Orphans Escaped Vietnam with Turner

By Amy Rabideau Silvers
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (Wisconsin)
July 19, 2001

As the government in Saigon was crumbling, a Catholic chaplain flew back to Vietnam and began to gather orphans waiting to leave the war-torn country.

Lacking the final exit visas for the children, Father Joseph Turner bullied his way out with more than 20 youngsters — shouting and changing diapers as he argued with border officials.

The children ranged in age from 4 days to 10 years old, including a set of 6-month-old twins. All were brought to the United States, where they were adopted.

Turner, a Salvatorian priest, served at St. Pius X Catholic Church in Wauwatosa for eight years until 1966. He became an Army chaplain, serving two tours of duty in Vietnam in 1968 and 1970, during which he found American homes for 12 orphans.

He died of cancer Monday at Philadelphia Veterans Hospital. He was 73.

Turner knew what it was like to be raised in an orphanage. He was the only child of a couple who separated before he was born, and his father died when he was 2. His mother was too poor to raise him, so he grew up in a Philadelphia orphanage.

"I guess you could say that was my motivation," he told a reporter for The Milwaukee Journal in 1975, soon after the rescue.

He was stationed in Hawaii when he decided to use $1,189 of his own money for a plane ticket to Saigon. He received permission from his order and got credentials from the Justice and Peace Commission, a national ecumenical group, and the Pearson Foundation, a social agency that helps process adoptions.

He knew it might be necessary — with final paperwork impossible to get — to "smuggle" the children out of Vietnam.

"I'd walk into the orphanage, and I would see them lying in dirty beds, ready to go but with no means to get there. And the workers would look at me and say, 'Well, Father?' " Turner said.

"So I would take the children with me," he said. "Time was of the essence for these children if they were to get to their American homes. So I organized my own private diaper lift."

The biggest problem was getting a van full of orphans past the armies of two governments at Saigon's major airport. With the help of a Vietnamese doctor — also shouting that the children were being evacuated because of a medical emergency — they bluffed their way through the Vietnamese side.

Then an American Marine colonel refused to let them pass.

"Well, bozo, let's worry about their health first," Turner retorted, choking down the epithets he wanted to shout. "Let's change their diapers before we worry about your officious B.S."

Then he changed tactics.

"Four of the orphans were part black," he said. "So I went up to the first black American I saw and asked him to put them on his manifest of dependents. The poor man already had 18 on his list, but he had a black friend who was willing to take them."

Others were persuaded to list most of the orphans, until only two remained. The colonel "threw them back into the womb of the war," Turner said.

With the help of the Vietnamese, the last two orphans were allowed to leave the country days later.

In other chapters of his life, Turner took on the Army — apparently without success — after he was forced to leave the service. Chaplains were ousted under the Army's so- called "up or out" rule if passed over for promotion twice. "Chaplain Joe" served a total of 10 years with the Army, including stateside duty.

Turner had taken up grievances for five enlisted men, running afoul of his commanding officer. He was listed as a reserve chaplain but was not allowed to return to the work he loved.

Instead, he earned a master's degree in social work. His ministry included work as a licensed private social worker, and at a nursing home and a home for boys in Philadelphia. Turner was active in education, anti-drug and anti-violence work, as well as with union causes and on picket lines. For the latter, he earned the nickname "The Working Man's Priest."

He also remained close to his mother, Ruth Turner, caring for her in his home until her death.

"He was one of the guys who was just a champion against injustice," said Father Michael Hoffman, director of communications for the Society of the Divine Savior, also known as the Salvatorians. The order's USA Province is based in Milwaukee.

No relatives survive Turner. The funeral Mass will be held Saturday in Philadelphia.


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