Long-time Vietnamese American community leaders Kim Long Nguyen and Tang Trong are working in earnest to help plan activities marking the 40th anniversary of the Vietnamese American community in Washington state. They both cite a famous Vietnamese proverb: “When you eat the fruit, remember who planted the tree.”
Trong, former president of the Vietnamese American Community of Washington State, said there’s an urgency to the celebration of this milestone year: the first wave pioneers who paved the way for others are aging and many have passed away in recent years. “If we wait 10 more years for the 50th anniversary, we don’t know who will be around,” he said.
After the fall of Saigon on April 30, 1975—marking the end of the Vietnam War—tens of thousands of refugees poured into the United States, seeking to avoid the immediate bloodshed they believed would ensue as victorious North Vietnamese troops took control of the government.
The refugees—former South Vietnamese government officials, military and civilians—arrived at four U.S. Army base shelters: Camp Pendleton, CA; Elgin Air Force Base, FL; Fort Chaffee, AR; and Indiantown Gap, PA. From there, they were resettled around the country with the support of voluntary agencies and sponsors who helped the new arrivals find places to live, jobs, and temporary government assistance.
Here in Washington state, the leadership of then-Governor Dan Evans led to the immediate resettlement of 500 refugees from Camp Pendleton to Washington State. He had dispatched Secretary of State Ralph Munro down to California to issue a personal welcome to the refugees—then living in rows of brown Army tents, surrounded by open latrines—to come up to Washington state to establish their permanent home.
Camp Murray, the National Guard facility near Ft. Lewis, was quickly converted into temporary living quarters for those willing to make the trek up to Washington state. Churches, community organizations, and individuals then stepped forward to sponsor families, supporting them as they adjusted to the harsh reality of life in a foreign land.
To mark the 40th anniversary of the Vietnamese American community, the Vietnamese Mutual Assistance Association will present “A Vietnamese Journey to Freedom,” a free public program at Camp Murray on Sunday, April 26 from noon to 4:00 p.m. The event will feature speeches by past and current elected officials, including Ralph Munro and former Governor Dan Evans, as well as cultural performances by young people, a fashion show, and traditional martial arts. Eight to 10 buses will be chartered to transport seniors from Bellingham, Seattle, Tacoma, and Olympia to Camp Murray.
“We want to show the strength and accomplishments of the first generation,” Trong said. “We want to honor the legacy of Dan Evan’s leadership in bringing families from Camp Pendleton and giving support for resettlement.” Trong’s wife, who arrived through Camp Murray in 1975, passed away last summer. She was a leader in the Vietnamese American women’s community.
Le Tran, current president of the Vietnamese Community of Washington State, added that the 40th anniversary event is a time to celebrate “liberty and freedom in this country.” Tran came to the United States in 1993 after being jailed for 5-and-a-half years in a re-education camp in Vietnam.
Tom Vu, whose late father, Vinh Vu, published the Dat Moi newspaper, the first Vietnamese newspaper in the United States, credited Evans and Munro for their support of the bi-weekly publication, which helped the new arrivals connect to vital news and information in both Vietnamese and English. The newspaper, whose name translates as “New Land,” published from 1975 to 1987, but closed after some of its writers left for California and state funding ceased.
Vu, whose father passed away in 2005, said, “We want to remember the determination of the Vietnamese refugees who overcame many difficulties, coming here to seek freedom. And we want to pay tribute to the Americans who welcomed the Vietnamese with open arms and allowed them to contribute so much to the growth and identity of this country.”
Phuc Herrmann, who came here in 1972 after marrying an American, plans to attend the 40th anniversary commemoration at Camp Murray. Her connection to the fall of Saigon is through the work she did as an emergency translator at McChord Air Force Base during “Operation Babylift” in early April of 1975. Nearly 2,000 orphans were airlifted out of Vietnam, several hundred of whom were dropped off at McChord Air Force Base. Later, she volunteered at Camp Murray as the refugees began to arrive from Camp Pendleton.
Herrmann recalls the highs and lows of the time at Camp Murray. Many of the first wave refugees—highly educated officials and professionals—were depressed because they had lost everything, Herrmann said. But the federal assistance was abundant. “It was also a fun time,” she said. “They hired a great chef from Hawai‘i who cooked Asian food, and there were excellent choices.”
Like Herrmann, Xuan Ruby was a volunteer during Operation Babylift. She also worked at Camp Murray, orienting the new arrivals to state assistance and training programs. “Although I am not one of the first wave of refugees from Vietnam, I have been a refugee myself by leaving my hometown in 1968, seeking a better place to rebuild my life,” she said. “The pain, the helplessness, the uncertainty of my future at that time is not much different than how the first group of refugees in Camp Murray felt when they left Vietnam on April 30, 1975.”
Lunar New Year and April 30 are two times when she is filled with “bittersweet memories,” Ruby said. “The wound has left a deep scar that never heals completely, not with me at least.” But she is proud of how far the Vietnamese American community has come. She said she hopes future generations will “treasure our heritage, culture, tradition and their contributions” to America.
Kim Long Nguyen said he went back to Camp Murray four weeks ago to look at the site of the commemoration and festivities later this month. “I didn’t recognize anything because everything is changed,” he said. “Everything is new.”
But Camp Murray is still filled with many poignant memories for him. He said he spent five weeks there before he was sponsored out by the First Baptist Church of Renton. “The church got me out of the camp and I went to work after a week,” he said. Nguyen, who retired four years ago, worked for 35 years at Safeway, stocking shelves in the beginning and working his way up. He felt that this was a good job for a limited English speaking individual like himself.
“For myself,” Nguyen said, “when I first came to Camp Murray, I was looking for my future. Now, 40 years later, I look for my memories. I look for what my life has been and how I grow up in this society. I want to share what has happened—with my children and my neighbors.”
For more information about the Camp Murray program, contact Kim Long Nguyen at [email protected] or (206) 898-0228.