Forty years ago this month, the final shots of the Vietnam War were being fired. In the besieged city of Saigon, desperate South Vietnamese, who had allied themselves with the Americans, were looking for a way to get themselves and their families out by airplane, helicopter or boat.
A hasty rescue effort dubbed “Operation New Life,” organized by the U.S. government would eventually bring more than 130,000 Vietnamese to America in the immediate aftermath of the war. Many of them would end up at California’s Camp Pendleton.
Among the refugees was a scared 12-year-old girl named Frances Nguyen. Her parents had taken her and her sisters and brothers to Saigon’s harbor to escape. The Nguyen family was able to get on one of the last vessels leaving the port before the city’s fall. “It was so full,” remembers Frances. “Other people were trying to get on, but they got kicked off. It was very sad to see people trying to swim toward the ship to get on.”
The day after the Nguyens boarded that ship, which didn’t have a confirmed destination, the government of South Vietnam surrendered to North Vietnamese forces.
After arriving at a processing center on the Pacific island of Guam, Frances and her family were given the choice of four arrival locations in the United States: California, Florida, Pennsylvania and Arkansas. Not knowing much about the United States, Frances Nguyen and her family let the climate decide.
“We chose California because we heard the United States is very cold,” Frances says. “We heard California would have the best weather, so we chose to go to California. And we ended up in Camp Pendleton.”
Camp Pendleton is the sprawling Marine Corps base in north San Diego County. It had been hastily selected as the West Coast site for temporary refugee camps for the Vietnamese. The Marines at Camp Pendleton were used to fighting and dying in Vietnam, but they didn’t know they’d also have to deal with the war’s aftermath, says Camp Pendleton’s base historian, Faye Jonason.
“This is something they were not expecting,” says Jonason. “They might have gotten two or three days before we were being considered, but we didn’t know that we actually had marching orders until the day before, that we actually got anybody.”
Jonason says the Marines had to quickly build refugee camps from scratch and had to go as far away as Utah to get extra tents. Overwhelmed by the numbers of people coming to the base, the Marines put out an urgent public appeal.
“They put a thing on the radio,” says Jonason. “Can you help?… The lady in charge of Camp San Onofre, had been a Red Cross nurse during World War II. She answered the call from the radio. She heard it on the radio.”
At it’s peak in the summer of 1975, nearly 20,000 Vietnamese were living at Camp Pendleton in eight different camps, camps that were about a ten minute drive away from Southern California surfers catching waves, but might has well been a world away.
Many of the refugees at Camp Pendleton had left Vietnam so quickly they came with nearly nothing. Ken Nguyen, no relation to Francis Nguyen, remembers being a 21-year-old who owned only one shirt and didn’t have a single dollar in his pocket.
He remembers vividly every aspect of camp life, from lining up for food at the chow hall to the announcements and music played over the speakers of the public address system. “The biggest thing was the Beatles song at the time and also Santana,” he says. “Don’t forget Elvis! Elvis was a big hit back then.”
At another refugee site at Camp Pendleton, Frances Nguyen was taking her first steps into her new American childhood, from her first English lessons to joining the camp’s Girl Scouts troop.
“Being 12-years-old, you just kind of accept what’s going on and learn to adapt,” Frances says. “I joined the scouts at Camp Pendleton, doing a lot of activities and learned English and be part of the group.”
The Vietnamese had to adapt fast because refugee sponsor groups, such as churches and the Red Cross, were looking to quickly resettle the refugees in communities outside of Camp Pendleton.
The last refugee camp at Cam Pendleton closed in October of 1975. The people who left the camps went on to found the contemporary Vietnamese-American community in places like Orange County, San Jose and Houston.
Ken Nguyen graduated from Georgetown University and is now a municipal parks commissioner. He recently celebrated his 35th wedding anniversary to a fellow refugee, who he met at Camp Pendleton.
Francis Nguyen graduated from the University of California, Irvine and went on to become a successful businesswoman and president of the chamber of commerce in Westminster, home to Southern California’s Little Saigon.
Both Frances and Ken are comfortable sharing their experiences as refugees at Camp Pendleton. But base historian Faye Jonason says not all can do that because Pendleton reminds them of a lost war and a lost country.
“There are those who don’t want to do with anything related to this place,” says Jonason. “They don’t want to look at the pictures. They don’t want anything to do with it. They want to get rid of that part of their life.”
Frances Nguyen says she’s spent the decades since leaving Camp Pendleton embracing this country while not forgetting the place she left behind.
“I always tell my kid, ‘on one shoulder you have to be Vietnamese, on the other shoulder you have to be American,’” she says. “So how do you balance that? This is a fast lane society. You have to adapt to be an American. But at the same time, you cannot forget where you are coming from.”
It’s a sentiment that many Vietnamese who came to this country four decades ago can understand.