Conduits of Grace
Thirty years after his father died in the 1975 crash of a cargo plane airlifting Vietnamese orphans from war-torn Saigon, a son takes up his father’s work.

By Jack Mewborne D’99

This story begins at the end of the Vietnam War.

As the fall of Saigon quickly approached in the spring of 1975, efforts began to rescue orphans, many of whom were the offspring of American GIs and Vietnamese women, from crowded orphanages that offered them little hope for survival.

President Gerald Ford authorized U.S. military planes to airlift the orphans to Clark Air Base in the Philippines, and then to the United States. On April 4, 1975, a C-5A Galaxy cargo plane departed from Saigon’s Tan Son Nhat airport overloaded with military personnel and more than 300 orphans, many of whom were infants.

Photo courtesy of Jack Mewborne
With children from the Da Nang Street Children’s House, (kneeling left to right) Jack Mewborne, Jerry Johnson, Ms. Nhung, who serves as house mother, and volunteer Dat Le.

Shortly after climbing to cruising altitude, the rear door blew off, the rudder was damaged, and the cabin lost pressure. The pilot turned the plane around in an attempt to return for an emergency landing. Before they could reach the airfield, the plane crashed in a nearby rice paddy. Among the 154 lives lost that day was Army Master Sgt. Denning C. Johnson, the father of my friend Jerry, who was then 8 years old. His father’s death, and the date of the crash, became profoundly defining moments for Jerry and the source of deep and guarded retrospection.

I met Jerry Johnson in the spring of 2002 when we both volunteered for a summer mission trip to Bosnia with First United Methodist Church in Cary, N.C. As members of the Bosnia team, Jerry and I became friends, and in time he told me about his father’s death. He spoke of his father and the plane crash with no emotion. He later acknowledged that he doesn’t talk about what happened in Vietnam with his mother or siblings. His family has learned to live with the “elephant in the room.”

But it became clear to me that his father’s life and death continue to shape him. His dad’s Masonic Bible is displayed in Jerry’s home office, and a carved wooden model of the C-5A Galaxy sits in his living room, tangible reminders of his father’s sacrifice and the family’s loss. 

Over the course of many trips to Bosnia, Jerry gradually began to reveal more about the depth of his struggle to reconcile what had happened in Vietnam. He admitted that when his wife wanted to invite a Vietnamese friend to their wedding, he refused, surprising them both with the intensity of his animosity. He had never consciously blamed the Vietnamese for his father’s death, but the pain of the past was clearly still shaping his present. God’s healing must have seemed far from the harsh reality of an 8-year-old’s loss.

Still, God’s grace was at work, this time in another country ravaged by war. During Jerry’s trips to Bosnia he developed a close friendship with Elvir Drino, one of our translators. One night while several of us were walking through town, Elvir pointed to a nearby window and told us matter-of-factly that it was the place where a sniper had shot and killed his father.

Like Jerry, Elvir was 8 when his father was killed. The dates and the circumstances were different, but the experiences were enough alike to create a strong bond between them. To see the devastation in Bosnia and to hear the stories of the survivors, especially from Elvir’s perspective, provided Jerry a global and historical context for his own story of loss.

Through this sense of shared suffering, Jerry developed a strong desire to help the children and families that he had come to know in Bosnia. In offering healing to others, he opened himself up to healing as well.

In 2005, Jerry asked if I would go to Vietnam with him for a 30th-anniversary service of remembrance for those who died in the Operation Babylift crash. As a friend and a pastor, I was honored to join him, and I also wanted to explore mission opportunities in Vietnam.

After many long hours and several connecting flights, we were finally making our approach into Saigon at the very airport where his father had taken off 30 years before. For just a moment, I felt that Jerry’s expression registered the emotion one feels at the end of a long personal journey.

As we toured the city and the countryside, Jerry kept repeating, “I can’t believe we’re here.” But when the time for the memorial service arrived, he opted not to go.

He preferred, he said, to visit the crash site alone. So on another day we hired a driver who took us beyond the city, down a long, dusty road, to a trail where we set out on foot. After about 300 yards we saw part of the C5-A’s landing gear deeply embedded in the ground.

A makeshift altar had been erected over the landing gear. Our driver placed incense on the altar, lit it, and stepped away. At Jerry’s request I offered a prayer. He thanked me and then we walked back to the car in silence.

Our itinerary in Vietnam included time with the Children of Vietnam, a nonprofit organization serving the children of Da Nang. We visited an orthopedic hospital specializing in the treatment of amputees, handed out rice to the poor, and attended the dedication of a new home for a needy family. We also toured a squatter’s village where Children of Vietnam planned to build additional homes, a women’s nutrition program, several orphanages, and a street children’s home.

Spending time with the children of Da Nang reminded Jerry of our work in Bosnia. Soon he was asking one of the translators where we could buy the children ice cream, something he does in Bosnia every summer. Later that day, after touring an orphanage and hearing the house mother speak lovingly about the children, Jerry asked if he could make a donation to help with the cost of their food and supplies. After handing her all his cash, Jerry spontaneously reached out and hugged her.

Since that first visit, Jerry and I have made two additional trips to Da Nang where we continue to partner with Children of Vietnam. Those long flights lend themselves to thoughtful reflection and conversations about life and the world in general.

As we returned from our most recent visit, Jerry shared that he could see God’s hand in all of this, as if he now is carrying on his father’s work by caring for the Vietnamese children. His wife and others note that he seems to have found an inner peace. Having found a way to care for the people of Vietnam, he also found a way to let go of feelings he had harbored for more than 30 years. As he opened himself up to care for others, the grace he offered them was returned.

More information about Children of Vietnam

Jack Mewborne received his M.Div. from Duke Divinity School in 1999. Since that time he has been actively involved in missions in the United States and abroad.

Story continues >>
Copyright © 2008 Duke Divinity School. All Rights Reserved.
magazine@div.duke.edu  (919) 660-3412