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Home » Random Nerdy Stuff

What Memorial Day Means to Me

Submitted by on May 31, 2010 – 1:06 am 40 Comments

My mother and brother on front page of Washington Post’s Metro section upon our arrival. Photo: Douglas Chevalier

Thirty-five years ago on Memorial Day, my family and I stepped off a plane at Dulles Airport in D.C. to begin our new life in the States. We arrived at that point with the help of American military personnel to whom I’d like to pay tribute today, whether or not they’re deceased. Before continuing, I must say this is a personal story, not meant to be political in any way. These are my memories, my experiences, nothing more.

Before we ended up in D.C., my family spent almost a month at Camp Pendleton in Oceanside, CA, waiting for papers and sponsorship. Pendleton was the first refugee center erected in the States to accommodate hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese evacuees after the fall of Saigon. I recently drove down to Pendleton to view the exhibit “Images at War’s End,” depicting refugee life at the camps on base in the spring and summer of ’75.

I looked like this wearing a Marine jacket. Photo: Maj. G.L. Gill

The black and white photos instantly brought tears to my eyes but not for the reasons you might think (more on that later). Master Sergeant Tyrone Ash, who was with me, immediately stepped back and said, “Hey, don’t take it out on me. I wasn’t there!” I looked at him with my “Huh?” face, and only after recalling an earlier incident did I understand his meaning.

On this other occasion, I was talking to someone and mentioned how grateful I was that my family had been airlifted from Saigon, saving us from a slow, torturous journey by boat. My conversation partner was visibly moved and said, “Thank you for saying that.” I said, “Saying what?” She said, “My dad fought in Vietnam and for years I felt guilty that he was part of something destructive to your country. I wasn’t sure if I should be proud or ashamed he was over there. It means a lot that you don’t hate veterans.” After recovering from my astonishment, I said I couldn’t tell her how she should feel about her dad, but I could tell her what servicemen like him meant to me.

My family and I were evacuated from Saigon on a C-141 at the end of April 1975 and, after short stays at Clark Air Base in the Philippines and Andersen AFB in Guam, arrived at Pendleton as part of Operation New Arrivals, the largest humanitarian airlift in history. Having received very little notice, more than 800 Marines and civilians worked 24/7 and within days built tent cities to house about 18,000 of us in that first wave.

We stayed in a crowded barrack, crammed in with several other families. Our bunk beds were so close together I could practically roll onto my neighbor’s bed in the night. But here’s the thing: I don’t remember being miserable. Yes, my father had been separated from us and we hadn’t received news of his status (he’s fine), but Marines took good care of us otherwise.

Marine Corps Photo

They gave us jackets to wear (the spring California air was freezing compared to tropical Vietnamese temps), three squares a day, cleaned our bathrooms, taught us basic English words and showed us kids cartoons—my favorite was the funny, stuttering pig—to introduce us to American culture. I made forts out of blankets, played with other children and ran around freely—no school, no air raids, no curfew.

Marine Corps Photo

One man in particular made an indelible impression on me. He was blond, blue-eyed, uniformed and spoke almost perfect Vietnamese (picked up while he was in country?). Always a picture of calm, he occasionally came into our barrack to give us updates. I was transfixed by how his voice, singsong while speaking our language, didn’t match his Caucasian face. I looked forward to his visits because he made me feel closer to home. I regret not having the grace to properly thank him for that back then.

Photo: LCpl J. LaVigne

I shared some of these stories with the daughter of the veteran I was talking to years earlier, and with MSgt. Ash during my Pendleton re-visit. He was instantly relieved and we ended up having quite a few laughs. (He wasn’t even born in ’75—gah!)

I also explained to MSgt. Ash that my tears were happy ones because the photos confirmed my memories of having moments of joy while living on base, how we weren’t broken, despairing people like some might believe. This was largely due to the kindnesses of Marines and civilian volunteers who gave us sanctuary and prepared us for the adventure ahead. Looking at the images, I was suddenly reminded of WALL*E finding that seedling on a desolate Earth, proof that one world may have been gone but new life was just beginning.

Today I remember and give heartfelt thanks to deceased and living veterans, people who go above and beyond to fight for freedom, especially those who personally had a hand in securing it for me and my family 35 years ago.

How are you observing Memorial Day?

For more info, read this interview with Camp Pendleton historian Faye Jonason and watch the video below showing reactions of refugees and a former Pendleton Marine to the exhibit.

40 Comments »

  • Wow…what a moving, wonderful tribute. I’m feeling chills from reading it. Thank you, Elyse, for sharing.

  • Naomi Johnson says:

    Thank you, Elyse. I second Brett’s comment.

  • Oh Elyse…that was so beautiful. And I love, love that picture of your beautiful mom. Thank you for sharing that with all of us!

  • Jen Forbus says:

    As always, Elyse, you astonish me. You are the most amazing person I know. This is beautiful and it’s so wonderful to be reminded of the good. To be reminded of the hope. You have honored not only the holiday, but all the veterans of our country. I am thankful to them for their service, but even more, I’m thankful to them for bringing you into our lives!

  • Donna says:

    A wonderful tribute, Elyse! Thank you for sharing! It brings to mind a PBS show Dad and I were watching last night. They were following the lives of eight Vietnamese – 35 yrs and younger – and what it’s like in their country now. I thought of you and questions came to mind about what your journey was like coming here to America. Dad was curious too but told him they would probably be too personal to ask. Well, lo and behold! Lol! Thank you for opening your heart to share these memories. I am so grateful that you are here! We honor those who serve and have served as well as those who gave their lives. Memorial Day is not just another 3-day weekend to me. Never will be. Dad served in Korea and is a healthy almost-79 year old veteran. Today he’s wearing a t-shirt with a B-36 on it (his crew flew in one) and his “Retired Air Force” cap with the SAC pin. And every year I hug and thank him for serving.

  • Brad Parks says:

    Great stuff, Elyse. I’m going to make sure a few Vietnam vets see this… I’m sure they’d appreciate it.

  • debbied says:

    Wow. I have no words, Elyse, just a feeling of gratitude. I’m grateful for our soldiers, I’m grateful to your parents, and grateful to your for sharing this.

  • Your mom looks like you! Or vice versa. Thank you, thank you, for this beautiful and personal tribute. Amazing. I have friends and family who were involved in Viet Nam and with the war, on both sides. But to a person, they speak of the people they knew in Viet Nam with great respect, affection, and admiration.

    And I love your fond memories of resettlement — I worked in a refugee camp in the Philippines for a short time, and despite the humble quarters and rationed food, what I most remember is the laughter of children, and the warm welcoming smile on nearly everyone’s face as I walked through the camp. They even gave me a name! Hoang Mai. (So now you know what to call me!)

  • Pop Culture Nerd says:

    Brett—Thanks so much! Best ever? Hope it’s not downhill from here!

    Naomi—Thank you. BTW, I met Joe Pike while at Pendleton.

    Sophie—My mother never got the memo she was supposed to look like a fresh-off-the-plane refugee! She’s wearing someone else’s donated clothes and looks like Jackie O. As an interesting side note, that photo was taken by Douglas Chevalier, who covered Ike’s inauguration, JFK’s funeral, the Watergate hearings, and my mother!

    Jen—I’m so, so flattered but cannot accept the title of most amazing person because you know a whole planeload of amazing people!

    Donna—Your dad deserves the thanks. Please tell him if he ever wants to know something, just ask. I salute him.

    Brad—Oh man, that means a lot. Thank you.

    debbied—I’m grateful for you and your friendship.

    Julie AKA Hoang Mai—I love your Vietnamese name! Your memories are wonderful. Thank you for your work in the camps and helping us on our way!

  • le0pard13 says:

    Everyone has said it all, Elyse. It’s such a warm, personal story you’ve related in this post. Perfect for the holiday, but great to read at any time. Thank you very much for sharing this with your readers (who very much consider you their friend).

  • If anyone was ever going to meet Pike, Elyse, it was always going to be you. That’s your life. My life is meeting people who hold up those signs on the side of the road: GOING OUT OF BUSINESS SALE, MATTRESS BLOW-OUT SALE, that sort of thing.

  • inkgrrl says:

    Thank you so very much for taking the time to share this! I have a couple of friends who were part of the Saigon evac who will be very pleased to read your tribute and to know that they did make a difference.

  • Paulette says:

    I watched with tears falling as my husband, John, who was a soldier in Viet Nam, read your story. I am grateful that he, you, and your family survived the journey. I feel blessed to know you better through your beautiful writing.

  • Pop Culture Nerd says:

    le0pard13—If you consider me a friend, then I consider it an honor.

    Naomi—Haha! You do NOT belong on the side of the road! You also don’t want to know the kinds of jobs I’ve had in my life.

    inkgrrl—They certainly made a difference, a life-changing one! They have my gratitude.

    Paulette—I didn’t know your husband was a veteran! You got me misty-eyed. When was he there? I send my best and am also thankful he made it home.

  • Rodney North says:

    Elyse,
    I have to agree with the others and add that its nice to still learn new things about a friend after 25+ years. Of course, we had talked about what Life was like for you and your family in ’75, but not this facet of it. Thank you for sharing it with everyone. I’m really glad you had that chance to go back to Camp Pendleton.

  • Elyse, beautiful story — thank you so much for sharing. It’s beautiful to see such a positive story about our military’s activities during such a difficult time.

  • jann says:

    Thanks for your wondrerful rememberande, PCN. My dad was in WWII and in laws in Korea…Viet Nam was not quite history and not quite current events in my youth. Hearing your account made it very real. Thank you.

  • Pop Culture Nerd says:

    Rodney—I thought you knew all this about me! Well, I’m glad I haven’t become boring after all these years.

    toni—Welcome, and thank you!

    jann—My hat’s off to your father and in-laws. Thank you.

  • Elyse, thank you so much. Your story touched me no end, and it’s such a pleasure to know you. I’m very grateful to have “met” you, and grateful to all those who made that possible, amongst the enormity of everything else they also did. Wishing you and your family a most special weekend. {And yes, your mum has a natural grace and beauty you’ve clearly inherited!}

  • Elyse, this is a wonderful tribute, both to you and your family, and to American servicemen and women who so often are maligned as brutish and uncaring. Those of us who know you, if only through your writings, are so delighted you came to join us here in the States. You represent what the real America is really about–inclusiveness. And thanks to Sophie for sharing this link on FB.

  • Pop Culture Nerd says:

    Shell—Oh, thank you. You know how I feel about you. When I wrote about WALL*E, guess who I thought of? And I most decidedly did not inherit one ounce of my mom’s grace & sense of style. She gave up years ago on me ever looking like a proper lady.

    Shane—Thank you for your generous words. I’m shocked when I come into contact with people who think I hate veterans so part of my reason for writing this was to set the record straight, at least where I’m concerned. My mother said it best in an e-mail to me yesterday, “We all have tried our best to build our new lives here and live happily now, which is our best way to say thank you to those noble Marines.”

  • jenn says:

    Beautiful photo of your mother and brother and beautiful story.

    It’s odd, but this coincides with this past weekend… My grandmother and grandfather took in two refugee Vietnamese families. This weekend they had a huge 50th wedding anniversary party for the mother/father of one family, and my fam was all invited. They think of my grandmother, mom, and aunt as their family as well. They are so kind and generous and lovely.

    I didn’t get to go, but my grandmother always talks about the family – they bring her shrimp all the time (I live near a major shrimp port). Anyway, it was really cool to see your article when my mom was telling me all about growing up with their Vietnamese family.

    • Pop Culture Nerd says:

      Amazing coincidence! We owe so much to the families who took us in, especially since my family is large (10 of us). Their actions prevented us kids from possibly being split up; I don’t even want to imagine that. People like your grandparents are heaven sent and I’m not one for hyperbole.

  • joy says:

    thank you so much for sharing your amazing story…i’ve always loved knowing you flew into america just like me! 😀 your story is a wonderful reminder that so many of us owe our very existence to the people who serve in the military. it’s easy to criticize, but what would we do without those brave men and women? inspiring!

  • Sus says:

    Oh Elyse….that was so beautiful…That was what I was talking about…you are such a gifted writer. Please please please. Write the book.

  • Christine says:

    Thank you so much for sharing this with us, Elyse! I wish I had had the time to go down to Camp Pendleton to see this exhibit in April. Was there any kind of photo book of the exhibit for you to take home with you?

    I wanted to talk to my father about this but it was important to me that it be in person. So when I went to visit my parents the a few weeks ago, I had my father read your post then asked my question. And the answer was, “Yes.” I am prouder than I can say that my father, a retired USAF pilot, had a role in these missions, Elyse. He flew not only the evacuation missions out of Saigon to the Philippines and Guam, but also to bring the refugees to the U.S. He flew families to resettlement sites at Fort Indiantown Gap in Pennsylvania and Fort Chaffee in Arkansas, as well as Camp Pendleton. (None of his missions included the other site at Eglin AFB in Florida.)

    I’ve printed a copy of this to keep with my photos and memorabilia of my family’s military service. I am moved every time I read it, not the least of which is admiration of your parents and family for starting anew here in the U.S. They also have my gratitude for raising such a fabulous woman I have the honor of calling my friend! 🙂

    • Pop Culture Nerd says:

      Wow, that’s amazing about your father. Thanks so much for your comment and for sharing this with him. What are the chances he flew the very plane I was on?? I was flown out of Tan Son Nhat on April 21. Did he fly any missions that day? I know people who stayed at the camps in AR and PA.

      Thanks for saying that about my parents. They deserve all the credit. I’m quite sure I couldn’t have done what they did, which was to give up nice careers to start over in their 30s and 40s at minimum-wage jobs in a country whose language they didn’t speak.

  • Novelwhore says:

    I’m horrified I missed this post for so long but am definitely feeling the impact of your experience now, PCN. Thank you for sharing and for putting things in perspective. I’m grateful to the soldiers that brought you and your family safely here, and for all they’ve done and are still doing. You are wonderful – and yes, your mom is absolutely gorgeous.

  • Michael P. Mitchell says:

    Wow, the video was very touching and moving. I was astonished that I was one of the two thousand Vietnamese refugees who ended up at Camp Pendleton. I would love to contact and/or meet Lewis Beatty who was a Marine in 1975. I would like to know more about Operation Frequent Wind because I would like to trace my early childhood. I was only four when I left my motherland, Vietnam, on April 29, 1975. I also would like to get a picture of a little boy lying on his stomach while on the bunker bed because I believe that little boy is myself. I got the pictures of the refugee kids a long time ago and looked through the pictures. I did remember being in bunker and when I opened the door, a black cat ran away. It was early in the morning when this happened. If anyone wants to contact me, please feel free to contact me at my personal email address: vietasianfox45@gmail.com. I would love to hear from you.

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