South Vietnam 1968: A half million U.S. soldiers and the South Vietnam army battle the Vietcong for control of the nation. People by the thousands are killed and villages decimated as the country is overrun with widows and orphans hoping to survive. In Saigon it’s common to see families who have lost loved ones living on the street in cardboard boxes.
In the face of this massive bloodshed, a Manhattan secretary named Betty Moul (later Tisdale), took her “vacation,” her forth trip to Vietnam. For five-weeks she voluntarily worked 14-hours, 7-days a week at the An Lac Orphanage, helping to care for 400-abandoned children.
From her 1st visit in 1961, “I couldn’t get those babies out of my mind,” Betty said. “When I walked into An Loc Orphanage and saw row after row of babies without cribs, without diapers, wearing rags,” Betty knew she had to do something about it.
Those babies who had cribs shared them with one or two others, while many more babies lay on the floor. In many cases, they were little more than human skeletons clinging to life for there was not enough food. And some of those babies were severely handicapped.
“Babies would lie there wet and dripping,” Betty said. “Little old ladies would help, but there were not enough (of them). The older children would help with the babies (too).” Each day, Betty would wash and feed and change and hug far too many infants for her to count.
Sometimes Betty held a dying child in her arms, providing the last love or even the only love that child would ever know. Confronted by hunger and disease, and few people to love and care for them, death was common and at times all Betty could do is helplessly watch.
It was a constant struggle to get enough milk and rice and to keep the orphanage open as it had little money. Sometimes the U.S. military donated food and once a week a U.S. military medical team would examine the children and treat the sick.
On one weekly visit, two infants were dying. Betty wrapped each one in a feed sack, and as she held them tightly in her arms she and an Army doctor rushed them to a U.S. military hospital. The tiny babies nicknamed Romeo and Juliet, somehow survived.
When Betty wasn’t in Vietnam, she’d return to her secretarial position assisting New York Senator Jacob Javits and to her unofficial job: fund raiser for the orphanage, knowing the survival of many of these children depended on her ability to raise money. Betty didn’t let them down.
It was at this orphanage Betty met Dr. Patrick Tisdale, a U.S. Army colonel. Dr. Tisdale’s wife had passed away and as a single parent he was raising five boys, ranging in age from five to twelve. In 1969 when he and 47-year-old Betty were married she instantly became a mom to those boys.
But their family would soon grow. In 1970 as Betty cradled in her arms a two-month old infant girl this tiny baby responded with warmth as she cooed and her little eyes sparkled. Betty knew in the deepest parts of her heart this infant would become her daughter.
When she told the orphanage’s proprietor, Madam Ngai, Ms. Ngai soon returned with a four-year-old skeleton of a girl wearing rags and insisted that Betty take her as well. This little girl also soon captured Betty’s heart and the Tisdale’s lovingly adopted both girls, Mai and Lien.
The five boys welcomed the girls and the adoptions went so well, that the next year Betty wanted to add to the Tisdale family. One day at the orphanage, Betty was feeding a three-month old little girl who was so tiny and malnourished; she was the size of a three-week-old infant and was near death.
But there was something about this baby Betty found irresistible and she was determined to save tiny ThuVan’s life. With Madam Ngai’s concurrence; ThuVan became the Tisdale’s third daughter and in America she thrived.
The next year the Tisdales adopted a pretty seven-year-old little girl, Xuan and a very ill baby girl, Kim Lan. As Kim Lan headed home with her new parents, she grew sicker and Dr. Tisdale rushed her to an Army hospital. Sadly, they were unable to save her.
The death of Kim Lan ripped Betty’s heart to shreds. But in response, three months later she and Madam Ngai chose another tiny girl in desperate need. In honor of the baby who hadn’t survived, they named her Kim Lan.
Like ThuVan had been, Kim Lan was also severely malnourished and was frightfully skinny and barely clinging to life. But in the Tisdale home she grew into a healthy little girl, and the Tisdales with five daughters and five sons felt their family was now complete.
Meanwhile Betty kept returning to An Lac Orphanage, and kept raising funds. Then in 1975, there was a dramatic change that shook all of South Vietnam to its core.
As a result, you may recall Betty’s name from the CBS television movie, “The Children of An Lac,” with Shirley Jones starring as Betty.
The movie tells the story of Betty’s dramatic rescue of 219 Vietnamese orphans in the chaos of Saigon in 1975, when the Vietcong defeated the South Vietnamese army and the government collapsed. Vietnamese by the thousands sped to the U.S. Embassy crying out to the U.S. to evacuate them, but most were left behind.
With the Vietcong surrounding Saigon and the city in a panic; Betty, Madam Ngai and actress Ina Balin, a board member of An Lac Orphanage, tried to get all 400-orphans out but what remained of the Vietnamese government refused insisting those over the age of 10 could be useful after the war. Betty got the rest of the orphans out.
How did she get them out and where did she take them? Desperately seeking temporary housing Betty called the General in charge of Fort Benning in Georgia where the Tisdales lived but he did not answer her phone calls begging to house the children in the Fort. With time running out, Betty boldly called the Secretary of the Army.
When he didn’t respond either, Betty called his mother and a school in the Fort was immediately converted into temporary housing.
Simultaneously, Betty pleaded with the panicked U.S. Ambassador to Vietnam, to fly the children to America. As a result he arranged for space for the children on board two Air Force planes and he approved them coming to America if she could produce birth certificates for them.
Betty dashed to a local hospital, grabbed blank birth certificates and helped make-up names and birth dates for the children and two days later they were on their way to America.
When Betty returned to the U.S. she contacted Tressler Lutheran Adoption Agency in York, PA which had a long waiting list of well qualified prospective parents. Within 30-days, every child had a new home. Somehow Betty had accomplished the seemly impossible.