Orphans from burning Saigon were flown to safety 40 years ago and they STILL have no past
  • | MIRROR, | April 22, 2015 08:30 PM
Nicolaus Cleeve is one of the 99 Vietnamese babies rescued and brought to safety in the UK but he has no idea when he was actually born.


Rescued: Nicolaus Cleeve is one of the orphans

Every year as he celebrates his birthday, 40-year-old Nicolaus Cleeve is almost certain he’s marking the wrong date.           

But the dad of two has no choice.

 He is one of 99 Vietnamese babies airlifted from the bloody chaos of war-torn Vietnam 40 years ago and brought to safety in the UK.

 Like most of the tots on the ­controversial mission – dubbed ­“” – his past was erased on that day without a trace.

Nicolaus has no idea who his parents were, what name they gave him, or even what day he was born.

He knows only that he was saved from the poverty and the killing that reigned as Saigon – now Ho Chi Minh City – fell to the fighters of communist North Vietnam.

Adopted at “approximately” six months old by a British couple, his identity changed overnight from Ngoc Trang – the name given by his orphanage – to Nic.

And he was given October 11 as his “birthday”. 


Orphans: Rescued from Vietnam


Now he marks that date each year by buying flowers for the biological mother he will never know, dropping them into the sea in a moving private gesture as his only way to connect with his distant roots.                                                                                                                              
Bridge to reunite families of Operation Babylift          
At the request of our readers, Dantri/DTiNews will act as a bridge to help reconnect relatives of Vietnamese children who were part of the historic 1975 Operation Babylift, in which more than 3,300 infants and children were airlifted out of southern Vietnam to the United States, Australia, France, Canada and other countries, and were adopted by families there, in the final days before Reunification. If you have stories or information about Operation Babylift, please contact us at Thank you.
He said: “The day I think most about what happened is my birthday.

"I was given a date which isn’t horrendously out as I was about six months old. But I know it’s not accurate.

“Yet it’s the one day I’ll think about my relationship with Vietnam and the fact I don’t know the circumstances of why I was an orphan or why any of this happened.

“Now I go and buy some flowers for my mother and I’ll let them float off into the sea in Southend where I live. It’s to say ‘thank you’.”

Despite visiting Vietnam twice in adulthood, Nic has never been able to search for his biological parents.

He always knew he was an orphan but, with no legal documents, the full truth will forever escape him.

He added: “One thing we found out when we went back was that in order to be taken out we had to be orphans.

“I never had a birth certificate and the name I had was given to me by the so I have no idea where I have come from.” 


Orphans: They were brought to safety in the UK

The graphic designer, who has two sons and is married to Leigh, 32, has long since made peace with his heritage – and with his birth parents even though he has no idea if they are alive or dead.

He adds: “Part of me would like to meet them but the other part feels that mum and dad is a title you earn, and you don’t earn that by being biologically related.

"Whether it was for a good reason or a bad reason that my biological mum gave me away, I have benefited and been extremely lucky.

"I have a wonderful family, ­children and a good job. Something positive came of it.”

But not everyone viewed Operation Babylift in the same way.

Criticised by some as a PR stunt to make the West look good after 20 years of  in Vietnam, the mission was always controversial.

Two thousand orphans were ­frantically airlifted on April 6, 1975 as US President Gerald Ford feared the ­victorious Viet Cong would show no mercy to the city’s abandoned ­children.

Many were flown to safety in the US, Australia and Canada as the two-decade war came to a climax.

But the handful brought to the UK shared a special bond.

Each year as children they would meet for a party to celebrate the day they were brought to safety – and to remember where they came from. 

It was a tight connection, which led to strong friendships and even romantic ties.

But while Nic was happy with the new life given to him by Rev Martin Cleeve and his wife Ruth, others struggled to cope with being wrenched from their culture and in time the group splintered.

Nic said: “My parents have never been secretive about it, they’ve always shed a positive light on the adoption.

“I never questioned why I was different, it was never an issue. Until I look in the mirror I don’t think I look any different.

“My earliest memories of knowing I was part of this wonderful thing was when I went to annual get-togethers.

"A group of about 40 adoptees and their parents would meet up in different parts of the country for weekends away. It was quite a comfort, but they eventually stopped when I was about 10.

“When we grew up a bit we’d arrange to meet by ourselves but numbers dwindled.”

For Nic’s friend and fellow “babylifter” Peter Shepton, his vanished past is a gaping hole which he fears he will never fill.

IT worker Peter, who has a two-year-old son, was also adopted by a vicar and his wife and brought up in rural England.

But from his home in Chipping Norton, Oxon, he always longed to find his real parents and has been torn apart by his mixed cultural background.

He said: “There will always be a part of me that asks, ‘Who am I? Who are my biological parents?’ It’s something I may never be able to answer. 

Peter Shepton 

Orphan: Peter Shepton was a baby lifted to safety during Operation Babylift in Vietnam 1975, with his son, Theo

“There’s a sense of loss over the culture but it’s hard because I do feel I’ve been given opportunities I wouldn’t have had.”

Peter’s heritage is more complex than most as his father is thought to have been a foreign soldier fighting in Vietnam.

He added: “I’m half African-American and half Vietnamese and the theory is that my father was a soldier.

“I did go to the village I was from and found a woman who had a child in the 1970s with an American soldier.

"But when I did a DNA test it came back negative. I guess I felt a bit disheartened.

“But if I’d been left in Vietnam I would have faced a lot of discrimination. Being adopted allowed me to avoid that life.”

It wasn’t just the babies whose life stories were changed forever by the airlift.

Waiting for Nic when the plane arrived at Heathrow were the Cleeves, who had been waiting seven years to adopt.

Nic said: “Obviously they were delighted when I arrived.

"They always said their faith kept them going while they waited, and they kept a whole file on the process of the adoption. That’s special.”

Despite the loss of his past, he feels the moment they picked him at random from the  is one he will always cherish.

He said: “I’ve always tried to be quite positive about what happened.

“What I do know is that flight provided a safe environment for me. I’ve always maintained that I’m one of the lucky ones. It could have been much worse.”

Nic grew up in Kent and later moved to Southend with older brother Stephen and sisters Ruth and Gemma, who was later adopted from the Philippines.

But while embracing the culture of his native country, he considers himself a Brit at heart and will be forever thankful for Operation Babylift.

He explained: “Before I went back to Vietnam I dreamed and believed what I wanted.

"But after going back you realise it’s not this amazing wonderful place.

“It was very much a reality check. I’m glad I went back but I’m comfortable with who I am and the fact that I’m British.”

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