Northern Ireland

Operation Babylift: Lurgan man's search for parents in Vietnam forty years on

Baby Photo Image copyright Below the Radar for BBC NI
Image caption The only known photograph of Vance McElhinney, or Nguyen Van Tan, as a baby in Vietnam

"I've got ghosts I need to lay to rest - I've got to at least figure out if I've got any relatives out there."

Those are the words of County Armagh man Vance McElhinney, also known as Nguyen Van Tan, who was airlifted out of Saigon at the end of the Vietnam War 40 years ago.

Mr McElhinney does not know his birthday, his birthplace or even whether his biological family is still alive.

His name - Nguyen Van Tan - was only established because it was written on the only known photograph of him as a child in Vietnam.

Now, for the first time since being one of 100 orphan children included in what is known as Operation Babylift, he is returning to the country.

Image copyright Below the Radio for BBC NI
Image caption The documentary follows Mr McElhinney back to Quy Nhon, Vietnam, a coastal town where he believes he was born

A BBC One documentary followed his journey back to Vietnam, as he attempted to find his biological parents and met the newspaper editor who saved his life.

Mr McElhinney also visited the orphanage in Quy Nhon, a town where he believes he was born.

It was an emotional experience for the Lurgan man, who was adopted by local couple Cyril and Liz McElhinney after being airlifted out of Vietnam.

Sinead Ingoldsby, producer of the True North documentary, said the mystery about his origins was what drove him to go back to the country.

Image copyright Below the Radar for BBC NI
Image caption The majority of the children airlifted out of Saigon were babies of mixed heritages, children given to orphanages after liaisons between soldiers and South Vietnamese women

"Getting to know Vance and realising that he didn't know the things we take for granted; when he was born, what age he is, what his birthday was. It made me realise how lucky I am to know all those things," Ms Ingoldsby said.

"It doesn't really matter how stable or how wonderful a life you have, if you don't know the answer to those questions you're always going to feel a bit rootless."

Operation Babylift was organised by the Daily Mail, but the newspaper's decision to charter children out of Vietnam in 1975 was widely criticised as a publicity stunt.

The Daily Telegraph, the Sunday Times and the Guardian wrote editorials criticising the decision, suggesting that the orphans would be better off in the country, and accused the Daily Mail of "baby snatching".

Image copyright Below the Radar for BBC NI
Image caption Brian Freemantle was the Daily Mail's foreign editor and championed the chartered flight

Brian Freemantle, the Daily Mail's foreign editor at the time, does not deny the the publicity stunt allegations.

"If a stunt is attracting attention to your newspaper, then yes it was a stunt," Mr Freemantle said.

"A stunt is buying people a home in the country, or buying people new cars.

"What I did with this plane was I got 100 children [out of Vietnam] who would have died I am sure."

The documentary shows Mr Freemantle meeting Mr McElhinney and Viktoria Cowley, another Operation Babylift passenger.

Image copyright Below the Radar for BBC NI
Image caption Mr McElhinney and Ms Cowley, orphans on the plane charted by the Daily Mail, meeting Mr Freemantle

Mr Freemantle said meeting those from the chartered flight more than 40 years on was an "odd" experience.

"It was strange. Because, of course, the last time I saw them they were tiny, wee babies and there they were, grown people."

Mr McElhinney, meanwhile, described the meeting as the only time in his life he has felt emotional.

"I was overwhelmed," he said. "It was a privilege to meet someone who literally saved my life."

Image copyright Below the Radar for BBC NI
Image caption Mr McElhinney with his parents, Lurgan couple Cyril and Liz McElhinney

Mr McElhinney also said that the journey to find his biological family allowed him to better appreciate the life given to him by his adoptive parents and come to terms with his own identity.

"The life I've been given with the McElhinneys was just unbelievable and, although I didn't appreciate it at the time or I went my own way, they always stuck by me," he said.

"I've got a loving family, I couldn't wish for better parents.

"I'm from Saigon - that's where I was born and no one can take that away from me, which is great.

"But, I've got to live my life in Northern Ireland."

The program, True North: A Place to Call Home, will air on BBC One Northern Ireland on Monday 29 February at 22:45 GMT.