Betty Ann Olsen

Vietnam, 1964-1969

Betty OlsenBetty Ann Olsen was born October 22, 1934, in Bouake, Côte d’Ivoire, where her parents, Walter and Elizabeth Olsen, served with The Christian and Missionary Alliance. At the age of eight, Betty was enrolled in an MK school 800 miles away and then attended high school at Hampden-Dubois Academy. It was while studying there that Betty dedicated her life to missionary service.

Betty received nurse’s training and then graduated from Nyack Missionary College in 1962 with a major in missions. During her last semester at school, however, Betty fell out of fellowship with the Lord and began to doubt her call. She attempted to seek help, but most of her counselors seemed to gloss over her problems, leaving her frustrated and confused. In her testimony she wrote, “I remember saying to the Lord at this time that if this is all there is to the Christian life, then I don’t want it.”

After graduation, Betty stayed with her parents in Seattle until they returned to the mission field. For no particular reason, she drove to Chicago and decided to stay there. Her parents had given her the name of several Alliance people, and eventually she found the Wendell Price, who took her in until she was able to get situated. Through the Prices’ she met Bill Gothard, a youth counselor and the director of Campus Teams, whom she went to for help. After several counseling sessions, Betty finally surrendered her problem to the Lord. She said, “It took a long time before I learned my lesson and surrendered to the Lord the problem that was absorbing my whole life… I had to really want the Lord’s will and His best and truly repent and seek Him with my whole heart before He would help me.”

During a church missionary conference, God rekindled Betty’s desire to become a missionary, and she rededicated her life to the Lord’s will. She immediately applied to The Alliance to become a missionary nurse, and things fell into place rapidly. She was assigned to Vietnam to work in a leprosarium. She wrote in her testimony, “Most of the people that I have told about going to Vietnam are greatly concerned, and I appreciate this; however, I am not concerned, and I am very much at peace. I know that I may never come back, but I know that I am in the center of the Lord’s will and Vietnam is the place for me.”

On December 13, 1964, Betty arrived in Vietnam and began serving in the leprosarium. She told an interviewer in 1965 that she planned to spend her life in Vietnam, saying that the country reminded her of Africa where she was born and that she was happy being a single woman in a war zone.

The leprosarium at Banmethout was a dangerous assignment, since three missionaries in the region had been abducted earlier. There was no doubt in Betty’s mind that she was going to remain and minister there as long as she could. In January 1968, the Vietcong raided the compound for a second time. For three days the compound was under attack, and six missionaries were killed. On January 28, 1968, the Vietcong overran the compound. Betty Olsen and Henry (Hank) Blood, a Wycliffe translator, were taken captive while attempting to save a wounded coworker.

Betty was never to be heard from again. The rest of her story was related to Alliance officials by her fellow prisoner, Michael (Mike) D. Benge, who had been volunteering in Vietnam as an agricultural aid worker, after his release at the end of the war. After being captured, Betty was chained to Hank and Mike, and the three were forced to march 12 to 14 hours a day through mountainous jungles to reach successive prison camps, where they were put in cages and given only manioc root to drink. Of the three prisoners, only Mike survived. He later described the excruciating ordeals of their captivity.

All three were subject to dengue fever and paralyzing bouts of dysentery. They suffered constantly from infections exacerbated by skin sores and by exposure during rainstorms. After several months, their hair turned gray and their teeth were falling out due to severe malnutrition. Mike said that Betty was the most unselfish person he had ever known. She would give most of her meager rations to the new, indigenous Christian prisoners. Mike said that Betty saved his life when he had meningitis, coaxing him out of his delirium to eat. He described her as “a Katherine Hepburn type—only with more grit.”

During the march Mike became sick, and Betty nursed him. Several times she gave him some of her food allotment, pretending she could not eat it all. Mike recalls that it was her spiritual strength that got him through. “She prayed twice a day for me,” he recalled. However, the 14-hour day marches through jungles infested with leeches and the ulcers she suffered, combined with no medical treatment, took their toll on Betty, and she started to fail.

In the long trek from camp to camp, Betty became weaker by the day, and the Vietcong began to kick and drag her to keep her moving. Once, while attempting to defend her, Mike was beaten with rifle butts. Finally, on February 1, 1969, Betty Olsen died from disease and abuse from her captors. Mike Benge concluded, “She never showed any bitterness or resentment. To the end, she loved the ones who mistreated her.”

Taken in part from The Alliance Witness — March 13, 1968.

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