Vietnamese refugees arrive at Camp Pendleton, ready for sponsors

The Camp Pendleton that sent Marines to Danang in the first place

A 14-year old boy pulls out a pack of Winstons from his t-shirt pocket and offers me a smoke. It's as if the Vietnamese never left Vietnam, or as if we never left.
  • A 14-year old boy pulls out a pack of Winstons from his t-shirt pocket and offers me a smoke. It's as if the Vietnamese never left Vietnam, or as if we never left.

"She's a half-breed," the Marine tells his friend, a Marine cook. We're all sitting on some wooden boxes outside one of the chow trailers, and this little girl is playing with a piece of a rosary. It looks like at least 7 Hail Mary's and one Our Father. She keeps swinging it around and around and talking to herself in Vietnamese.

I try a few more questions in my crummy Vietnamese, "An com chua (did you eat yet)?"
"Roi (yes, already)."

I try a few more questions in my crummy Vietnamese, "An com chua (did you eat yet)?" "Roi (yes, already)."

"She's part French, I'm sure. You know the French were in Vietnam before we were. She's probably half-French."

At first I hesitate, but then can't resist: "But the French left in '54 and she's only 7 or 8." The Marine's sergeant orders him back in the chow trailer to help with the serving of the food. The little girl and I are left alone, looking at the stream of other Vietnamese — old ladies in black pajama pants and sweaters, and towels wrapped around their heads, young couples in European pants and American t-shirts, grey-haired ex-businessmen — as they file by with paper plates piled high with lunch. Stew, canned green beans, noodles, cheap American sandwich bread, and small cartons of non-fat milk.

The A.P. spent 5 days trying to find its Pulitzer Prize winning Vietnamese photographer.

The A.P. spent 5 days trying to find its Pulitzer Prize winning Vietnamese photographer.

The little girl has a light blue barrette in her sandy hair. I try asking her if she's from Saigon. No luck. She only smiles and runs away for a while. She comes back and I try a few more questions in my crummy Vietnamese, "An com chua (did you eat yet)?"

"Roi (yes, already)."

"Ten em la gi (what's your name)?"

"Xa."

Vietnamese have been brought to Camp Pendleton. The Camp Pendleton that sent Marines to Danang in the first place, just 10 years ago. With little imagination, you could think it's sort of ironic that you were on a Marine base in Vietnam 5 or 10 years ago. Well, maybe the Marines are a little more — um — mellow. No rifles or barbed wire anyway. Some Marine cooks are sitting on the grass making jokes with two girls with plucked eyebrows and rouged cheeks. Soul music comes from the chow trailers. The Vietnamese kids surround a Marine cook, taking turns hitting him and running away. A Marine captain with heavily starched fatigue cap and blouse and pants walks by, booming out directions to a line of women and children in pidgin English, "Here. You follow me. I show you. This way." An older lady near the dining tents takes samples of fruit punch from the metal jugs and spits it out like betel nut juice. A 14-year old boy pulls out a pack of Winstons from his t-shirt pocket and offers me a smoke. It's as if the Vietnamese never left Vietnam, or as if we never left.

In each of the camps at Camp Pendleton, one of the most interesting things to do is to read the bulletin boards. Not only are there scores of Vietnamese leaving messages for other Vietnamese — lost friends and relatives — but there are large notes to “The Employees of IBM," to the "Members of the Church of the Latter Day Saints," and a poignant note from an American Army enlisted man in Seattle to a certain Vietnamese Army enlisted friend of his. On each of the camp's bulletin boards, the note is scotch-taped to a Kodacolor print showing the American G.I. and the Vietnamese G.I. smiling at each other, sitting together in the Vietnamese sun on top of an armored track vehicle.

It's not easy to find the person you want to sponsor. You can drive past all eight of the camps and think, geez, I oughta be able to find him. But it's hard. The A.P. spent 5 days trying to find its Pulitzer Prize winning Vietnamese photographer (the one who took the picture of the little napalmed girl running naked down the road). Finally, after studiously walking in and out of camps carrying a large sign with the photographer's name on it, they found him.

The Marine officers at the official press briefing are not all that helpful when it comes to specifics. ("You'll have to ask another agency. We aren't in charge of that.") One thing they do know, the warrant officer who briefed us, says, "These are very religious people. Services every day, Buddhist and Catholic." On the tables next to the Officers' Club bar are strewn ‘Religious Fact Sheets,’ telling press that all services are in Vietnamese and that 1500 to 2000 Vietnamese are going to Mass every day.”

In Camp Number 8, even having a Marine escort from the Officers' Club doesn't cut it. "Sorry, sir. You'll have to have an escort from Camp 8 Headquarters." As it turns out, Camp Number 8 is where Nguyen Cao Ky is staying and the Marine Corps is being careful.

Up from Camp 8, back towards the Officers' Club, a lady wearing a cowboy hat crosses the road cautiously. In a tent on one side of the road, three sisters play cards and laugh at a group of four Marines who walk by. Four little kids play frisbee with two other Marines near the tent, and an older girl on a small hill shows her younger brother how to use a hula hoop.

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