by Clara Ewert Fisher,
MCC Vietnam, Pleiku, 1973-1975
In June of 1973, Wally Ewert and I set out on our great adventure. Energized by the anti-establishment attitudes and new freedoms of the 1960s and 1970s, we were convinced that we could make the world a better place. We left careers and hopes for the future for a small Asian country. We knew that Việt Nam was in the middle of a war. Our Mennonite church upbringing had taught us a worldview where nonviolent peacemaking was a better alternative to the globally-accepted norms. We had walked in protest marches on our university campus. Our nonviolent peacemaking perspective was reinforced as we witnessed media reports of the brutality of war.
With four years of university education behind us, we left for Việt Nam. We soon encountered the stark realities of war. Our understandings of what was essential for life and our faith in God were the only preparation we had to face the truths of the next two years. The scars of war left a mark on us too.
On our first visit to the MCC Unit in Nha Trang, we watched tracer bullets flash through the night skies. We heard strange popping sounds and saw streaks of lights criss-crossing a nearby hillside. This was the first of many nights punctuated by artillery explosions.
Our MCC house in Pleiku, in the central highlands where MCC’s work was primarily focused on medical care and agricultural development, sat next to the hospital we ran jointly with the Tin Lành church. Across the street was a South Vietnamese heavy artillery base. As rockets were fired in the direction of the Ho Chi Minh trail to the west, the loud percussive sound literally caused dust to sift down from the ceiling.
Chị Sau, who worked as a cook and cleaner in our house, was raising her three school aged children alone. Her husband had been killed in the fighting.
Once, when the tall grass around the base near our house caught fire, it resembled Canada Day, with land mines exploding like fireworks in quick succession.
We frequently saw B52 bomber jet trails high in the sky as they passed over into Cambodia and Laos—the border was just 40 kilometers away from us. There, they dropped their payload on the Ho Chi Minh trail, where North Vietnamese troops travelled to and from their combat missions. We would often feel the earth shake just before we heard the sounds of explosions reaching us from a distance.
We heard about the herbicide called Agent Orange—but the propaganda given to us in North America said it would only strip leaves off trees and that it had no long term impacts either on trees or humans. Reportedly, some military men even drank the poison in an attempt to demonstrate that it had no serious side effects.
Wally and I settled into the MCC Unit house in Pleiku in 1973. Cô Huong and Jean Hershey, both nurses in the hospital, were our housemates. Jean’s adopted Vietnamese daughter, Vui, was a delightful part of our household. Wally worked in agricultural development. I ordered drugs and supplies for the hospital and served as a host in the unit house. I also volunteered at the leprosarium and collected tribal legends and folklore. We became aware of many orphaned children, often with mixed racial backgrounds. Wally and I often mused in our Bible study group, made up of missionary friends, about how these many children should be cared for.
One Saturday evening in 1974, as Wally and I walked across our compound for supper, we finally made the decision that we would start a family. Little did we know that as we were making this decision the first of our children was being born in a village just a short distance from Pleiku.
A young mother was about to deliver her third child. The labour was difficult. The small fire burning beneath the stilt house was not enough to keep her warm. Shortly after the baby’s birth, the mother died. It was customary in that community for a baby to be buried with its mother, as there was no accepted way for a child to be nursed by another mother, nor was there any way to purchase baby formula.
The next day, the Banker family, who worked as Wycliff Bible translators, visited that village. They heard about a father with three young children and about the premature death of their mother. They asked the father if he would be willing to give up the infant for other parents to raise. The father, who loved all his children deeply but had no idea how he could care for all three of them in a war zone, agreed to give up his youngest to a life that he would never know.
When the Banker’s came to our compound later that afternoon, Wally went to the door in answer to their knock. In a moment he was back in the room, his question bursting out: “Claire, do we want a baby?” It took no thought. Of course we wanted a baby.
The baby was a boy. His tiny frame smelled of wood fire. As Wally and Jean went downtown to find some baby formula, I held him and knew that his name was Matthew. Matthew means “a gift from God.” That first night, we put him in a drawer with a lamp underneath to warm him. Our unspoken prayer had been answered.
Within a week friends travelled back to Matthew’s village, located the grieving father, and had him fill out a birth certificate. There was no hint of second guessing his earlier decision. Before the month was out I had travelled to Sài Gòn to begin adoption procedures through Holt Adoption Agency. I thought it would be almost effortless to have the agency folks come to Pleiku for a home visit and approve us for adoption. Instead it was just the beginning of a long and, as it turned out, complicated procedure of achieving full adoption.
In 1968, Ho Chi Minh reportedly said that “Everything depends on the Americans. If they want to make war for 20 years then we shall make war for 20 years. If they want to make peace, we shall make peace and invite them to tea afterwards. We have a secret weapon: it is called Nationalism.” Seven years after Ho Chi Minh said this, it was March 1975. MCC called an all-team meeting in Sài Gòn. Before we left Pleiku, having heard some rumours that things might heat up when we were gone, we left our photo albums and slides with missionary friends so they could bring them to us if Pleiku was evacuated—just in case.
After the meetings, but before we were able to get back up to Pleiku, an Air America plane was shot down at the Pleiku airport, and the airport was shut down. We settled in Sài Gòn for a time. Daily, we heard of one province after another being turned over to the other side—of South Vietnamese soldiers throwing down their weapons and their uniforms and running. The government was changing hands so quickly that it created vacuums of power. MCC set about finding other assignments for MCC workers. We were reassigned to work in Bangladesh. There was only one hitch—we still didn’t have legal documentation for our son.
On Monday, March 31, 1975, the atmosphere in Sài Gòn was not only hot and humid, it was tense with political intrigue and fear. The media was filled with images of Vietnamese in civilian clothes hanging onto helicopter skids as they lifted into the air. Civilians were pushing their way onto every plane or anything that would float. Fear of the unknown future under communist rule caused great anxiety amongst the population. All many could imagine was escape.
An official from the Canadian Consulate came to our door saying the Canadian government could no longer assure our safety. We needed to leave by commercial means as soon as possible. There was only one problem—our son still had no legal status and therefore was not free to leave the country. We didn’t know where our journey was leading us.
Before I retired to bed that evening, I searched for some help. I took my bible and was led to Hebrews, Chapter 11. The first verse reads: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” I decided that that was exactly what I needed. I needed faith to see me through—again, I didn’t know through to what. So I begged God for faith.
The next morning, before I woke, I had a dream. I dreamed that we were evacuated—air lifted out of Viet Nam. On waking, I remembered my dream but was sure I didn’t know what it meant. But it did give us the confidence to continue visiting various offices to see if we could get some help with our conundrum.
By Friday afternoon we had arrived at the office of a civil servant whose rank was high enough that he could sign for an exit paper for our son. After a few minutes of conversation it became clear that he was not in any mood to sign “yet another American” exit permit. He shoved the papers aside and said. “All these Americans wanting to leave.” As we drove away, we asked our translator if it was time to offer a bribe. He said no. But he did take us to the Canadian Consulate where we would beg for help. They could not offer us diplomatic help either. This was not the time to ask the president to sign an adoption paper.
Despite all this, we heard of an evacuation flight coming in from Trenton, Ontario. It was already in Hong Kong. If we wanted to be on that flight, we were to be available by phone at a certain time the following day so that the embassy could contact us.
So, with lighter spirits, confident that God was indeed at work in our lives, we met with the rest of the MCC team. Max Ediger, Jim Klassen, and Yoshihiro Ichikawa all decided to stay on in Việt Nam to witness the change in government. Earl Martin also decided to stay, but Pat and the children went on to Bangkok. Doris, Mike, and baby Esther were also planning to be on the evacuation flight going to Canada. Jean and Vui Hershey and Ann Noel Ewert—Wally’s cousin, who had just gotten engaged to a British man who worked for Oxfam—would also go on to Bangkok where they would make decisions as to where to go from there. Everyone seemed to have a plan for the next step.
We said our goodbyes and waited. Sure enough, the phone rang at the appointed time and we were off to the Canadian compound. There we waited. Canadians, and ‘dependents of Canadians’—Vietnamese spouses, house and office staff, and friends. Soon enough we were on our way to the Tân Sơn Nhất airport to await our flight.
Canadian ambassadors and high ranking government officials from Singapore, Hong Kong, Việt Nam, and Bangkok were meeting with Vietnamese officials to secure permission for the many “dependents of Canadians” to leave, and the crew members of the C-130 Hercules plane were to ride in were getting anxious. It was already 4:00 p.m. By 5:30 the sun would be down, and that would make the lumbering propeller driven cargo plane an easy target for rocket fire from the ground. There had been gun fire visible as they came into Sài Gòn earlier, meaning this flight would be considered a combat mission.
When the officials emerged from their meeting, all eyes fixed on them. No, they had not secured permission for dependents of Canadians to leave on this flight. There were, however, 63 orphans prepared to board who would be allowed to go—they had been on a flight earlier in the week that had crash-landed after take off, and they all had permission to leave Việt Nam for Canada.
So, there we stood in the middle of the waiting area, holding our son and not knowing what the next step would be. Two men approached us—one a Canadian diplomat, the other a crew member. One of them said to us: “give him to me, I’ll get him onboard.” The other unclipped an Aunt Jemima doll from a zipper on his jump suit and gave it to our son, who clutched it tight as he was carried away from us.
Wally and I walked through the regular customs line. Out of the corner of our eyes we could see our son being carried through another line—some papers were slapped on a desk, and the men holding our son kept on walking even as Vietnamese officials called for them to stop. They disappeared from sight. Now, due to the mercy of a Canadian diplomat and the flexibility of a flight crew member, there would be 64 orphans on the flight.
By the time we got to the plane, we could hear the desperate cry of a child. When we saw that it was our son strapped into a seat on the plane, it stopped sounding like crying and instead became music to our ears.
The flight to Hong Kong seemed to take forever. Babies and small children were afraid, and some around us were ill. By the time the flight arrived in Hong Kong we were already front page news. We intended to stay in Hong Kong for a short holiday, but the following afternoon an official from the Canadian embassy came to our hotel room and told us we ought to go directly to Canada: a Chinese leader had just died, and, because Holt Adoption Agency was U.S. based, we could end up in the U.S. without permission to leave the country unless we went to Canada right away. We got another evacuation flight that took us all the way to Canada.
We arrived in Saskatoon in the late afternoon on Sunday, April 6. When we called our cousins so they would come pick us up, we asked that they bring along some winter coats. There had been a late spring snowfall and the ground was covered in white. It was the beginning of our next great adventure.