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Viet Refugees Began New Life 15 Years Ago

Viet Refugees Began New Life 15 Years Ago

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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

sitting everywhere.

"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

relocation center.

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."

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