Originally published in The Los Angeles Times.
December 14, 2003 | Daniel Lovering, Associated Press Writer
BANGKOK, Thailand — After a career in U.S. military intelligence, Gene Ponce took up another kind of sleuthing. These days, he tracks down and reunites children left behind after the Vietnam War and the American veterans who fathered them.
Ponce, 55, from Sacramento, had worked at U.S. air bases in Thailand during the war and adopted a Thai-American baby before returning to the United States in the early 1970s. When he retired three years ago, he moved here with his Thai wife and found himself trying to help reconnect ties that were cut nearly three decades ago.
During the war, the United States staged bombing missions against communist forces in Vietnam from bases throughout Thailand, which were home to hundreds of thousands of American personnel over the years.
Many servicemen had fleeting relationships with Thai women, and by the time Ponce left in 1972, orphanages were teeming with “literally thousands of American-Thai babies,” he said in an interview. Many of the children have suffered racial and social discrimination in Thailand.
Humanitarian groups have cared for Amerasian children abandoned in Thailand after the war, but Ponce says few resources exist to help either the American veterans or their children trying to find each other.
Ponce got the idea for the project after launching 15 Internet sites that help U.S. veterans who served in Thailand during the war find each other. He started getting inquiries from former servicemen and Thais searching for lost relatives and volunteered to help. “When these Amerasians or Americans want to find anything on this subject, they tend to go to those sites because there’s nowhere [else] to go,” he said. “I’m always getting requests. They’re still coming in.”
The U.S. Embassy in Bangreceives requests for information about American fathers or Thai-American offspring, but usually cannot help because of a lack of information.
Ponce is working on 49 cases, most at the request of Thais looking for their lost fathers.
But earlier this year, he tracked down the biological children of two American veterans. One of the fathers, now an American Airlines pilot in Dallas, flew immediately to Bangkok to
meet his daughter. “The reunion was better than expected — it was beautiful,” Ponce said. “Now they stay in touch.”
The other father is expected to come to Thailand’s capital to visit his son early next year. Bringing together relatives who have been separated by decades and thousands of miles is
tedious work that requires old-fashioned detective work, but would be far more difficult without the Internet, said Ponce.
“These children that are coming forward have photographs, have old letters from their fathers…. I find very good information as to the father’s hometown, sometimes Social Security numbers and key words” that help locate the father, he said.
“When I make a match, I run it over and over again to make sure that it is verified,” he added. If a link is found between an American and a Thai, they may undergo DNA tests in Thailand or U.S. to establish paternity.
Among the people Ponce is trying to help is Dan Banes, 57, who is from the Chicago area. He was stationed at Takhli air base in the late 1960s and has been searching for his child during monthlong visits to Thailand over the last 16 years.
Banes has met about 10 Thai-Americans during his search and has undergone one DNA test that failed to show a match. He moved to the northern Thai city of Chiang Mai two years ago and recently began exchanging information with Ponce.
The retired mill worker lived with his Thai girlfriend in a bungalow near the base in central Thailand for eight months before he was discharged in 1968.
“When I left my tee rak [sweetheart], she was three months pregnant and she refused to come back to America with me,” he said. “When I left, she had my address and she never wrote to
me…. I’m still searching and still hoping.”