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20 Years After the Fall : It Was 1975 and Camp Pendleton Was a City of Refugees. Here Are Portraits of Four Vietnamese Whose Lives in the U.S. Began There and What's Happened to Them Since.

June 11, 1995|Lily Dizon

On the same spring morning that America left South Vietnam, South Vietnam came to America.

The last day of a grievous war was the last day of April in 1975; a CH-46 helicopter--the last remaining scrap of millions of tons of military hardware funneled from the United States to the Republic of South Vietnam over 15-odd years--lifted off the roof of the American Embassy and away from a city that would no longer be called Saigon.

As one South Vietnamese city fell, another was rising up a hemisphere away.

The planes and ships that had carried American men and armories to Vietnam now began ferrying the defeated nation's population to Southern California. Saigon seemed to have been uprooted and replanted in the muddy and mountainous vastness of Camp Pendleton.

In the end, Operation Frequent Wind brought 50,000 Southeast Asian refugees to a 10-square-mile community of tents and huts at the northern end of Camp Pendleton, where the refugees would spend a few weeks, or even months, as church groups and other organizations looked for jobs and permanent homes for them. There they lived near the Marines so familiar to them from home. Ten years later, one of the Vietnamese leaders would recall the "lost souls squatting in the dust of our despair, among those who had shared our battles."

In that year of the Vietnamese diaspora, eight refugees died at Camp Pendleton, and 165 babies were born, among the first of a wave of Vietnamese Americans who have woven themselves into the fabric of California.

Some never got very far from Pendleton, going a few miles up the 405 Freeway to where a sign reads "Little Saigon." Now Southern California's Vietnamese community is vaster and more prosperous than Saigon ever was. A Vietnam-born man sits on the Westminster City Council. Vietnamese businesses prosper in Chinatown and in Monterey Park. Vietnamese kids excel at elementary school spelling bees and high school science fairs and in college honors courses.

Twenty years later, 1995 is the year of "Miss Saigon," of natives returning home to a unified Vietnam to do business, of Robert McNamara's mea culpas to two nations. And it affords a landmark that few peoples are granted: to take a measure of change and growth and hope.

TRUONG T. LE

They are only tidbits in the mind of an 8-year-old boy, but they are memories Truong T. Le will always savor:

The sweet chocolate the GIs handed out at Camp Pendleton. The little jars of baby food served as snacks in the food lines. "Love Bug," the Disney movie about a super-powered Volkswagen, shown on an outdoor screen one evening. And "distribution day" on Fridays, which brought empty cardboard boxes the kids could claim once all the supplies had been handed out. Young Truong and his brothers and sisters would climb into the boxes, close their eyes and roll, laughing as they zigzagged down the gentle hills.

For an 8-year-old boy, "Camp Pendleton was such an adventure, a big, happy adventure."

Today the 27-year-old Le is an aerospace engineer with McDonnell Douglas Corp. The Tustin resident can't remember a time when he had difficulty adjusting to the new environment. Learning English, with the help of television and books and new friends, was a breeze. Le was always among the top students in every subject in every grade. In a shop class in junior high school, he made a plaque on which he engraved: "Truong T. Le, future engineer."

"I set my goals and I go after them. In America, you want to do something, you go out and do it. I did."

Like many of his generation, though, Le faced an oppressive legacy of the war. He and his people were reminders of the U.S. defeat. The young people wanted only to assimilate, to leave behind this guilt. Finally, Le came to terms with the understanding that his generation was created by two cultures. "Sometimes I stay awake at night thinking about how it is that I find myself between two worlds. But more and more, I find myself concerned with the Vietnamese culture, which has been distilled, and I want to do my best to preserve it for my future and the future of my children."

MAI CONG

It is the unbearable cold of Camp Pendleton that Mai Cong remembers most vividly. Although the sunshine of a California spring eventually filtered through the fog surrounding the refugee camp, it would be a while before she could conquer the other inner darkness--and accept that Vietnam was hers no more.

The 32 days in camp seemed endless; life acquired some order only after she began volunteering to help her fellow refugees--as interpreter, typist, counselor, anything to keep at bay that loneliness, that loss.

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