After the fall of Saigon in 1975, nearly half of the 130,000 Vietnamese refugees that resettled in America passed through the gates of Camp Pendleton.
Thirty-five years later, base historians are now honoring their story with a new exhibit called “Images at War’s End,” a 36-photo display that commemorates the lives of those who fled North Vietnamese communist oppression.
“It was a hard time in the U.S. and a hard time in Vietnam,” said Faye Jonason, director, History of Museums, Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton. “There was a lot of sacrifice on both sides.”
In 1975, Camp Pendleton’s “Tent City,” located at Camp Talega, was the first of four Vietnamese resettlement camps established in the United States as part of Operation New Arrivals, the largest humanitarian airlift in history. Other resettlement camps were built at Fort Chaffee, Ark., Eglin Air Force Base, Fla. and Fort Indiantown Gap, Pa.
Both former Vietnam War refugees and Camp Pendleton Marines living and working at Camp Talega during the operation visited the exhibit’s opening ceremony, April 8.
Retired Air Force Lt. Col. and Vietnam refugee Hai N. Tran was eight years old when North Vietnamese forces attacked Saigon, Vietnam.
“I remember waking up one morning to a lot of noise outside,” said Tran. “The North Vietnamese tanks had begun bombarding us from across the canal because all of the bridges had been destroyed.”
Moments later Tran’s father, who was serving as a Vietnamese army airborne officer, caught one of his Navy friends crossing the street and asked what was going on, said Tran. The Navy friend told his father that if they wanted to go, the time is now.
Tran and his family quickly fled their home and boarded a small Vietnamese boat headed to Guam and eventually flew into Camp Pendleton. He and thousands of refugees would call Camp Talega home for the next several months before being granted U.S. citizenship.
“The U.S. is the land of opportunity, and I’m grateful my family was given the chance to start our life again in a new land,” said Tran.
More than 800 Marines and civilians worked side by side for six days to stand up almost 1000 tents and 140 Quonset huts for the Southeast Asian refugees. The massive encampment is credited with reshaping Southern California’s Asian population.
Retired Gunnery Sgt. Lewis D. Beatty worked at “Tent City” during Operation New Arrivals in 1975.
“I never met a Vietnamese at the camp that was not tremendously respectful or not open,” said Beatty. “They were very, very beautiful people. It really left a positive impression on me.”
The “Images at War’s End” exhibit is open Monday through Friday from 8:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. at Camp Pendleton’s historic Santa Margarita Ranch House. The exhibit will remain on display until Sept. 30.
For additional information regarding the exhibit, contact Camp Pendleton’s History and Museum department at (760) 725-5758.
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