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A U.S. Army Medic's Personal Experience

The following is a personal account by Ron "Doc Spate" Speight on his experiences assisting Vietnamese refugees in Guam in 1975. Thousands of Vietnamese owe Mr. Speight and his colleagues much gratitude in helping them make the transition from war and chaos to freedom and hope.

I first went up into the hills at Asan Point to an old WWII hospital area where the Vietnamese were sleeping everywhere that they could. The children were always crying, the parents always sad, many sick, and even more scared. I spoke no Vietnamese. The flow of refugees continued until I had to be transferred to Orote Point Tent City to handle the overflow of humanity.

These people were suffering -- I saw and worked on children who had been wounded, burnt, adults and children that scarred by agent orange, genocide, and post trauma stress. Many of them had nothing and there was a major sewage problem there. We worked long hard hours in the hot sun. Many of us fell asleep outside the very tents that we had just worked many hard hot hours in.

There are so many bad things that I can say about this experience. But nothing good was ever said about it -- most people do not know what we did. 130,000 plus Vietnamese refugees passed through our tents. People were born and people died there. We received refugees in many ways, some we had to go and get, some came by plane, some came by ship, others by small boats, and some flew their families there.

There was much courage in the hearts of the Vietnamese. They had lost everything but they never gave up and that is what makes a hero. I am proud to have been able, in my small way, to ease the pain that had been inflicted on them. It has been 30 years since the camps and I still think about them every day. A smell or a sound can take me back there. And if I feel like this how the Vietnamese must feel.

-- Ron "Doc Spate" Speight

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A Modern Day Exodus

As we reflect on the legacy of the Fall of Saigon for Vietnamese Americans, we should first understand that the departure, evacuation, or escape (whichever term you use) of approximately 125,000 citizens from Viet Nam in the months after April 1975 was just the first of several waves of Vietnamese refugees who would eventually settle in the U.S. There were also significant waves of refugees in 1978, 1982, and 1992. Each of these waves were also slightly different in terms of exactly why they left, the personal characteristics of the refugees, and the reception they encountered in the U.S. from Vietnamese already here and from non-Vietnamese as well.

Leaving to Live Free

As the fall of Saigon was approaching in the spring of 1975, at first U.S. authorities only planned to evacuate 3,839 American citizens and their dependents and some 17,600 Vietnamese citizens and their families who worked directly for the U.S. government. Nonetheless, the volatile and rapidly deteriorating political situation in Viet Nam and increasing pressures from sympathetic media portrayals led to the sentiment that the U.S. had a humanitarian obligation to "rescue" its former allies.

As a result, these pressures eventually led President Ford to order preparations made for the evacuation and resettlement of approximately 200,000 Vietnamese citizens whose lives would be at risk following the imminent communist takeover. As news footage vividly document, the actual evacuation events were quite chaotic as hundreds of U.S. personnel and thousands of Vietnamese attempted to use whatever means were necessary in order to leave the country in the final days of April 1975. (The Orange County Register includes a very nice multimedia timeline of the evacuation).

Although it was easy to identify and evacuate senior Vietnamese government officials, the chaotic situation in the days immediately prior to the fall of Saigon made it virtually impossible to implement any standardized method for identifying those whose lives would be in danger once the communists took over. This meant that almost 200,000 who could have been considered "high risk" were left behind while others whose claim of persecution were less legitimate managed to escape.

Nonetheless, in the first several months after the fall of Saigon, approximately 130,000 refugees from Southeast Asia were resettled, of whom 125,000 were Vietnamese, with the rest being Cambodians, Laotians, and Hmong. In this first wave of Vietnamese evacuees, their mode of exit varied, depending on connections, resources, and determination but most left on cargo ships dispatched by the U.S. military.

Because most of the world were not willing to permanently accept larger numbers of refugees, the U.S. had little choice but to permanently relocate the vast majority of refugees to the U.S. The U.S. military coordinated the hasty setting up of relocation processing centers in Guam, the Philippines, Thailand, Wake Island, and Hawai'i, as part of "Operation New Life."

Most were initially taken to the major processing station in Guam and after the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) issued them their official documents, virtually all evacuees who were resettled in the U.S. were flown to one of four resettlement centers: Camp Pendleton (CA), Fort Chaffee (AK), Fort Indiantown Gap (PA), or Eglin Air Force Base (FL). Desperate rush to board a plane leaving Saigon on April 30, 1975 © Bettmann/Corbis

The refugees were then matched with one of nine voluntary agencies (otherwise known as "volags") whose job was to coordinate the refugee's eventual resettlement with local sponsors into communities throughout the U.S. Families or churches who were interested in sponsoring a Vietnamese family promised to provide them with food, clothing, and shelter until they became self-sufficient.

Once a Vietnamese family was officially matched with a sponsor, they were then flown to their eventual resettlement destination to start their new lives and adjustment into American society. Sponsors were also responsible with helping the Vietnamese find employment, registering their children into schools, and other adjustment details.

The Voyage of the Boat People

Meanwhile, back in Viet Nam, the new communist government began implementing several new economic, political, and agricultural policies based on communist ideology. These included the sometimes brutal "reeducation" (otherwise known as imprisonment and sometimes torture) of former South Vietnamese military personnel and their families.

Other measures included the closing of businesses owned by ethnic Chinese Vietnamese, seizing control of farmland and redistributing it, and the mass relocation of citizens from urban to rural areas that were previously uncultivated or severely damaged during the war. Not surprisingly, these radical social and economic policies significantly disrupted the lives of many Vietnamese who increasingly became marginalized in the new communist regime.

At the same time, the Vietnamese government also reallocated many of the country's already depleted resources into bolstering the military. This culminated in Viet Nam's invasion of Cambodia, controlled by the Khmer Rouge regime, in December 1978. China, Cambodia's ally and Viet Nam's traditional enemy, retaliated by invading parts of northern Viet Nam a few months later, which Viet Nam had to fend off as well.

These events were combined with continuing political instability, increasing corruption, natural disasters that reduced crop yields, increasing political suspicion against ethnic Chinese, and little if any infrastructural development. All of these factors eventually led an increasing number of Vietnamese to become desperate to escape.

These push factors led to the second wave of Vietnamese refugees in 1977, which popularly became known as "the boat people" as many Vietnamese escaped onboard overcrowded, under-equipped, and dangerously constructed boats. Along with ethnic Chinese and those associated with the former South Vietnamese government, this second wave also included a significant number of members from the Hmong tribes, many of whom were trained by the CIA as a "secret army" to fight Laotian communists and their Vietnamese allies.

In addition, there were sizeable numbers of Lao, Cham, Montagnard (who also fought alongside American troops), and Khmer ethnic minorities (who were escaping genocide at the hands of the Khmer Rouge and whose plight was overshadowed by the momentous events surrounding the fall of South Viet Nam). The presence of these ethnic minority groups attests to the fact that although the majority of the Vietnamese refugee population were ethnic Vietnamese, they are not a completely homogenous category.

Boatload of Vietnamese refugees off the coast of Hong Kong © David & Peter Turnley/Corbis

Those who were part of the second wave of Vietnamese refugees did not have the luxury of relying on American cargo ships and other U.S.-sanctioned escape routes. Instead, many had to rely on elaborate and clandestine plans to sail, fly, or walk out of the country. Even after depleting their life savings and selling their material possessions to bribe government officials to look the other way and to pay for supposedly "safe passage," many became easy prey for scams and robberies along the way.

Nonetheless, several hundreds of thousands managed to flee in some way or another, most by boarding overcrowded, under-equipped, and dangerously constructed boats. These vessels sailed to the nearby shores of Thailand, Hong Kong, the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore. Unfortunately, these boats became easy targets for pirates, starvation, and capsizing.

It was not uncommon for entire boatloads of Vietnamese escapees to die at sea. Many estimate that at least ten percent and possibly even half of all escapees lost their lives trying to flee Viet Nam and that fully one-third of all boats containing Vietnamese refugees were victims of robbery, rape, or murder. Eventually, almost 400,000 Vietnamese escaped in this 1978-1981 second wave of Vietnamese refugees.

Their entry into the U.S. was facilitated by the Refugee Act of 1980 which modified the original Hart-Celler Immigration Act of 1965 to categorize refugees and refugee resettlement as a separate policy with its own framework and numerical limits, rather than including it as part of the overall immigration preference structure.

Similarly, in consultation with the United Nations, the Vietnamese government organized the Orderly Departure Program (ODP) in 1979 that facilitated the exit of those who were associated with the former South Vietnamese government and military, who had been subjected to years of imprisonment and systematic discrimination.

By the mid-1990s, over 200,000 Vietnamese had entered the U.S. through the ODP. The 1988 Amerasian Homecoming Act and the 1989 Humanitarian Operation Program further led to the exit and resettlement of those children fathered by American military personnel and the last remnants of former South Vietnamese prisoners, respectively.

Becoming Vietnamese 'American'

The first wave of Vietnamese refugees who arrived in the U.S. were initially dispersed throughout the country. The U.S. government's policy was aimed at resettling the Vietnamese in as many different parts of the country as possible so that they would not overburden a particular city's social resources and services at one time and to encourage the Vietnamese to assimilate into "mainstream" American society as quickly as possible, rather than segregating themselves into their own isolated communities.

New refugees waiting to be processed © Bettmann/Corbis

But the government didn't count on the refugees' fundamental need to be part of their own community. They also didn't anticipate that many Vietnamese were not used to living in cold northern climates where they were initially settled (we should recall that Viet Nam is a tropical country). Nonetheless, by the 1990s, large numbers of Vietnamese migrated from their initial resettlement locations to join friends and family members in metropolitan areas that were beginning to develop ethnic Vietnamese communities.

These includes the largest concentration of Vietnamese Americans in the U.S. (where almost 40% of all Vietnamese Americans live), located in Orange County (CA) and smaller communities located in San Jose, Houston, and Washington DC/Alexandria. In recent years however, demographers have noted that although these major Vietnamese communities are still growing, more Vietnamese are increasingly settling in smaller metro areas and cities throughout the U.S.

These days, similar to other Asian American enclaves, these Vietnamese American communities have transformed and revitalized many urban areas. Vietnamese Americans were also becoming more like other Asian Americans in that many became U.S. citizens and began sponsoring relatives and family members from Viet Nam, just as other American families and organizations had sponsored them when they first arrived in the U.S.

Author Citation

Copyright © 2001- by C.N. Le. Some rights reserved. Creative Commons License

Suggested reference: Le, C.N. . "A Modern Day Exodus" Asian-Nation: The Landscape of Asian America. <> ().

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