Betty Tisdale has a special spot in her heart for veterans, especially Vietnam vets. She read a book that changed her life by renowned Navy doctor, Tom Dooley, entitled, Deliver Us From Evil. She was so moved by the doctor’s work for the children of Vietnam that she took charge of the An Lac Orphanage in Saigon after Dooley’s untimely death from cancer at age 34. “I decided that An Lac was not going to die.” She sustained it for 14 years until the fall of Saigon in 1975, when she rushed together an army airlift of 219 babies out of Vietnam and into adopted homes in the U.S.
Tisdale reveres soldiers. “I can’t begin to tell you what they did. They were so wonderful!” The 121st Signal Battalion, 1st Infantry Division was stationed at a large base a few miles from the annex housing the older orphans of An Lac. The men adopted the orphanage and took care of the kids, building indoor toilets, showers, and doing maintenance. They even cooked a real Thanksgiving meal for hundreds of children serving turkey, mashed potatoes, and peas — instead of rice, which they ate all the time.
But Betty will never forget Christmas 1966, when Santa truly came to town — a poor, rural village 20 miles from Saigon. The 121st decided to surprise the orphans with a Christmas party. The GI’s wrote their wives, sisters and girlfriends back home and asked them to mail gifts for the children. On Christmas Day the Battalion arrived in trucks piled high with hundreds of brightly wrapped gifts and melting ice cream. Betty and the group heard the whirl of a helicopter overhead and looked up. “This sound meant our guys were flying off into combat and the sound was not a happy one for us.”
But, this time the helicopter landed in a field across from the orphanage and, “Walking towards us, waving to the children in full regalia and beard in 110 degrees of stifling heat, was the first Santa any of the children ever saw.”
A three-piece orchestra played Silver Bells. The children soon joined in with Jingle Bells, as Betty had taught them. Later they sang Auld Lang Syne in Vietnamese. “There wasn’t a dry eye in the audience of soldiers.” Maj. Bill Hilsman (now a General), Sgt. Ken Deeble, and Lt. Bob Fisher put it all together.
Betty remembers rows and rows of children, almost 400, lined up to receive presents. They faced the soldiers, all ranks and ages, sitting on the steps with piles of gifts stacked up. “As each child came up to receive their gift they put their hands across their chests and said, ‘Cam on’ — Thank-you.”
That’s when Betty looked up and saw a sight she’ll never forget — soldiers standing around the circumference of the annex’s flat roof, guns ready, to protect the children and staff of volunteers from snipers. “We owed our lives to this wonderful group of solders.”
Twenty years later, in 1995 when Tisdale returned to find the children left behind, she had a reunion with 60 of them, now grown. The first thing they did was sing Jingle Bells to show they had not forgotten their Betty.
During a visit to Vietnam in March 2002, Tisdale, who had created a nonprofit organization called HALO, Helping And Loving Orphans, learned that nearly 50 homeless children in the area could be housed at the Quang Ngai orphanage if $34,000 could be raised to build an annex. She vowed to help and five months later she cut the ribbon on a beautiful new building.
“Each room is big and airy… and has a bathroom connected with sink, shower and toilet. To see what $34,000 can build is amazing!” A plaque in both English and Vietnamese reads, In Memory of Dr. Tom Dooley, who loved the children of Vietnam, 1927-1961.
(Thank you to AngelScribe for suggesting the story from the book, A Christmas Filled with Miracles.)