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.
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.
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.
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.
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.