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​Vietnam orphans search for their roots

Forty years ago, Operation Babylift carried orphaned Vietnamese children out of the country in advance of South Vietnam's fall
Vietnamese orphans return home 10:43

Forty years ago this month a military C5-A transport left Saigon with orphans headed for new lives in America. But a cargo door blew out, and the plane crashed. It killed 138, including 78 children.

By the time South Vietnam fell, many more Vietnamese children had left their homeland. And now, Barry Petersen tells us, some of those children, long since grown up, are coming home:

Tobi Snyder's certificate of naturalization. CBS News

At the memorial service, they came to remember that terrible day in that terrible war -- the crash that killed 138 people, 78 of whom were children.

But more orphans were evacuated in the frantic last days. During the Vietnam War, some 3,000 orphans came to the U.S. Orphans like Tobi Snyder, who was barely six pounds when she came to America.

"I have a real love for life," she said. "And I don't know if that has anything to do with it, but I am a survivor. I am a fighter."

And Stacy Meredith, given up by her mother when she was two. "As a child, you just don't understand how a parent could ever let you go," she told Petersen.

Sister Mary Nelle Gage volunteered at the orphanages starting in 1973. "One of the first things that I remember seeing was one of the little children reaching out from the crib and grabbing a cockroach to play with it," she said. "And I was horrified. But this is the way it is. These are the cards that you're dealt."

The Vietnamese say hundreds of thousands of children were orphaned by the war. Of those who came to America, some had lost their parents. Or, they were children who had American fathers that Vietnamese families didn't want.

But most babies came with no story.

"We had children who were found in the market, [left] on a bus, and then the police brought them to us," said Sister Mary Nelle.

And all these decades later, the bond endures. "It wasn't just a moment in time. We're bound forever."

For 20 years now, Sister Mary Nelle has been guiding orphans back to Vietnam -- and to the orphanages where they were babies.

On this day in Loveland, Colorado, she's at a bon voyage party for Tobi -- now married with three sons, and soon on her way to Vietnam. "I've always been curious of my roots," Tobi said. "I look around and most of my friends, they know where they're born. And I've just never been able to really know that. And so this trip to Vietnam will be as close as I can get to that."

All she knows is that she was a two-pound infant when she arrived at the orphanage. A few pieces of paper and a photo contain all the information she has about her beginnings.

Petersen asked, "What emotions do you have when you look at this? This is you."

"Yeah, I think it's just amazing and astonishing that any of us survived. I guess quite a few of us passed on."

Stacy Meredith also survived, but was haunted by not knowing her birth mother, or why she was dropped off at an orphanage as a toddler.

Her 19-year-old mother gave sparse details -- her name, that Stacy's father was an American soldier, that her family came from the Can Tho region in Vietnam's Mekong Delta. But not why she gave up Stacy. "So, there's a part of it that still hurts," she told Petersen. "And I miss her. I miss her terribly."

"Explain that to me: How do you miss someone that you certainly couldn't even remember?"

"I miss the idea of having her in my life," said Stacy. "The fact that she kept me for a couple years before she gave me up, to me, tells me that she loved me very much, and she tried. She did what she could."

It's a long trip back to Vietnam -- not just the hours on a plane, but the trip back in time.

In Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City), Sister Mary Nelle takes Tobi to her orphanage. It is still operating, still a place for abandoned babies.

"How do you feel when you see these babies and this is where you came from?" Petersen asked Tobi.

"Just very amazed and humbled," she replied. "And I can't believe that this could be the very room that I was nourished in."

Perhaps only a child who never knew her birth parents or even her homeland can understand how important this moment is -- finding at least this much of her beginnings.

"I can't put words to it. Can't believe that," said Tobi.

"This is where you came from," Petersen said.

"It is. My life started here because of people who cared so much. And they had hope for us."

But for Stacy, the journey might be more revealing -- and come with more answers.

In Ho Chi Minh City, she connects with a Vietnamese TV network, together with a man who's been tracking down the families of orphans -- and discovers they may have located hers.

"I'm scared that it's not them," said Stacy. "I'm scared of getting my heart broken."

To meet them, she and her husband, Peter, travel to Can Tho, 100 miles to the south. The possible relatives stand ready to welcome this American woman into their home.

But what might be the best of news, is also the worst. If this is the right family, then Ngo Thi Diep (who may be her mother) died of cancer.

Stacy has a great likeness to her mother, says Uncle Hai.

Her aunt said her mother always missed her, that she tried all her life to find her.

Through a translator, and through tears, Stacy said, "Please tell them that I'm sorry that I was too late to meet her."

Later, Stacy told Petersen, "I know I didn't look like it, but it made me extremely happy to know that. I got a lot of answers at that moment."

Like what? "That she loved me, that she thought of me. That I wasn't just an accident. I wasn't an inconvenience."

But there is still one big IF - if this is really her family. Stacy takes DNA samples from Uncle Hai and a man who may be her half-brother. It takes two weeks to get the answer: The DNA is a match.

"Uncle Hai, and my brother, are very, very close matches," said Stacy.

"I think you have a family in Vietnam, Stacy," said Petersen.

She paused. "Wow ..."

It's a moment she's been dreaming of for 40 years.

In Vietnam she went to the grave of the woman she now knows is her mother. "They could not emphasize enough to me how tough her life was, Her heart ached for me after I was gone, and how she continued to search for me."

At the gravesite of Ngo Thi Diep, Stacy said through tears, "Please, can somebody please tell them 'thank you' for being here, and welcoming me into their family."

It took 40 years to complete a journey that started in a war, and led to a new life -- and ended back where it all began, where Stacy could finally tell her mother what that little girl sent to America always wanted to say: "Mom, I love you."

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