FORT CHAFFEE, Ark. - For those who fled Vietnam 15 years ago
this week, the first glimpse of America was not the Statue of Liberty.
They walked off huge Military Transport Command C-141s into the
rainy, cold morning air of Fort Smith Municipal Airport on May 2, 1975.
There were nearly 500 refugees from the war on the first two planes
to land in Fort Smith. Within a week, nearly 5,000 more refugees swelled
the barracks of a relocation camp at nearby Fort Chaffee.
Before the relocation center was closed nearly seven months
later, U.S. government officials estimate 50,809 Vietnamese
refugees were processed and relocated through Fort Chaffee.
"It was a lot like being in a Vietnamese village," said
the Rev. Tam Ngoc Nguyen, now a Catholic priest in Tahlequah.
"I don't think you missed home very much while you were
there. There were lots of other Vietnamese people there
and it was hot and muggy like home. It was green and beautiful.
I think people really liked it there.
"The culture shock came when you were relocated. When you
went out into American society is when it hit home that you were
very, very far from home. That's when you got homesick. That's when
you started missing your mother and brothers and sisters."
Fort Chaffee was one of four relocation camps for Vietnamese
in the United States. Others were Camp Pendleton, Calif.; Fort
Indiantown Gap, Pa.; and Elgin Air Base, Fla.
The first wave of refugees were greeted by then-Arkansas
Gov. David Pryor, local officials, a high school band, about
500 spectators and a lone picket.
In the months to follow, refugees would endure lengthy lines
for food, clothing and restrooms. It was a waiting game.
After processing, refugees waited in the camps to be sponsored
by American families or groups.
"It wasn't bad at all," said Le Ri, now a Tulsa businessman
who owns two restaurants. "I have nice memories of Fort Chaffee
and I think most people who relocated through there have nice
memories. I waited there six months with my wife and 2-year-old daughter.
"There wasn't much to do except sit around and wait to
get a sponsor family. It was enjoyable. You had time to
sit and talk to others who faced the same thing as you.
You met new friends. You had an opportunity to learn English.
"Your worries started the day you left the camp. That's when
you started worrying about work and supporting a family. Fort Chaffee
was crowded but a very nice place to start a new life in America."
Officials estimate anywhere from 90,000 to 130,000 Vietnamese
fled their country in the days and hours preceding the fall
of Saigon. It is believed more than 86,000 settled in the
United States during 1975.
At Fort Chaffee, the population fluctuated daily as new
refugees arrived and others were relocated to new homes.
By the Fourth of July, the population had swelled to near
24,000, making it the ninth largest city in Arkansas.
Nguyen arrived at Fort Chaffee on June 22.
"There were thousands of people there when I arrived,"
said Nguyen. "I remember the first night I arrived, there
was a concert by Khanh Ly, one of the most popular singers
in Vietnam. There were so many people there they had to
move the concert to the baseball field. There were people
"She sang traditional Vietnamese songs and it was a very
moving experience. Here we were, thousands of miles from
our home in a new country, sitting under the stars and listening
to music from our homeland. I'll never forget the expression
on the faces of people sitting around me."
At its height, Fort Chaffee was sending about 300 Vietnamese
refugees into American society each day.
Refugees were housed in 235 white-washed Army barracks and
spent their days playing on the hastily erected soccer field,
reading a Vietnamese-language newspaper printed on the base
and painting the walls of the barracks.
When the barracks were cleaned out and torn down, officials
found entire walls covered with murals and drawings.
The Rev. John Tan Nguyen, a minister at Memorial Baptist
Church in Tulsa, was among the first wave of refugees to arrive
at Fort Chaffee. His plane landed at Fort Smith on May 10.
"I remember the first day I arrived at Fort Chaffee very
clearly," said Nguyen. "We arrived in the afternoon and
it was very beautiful.
"Everyone was full of anxiety. None of us had ever heard
of Fort Chaffee or Arkansas. But mixed in with the anxiety
was a special sense of relief. We were relieved because
we had made it here safely.
"It was a very relaxing time for most of the refugees.
After what most of the people had been through in Vietnam
with the war and then trying to get out, the waiting to
be resettled was very nice. You met a lot of new friends
and got to slow down. I would say most people who went through
it are very grateful to the people for what was done for
us and well we were treated."
More than 200 of the refugees at Fort Chaffee requested
to go back to Vietnam but most just waited to be relocated
with jobs and a place to live in the United States.
There were 235 refugees who were granted immediate citizenship.
They were the babies born to refugees at the Fort Chaffee
Those babies are now in high school. Le Ri's baby daughter
is now a junior at Jenks High School.
"It is amazing that 15 years have gone by," he said Tuesday.
"I left Vietnam on May 1, 1975. To think that it was 15
years ago today that I stole a helicopter and flew us to
safety is amazing to me.
"Everyone has a different story of how they got out. But
they were all seeking the same thing: freedom. We're the
lucky ones and we're very grateful to all Americans for
giving us this chance."