For Pham, Base Is Also ‘Vietnamese Ellis Island’
For many Marines stationed there, El Toro Marine Corps Air Station was just another duty station, albeit one with sunny weather and beautiful beaches nearby. But for Quang X. Pham, reporting to El Toro in 1990 as a young lieutenant represented a chance to come face to face with a piece of his heritage.
“It’s more than just a base,” Pham, 34, says. “It’s a place of history for my people.” Pham, a refugee from Vietnam who now lives in Mission Viejo, calls El Toro the “Vietnamese Ellis Island.”
He compares the Marine base to the famous landmark for good reason: El Toro is where tens of thousands of Vietnamese refugees, fleeing a war-torn country, first set foot in America in the late 1970s.
About 50,000 refugees in all landed at El Toro and boarded buses for the 30-minute trip south to relocation camps at Camp Pendleton. During the influx’s peak, planes landed hourly.
There are more than 200,000 Vietnamese Americans living in Orange County today, making it the largest such community outside Vietnam, and their presence can be traced in large part to El Toro. “If we had gone through another base in, let’s say, Seattle, that’s where Little Saigon would be today instead,” Pham says.
Many of those who began life in the United States in tents at Camp Pendleton eventually settled in Orange County. Community churches, social service organizations and residents were quick to embrace the immigrants. The fast-developing area would prove to be ripe for their entrepreneurial talents. Other Vietnamese Americans across the United States came as well, drawn by the prospect of reunions with friends and the promise of jobs, particularly assembly work in the booming electronics industry.
The Vietnamese American attachment to the Marine Corps also stems from its role in airlifting hundreds of Vietnamese out of the chaos of Saigon at the end of the war, Pham says. As a pilot at the El Toro and Tustin Marine Corps bases, Pham says it was “eerie” to know that some of the helicopters he flew were the same ones used in the evacuation of his countrymen.
Pham escaped Saigon in April 1975 at age 10. He and his family did not go through El Toro, ending up at a base in Arkansas instead. But when he arrived at El Toro, the young Marine became keenly aware of the base’s legacy.
And, he says, after serving in Desert Storm, “I felt like I was an American. I paid my dues for what this country did for me.”
Today, Pham, a salesman for a biotech firm, is a leader in the local Vietnamese American community, spearheading an effort to raise funds for a museum that will tell the story of the Vietnamese flight to the United States. Despite El Toro’s closing, he hopes the base’s role in history will live on there.
“El Toro . . . is part of the Vietnamese American experience,” he says.