Ron Pozzer, the Hamilton SpectatorReunion co-ordinator Thanh Campbell, a Vietnamese orphan, with his wife Karina and one of their three children now lives in Hamilton.

Ron Pozzer, the Hamilton SpectatorDavid Hobson, 31, in photo as a child, came to reunion from Vancouver.

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By Dana Borcea
The Hamilton Spectator
(Apr 17, 2006)It's been 31 years since they last laid eyes on each other.

But Tuyet Yurczyszyn hopes the man she credits with saving her life might recall the few hours they spent together.

Searching the pilot's face for a glimmer of recognition, the Brantford mother of two asked expectantly, "Do you remember me?"

He doesn't.

"I don't know which one you were," says Cliff Zacharias, who flew the plane carrying 57 Vietnamese orphans out of Saigon as the city fell at the end of the Vietnam War in 1975.

Yurczyszyn was eight years old at the time and one of the oldest among the evacuated children on the plane. The youngest was just 10-days old.

This weekend, 33 of the orphans were reunited in Oakville for the first time since arriving to Canada in 1975 and scattered across the country.

After landing in Toronto, Yurczyszyn was taken in by a Brantford couple, who also adopted two other children from Bangladesh and Vietnam.

"You couldn't ask for a better family," said Yurczyszyn, who went on to marry and have two children of her own. "I've been very lucky."

Last year, when Yurczyszyn heard about the reunion of the orphans, she hesitated. "I didn't want my life interrupted," she said. It took some coaxing, but organizers finally convinced Yurczyszyn to attend.

There she came face to face with the other, now-adult, orphans, unable to recognize each other, but connected by a powerful bond. While Yurczyszyn has blocked out many childhood memories, there are some she cannot forget. She remembers the orphanage in Saigon where the nuns were "strict but not unkind."

Food was scarce and the gnawing hunger prompted her to hoard kernels of corn in her shirt. When soldiers came through the orphanage, Yurczyszyn would hide, afraid they would take her away when they discovered the polio ravaging her right leg.

Zacharias, who came from Washington for the reunion, said he did not recognize Yurczyszyn's adult face, but shared what he saw when he walked through the cargo hold of a Canadian Armed Forces Hercules he piloted.

The babies were seated back-to-back in cardboard boxes. Makeshift seatbelts were made from tape. The older children sat in chairs under the watchful eyes of Canadian volunteers.

Many of the orphans were sick and suffering from dysentery and high fevers.

Inside the plane, the heat and humidity was stifling. Outside, smoke and fire engulfed the war-torn city just beyond the tarmac. "I remember being struck by how you older kids weren't crying," Zacharias told her. "You were so stoic."

Days earlier, another plane bound for the U.S. carrying 300 passengers, mostly children, went down in flames 65 kilometres from Saigon.

Less than half of the people on board survived. The tragedy lent a sense of urgency to Zacharias' mission. "I just hoped and prayed everyone had a good life in Canada."

Reunion co-ordinator Thanh Campbell certainly did. The Hamilton resident was 12 months old when he was flown out of Saigon. He was adopted by a Presbyterian minister and former Hamilton Spectator employee, William Campbell and his wife Maureen. He grew up in a large and spiritual household with five siblings, two of whom were also adopted.

Today he works as a motivational speaker who encourages mission work. He met his future wife Karina on a mission trip to Haiti. They now live on the west Mountain with their three sons.

Nearly three years ago after telling his story to a congregation in Sarnia, Campbell was approached by a man who insisted he knew of an orphan from the same flight.

Campbell was skeptical, assuming the man's friend was merely one of the thousands of Vietnamese refugees who fled the country by boat and arrived in Canada during the late 1970s and 1980s. A week later Trent Kilner, who works as a carpenter and construction worker in Sarnia, was at Campbell's front door.

After hugging, the two men stepped back and sized each other up. "We each knew exactly what the other was thinking," said Campbell, who wondered if Trent might be his brother. He is looking into DNA testing for him and the other orphans.

The two bonded quickly over their shared experiences in large, religious families — Trent grew up with 12 siblings, many adopted as well — and soon set out to find the others.

"If we could find each other, we could find the rest," Campbell said.

After their story appeared in a Toronto Star article and a CBC report, the pieces started to fall into place as word of their search spread to the other orphans as far away as Alberta and British Columbia. A year later, the pair have managed to track down 40 of the orphans.

All but seven were able to attend the weekend reunion, accompanied by their adopted families and friends.

Few were able to contain their emotions. Kilner was overcome by tears during his opening remarks. "There are faces here we haven't seen for more than 30 years," he told them after taking a moment to compose himself.

Before meeting Campbell, Kilner was satisfied with knowing close to nothing about his voyage to his new life. "I never used to dwell on the past," he said. "My parents told me I was from Vietnam and that's all I needed to know."

But all that has changed now.

Kilner, who landed in Toronto at age 3 with no papers, has spent much of his spare time in the last few years digging for any information he can find about the flight and the other orphans.

At the weekend gathering, several orphans expressed a similar awakening. Some are planning a trip to Vietnam to visit the orphanage and search for relatives. Among them is Yurczyszyn who said meeting the orphans has strengthened her resolve to go back. "There are pieces to this puzzle that I will never find," she said. "But I am ready now to find out about my past."

For more information see www.57orphans.com.

dborcea@thespec.com

905-526-3214

CTV Toronto

Sat. Apr. 15 2006 11:34 PM ET

The Vietnamese children were adopted by Canadian families.The Vietnamese children were adopted by Canadian families.

Children were carried by nurses or strapped into place with duct tape to keep them secure for the bumpy ride in a military cargo plane.Children were carried by nurses or strapped into place with duct tape to keep them secure for the bumpy ride in a military cargo plane.

“We were the last ones out of Saigon,” rescue mission organizer Victoria Leach said.  “There was a ring of fire around the city when we took off in that old Hercules aircraft.”“We were the last ones out of Saigon,” rescue mission organizer Victoria Leach said. “There was a ring of fire around the city when we took off in that old Hercules aircraft.”

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In the days before the fall of Saigon in April 1975, a group of orphans, most too young to know what was happening, were whisked away to new lives in Canada. On Saturday, the group reunited for the first time in Toronto.

On that April day, 57 orphans — mostly infants — were strapped into place with duct tape onboard a military Hercules cargo plane and flown away from a world of violence and destruction.

Their lives were saved mere days before the fall of Saigon and the departure of U.S. troops from Vietnam.

The children were adopted by Canadian families, changing everyone's lives.

"We wouldn't have wanted to miss him," William Campbell, who adopted her son Thanh, said. "He's been a great son."

More than 30 years have passed since the group was last together for only a few hours. But that trip left a lasting impression on all their lives, even if most cannot remember the flight.

Two of the rescued children worked to bring the children, their families and rescuers together for the first time.

They felt everyone should meet because, as adults, the rescued children struggle with questions about who they are and where they come from. Many do not even know some of the most basic personal information.

"There are days I think, 'How can you just not know … where you're from,'" Trent Kilner said. "How can you not know how old you are?"

Kilner helped organize the reunion. He said the rescue is part of their identities and the reunion provides them with some of the missing pieces in their lives.

The rescued children may not remember their flight from Vietnam, but their rescuers do. Their memories remain vivid three decades later.

"We were the last ones out of Saigon," rescue mission organizer Victoria Leach said. "There was a ring of fire around the city when we took off in that old Hercules aircraft."

The group hopes this weekend's reunion will build memories and forge lifelong relationships.

With a report from CTV Toronto's Galit Solomon