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Camp Pendleton's Tent City Housed 50,000 Vietnamese Refugees

Camp Pendleton's Tent City Housed 50,000 Vietnamese Refugees
From April to October, 1975, Camp Pendleton created an entire city of tents and quonset huts, accepting, housing, feeding and clothing over 50,000 refugees from Vietnam and other Southeast Asian countries. Most arrived here with nothing and did not speak English. After five months, they were dispersed to volunteer families and churches throughout Southern California.
These Days broadcast live from the flight deck of the USS Midway on April 29, 2010, and posted photos during the show on Flickr.

S.D. Veteran And Refugee Remember The Fall Of Saigon

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. You're listening to These Days on KPBS. Our broadcast from the USS Midway Museum continues. The museum is marking the 35th anniversary of Operation Frequent Wind, the evacuation of thousands of Vietnamese from the capitol of Saigon and then airlifted here to the USS Midway. As the evacuees were contemplating the huge changes in their lives, leaving their country, often leaving family members behind, the U.S. government was contemplating how to house the many Vietnamese that would seek refuge here in America. One of the first places set up as a relocation camp was a tent city at Camp Pendleton. An exhibit of photographs and paintings from that time has just opened this month on the base. I’d like to welcome my guest Camp Pendleton historian, Faye Jonason. Faye, welcome to These Days.

FAYE JONASON (Historian, Camp Pendleton Museum): Hi.

CAVANAUGH: Now, the story of the creation of the tent city for the Vietnamese at Camp Pendleton is a remarkable one. Let’s start with how and when the commanding general found out that the first refugees were coming.

JONASON: Well, it was on a Saturday night in April, just about the same time as Saigon was falling. He got a phone call from headquarters in Washington and told him, get ready. You need to get ready for 18,000 refugees, to find a place for them to stay on Camp Pendleton.

CAVANAUGH: Now it’s my understanding Camp Pendleton had never before been used as a refugee center.

JONASON: I don’t think so, no.

CAVANAUGH: So this was just flat out from nothing.

JONASON: This is flat out from nothing. And, of course, the troops had been brought back earlier and so a lot of these people already knew what Vietnam was like.

CAVANAUGH: So where on base was the tent city set up?

JONASON: It was at the north end. There were several camps. There were actually 8 camps set up on base. We have, within Camp Pendleton there are several camps and there’s one called Telega, which is at the northernmost point of the base. And then there’s – San Onofre at the time still had Quonset huts. There were tent camps set up all the way down the road from Talega, so there were 8 places where people could’ve been housed.

CAVANAUGH: Now how do you set up that kind of housing almost overnight?

JONASON: Oh, my gosh, you know, they had Marines and sailors and civilians and everybody just chipping in 24/7 building the tent cities, using – cleaning out Quonsets, the Quonsets at Talega, excuse me, at San Onofre were not really ready for people to move in so they had to be prepared, cots brought in, trenches made, you know, all kinds of wash situations created, food brought in. Clothing, a lot of these people didn’t have clothing. Some of them didn’t have shoes.

CAVANAUGH: You have to set up like plumbing and sewer systems?

JONASON: Plumbing, everything, electric wiring, all kinds of wires and so on that were set up all over the place for telephone and communications from not only just camp to camp but also they had to communicate with the outside. Some of these people were still looking for their families.

CAVANAUGH: Right, that’s – So when you receive the refugees, were – describe to us the way they came to Camp Pendleton.

JONASON: Well, they landed at El Toro, as I understand, and then they were bused down from El Toro, sometimes in the middle of the night, depending on what group they came in. And then they were housed in the various camps that were set up for them, and they were crowded in. I mean, you could barely, you know, step over all these people that were sleeping all over the place trying to find a place to stay.

CAVANAUGH: What kind of condition were they in when they arrived?

JONASON: It’s my understanding that they were, some of them, in pretty bad condition as far as, you know, they’d been traveling, they were frightened, they were displaced totally. These were people not knowing what the next day was going to bring, and so they were happy to be here.

CAVANAUGH: Did they have any possessions with them?

JONASON: Some did, not many. I mean, they didn’t really bring possessions. I mean, it mostly was just the clothes on their back, most of them.

CAVANAUGH: Mostly men, mostly women, or a mix?

JONASON: I don’t know that number.

CAVANAUGH: Okay, but I would imagine that we – we’re talking about children as well.

JONASON: Oh, we had huge numbers of families, yes.

CAVANAUGH: And what other considerations for the base commander besides providing basic food and clothing and shelter goes into setting up a massive refugee tent city like this?

JONASON: Well, you had to have somebody to – First of all, they didn’t have funds for this. And so they had to pull from every possible store. It’s my understanding that in Wichita, they actually bought clothing, military clothing to help. We have in the exhibit a photograph of children walking barefoot around on the camp but they’re cold because the temperature here in San Diego, even though it’s very comfortable for us, in Vietnam it’s humid there and so when they come here, it’s cold at night. It’s cold in the morning. And so they gave these military jackets to all these people, man, woman and child, and for children, it was their whole body engulfed in this jacket. And that’s kind of a humorous image that a lot of people came away with.

CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with Faye Jonason, Camp Pendleton historian. We’re talking about the tent city. In fact, there were more than – there’s more than just one tent city that was set up at – on Camp Pendleton to accept many of the Vietnamese refugees that participated in the airlift out of Saigon at the end of the Vietnam war. I’m wondering, you know, when we were speaking with the former commander and air boss in the first hour of the show, they told us that there were security concerns in this airlift because they just really didn’t know whether or not the Vietnamese people who were part of the airlift were all sort of sympathetic with the United States. They thought that perhaps, you know, now was the time that somebody was going to turn and support the North Vietnamese. Were there security concerns at Camp Pendleton with…

JONASON: A little bit. General Paul Graham was the one in charge of this whole event and he made sure that security was set up, you know, there were MPs everywhere, that he set up – separated some of the people in the camps that were not maybe as sympathetic toward what most of the refugees were dealing with, set them up in a separate camp so that there wasn’t the conflict. He quelled all the conflicts immediately. He was keeping it totally in control.

CAVANAUGH: And there were other camps besides Camp Pendleton, is that right?

JONASON: There were camps set up in Pennsylvania, in Florida and in Arkansas, I’m told.

CAVANAUGH: And so if there were these camps, some families might have been separated.

JONASON: There were.

CAVANAUGH: Did you hear a lot about that?

JONASON: Oh, yes. We have on our base, Philip Nguyen who is an engineer today. But when he was 17, he came to Camp Pendleton and he had actually come by boat and then by plane from Guam, which many, many of our folks did. And he ended up not knowing where his mom and dad and sister were. And so he found out that they were in Arkansas, ended up going by himself to Arkansas to connect with them.

CAVANAUGH: I’m wondering, you know, the people who arrived at Camp Pendleton to live in these cities and these tent cities that were set up on the base who had virtually nothing, they didn’t speak the language, they didn’t know American culture, what was done at Camp Pendleton to sort of introduce the refugees to life in America?

JONASON: Well, there was a huge – Well, first of all, there were a lot of television announcements, radio announcements, newspaper announcements, hey, we need volunteers to help out with this huge number of people that we’ve never had to deal with before. And so volunteers came from all over.

CAVANAUGH: Civilian volunteers.

JONASON: Civilian volunteers. And, in fact, one of the camps, the San Onofre camp, was run by a former refugee from Germany and she was with the Red Cross and her name was Teresia Hayden. And she did a great job of running that camp. So they, you know, they did what they could to get people in, teaching them how to read and write. The people brought in magazines so they could be exposed to what our language and our culture was like. They had TVs going on showing kids, you know, what are cartoons and what do we do in this country. The hardest thing, I think, for them was the food because our food is so different than what they were used to and so there was some efforts made later on to try to accommodate their different palate needs. But, you know, for the most part, you know, there were all kinds of, like I said, volunteers teaching them. And they encouraged those who were Vietnamese who knew how to read and write and speak in English to teach other Vietnamese. And so that made a big difference, too. A lot of the teachers were actually refugees themselves.

CAVANAUGH: I just want to tell our listeners the wind is kicking up again here on the flight deck of the USS Midway Museum. And I think that perhaps there is one or two things just not secured on this flight deck right now, blowing around. Faye, you know, I know we’re talking about 1975 and back then there wasn’t as much of a feeling about looking towards people’s emotional health as perhaps there is now. But were there any counseling facilities for the people who’ve had such a big rupture in their lives?

JONASON: There was some, not much. Mostly there was medical help from the naval – we have a naval hospital on base and so I know that the Navy provided, you know, corpsmen and the Red Cross was very active and so I’m sure that there was counseling that way. I don’t have statistics in that area but I know that they did have some counseling set up.

CAVANAUGH: And I think you already told us but tell us once again, how many people did Camp Pendleton host and for how long?

JONASON: Well, we had, total, around 50,400, something like that on Camp Pendleton for the whole time between April and October. We had, at the apex of our population, it would’ve been 18,000 people. And they were provided – different families were coming forward, sponsor families were coming forward to take in people to either take them into their home or to help them, provide them with, you know, they had money coming to give them an apartment or a place to stay, and the sponsors provided a great deal. The churches, some of them, took on sponsorship, Lutheran and Catholic churches that I know of did take on sponsorship, especially San Juan Capistrano did that.

CAVANAUGH: And tell us about this brand new exhibit that you have opened on – at Camp Pendleton that documents the history. What will people see when they go there?

JONASON: What they’ll see are a series of black and white photographs from nineteen, you know, seventy-five, showing them arriving, living on Camp Pendleton, what the situation was like. President Bush, excuse me, President Ford’s wife coming out to visit the refugees and then there’ll be paintings by Colonel Charles Waterhouse, who’s a well known Marine artist, who depicted all of the different things that he saw. He was here to do something else and actually saw that and started taking out some paints and depicting what he saw on the base at that time and thought that was pretty special.

CAVANAUGH: Now the museum is at the Ranch House at Camp Pendleton. And to tour the exhibit, they can contact the museum. How can they get in contact with you?

JONASON: If they call 760-725-5758, they can talk to the Marine there who will guide them onto getting onto the base and go to the historic Ranch House. It’s a ranch house national historic site.

CAVANAUGH: And people can find that on our website as well. Faye, I want to thank you so much.

JONASON: Thank you.

JONASON: Faye Jonason is Camp Pendleton historian, and she’s been telling us about the tent city that was set up on Camp Pendleton to house literally thousands of Vietnamese refugees. I want to welcome back, just for a moment, Scott McGaugh and he is going to tell us, again, if you would, tell us what will be happening to mark the anniversary of Operation Frequent Wind, the 35th anniversary.

MCGAUGH: Well, I tell you, now that we’ve reached almost 30 miles an hour of wind on the flight deck…

CAVANAUGH: Oh, is it…

MCGAUGH: …we’re going to be getting underway for flight ops and we’ll be back in July, so tomorrow’s off. Just kidding. That’s one of the jokes we have around here. No, tomorrow’s a very special day. It is the 35th anniversary. We have nearly 3,000, we now believe, people coming, more than 20 buses from Orange County Vietnamese communities are coming down. We have more than 500 school kids coming for a very special ceremony. It’s going to be something of a bi-national, bilingual, bi-community, if there’s such a thing, ceremony. We’re going to hear some very special comments from Captain Jumper (sic), or, I’m sorry, Captain Chambers, Air Boss Jumper, the man who flew that plane, that Bird Dog aboard, Bung Ly will be here to join us and share his thoughts. An opportunity to meet these gentlemen. We have several dozen Midway sailors from 1975 who are coming. We have refugees coming from as far away as Montreal just for this day. And for many of them, they are telling us, simply to say thank you. It promises to be a great day, a very busy day down here, so we certainly encourage the use of public transportation, trolleys, that sort of thing. It’s going to be a big day.

CAVANAUGH: Well, I want to thank you, Scott, for welcoming us aboard this marvelous museum, the USS Midway. Thank you so much.

MCGAUGH: My pleasure.

CAVANAUGH: And for more information about the Midway Operation Frequent Wind and the personal stories of Vietnamese and American veterans, you can go to You’ve been listening to These Days on KPBS.