Finding The Nun Who Saved Me In Vietnam | KUOW News and Information

Finding The Nun Who Saved Me In Vietnam

Aug 6, 2017

Julie Davis, who was airlifted to Seattle from Saigon in 1975, shares her story. This week marks the 40th anniversary of Operation Babylift, the mass evacuation of children from South Vietnam. 

I was just a year old when a Boeing 747 airlifted me and hundreds of other babies from Saigon. We headed to Seattle, Houston, Minneapolis.

Thirty years later, I returned to Vietnam to find the orphanage where I had been dropped off just after my birth.

I arrived in the central coastal town of Quy Nhon, about 400 miles north of Saigon, where the orphanage had been. The building's exterior appeared mostly unchanged, but the orphanage was no longer there. I thought that was it, the end of my journey.

But we jumped back in our car. We bumped along these little alleyways, stopping at storefronts as my determined guide asked people about a Catholic nun named Sister Emilienne.

I had come to know Sister Emilienne through documents provided by the adoption agency. Had it had not been for her, I never would have been part of the airlift out of Saigon. But before coming back to Vietnam, I never even entertained the idea of looking for her. I just assumed she was either dead or had left years ago.

Eventually, our car pulled into a narrow alley and stopped at a set of large iron gates.

The guide explained to us that this was the convent where Sister Emilienne lived.

We had managed to find her.

Almost immediately, a petite Vietnamese woman emerged. My guide told her my given name, Nguyen Thi Thanh Truc.

As he said my name, it was clear she knew who I was. Overwhelmed with emotion, she hugged me as though I was her own child.

She linked her arm in mine, refusing to let go. The memories of 1975 came back to her like it was yesterday.

Julie Davis and Sister Emilienne after an emotional reunion in Vietnam in 2003. Sister Emilienne wondered when Julie would come back to see her.
Credit Courtesy of Julie Davis

Julie Davis with her daughter. Julie was airlifted to the U.S. during Operation Babylift in 1975. She returned to Vietnam in 2003.
Credit Courtesy of Julie Davis

She told me that I had come to the orphanage from the hospital. I still had my umbilical cord, she said, and my mother was extremely ill. She cut my cord and she gave me her Vietnamese family name -- Nguyen.

She said that since 1975, four or five other children from the Ghenh Rang Orphanage have returned to find her. She wondered all these years why I hadn't come back. She worried that maybe I never would.

“I’ve wondered what happened to you, what are you doing?” she said. “Were you OK? And did you have a family?”

She insisted that I might one day live with her at the convent. She said she would help me find a job. Knowing that I had a home with her was such a warm feeling.

Sister Emilienne was far more emotional than I, perhaps because she had so much more to remember. She was an adult, of course, but it was also a traumatic time in Vietnamese history. To say goodbye to all these children and go through the physical and emotional pains of the war – it must have been so hard.

Just before Saigon fell, Sister Emilienne had actually requested to be evacuated with the babies.

As she relinquished us, she broke down in tears and said that she couldn’t come.

She said there were too many sick babies being left behind -- those who couldn't qualify to be airlifted because they were too sick. She didn’t want to abandon them.

An archive photo of the Ghenh Rang Orphanage, where Julie Davis lived for the first year of her life.
Credit Courtesy of Julie Davis

The Ghenh Rang Orphanage in 2003, when Julie Davis visited. The building where the orphanage was located is unchanged.
Credit Courtesy of Julie Davis

I feel an overwhelming sense of indebtedness toward her.

She was so brave and committed, begging agencies and the local government, "Please take these children." I feel she really set the path for our lives and gave us an opportunity. She was willing to sacrifice that opportunity for herself.

We exchanged e-mail addresses and promised to write, and she asked for photos from my childhood. After so many years of separation, I wanted to believe I could bridge the gap between our lives and our cultures. As we drove away, sadness took hold, and I knew it would be a long time before I would return, if ever.

Taking the trip to Vietnam allowed me to think about how I want to raise my kids. How do I want to live the rest of my life? It certainly changed how I think about myself and my past.

For so many years I was full of shame. I was so ashamed to be Vietnamese, and I was ashamed to be adopted.

But returning to Vietnam and meeting Sister Emilienne changed my feeling about adoption -- and being Vietnamese.

I went to Vietnam to close a chapter in my life, never realizing a new one would begin. I do not know what my future with Vietnam holds, but I do know that this experience has allowed me to embrace simultaneously that I am an American, that I am adopted, and most importantly, that I am Vietnamese. 

Parts of this essay come from an essay by Julie Davis, "Homeward Bound."

The Seattle Story Project: First-person reflections published at KUOW.org. These are essays, stories told on stage, photos and zines. To submit a story  or note one you've seen that deserves more notice – contact Isolde Raftery at iraftery@kuow.org or 206-616-2035. Originally published 4/6/2015.