She Saved 219 Lives

She Saved 219 Lives

From Chicken Soup for the Soul 20th Anniversary Edition

She Saved 219 Lives

Every day you either see a scar or courage. Where you dwell will define your struggle.

~Dodinsky

Mrs. Betty Tisdale is a world-class heroine. When the war in Vietnam heated up back in April of 1975, she knew she had to save the 400 orphans who were about to be put on the streets. She had already adopted five orphaned Vietnamese girls with her former pediatrician husband, Col. Patrick Tisdale, who was a widower and already had five children.

As a U.S. Naval doctor in Vietnam in 1954, Tom Dooley had helped refugees flee from the communist north. Betty says, “I really feel Tom Dooley was a saint. His influence changed my life forever.” Because of Dooley’s book, she took her life savings and traveled to Vietnam 14 times on her vacations to visit and work in the hospitals and orphanages he had founded. While in Saigon, she fell in love with the orphans at An Lac (Happy Place), run by Madame Vu Thi Ngai, who was later evacuated by Betty the day Vietnam fell, and returned with her to Georgia to live with Betty and her ten children.

When Betty, a do-it-now and invent-solutions-as-problems-arise kind of person, realized the 400 children’s plight, she went into warp-speed action. She called Madame Ngai and said, “Yes! I’ll come and get the children and get them all adopted.” She didn’t know how she would do it. She just knew that she’d do it. Later, in a movie of the evacuation, “The Children of An Lac,” Shirley Jones portrayed Betty.

In moments she began to move mountains. She raised the necessary money in many different ways, even including accepting green stamps. She simply decided to do it and she did it. She said, “I visualized all those babies growing up in good homes in America, not under communism.” That kept her motivated.

She left for Vietnam from Fort Benning, Georgia, on Sunday, arrived on Tuesday in Saigon, and miraculously and sleeplessly conquered every obstacle to airlift 400 children out of Saigon by Saturday morning. However, upon her arrival, the head of Vietnam’s social welfare, Dr. Dan, suddenly announced he would only approve children under ten years old and all the children must have birth certificates. She quickly discovered war orphans are fortunate to simply be alive. They don’t have birth certificates.

Betty went to the hospital pediatric department, obtained 225 birth certificates, and quickly created birth dates, times and places for the 219 eligible babies, toddlers and youngsters. She says, “I have no idea when, where and to whom they were born. My fingers just created birth certificates.” Birth certificates were the only hope they had to depart the place safely and have a viable future with freedom. It was now or never.

Now she needed a place to house the orphans once they were evacuated. The military at Fort Benning resisted, but Betty brilliantly and tenaciously persisted. Try as she might, she could not get the Commanding General on the phone, so she called the office of the Secretary of the Army, Bo Callaway. His duty, too, was not answering Betty’s calls, no matter how urgent and of life-saving importance they were.

However, Betty was not to be beaten. She had come too far and done too much to be stopped now. So since he was from Georgia, she called his mother and pleaded her case. Betty enrolled her with her heart and asked her to intercede. Virtually overnight, the Secretary of the Army, her son, responded and arranged that a school at Fort Benning be used as the interim home for the orphans of An Lac.

But the challenge of how to get the children out was still to be accomplished. When Betty arrived in Saigon, she went to Ambassador Graham Martin immediately and pleaded for some sort of transportation for the children. She had tried to charter a Pan Am plane, but Lloyd’s of London had raised the insurance so high that it was impossible to negotiate at this time. The Ambassador agreed to help if all the papers were cleared through the Vietnamese government. Dr. Dan signed the last manifest, literally, as the children were boarding the two Air Force planes.

The orphans were malnourished and sickly. Most had never been away from the orphanage. They were scared. She had recruited soldiers and the ABC crew to help strap them in, transport them and feed them. You can’t believe how deeply and permanently those volunteers’ hearts were touched that beautiful Saturday as 219 children were transported to freedom. All the volunteers cried with joy and appreciation that they had tangibly contributed to another’s freedom.

Chartering airlines home from the Philippines was a huge hassle. There was a $21,000 expense for a United Airlines plane. Dr. Tisdale guaranteed payment because of his love for the orphans. Had Betty had more time, she could have probably got it for free! But time was a factor so she moved quickly.

Every child was adopted within one month of arriving in the United States. The Tressler Lutheran Agency in York, Pennsylvania, which specializes in getting handicapped children adopted, found a home for each orphan.

Betty has proven over and over again that you can do anything at all if you are simply willing to ask, to not settle for a “no,” to do whatever it takes and to persevere.

As Dr. Tom Dooley once said, “It takes ordinary people to do extraordinary things.”

~Jack Canfield and Mark Victor Hansen

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