TIME Veterans

How to Preserve America’s War Stories Before It’s Too Late

Dennis Martin
Dennis Keith Martin Collection / Library of Congress / Veterans History Project Dennis Martin seated, in Vietnam, ca. 1970

The Library of Congress is collecting the country's first-hand accounts of war

On June 19, 1970, Dennis Keith Martin, a U.S. Army Corporal stationed in Vietnam, wrote a letter to his grandparents. “We are hearing a lot of rumors that the 25th Division or at least part of it will be the next to be withdrawn,” he wrote, at the close of the two-page note. “We are all hoping to be involved in it but I am certainly not going to hold my breath.”

Martin was killed in action that July. Monday will be the 44th Memorial Day since then. But his letters and photographs, like the one seen here, are very much alive.

That’s because Martin’s sister, Barbara, donated them to the Veterans History Project (VHP) of the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, which has made them available online. The VHP was created by an act of Congress and signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 2000. In the 15 years since, the project has collected nearly 100,000 oral histories from veterans and their families, as well as the families of those remembered each Memorial Day. More than 15,000 of those stories and documents, the first-hand accounts of conflicts from World War I to the present day, can be accessed online.

“I feel like my brother’s experience, like so many other thousands, millions, of people in warfare—it’s such a great loss, and what for? Seeing his letters there it gives some meaning to what happened,” Barbara Martin, who is now a musician in Waynesboro, Va., says. “I think that a lot of times people have a skewed viewpoint of what war really is. I think anything that can show people this is what it really is, this is the horror of it, this is the reality of it, is a very good thing.”

The VHP has done just that for people like Hetal Shah.

Shah is a 19-year-old college student in Aliso Viejo, Calif., who has been volunteering to collect oral histories for the VHP since she was 15. (Anyone can do those interviews, by downloading the how-to kit from the Library of Congress). The very first interview she did for the project was with a World War II vet who told a story of deciding not to shoot a hungry Japanese man despite orders to shoot the enemy on sight.

“When he was saying this story he was crying, not because of the man’s situation but rather because he disobeyed the orders of his commander,” Shah recalls. “That’s when it really hit me how complex war is for soldiers and all the people involved. He mentioned his family and all the struggles they faced while he was away. It made war more complex for me and it gave me all of these different perspectives that I could never learn from my history class.”

Shah has come to see her VHP interviews as something of an urgent mission. The stories of World War I that have made it to the VHP have done so through family members, the same way the stories of men and women like Dennis Martin, who were killed in action, got there. But those veterans who made it home from war are full of stories that have yet to be collected.

“I’ll never get to hear the story of a World War I veteran from his or her point of view. We lose that every time that veteran passes on, we lose their stories with them,” she says. “If veterans are not interviewed before they pass on then no one else will be able to get that same perspective and story from them. It’s very important for us to continue doing this project so that everybody, no matter when it was in history, can know how it really was.”

Her message is exactly what the VHP’s backers hope the project offers. “It’s a resource for the country in the sense that it gives us a way of tying into and understanding the experiences of Veterans, as we think about the country, as we think about the future, and as we think about future military engagements,” says William “Bro” Adams, who is chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities—which is partnering with the Library of Congress to encourage veterans and the families of those killed in action to get involved with the project—and also a Vietnam veteran whose own stories are now part of the VHP archive. “These kinds of stories really give you a sense of things that no other form of recollection can give you.”

TIME Vietnam

Vietnam Outlaws ‘Filthy,’ ‘Clichéd’ and ‘Poisonous’ Romantic Novels

A publishing house employee stands at a booth selling discount foreign novels at a book festival in Hanoi on September 30, 2014
Hoang Dinh Nam—AFP/Getty Images A publishing-house employee stands at a booth selling discount foreign novels at a book festival in Hanoi on Sept. 30, 2014

Well, that's Fifty Shades of Grey nixed then

Vietnam has temporarily banned romantic novels, particularly those originating from China, as the “clichéd, useless, obscene and offensive” works are “poisoning” the youth of the country, reports local media.

The majority of unsuitable titles are foreign romantic novels, says the Vietnamese Publishing and Printing Department, which announced that all novels must be “suitable with Vietnamese habits and customs,” according to Thanh Nien News.

“We do not shut down any genre of books, but the government needs to regulate an activity related to culture and people’s way of thinking so that it can benefit people,” said department director Chu Van Hoa.

Most of the proscribed books are Chinese titles, including genres like danmei (Chinese-language gay-romance novels) that have been deemed salacious and morally objectionable, fueling erroneous notions of love or even promoting rape, according to Chu.

Vietnam will eventually remove the ban, he explained, but will only selectively permit some publishers to release books with romantic content.

[Thanh Nien News]

TIME Media

Read the TIME Essay That Advocated for the Vietnam War

US Marines landing in Da Nang.  (Photo b
Larry Burrows—The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty US Marines landing in Da Nang in 1965

Fifty years ago, the magazine made the case for it being 'the right war at the right time'

It’s easy to forget now, 40 years after the Fall of Saigon and freshly removed from the prospect of Iraq and Afghanistan lapsing into “another Vietnam,” that there was a time when many believed that escalation in Vietnam was the right thing to do. Among the prominent voices who felt that way were the editors of TIME who, 50 years ago today, on May 14, 1965, published an influential essay backing the President’s decision to step up the ground campaign in Asia. It was, the headline proclaimed, “The Right War at the Right Time”:

Obviously, after overcoming his early hesitation, Lyndon Johnson will not allow the U.S. to be pushed out of Viet Nam. For if that were to happen, Americans would only have to make another stand against Asian Communism later, under worse conditions and in less tenable locations. As Demosthenes said about expansionist Macedonia in the 4th century B.C.: “You will be wise to defend yourselves now, but if you let the opportunity pass, you will not be able to act even if you want to.” Despite all its excruciating difficulties, the Vietnamese struggle is absolutely inescapable for the U.S. in the mid-60s—and in that sense, it is the right war in the right place at the right time.

Anticipating counterarguments, the essay swatted away objections. An American offensive wouldn’t be interfering with a civil war because Communism was a worldwide issue. South Vietnam’s continued fighting was indication that they wanted help. Once Communism was entrenched, it was nearly impossible to get rid of. A Communist Vietnam would seek to dominate the region. There was no evidence that U.S. involvement would draw in China or Russia. Events in Asia did matter to American interests. And, finally, there was no value in negotiating with Communists. All in all, the essay concluded, the critics of the war had no ground on which to stand.

The magazine would later change its perspective. In recent conversations about the war, former TIME Saigon bureau chief Peter Ross Range said that he sensed a shift after the Tet Offensive in 1968. “We were all news reporters, but I think there was a shared attitude, a widely shared attitude especially among younger correspondents like me, that the war was not a good thing,” he said. “It was never discussed openly at the magazine but if you read the magazine over time, over the last year before I went, you would get very much the same feeling.”

Years later, after the end of the Cold War, another TIME essay revisited the idea, positing that though the Cold War may have been the right war, Vietnam was the wrong battle—and, the piece concluded, the consequences of that wrong decision would continue to be felt for many years to come.

Read the full 1965 essay, here in the TIME Vault: The Right War at the Right Time

TIME Education

Here’s Where You’re Going to Find the Best Schools in the World

Schools in Asia outperform those everywhere else

Asian countries claimed the top five spots in a global math-and-science-education ranking administered by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) while the U.S. placed 28th, below much poorer countries such as the Czech Republic and Vietnam.

Singapore ranked best in the world, with Hong Kong placing second and South Korea, Japan and Taiwan rounding out top five, reports the BBC.

At sixth, Finland is the first non-Asian country to appear in the rankings; Ghana came in last place.

“The idea is to give more countries, rich and poor, access to comparing themselves against the world’s education leaders, to discover their relative strengths and weaknesses, and to see what the long-term economic gains from improved quality in schooling could be for them,” said OECD education director Andreas Schleicher.

The new rankings are different the more well-known PISA scores, which traditionally focuses on affluent nations. The latest version, based on tests taken in different regions worldwide, includes 76 countries of varying economic status.

“This is the first time we have a truly global scale of the quality of education,” said Schleicher.

Below is the top 10 as reported by the BBC.

1. Singapore

2. Hong Kong

3. South Korea

4. Japan

4. Taiwan

6. Finland

7. Estonia

8. Switzerland

9. Netherlands

10. Canada


TIME Opinion

Lessons of the Fall of Saigon

War of Vietnam. Saigon's fall. Taken of the presid
Francoise De Mulder—Roger Viollet/Getty Images Saigon's fall and the taking of the presidential palace, on April 30, 1975

The Vietnam War changed the United States as much as it changed South Vietnam

Forty years ago today, on April 30, 1975, helicopters carried away the last Americans in Saigon as North Vietnamese troops entered the city. What followed showed that the war had changed the United States as much as it had changed South Vietnam.

Only 28 months before the end, President Nixon had announced that the war’s end would come with “peace with honor,” and promised to respond vigorously to any North Vietnamese violations of the peace agreement. But Congress had insisted upon a final end to military action in Southeast Asia in the summer of 1973, and Watergate had driven Nixon out of office a year later. Neither the US government nor their South Vietnamese ally, President Thieu, had shown any interest in implementing the provisions of the peace agreement designed to lead to genuine peace The millions of young Americans who had served in South Vietnam from 1962 through 1972, and the thousands of planes that had flown bombing missions from carriers and airfields in the region, had proven time and time again that they could hold on to most of the country as long as they were there. But the Americans could do nothing about the political weakness of the South Vietnamese government. The communists still effectively ruled much of the countryside and had infiltrated every level of the South Vietnamese government from the Presidential palace on down. American money, not loyalty, had driven the South Vietnamese war effort. With no prospect of American help, the South Vietnamese Army simply collapsed in the spring of 1975 after Thieu ordered a precipitous withdrawal from the Central Highlands. The North Vietnamese won their final victory almost without fighting.

A variant of this sad story has already been replayed in Iraq, where tens of thousands of supposedly American-trained Iraqi Army troops melted away in 2014 when faced with ISIS. There, too, the American-backed government had totally failed to secure the allegiance of the population in Sunni areas. The same thing may well happen in Afghanistan, where a new President has already persuaded the Obama Administration to delay a final withdrawal. That was the overwhelming lesson of Vietnam: that American forces, no matter how large, cannot create a strong allied government where the local will is lacking.

Like most historical lessons, that one lasted for as long as men and women who were at least 40 years old in 1975 held power. Army officers like Colin Powell were determined never to see anything similar happen on their watch, and they kept the military out of similar situations in El Salvador and Lebanon during the Reagan years. Instead, the Soviet Union found its own Vietnam in Afghanistan, and that last foreign policy adventure helped bring Communism down. In 1990-1, George H. W. Bush decided to expel Saddam Hussein from Kuwait, but Powell and others made sure that operation would be carried out quickly, with overwhelming force, and with no long-term occupation of enemy territory. Bill Clinton, who had opposed the Vietnam War, kept the United States out of any ground wars as well.

The neoconservatives who took over policy and strategy under George H. W. Bush were either too young to have fought in Vietnam, or, like Bush (and, for that matter, myself), had served in non-combatant roles. Some of them had persuaded themselves that Vietnam would have been successful if the United States had sent South Vietnam more aid, and all of them were certain they could topple the Iraqi government without serious repercussions. Iraq in 2003 was about twice as populated and much larger in area than South Vietnam in 1962, but they were certain that less than a third of the troops eventually needed in South Vietnam would do the job. They were wrong on all counts. Late in Bush’s second term, American troops showed once again that they could quiet an uprising as long as they remained in the country. But the Iraqi government was determined to see them leave, and last year it seemed that that government might go the way of President Thieu. That has not happened, but Baghdad seems to have lost control of much of the Sunni region for a long time to come.

President Gerald Ford was the American hero of the last phase of the Vietnam War. Although Congress had refused his requests for additional aid to the South in those last desperate weeks, he refused to blame Congress, war protesters, or the media for the fall of Saigon. On April 23, with the complete collapse of South Vietnam only days away, the President gave a major speech in New Orleans. “Today,” he said, “America can regain the sense of pride that existed before Vietnam. But it cannot be achieved by refighting a war that is finished as far as America is concerned. As I see it, the time has come to look forward to an agenda for the future, to unify, to bind up the Nation’s wounds, and to restore its health and its optimistic self-confidence.” This much-underrated President, who was destined to lose a close election in another 18 months, had caught the mood of the American people. Henry Kissinger had explained to Nixon in the fall of 1972 that the US could survive the eventual fall of South Vietnam if the South Vietnamese could clearly be held responsible—immediately began blaming the Soviet Union on the one hand, and the Congress on the other, for the debacle. But Ford gave the American people permission to feel that they had given far more than anyone could ever have expected to this hopeless cause.

It seems today as if another frustrating series of interventions has temporarily vaccinated the US against any such large-scale deployments. Neither politicians nor military leaders will be eager to repeat the Iraq experience for a long time, and the Obama Administration has moved from “counterinsurgency” to “counterterror,” relying on drone strikes. But since the interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan seem likely to lead to endless chaos rather than to the symbolic fall of a capital, it seems unlikely that Obama or any future President will manage to put our Middle East adventure behind us in the way that Ford did for Vietnam. That is unfortunate, because great powers need to be able to come to grips with the limits of their power, especially in highly troubled times like our own.

The Long ViewHistorians explain how the past informs the present

David Kaiser, a historian, has taught at Harvard, Carnegie Mellon, Williams College, and the Naval War College. He is the author of seven books, including, most recently, No End Save Victory: How FDR Led the Nation into War. He lives in Watertown, Mass.

TIME portfolio

A Photographer’s Personal Look at Vietnam 40 Years After the War

For the new generation of Vietnamese, the war is a distant memory.

Today, Vietnam commemorates the 40th anniversary of the fall of Saigon, which led to the unification of the country. But the war that killed more than three million people has now become a distant past for a new generation of Vietnamese, including photographer Maika Elan, whose personal photographs reveal a unique look at life inside contemporary Vietnam.

“Americans and Vietnamese still have different perceptions of the war,” Elan tells TIME. “While America [is] still busy with so many other wars, Vietnam is no longer a battlefield. It’s a really peaceful country now.”

Born more than a decade after the conflict had ended, Elan only experienced it through photographs and motion pictures. Her father, although having endured the brutality of war, seldom talked about it but taught his daughter how to “overcome difficulties rather than lamenting or complaining about [the past],” she says. “In my heart, he is always a happy person and full of optimism.”

However, when her father was diagnosed with cancer in 2013, Elan suddenly felt that their roles had been switched. She became his caretaker, and often brought him to the playgrounds and zoos they used to visit when she was a child. There, using a film camera, she double-exposed portraits of her father with landscape photographs she had previously shot, in the hopes of keeping him motivated through his treatment and to encourage him to enjoy nature again.

Elan’s father has since recovered and returned to work, but Elan continues to photograph personal projects anchored around her family and friends when she is not making editorial or commercial work. In the trivial moments of life she captured in Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam, we no longer recognize the country where so many images from the war remind us of a sad history. She believes, by documenting human-interest stories on a smaller scale, it could help paint a larger image of a country born out of war.

Maika Elan has previously won a World Press Photo award for The Pink Choice, a pioneering photo essay that offers an intimate look into the lives of L.G.B.T. couples still stigmatized in her country.

Alice Gabriner, who edited this photo essay, is a senior international photo editor at TIME. Ye Ming is a contributor to TIME LightBox. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

TIME Media

The Surprising Story of the Spy who Worked for TIME

Pham Xuan An
Charles Dharapak—AP Pham Xuan An holds up his press card from 1965 at his home in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, on April 26, 2000

Pham Xuan An was a respected reporter based in Saigon during the Vietnam War. But the information he brought this magazine's reporters was being given to the soldiers America was fighting

In early 1972, Stanley Cloud, who was then TIME’s bureau chief in Saigon, wrote a short piece for the company’s internal newsletter, F.Y.I. The piece—headlined “Right, An”—was a profile of a man named Pham Xuam An, who had been working for TIME in Vietnam since 1966 and had been officially hired to the magazine’s staff in 1969. He was the first Vietnamese person to become a full-fledged staff member for a major American news outlet covering the war.

“Perhaps it is letting the cat out of the bag, but I suppose that it is safe to say that Pham Xuan An has been no less than the secret weapon of a long line of correspondents who have traipsed in and out of Saigon—the incumbent crew conspicuously included,” Cloud wrote. “Although he rarely files himself, his dogged research and legwork, his remarkable knowledge and background, play an important part in virtually every file produced by a staff correspondent.”

An continued to work for TIME through the end of the war. When TIME’s staff was evacuated before the April 30, 1975, fall of Saigon, he was the one who stayed behind. An issue of F.Y.I. from that May noted that, a few hours after the evacuation was complete, the following message came over the Telex machine: “Here is Pham Xuan An now. All American correspondents evacuated because of emergency. The office of TIME is now manned by Pham Xuan An.” Years later, in 2006, when An died at 79, Cloud memorialized him as a first-class journalist with an easy laugh.

Cloud wasn’t the only one who was fond of An. “He was an intellectual, dog-lover, bird-lover, chain-smoker, super smart guy, and we thought a great reporter,” says Peter Ross Range, 73, who was TIME’s Saigon Bureau Chief in 1975. “But An was also a little strange. He would disappear for days at a time and nobody had any idea where he was. Now of course we know where he was at least part of that time.”

An, it turned out, had been more than a journalist.

Before, during and after working for TIME, he was an intelligence officer for the Communist North Vietnam. The dogged research he conducted for his magazine American employers also went to the group the United States was fighting against.

That’s not the whole surprise, either. What’s perhaps just as striking in the story of Pham Xuan An is the good will his former colleagues still feel toward him.

His story was a complicated one: An began his association with the Viet Minh in the 1940s. Though he did intelligence work for both the South Vietnamese Army and the Central Intelligence Agency, he continued his allegiance to that anti-occupation group the whole time. He studied journalism in the United States in the 1950s and was an intern at the Sacramento Bee before returning to Vietnam, where he began to work for American outlets almost immediately. “Journalism is a splendid cover for a spy,” notes Thomas Bass, author of 2009’s The Spy Who Loved Us, a book about An.

Though his four children and wife evacuated to the United States at the end of the war, he soon summoned them to come home; around that time, suspicions began to arise among his American friends. By the 1980s, those suspicions had been publicly confirmed. An was honored in his homeland as a national hero.

An never told a lie, Bass says, so he was able to keep his own story straight. He was also able to maintain the respect of his colleagues. Many of his TIME friends met with him on return trips to Vietnam, and several—including Stanley Cloud—later chipped in to help send An’s son to college in the U.S.

“He was a great man. A great man,” Cloud, 78, says, reflecting on that period. “[When I found out] I was surprised but I wasn’t astonished, if you know what I mean.”

“I don’t think he ever purposely gave us misinformation. That’s how he survived. He’d have been killed if he did,” echoes Roy Rowan, now 95, a long-time TIME and LIFE staffer who worked in Saigon for the magazine at the end of the war. Rowan recalls a three-hour-long, highly emotional conversation during which he tried to convince An to save his own life by evacuating with the rest of the staff. An maintained he was staying behind to care for his ailing mother.

His biographers have also been unable to find evidence that he spread falsehoods. “I was hoping to find evidence that the stories had been slanted, but I couldn’t find it,” says Larry Berman, author of the biography Perfect Spy, who notes that An’s story is currently being turned into a 32-part Vietnamese television series.

In fact, it seems more likely that having a spy on the staff helped TIME cover the war more accurately. Cloud recalls a time during the Paris Peace Accord negotiations when Newsweek’s Saigon bureau chief bragged about having the details of the peace plan; TIME asked An to see what he could find so that the magazine wouldn’t get scooped. An brought back the outline of the plan. The story that TIME ran that week, Cloud recalls, was more accurate than Newsweek’s.

An was not without his detractors. Cloud recalls, for example, that Murray Gart, then TIME’s chief of correspondents, felt absolutely betrayed by An. (Gart died in 2004.) Berman says that his book has been criticized by those who feel he’s too sympathetic. At the heart of the matter is the fact that even though An appeared to have been careful not to endanger his colleagues—he intervened in at least one case to keep a TIME correspondent safe—the information he was able to provide to the North was not without military value. “Could his information have led directly to the deaths of American soliders? And if so, should we be rethinking our love for Pham Xuan An?” asks Range. “Personally, [he was] a great guy—but he’s out creating situations which could have killed young men from our side and of course that’s what he was supposed to do. And if that’s what he was doing, you need to think about that.”

Still Range stands by An. When he learned the truth about his former colleague, he felt “disbelief, shock, but not anger,” he says. “Everything was upside-down. So the fact that this turned out to be upside-down seemed like another one of the strange anomalies of the time.”

Berman says that it’s not surprising that, 40 years later, the story of Pham Xuan An is not seen by former friends as a tale of betrayal. An loved America, appreciated the free press, was respected by his colleagues—but he loved his own country more, and wanted it to be independent.

Today, Berman says, most Americans see the war the way that An did, agreeing with him that it would have been better for the Americans to go home.

“An thought, naively, that when the war was over it would be just like the end of the American Civil war, where Lincoln said ‘with malice toward none,’” Berman says. “People hold onto him as symbol of war, but really he’s a symbol of peace.”

TIME photography

See the Photographs from Vietnam That Changed a Veteran’s Life

"Looking at the pictures put me right back into the jungle as if I were a 21-year-old soldier again"

When Christopher Gaynor returned home from the Vietnam War, on Feb. 6, 1968, he didn’t leave with memories alone. He had spent his 13 months in the field artillery creating pictures, too. Untrained but inspired by combat photographers, he brought one of the era’s ubiquitous Brownie cameras—before investing $94 in an Asahi Pentax SLR—to record his experience. To develop each roll of film, he took it to the Post Exchange on the base camp, they mailed it to Kodak for processing, Kodak mailed it back to Vietnam and, finally, Gaynor mailed the pictures home.

But the world he encountered when he got back to the United States wasn’t exactly ready to look at them, and neither was he. The anti-war movement was strong and attitudes toward veterans were, he found, hostile. Before the year was up, he decided to leave the country. He spent the following years in England and Spain, and didn’t return until the year the war ended, which happened 40 years ago this month on April 30, 1975.

“I put [the photos] in a box, a box from Lavoris mouthwash. I didn’t look at them, I put them in the box, sealed it up, and they stayed in that box until 2007,” Gaynor, now 70, recalled. “I didn’t want to deal with it.”

Even after his return to the United States, decades passed before he decided that he should do something with that box. In 2007, he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, which he thinks is related to his exposure to Agent Orange during the war, and facing an illness motivated him to think about his legacy. At the time, the VFW post on Vashon Island, Wash.—where Gaynor still lives with his husband—was sponsoring a Boy Scout troop; one of the troop members wanted to scan Gaynor’s photos as part of his Eagle Scout project. Though Gaynor admits that his expectations for the results were low, he went along with the idea.

To say that he’s glad he did would be an understatement.

“I looked at them and they all came alive again,” he said. “It was completely overwhelming. All my buddies from 40 years previously [were] looking at me from these pictures, even the guys who weren’t with us anymore. Looking at the pictures put me right back into the jungle as if I were a 21-year-old soldier again.”

Gaynor notes that most of his photos, some of which can be seen above, aren’t of the dramatic scenes familiar from war photography. Rather, he captured the off times, with soldiers relaxing, playing ball, hanging out. It was portraiture, not fighting scenes, that brought back the memories.

And it wasn’t just a matter of remembering moments long buried. After opening the box, Gaynor began to investigate his own memories, digging out the letters he had sent home. He started to talk about his experiences and began to get more involved in the VFW and the American Legion. (He is the only openly gay officer of the American Legion of whom he knows, he said.) He reached out to younger veterans who had been in Iraq and Afghanistan. He established relationship with the families of his friends who had died in Vietnam. He became a consultant on the Vietnam-reenactor documentary In Country, which is out on video on demand on April 28. Though he does not want to make any money from the images, he tried to get his exposure for his photos in order to help other veterans connect with their memories, self-publishing a book of his photos and letters from the war.

The memories and images that had been buried for decades became the opposite of hidden, motivating Gaynor to reorganize his life around a new mission.

“It’s a difficult emotional stress [to revisit that time] but I had to do it,” he says. “Finding the pictures completely changed my life. There are no words to describe how it affected me. They’ve continued to reward me and live on.”

TIME Cambodia

Cambodian Orphans Yearn for Answers 40 Years After Fleeing the Khmer Rouge

Young Cambodian child at a hospital in Phnom Penh, in March 1975.
Francoise Demulder—AFP/Getty Images Young Cambodian child at a hospital in Phnom Penh, in March 1975.

A daring orphan lift spared scores from the savage communist clique, but left children with no ties home

Here are the things Miika Thoeun Gove knows about her Cambodian origins: a woman claiming to be her grandmother said she couldn’t take care of her. An orphanage took her in. The U.S. embassy arranged for an airlift to California.

By the time the Khmer Rouge took control of Phnom Penh on April 17, 1975, Miika had been safely shuttled out, but her identity remained trapped inside. In Cambodia, Pol Pot’s brutal regime set about systematically dismantling all existing systems — killing an estimated 1.7 million people in pursuit of a harebrained “year zero” agrarian utopia. In the process families, institutions and records were obliterated amid one of the worst genocides of the 20th century. In the U.S., doctors estimated Miika’s age by looking at her teeth; new parents assigned a birth date, they gave her a name.

“I don’t know how it worked, there’s virtually no details other than [me] arriving,” she tells TIME. “I don’t even know if that’s the true story.”

Forty years ago this and last month, a series of planes flew into Phnom Penh’s besieged Pochentong airport on a special sortie. The Fighting Tigers at the controls dove down into the tarmac to avoid Khmer Rouge gunfire and — barely cutting the engines — pulled up alongside cargo trucks. With little ceremony, those in the truck began to load the plane with box after box of babies.

“As this telegram is being dispatched,” read a U.S. embassy cable sent just hours after a March 17 airlift, “the orphans are not the only ones heaving a king size sigh of relief.”

At the time of the evacuations, the U.S.-backed Khmer Republic had all but crumbled under the weight of incompetence and corruption, while large-scale American bombing of the countryside sent hundreds of thousands fleeing to Phnom Penh for safety. Desperate parents — starving and fearing for their lives — overwhelmed the state-run orphanage; the babies would not stop coming.

Canadian sisters Eloise and Anna Charet arrived in the country just months before the fall to open a private orphanage, called Canada House. Eloise recalled taking babies and toddlers from a room in the state orphanage, “where the children were just left on mats and were left to die. The ants were crawling on them, the flies all around their eyes and mouth … the only thing you could see was the flickering of their eyes once in a while and this room was just packed with children left to die, they didn’t know what to do.”

On March 17, the sisters successfully evacuated all 43 of their charges — an unlikely feat that allowed for scores more to be pulled out in the following weeks by various private agencies and individuals. Most of the Cambodian children were initially sent to war-torn Saigon where they were thrown in with more than 3,000 Vietnamese children to be airlifted out to the U.S., Europe and Australia in the audacious and controversial “Operation Babylift.”

As the situation in Cambodia deteriorated, its envoys in Washington, D.C., begged the U.S. for assistance and arranged for a final group of 220 orphans to be pulled out and adopted. In Phnom Penh, the Minister for Refugees scrambled to process the children. On April 9, 28 flew out. They were to be the last.

“I messaged [Refugee Minister] Kong Orn … about the orphans’ situation. I also messaged other officials. But there was no answer from anyone. Clearly the subject of orphans was not on anyone’s mind at the time,” says Gaffar Peang-Meth, a diplomat based at the Cambodian embassy.

The chaos surrounding those final flights ensured that many orphans arrived with only the scantest of documentation. In a July 1975 internal report, the U.S. Agency for International Development recorded that half of the 108 orphans airlifted out of Phnom Penh “are experiencing legal problems regarding their adoptability and/or placements.”

Sjoberg / AFP / Getty ImagesThe young Khmer Rouge guerrilla soldiers enter Phnom Penh on April 17, 1975

“The placement of the orphans … in adoptive homes has been held up because of questions raised regarding their adoptability and/or prospective placement. Due to the emergency situation which existed at the time, the sponsoring agencies and the government did not obtain the proper releases or process other required documentation,” the report continued.

In California and elsewhere, lawsuits proliferated over whether the children were in fact orphans. Miika and scores of other children spent upwards of a year in foster homes while officials debated their status. Four decades later, some have yet to be naturalized.

“The children’s arrival was not all smooth and happy,” recalls Gaffar Peang-Meth, who became the point man for verifying many of their legal status. Some news media reports suggested that the children were not all orphans and openly questioned why they had been brought to the U.S. Gaffar Peang-Meth responded that there was no authority in Phnom Penh to answer such allegations.

Amid the mounting concern, the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) ordered a temporary halt to the babylifts on April 16, just one day before the Khmer Rouge seized Phnom Penh. Then deputy commissioner of the INS, James Green, told the Washington Post that the agency would “launch a full investigation to determine what these children’s backgrounds are and how they got into the United States.”

By then, of course, the lines of communication had already been severed. With it went any hope of tracking down family ties.

Adoptees grew up oblivious to their roots, yet haunted by them.

“No matter how you grow up childhood always challenging, but not really having a mental foundation of how it started, that’s really challenging,” says Miika Thoeun Gove. “I can’t even reach out to anyone in the group that I flew out with, I have no information.”

A handful of the orphans have returned to Cambodia in search of more information, though such quests tend to be fruitless.

Kim Routhier-Filion, one of the Canada House babies, traveled to Cambodia in 2012 accompanied by Eloise and Anna Charet, and a film crew from the French-Canadian news station RDI. While there, the filmmakers captured Routhier-Filion looking through records and speaking with archivists, but he confessed scant faith in reconciliation.

“For me, my adoptive parents are my real parents,” he said. “I didn’t have any expectations of finding my biological parents in Cambodia. I assume they got killed. I don’t even know my biological mom’s name. I didn’t have any hope or expectations of that.”

Gove, whose documents carry neither the name of her parents nor birthplace, has similarly little anticipation of closure. It is something, however, she has come to accept.

“Imagine the children who didn’t get out of there,” she points out calmly. “I figure I’m doing O.K.”

TIME movies

These Men Are Reenacting a War Many Others Want to Forget

The new documentary 'In Country' introduces a group of Vietnam War reenactors

As the sesquicentennial of the Civil War winds to an end, the hundreds of Americans who regularly reenact that conflict are likely to get plenty of attention. The reenactment at Appomattox is going on right now, in fact.

But the Civil War isn’t the only American conflict that draws citizens, decades later, to replay its battles. In their new documentary In Country (in theaters April 10 and VOD April 28), filmmakers Mike Attie and Meghan O’Hara follow a group of men who, for one weekend a year, recreate the Vietnam War.

They wear the uniforms. They carry the weapons. They even, as shown in the clip above, use the lingo that would have been heard on those battlefields (even when some of that language is offensive). The experience is so immersive that Attie and O’Hara had to dress as war correspondents in order to get approval to film the weekend.

But the time-travel aspect of war reenactment is, the filmmakers say, a little stranger when the war is still relatively fresh. As the 40th anniversary of the Fall of Saigon approaches — the war concluded at the end of April, 1975 — Vietnam remains raw.

“When I heard it I couldn’t believe it,” Attie recalls. “Why would someone want to recreate this war that was so divisive? Both Meghan and I were born after the war ended, but it still seemed like something that was fresh and controversial.”

Whereas Civil War and Revolutionary War reenactments are often family-friendly events, a Vietnam reenactment lacks the distance that neuters the violence. Attie says there was a joke in his high school that the school year would conveniently end before history class got to the Vietnam War, because nobody wanted to talk about it. It felt, he says, like a conflict that people didn’t want to remember — even though the men in his new film are proof otherwise.

And their remembering is not just a matter of learning about the history, obsessing over details like how long the soldiers’ hair would have been in one year versus another. It’s also an exercise in empathy, the movie posits, as veterans in the group are able to revisit their real experiences or, in one particular case, impart their wisdom on a soon-to-be Marine along for the ride.

“It made me think, when does history become History with a capital H, and have the teeth taken out of it a little bit?” O’Hara says. “These men are trying to wrestle with it and it seems so soon.”

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