Forty years ago, Saigon fell, marking the end of the Vietnam War and bringing 500 Vietnamese refugees to Washington for a brighter future.
On April 26, many of these refugees, their families, and supporters returned to Camp Murray, the first place the refugees arrived at in Washington state, to thank those who helped them settle into their new life in Washington and to help newer generations understand the impact of the resettlement.
The Vietnamese American Community of Washington State organized the event and an estimated 500 people attended. Imbued throughout the event was a Vietnamese proverb: “When you eat the fruit, remember who planted the tree.”
“It was the worst day for all of the Vietnamese here and back home,” said Le Tran, president of the Vietnamese American Community of Washington State, through a translator. “We are here to thank the American people, the governor of this state who adopt us with open arms.”
Thousands of South Vietnamese soldiers, government officials, and citizens came to four military bases just after the fall of Saigon on April 30, 1975. Those who arrived on the West Coast went to Camp Pendleton, located between Los Angeles and San Diego in California.
Then-California Governor Jerry Brown opposed the arrival of refugees, which upset former Washington Governor Dan Evans. Evans sent staff member Ralph Munro, who later became Secretary of State of Washington, to Camp Pendleton to personally invite refugees to Washington. That May, 500 people arrived at Camp Murray, located adjacent to Joint Base Lewis-McChord near Tacoma. A few thousand more refugees arrived later.
During the ensuing months, religious and community organizations sponsored immigrants as they built a foundation in their new country.
“We wish to show appreciation for those who helped us, especially Evens, Munro, and all the people who helped us,” said Dat Giap, a member of the organizing committee. “With the political uncertainty at the time I think that’s the courage of the leadership.”
Munro, along with former and current elected officials, U.S. government workers, and community leaders attended the event. Evans was unable to attend due to health reasons.
“The Vietnamese people have richly helped our state. You made the state a better place to live,” Munro said to the audience. “You contributed immensely. You don’t have to thank us. We thank you.”
Munro also thanked Evans, Washington cities, and members of assisting organizations that helped resettle the new Washington residents.
“As we started into this, it was very controversial and we were adamant we were going to help,” Munro said. “To see the success—we started with 500 people and now there’s 70,000 people [in Washington].”
The event also served as a way for younger generations to remember resettlement and reflect on their lives in America.
“What I would like the next generation to do is to appreciate the struggles of their parents and grandparents,” said Giap. “We want them to be active in public service, to return to the community and return to the society, and to give others a second chance like we were given.”
Sam Tang, a lawyer in Bellevue, spoke at the event as part of the new generation. His parents met at Camp Murray, and from them he learned the value of education and community.
“My parents worked hard so my brother and I could have an education,” Tang said. “America is built on the back of diverse immigrants. The seed you had planted 40 years ago have now grown and gone on.”
U.S. Marine Corps Lt. Col. Elizabeth Pham also spoke at the event. Pham is the first Asian American to become a Fixed Wing Naval Aviator. She’s served two tours in Iraq and totaled over 1,000 mishap-free hours in an F/A-18. Her parents went through Camp Murray.
“I’m able to defend and serve as part of the American dream,” Pham said. “It’s important to the next generation to experience this [event] because freedom is never free; to know of the legacies of the past and to embrace those legacies.”