From Saigon to Summit

Teacher flees Vietnam as a baby during war


Prior to her evacuation, English teacher Noelle Rocklage is held by Mai, a caretaker at New Haven Orphanage in Saigon, Vietnam. Rocklage was around three months old when she came to America. (Photo used with permission by Noelle Rocklage)

Mary Corkery, News Editor

As the Vietnam War was coming to an end, a crisis was unfolding in South Vietnam. and thousands of children, like English teacher Noelle Rocklage, had been orphaned or abandoned across the country. While the US had already withdrawn from the war, president Gerald Ford decided to launch a campaign to rescue the children from Saigon and bring them to California. The mission, which came to be known as Operation Babylift, officially started in April of 1975. However, Rocklage said she was brought over months earlier through Catholic groups, such as the Sisters of Loretto, with other children who had already been adopted. Flights such as Rocklage’s are much less known, she said.

“It was one of the first ones. The Operation Babylift that everyone knows about is the one that crashed and during that time frame. We were before that. So we were like the trail runs, if you will, of getting all the kids out of there,” Rocklage said. “It was full of people who all had families waiting to adopt them, most of them, because they were going through the Catholic organizations and were already spoken for. All the paperwork and everything was already done, so they were just waiting for that arivial date, and that date was August 16, 1974.”

Rocklage was said to be three months old on her flight from Saigon, but there is uncertainty surrounding details from her life in Vietnam because of a lack of documentation. Information, such as her birthday and biological family, were unavailable at the orphanage, because most babies were left without any identification, Rocklage said.

“Since it was wartime, they said that most of the babies were just kind of left, a lot of times without any notes or anything like that, because it was a safe haven. That’s actually why the orphanage I was in was called New Haven. It was like a safe place,” she said.

In total, around 3,000 children were relocated to the US as the war came to a close. After their flight arrived in Los Angeles, the children were united with their adoptive families all over the country. However, Rocklage was still able to stay connected with other Operation Babylift immigrants with the help of sister Susan Carol McDonald, who worked in the New Haven orphanage Rocklage lived in. As an adult, she returned to Vietnam with a small group to find out more about their lives prior to the operation. While Rocklage herself wasn’t able to find any information, she said that the trip was still beneficial in other ways.

“The purpose of us going back was to see our orphanage and to try and track down paperwork. When I was back, it was in 1998, so it’s been awhile, but at that time there just wasn’t the internet that there is now. So none of us had any luck finding anything with the exception of one. She found some paperwork, but she’s the only one out of the four of us to find anything,” Rocklage said. “Because I was a baby, I [didn’t] remember any of it, but it was the coolest vacation I would ever have. The orphanages were still so full and it was just kind of sad, but it was very interesting.”

Growing up, Rocklage was always aware that she was a part of Operation Babylift, but she said that as she’s gotten older, she’s gained a new awareness for how it changed her life.

“When I was young, I was just like you guys. I took everything for granted, but now I’m like, who knows how long I would’ve lived? It’s a terrible joke, but I always joke that I’d probably be in the rice paddies instead of planning prom for our high school or teaching English,” Rocklage said.