Orphan 32: Amazing story of baby who escaped before Saigon fell

Hamiltonian's new book tells story of a Vietnamese orphan growing up in Canada and an eventual reconnection with long-lost friends and family.

Vietnam-born Hamilton author escaped as a baby returned to find family

Hamilton motivational speaker set to release a book about his escape from Vietnam and life in Canada 1:16

CBC Hamilton asked Thanh Campbell to read a short piece from his new book, Orphan 32. The above video features Campbell reading, combined with photographs from life in Vietnam just before he was flown from the country before Saigon fell. 

Thanh Campbell was the 32nd Vietnamese orphan loaded onto a Canadian Forces plane on April 12, 1975. Beside him, there were 56 other babies who would become possibly the last infants flown from the country as part of Operation Babylift, a frantic effort to save lives before Saigon fell. 

Now, 38 years later, Campbell — born Nguyen Ngoc Minh Thanh — is set to self-publish Orphan 32, a book about his life. The Hamilton-based motivational speaker has a lot to write about, from growing up in a Canadian family, to tracking down the other orphans who were on the same plane as him, to being re-united with his Vietnamese family a few years back. It is, Campbell says, the full story. 

"I want people to get joy out of the story. But then, as people let it steep in, I want that sense of hope to rise up," Campbell told CBC Hamilton.

He's also, he said laughing, hoping a lot of people will buy and share it, thinking: "Man, I need to tell this story to someone else."

Campbell said the idea to write a book came, at first, from audiences asking him for something to take home after his motivational talks. But as he began writing, he found it was a way to unpack emotions that had always been in the background. Though he grew up believing he was an orphan, Campbell said, he always missed his mother. 

"It was a personal journey that I had to go through," he said.

Campbell finished the book on New Year's Eve last year, but he's been tying up loose ends of his life story for a few years now. In 2004, he met Trent Kilner, another orphan who was on the same flight. Together, the two men tracked down most, though not all, of the children that were airlifted out of Vietnam that day. They had scattered all across Canada, but Campbell said they had a special link when they were reunited in Ontario.

"It was kind of like an innate connection that we had with each other. We were very comfortable with each other," he said. 

A storybook reunion

A Vietnamese newspaper shows Thanh Campbell, right, hugging his biological father as the two are reunited for the first time in Vietnam. (John Rieti/CBC)

That link was special enough that Kilner actually wound up marrying another of the orphans, Campbell said. For him, though, a bigger surprise was coming. A Hamilton Spectator story about the reunion made it into a Vietnamese paper, and soon after, Campbell's long-lost family contacted him. A DNA test showed a 99 per cent match with the man claiming to be his father, and in 2007 the two men met, exchanging what Campbell calls "the 30-year hug."

It was seemingly a perfect end, but Campbell says reconnecting with his family has brought up some other issues. He wasn't looking for them, he said, they found him. It's something that's changed the way he sees himself. 

"Just because I found my family doesn't mean everything's awesome. I don't speak their language, it's hard to relate to them culturally … all that stuff," he said.

"But at the same time it does bring an aspect of myself that I never had before. It fills me up."

And Campbell's story is still changing. He hopes to travel to Vietnam again soon, and perhaps start doing some charity work in the country. Though he doesn't speak the language, he said he still feels a deep connection to the country. 

"I've always had that heart for that country, knowing I could have been one of them."

Campbell is set to launch Orphan 32 at a special event at 7 p.m. on Saturday in downtown Hamilton. More information can be found on his website


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