we just didn’t have the papers for them. But I would love to hear from or see any of them and help them in any way I can. And the ones that are over there, I’m helping if I can. Doctor Dooley used to say, give them an education and a healthy body and they’ll be the future citizens of their country. And that’s what I’m doing now – building the vocational schools and their, I buy milk for one orphanage. $1500 a month buys milk for them and they sent me a picture saying ‘see our healthy bodies.’ So if we can do that for any country we’re in, and education and health, they’ll be the future citizens of their countries.

Oh, okay, we are?

No, no, no. I go around and I give lots of talks. I gave, I was in Friday Harbor here and I gave eight talks in two days and mostly they were to schools. And the children, surprisingly it’s like talking about any of our wars, they don’t know about it, and the Vietnam war is sort of in the past now and they were very interested and the fifth graders and the middle school asks some wonderful questions and they want to help. So.

Okay, you mean recent or during the evacuation?

I have some pictures of me at Fort Benning. They’re in the newspapers too.

I can send you some if you promise to send them back. You make copies of them. They’re black and white glossies, most of them.

At my age I can’t remember what I said. Is that enough?

TRACK 16 – 0:30

Oh, do you want me to say anything else? To help Doctor Dooley. What did you want me to say?

I decided that I wanted to help Doctor Dooley. Is that it? And I put the name of the book in in case anybody wanted to read it.

TRACK 17 – 1:09

They had their names on strips of tape that we taped on their little blouses and of course they were thrown away in the bins and their names were lost.

Yeah, that’s what they did, as an adoption agency.

TRACK 18 – 2:47

Oh, they placed for adoption older-placed children if you want to say that. The Tresler Lutheran Adoption Agency were known for placing hard-to-place children, older children, children who were handicapped in some way.

Good, okay. Except my age. Well, you know, if you start adding up, 59 when I read his book to nine and then you start adding. And I color my hair. Are you talking to me? Okay, I’m taking the earphones off. What was that? Okay, okay. All right. Very nice. I tell this story over and over again, it’s really good, but you’ve asked some nice questions. If you won’t print it. 82. No, I don’t, I know I don’t. and I don’t look it because I color my hair and I wear jeans and… Well my first, when I got married I was 49 years old and I became the mother of ten kids. I had a wonderful life before that, I was secretary to senator Javitz. No, no I was strictly a career girl. In New York City, Pittsburgh and New York City. Yup. So.

Well, why don’t you? And then you’ll…

Right. Well, my house is interesting because I have Vietnamese things and there isn’t a space on any of my walls that doesn’t have pictures.