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Photo courtesy Than Campbell

Photo courtesy Than Campbell

Than Campbell (right) finally meets his birth father, Nguyen Minh Than, at Ho Chi Minh City airport, nearly 35 years after they were separated by the Vietnam War.

‘Orphan 32’ fulfills mom’s dying wish

Father-son reunion caps an improbable odyssey

By Richard Leitner, News Staff

Than Campbell keeps his cool until he comes to where he finally got to say, “I love you, daddy,” to his birth father nearly 35 years after war tore them apart.

Head bowed, after about 15 seconds he continues in a shaky voice, recalling the reaction to those words, relayed by a translator on the other end of the phone.

“He said (my dad) closed his eyes and he just pictured his two-year-old child struggling with the language and saying for the first time, ‘I love you, dad.’”

The encounter, made possible by an online world, is one of many arresting moments in the Ancaster resident’s improbable odyssey, one that really never should have happened in the first place.

Yet in the chaos of the Vietnam War’s last gasps, a language barrier between a Catholic nun and soldiers saw him ripped from her arms and swept up by Operation Babylift, a worldwide April 1975 humanitarian effort to ferry orphans out of Saigon.

Tucked into a cardboard box, Nguyen Ngoc Minh Than, as he was then known, became Orphan 32, one of 57 aboard the Hercules C-130 that took off in a hail of bullets.

Problem was, unbeknownst to his well-meaning rescuers, the two-year-old toddler’s parents were very much alive and didn’t want to give him up.

And so two weeks later, Orphan 32 wound up in Toronto, where he was adopted by the family of Rev. William Campbell and his wife Maureen, who raised him as their own.

Than Campbell, who details his experiences in his new book, Orphan 32, already had an interesting story by then, one he regularly shared as he grew up, studied at Redeemer College and then became a professional fundraiser and speaker.

Yet the tale began to take a far more intriguing twist after he gave a talk in Sarnia and was approached by a family who put him in touch with Trent Kilner, an orphan who’d been on the same plane out of Saigon.

Their chance encounter led them to seek out others on the flight, an effort hitting pay dirt when they arranged to meet the woman in Toronto who had spearheaded the Saigon mission, inviting reporters from the CBC and Toronto Star to tag along.

The Star published a front-page story that Sunday – 30 years to the day after Campbell was adopted – featuring a picture of Orphan 32.

By the following year, he and Kilner had connected with 42 of the 57 orphans, as well as others who helped them get them to Canada, organizing a mass celebration in Burlington that drew 250 people.

It was there Campbell first heard the details of their escape from Saigon, one that forced pilots of the Hercules C-130 to take off in a steep, corkscrew-like pattern to elude gunfire from the Communist invaders below.

Those on hand also shared some common experiences upon coming to Canada, like stashing food in their bedrooms until they realized there was always plenty to eat.

“There are stories of me sitting in my high chair and eating rice, and eating every single grain of rice with my finger,” Campbell recalled during a recent talk at Redeemer. “If my brother David would approach, I would actually growl at him.”

The reunion’s biggest revelation, however, only came to light after the story went global and a journalist in Ho Chi Minh City– formerly Saigon– read it online. She followed up with her own story.

Not long after, she sent an urgent email telling Campbell a family inVietnam wanted to get in touch with him, having recognized Orphan 32 as the son and brother who had been taken from them in April 1975.

They emailed him a copy of a Vietnamese birth certificate identical to the one he brought to Canada but for one detail: the former listed his birth date as May1 rather than Aug. 1, 1973.

The real proof came, though, when his presumptive father, Nguyen Minh Than, sent DNA samples: tests revealed they were a 99.999 per cent genetic match.

After absorbing that shock, Campbell arranged to call his father with the help of a translator. He learned both his parents had worked for the military – his dad had been a top general in the South Vietnamese army – and had put their children in a Catholic orphanage, dropping by whenever they could.

His dad told him the visits became impossible in the war’s final stages and that his birth mother had since died from pancreatic cancer, her deathbed wish that her husband never give up looking for their lost son.

“He wants you to know you were never abandoned, you were never let go and it was a big mistake that you were ever taken out of the country,” the translator told Campbell.

From there, Campbell worked on arranging a reunion, one that finally took place in 2009, with his wife, four kids, adoptive father and two translators joining him on the flight to Ho Chi Minh City.

This time, he got to tell his dad he loved him in person, as well as accompany him to his mom’s resting place.

“We were standing by the gravesite and he was able to tell his wife that he completed his mission. He could be at peace and she could be at peace.”

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