A few years ago, Faye Jonason received a call from a Vietnamese couple from Roseville, Calif., who asked if she had a photo of their wedding. The couple were married at one of the “tent cities” erected at Camp Pendleton that housed tens of thousands of Vietnamese refugees after the war.
Jonason, the Marine base’s museum division officer, rummaged through her archives and found a black-and-white photo of a young, smiling bride in a white dress kneeling beside the groom and another couple. It was dated May 22, 1975.
In the archives were 150 more images taken by Marine photographers depicting the lives of Vietnamese refugees on the base, Jonason said. “I thought, ‘Gee, this is a gold mine,’ ” she said. “I kept bringing people in to see it.”
Now, 36 of the photos are featured in an exhibit at Camp Pendleton called “Images at War’s End,” which runs through Sept. 30.
In addition to rows of tents housing refugees, the photos also show lives slowly being rebuilt. There are images of weddings, baptisms, Buddhist ceremonies, English language classes, even a hula hoop contest.
“It was a hard time in the U.S. and a hard time in Vietnam,” Jonason said. “There was a lot of sacrifice on both sides. Coming from a war-torn country, this period of history represents, in some ways, joy.”
Nearly 35 years ago, tens of thousands of Vietnamese refugees were airlifted from Vietnam on military aircraft or by boat in the days leading up to the 1975 fall of Saigon.
The largest U.S. camp to temporarily house Southeast Asian refugees was at Camp Pendleton, which 50,000 refugees, mostly Vietnamese, passed through.
The camp would eventually reshape Southern California. Many refugees stayed for the warm weather they were accustomed to in Vietnam. In central Orange County, refugees found cheap housing and plentiful jobs in Westminster, where they erected Vietnamese businesses along the strawberry and bean fields, drawing Vietnamese scattered in other states.
Today, Orange County is home to 150,000 Vietnamese, the largest such population in the country. Little Saigon in Westminster and Garden Grove is teeming with hundreds of Vietnamese restaurants, markets and doctors’ and lawyers’ offices. A handful of Vietnamese in the county hold elected office, including a county supervisor and a state assemblyman. Many who found refuge at Camp Pendleton after the fall of Saigon often think back to that time.
In 1975, Loc Nam Nguyen escaped Vietnam on a C-130 plane with no possessions aside from old family photos. Thirty years old at the time, he said his first night at Camp Pendleton was one of the hardest of his life.
“I cried. Everybody cried,” he said. “We had no idea where we were. We had just lost our country. It was like we were in the middle of nowhere, and we had no idea what was going to happen in the rest of our lives.”
Nguyen was placed in Camp No. 8, sleeping beside 40 others in a tent. Life at the camp was not comfortable, Nguyen said. The nights were cold, there were common showers and the lines for food were long.
Every day, Nguyen searched bulletin boards with lists of refugee names for signs of his parents and 10 siblings, from whom he was separated during the escape. It would be years before his entire family was able to come to the U.S.
But life went on, he said.
Nguyen reconnected with old friends at the camp and dated a few women. “There was this feeling of, you better make friends here because in the future, you won’t have a chance to know Vietnamese girls,” he said.
He recalled the kindness of the Marines who worked at the camp, who helped man the food lines, clean the toilets and play games with the children. Several Marines, hearing that the Vietnamese were nostalgic for fish sauce, brought some from a Thai market in Los Angeles, Nguyen said.
There were many weddings, he recalled. There was a weekly Mass, Buddhist prayer, dance classes, parties, vocational training and English classes. A Marine gave him an old guitar, and Nguyen would sing songs with his friends.
Now 65, Nguyen lives in Los Angeles and is head of U.S. Catholic Charities’ immigration and refugee department and an emcee on a popular Vietnamese music variety show. But he frequently recalls his experiences at the base.
“My time at Camp Pendleton reminds me of how lucky I am, how open American people are, how quickly Vietnamese refugees can go on with their new lives,” he said.
For others, Camp Pendleton turned a page on the war that divided the country. Retired Gunnery Sgt. Louis Beatty, now 71, spent two tours in Vietnam during the war. “Most of the people we saw in Vietnam were the bad guys,” he said.
But he has fond memories of teaching Vietnamese children to play touch football and volleyball when he was a supervisor at Camp Pendleton in 1975.
“I never met a Vietnamese at the camp that was not tremendously respectful or not open,” he said. “They were very, very beautiful people. It really left a positive impression on me.”
He and his wife sponsored two Vietnamese sisters from the camp, who lived with them for several months.
One was Lan Nguyen, who in 1975 was “just floating and doing whatever we needed to do to stay alive.”
Nguyen, now 60 and living in Huntington Beach, said she thinks back to Camp Pendleton often.
“It’s kind of like a good memory for me,” she said. “When we got to America, we were just so happy that we had food and everything and that we were in a safe place. Because of what we had gone through, anything was good enough for us.”
The exhibit, open Monday through Friday from 8:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., is at the Camp Pendleton ranch house at Basilone Road and Vandegrift Boulevard.