A Stolen Child, the Fall of Saigon, and Family Secrets—Can a Documentary Reveal the Truth?

A Stolen Child, the Fall of Saigon, and Family Secrets—Can a Documentary Reveal the Truth?

January 27, 2021

Bernadette “Berni” Slowey ’94 remembers the day that forever changed her life—even though she was only 4 years old. She was outside playing kick the can with her cousins and 2-year-old sister, Rose. It was an afternoon like any other, hot and humid and sticky. She heard the sounds of chatting apartment-dwellers, humming cars, and whirring buses, then suddenly the courtyard felt strangely quiet. Berni turned around to find her sister had disappeared.

Berni and Vannessa Rose in Vietnam
Berni Slowey and Vannessa Rose in Vietnam before Vannessa Rose’s disappearance

It was April 1975 in Saigon. The Vietnam War was about to end, and the United States was preparing to withdraw its military. U.S. citizens and the South Vietnamese who fought alongside American troops were in danger: If the encroaching communist North Vietnamese captured Saigon, which looked inevitable, they would most likely imprison, torture, “re-educate,” or kill U.S. citizens and any of their sympathizers. “There were lots of rumors about mothers fraternizing with the enemy, who had children with the face of the enemy. Everyone in Saigon was in a panic and wanting to flee the country,” Berni explained.

U.S. Soldiers & Vietnamese Wives Would Be Rescued

Flights out of Saigon were full, seafaring vessels were overloaded, and the United States had to decide who to evacuate. U.S. soldiers would be rescued, along with Vietnamese women who had married them and their children. But what about Vietnamese soldiers and citizens connected with the American presence?

In March and April of 1975, it seemed like everyone in Saigon was trying to leave. Crowds gathered outside the U.S. Embassy. President Ford launched Operation Baby Lift to save approximately 2,000 Vietnamese orphans, then Operation New Life, which evacuated over 110,000 Vietnamese refugees, and finally Operation Frequent Wind, which saved an additional 7,000 people in a rush of helicopter trips.

Rose disappeared in the midst of this chaos, just a few weeks before the Fall of Saigon on April 30, 1975.

Family Leaves Saigon Without Lost Child

Berni had the luck (and misfortune) of being Amerasian, the term used for Vietnamese children born from American soldiers. Her father was serving in the Army when he met Berni’s mother during his tour of duty. Berni’s father had already returned to the U.S. while her mother prepared to evacuate. They could get out of Saigon, but without knowing what happened to Rose.

Berni and her mother successfully evacuated days before the Fall of Saigon.

In the United States, Berni’s parents had more children, but she never forgot about Rose. Her mother fell into a lifelong depression. Her father refused to talk about it, claiming that Rose wasn’t his biological daughter. Her aunt blamed her for not watching her younger sister more closely. And Berni learned to cope by becoming a perfectionist, immersing herself in educational, career, and personal pursuits.

She climbed the corporate ladder at a very young age in the banking and finance industry. While she worked full time in the early 90s, she decided to earn her college degree at CU Denver, where she majored in business. Berni hit all the adult milestones quickly: She was in a dream job when she graduated, married her husband in 1998, bought a new house in the city, had two beautiful children, received the 40 under 40 award from Denver Business Journal. Everything seemed perfect.

Except it wasn’t.

collage of Berni and Vannessa's first meeting
Photos from the sisters’ reunion at Denver International Airport; photos courtesy of Willy Wilson of Life Unstill Photography

Great Recession Leads to Spiritual Retreat

Right in the middle of the Financial Crisis of 2008 – 2009, Berni experienced three consecutive miscarriages. The corporate work environment had grown toxic, and the stress of her job intensified. Even though it didn’t make any practical sense, Berni decided to follow her intuition—which told her to quit her job, search for spiritual guidance, and, unconventionally, make a documentary about it in India.

As a child, Berni had always loved movies. When her home life was difficult, and it often was, she pictured herself as the protagonist in a movie. She could escape into someone else’s story. The question of what she was running from, however, became all too real in India.

On the way to the Taj Mahal, Berni, who is afraid of snakes, came within inches of a snake charmer’s cobra—an encounter that made her analyze the source of her deepest fears. The experience forced unresolved issues to come to the surface that she had buried in order to focus on the pursuit of living the American Dream. Berni had lived with the memory of that little sister who had vanished in the last days of the Vietnam War. Even though Berni had just turned 4 years old, her aunt blamed her for Rose’s disappearance. She carried the guilt that it was her fault. When she and her mother fled to the United States, it was not only Rose that was lost. Berni lost her Vietnamese identity.   

When her mother passed away in 2012, Berni thought she had lost all ties to her Vietnamese heritage, thus losing any hope of ever finding her sister Rose.

DNA Testing Finds Biological Sister

In December 2018, a cousin called Berni to let her know that a woman who was a genetic relative had contacted him through a DNA website. The woman explained she had just learned she was adopted and did a DNA test in the hopes of finding her birth mother and father, an American who had served in the Vietnam War. Was it possible this was Rose? Berni’s genetic information was on a different website, so she could not immediately confirm their relationship. They had a cousin in common. That was the only sure thing.

Berni’s cousin gave her the name and email of this newly discovered genetic relative who might be her long-lost sister. She was named Vannessa and now lived in Garden City, California, known as Little Saigon for its large Vietnamese population.

“Vannessa’s email to my cousin described the same story I had been telling,” Berni said. “I knew in my bones that that was my sister. It was just unreal.”

From this point forward, the story uses both Rose and Vannessa in reference to Berni’s sister.

If it was shocking for Berni to finally find her long-lost sibling, it was even more shocking for Vannessa, who simply wanted to find her birth parents. She had no idea she had a sister and other siblings.

Vannessa Rose Grows Up in Little Saigon

Before emigrating to the United States from Vietnam, Vannessa had been treated “like an orphan step-child,” said Berni. Vannessa’s adoptive mother had always claimed Vannessa’s father was an American soldier, which explained why she looked Amerasian. Still, Vannessa had doubts. So much so, that she had asked her mother many times throughout her life if she was adopted.

Finally, in May 2018, Vannessa’s mother admitted she was not Vannessa’s biological mother. She explained that Vannessa had ended up at the police station where she worked in the weeks before the Fall of Saigon. Vannessa had been abandoned, her biological mother said. When Vannessa’s adoptive mother took her home for the night, her own children, three boys and three girls, wanted to keep her.

Vannessa did not find her biological parents on the DNA database, she later learned, because her mother had died in 2012 and her father had not taken a DNA test. But she ultimately found Berni, and in no time, the two women confirmed they were sisters. Shortly after that, Vannessa was on a flight from Los Angeles to Denver, and on Jan. 4, 2019, the two sisters were reunited—after almost 44 years.

Having successfully turned her experience in India into Berni’s Journey, a feature-length documentary about unexpected transformation as a result of difficult transitions, Berni decided to make a second documentary about her family’s experience titled Finding Rose. “The project is very cathartic,” she said.

collage of Berni and Vannessa
Top left: Berni and her younger sister Vannessa Rose in Vietnam; Bottom left: their biological mother with young Berni; Right: recent photos of the sisters

Was Rose Kidnapped, Lost, or Left Behind?

As if the whole saga up to this point weren’t dramatic enough, what Berni uncovered as she interviewed family members in the United States and in Vietnam would prove to be remarkable. Berni’s American GI father has yet to meet Rose in person and would only communicate through email or text. Berni’s mother had always claimed that Rose was kidnapped. Vannessa’s adoptive mother believed that Rose was abandoned. And Berni’s aunt, who was watching the sisters at the time, still blames Berni for Rose’’s disappearance. “The documentary has become more of a mystery,” Berni said. “There are conflicts with everyone’s stories. Time can make memory foggy.” Berni added, “I can forgive myself knowing that a 4-year-old can’t be expected to watch a 2-year-old. Now I understand that it’s a cultural norm to blame the oldest sibling, regardless of age. The guilt weighed heavy on my heart, but healing has begun now that Rose is back in my life. ”

The filming has unveiled more family secrets that the documentary project will explore. “The information we are uncovering is not easy to comprehend,” Berni said. “The Vietnam War was a confusing era and it was a chaotic time. Stories may have been changed for self-preservation, so we may never get an accurate story.”

What story does Berni accept as truth? From a director’s point of view, she isn’t sure it matters. Finding Rose will have to tell the story from different points of view, like Kurosawa did in his iconic movie Rashomon. This may be an ideal solution for Berni cinematically, but what about emotionally? “Sometimes, these choices we make aren’t really easy,” she said. “Revealing family secrets disrupts the dynamic of what has become the norm. Shedding light on the shadowy parts is difficult, but I know that sharing this story will heal our family karma and hopefully help others who are also discovering their own family secrets.”

Returning to Vietnam—Together

Berni was able to get some resolution returning to Vietnam in 2019 with Vannessa Rose, as Berni now calls her, for the production of Finding Rose. She finds comfort that Vannessa Rose, who happens to look strikingly similar to their mother, has grown into a beautiful person. “She has renewed the connection to my Vietnamese heritage,” Berni said. “Even though Vannessa Rose was not able to meet her birth mother, she was embraced by all of her birth siblings.” Vannessa Rose had plans to meet her biological father in Houston in April of 2020—but the health crisis prevented their reunion.

Berni believes the documentary is just one story among countless others that will be exposed, thanks to accessibility to DNA tests. “We are living in the era of transparency with the advancement of technology and social media,” Berni said. Finding Rose has become a metaphor about the thorns we feel searching for truth, but through the unfolding of each layer, the beauty is in the growth from the experience. Through my role as a digital story-teller, I have become a truth-seeker.”

Finding Rose is in post-production. Once more information was discovered about Rose’s disappearance, Berni planned additional interviews in Ho Chi Minh City. But the COVID-19 pandemic halted progress on the documentary. Vietnam is only allowing entry to foreign medical experts and to those traveling for official or diplomatic purposes. Berni hopes to resume filming later this year.

CBS News 4 captured Vannessa Rose’s emotional reunion with Berni and their siblings at Denver International Airport.