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A Vietnamese Journey to Freedom: 40 years later

Video documentary from The Seattle Times.

A Vietnamese Journey to Freedom: 40 years later

If you walk up to the 50 series of buildings on Camp Murray, you will see a few small office buildings and an old chow hall – nothing that immediately stands out. But if you take a close look, you’ll find a monument with the words, “Refugee Day,” celebrating the Vietnamese refugees that came to Washington.

40 years ago the scene at this location was very different. Little green houses lined the hill side. Used by Washington National Guardsmen at the time during their drill weekend, they became temporary homes for hundreds of Vietnamese refugees who fled Vietnam following the fall of Saigon – and were welcomed by the Washington Military Department.

On May 20, 1975, the first of more than 600 Vietnamese refugees arrived on Camp Murray, invited by then Gov. Dan Evans. Their arrival on Camp Murray was not an easy one. As refugees fled Vietnam, their first stop was Camp Pendleton, California, where they met opposition from California Gov. Jerry Brown.

“Governor Evans asked me to travel to California. After seeing the living conditions, I just couldn’t believe it,” said Ralph Munro, a then staffer for Evans and later the Secretary of State for Washington. “Thousands and thousands of people in horrible conditions, I knew we had to do something to help.”

After talking with Munro, Evans was ready to assist, but wasn’t sure where to put refugees and how many he could support. It was a call from Evans to Maj. Gen. Howard McGee, the adjutant general at the time, which put his plan in motion.

After talking with Lt. Col. Jim Kramer, the Washington National Guard’s installation officer, McGee offered up Camp Murray to house refugees and support Evans’ strong desire to provide much needed help to these new visitors as they transitioned from refugees to citizens of Washington state.

Squad size barracks were transformed into temporary homes. Classrooms became an office complex and assistance centers. Chow halls ramped up their food service and signs with Vietnamese writing were placed around Camp Murray to inform the refugees.

“It was an impressive set-up for a temporary stop,” said Munro. “Much better than the conditions they had come from in California.”

Even as a temporary stop, the Guard assisted their new found companions in starting their lives in America.

Washington Army National Guard Aviators assisted former Vietnamese Air Force Pilots in passing their Federal Aviation Administration exams, making them federally licensed pilots. Young Vietnamese women were employed as interpreters assisting the authorities with paper work and breaking down the language barrier. The camp eventually shut down on Oct. 1, 1975, as the last of the refugees passed through on their way to more permanent homes.

“Even though it was a short stay, it helped bring now 70,000 Vietnamese Americans to our state,” said Munro.

On April 26th, 2015, more than 800 Vietnamese Americans gathered at Camp Murray to celebrate the 40th Anniversary of the Vietnamese Journey to America.

“It means so much for us to come back to Camp Murray, where it all began for so many of us,” said Kim Long Nguyen, member of the event organizing team. “Governor Evans’ hospitality meant so much to the Vietnamese people.”

Along with a number of elected officials, both current and retired, the event featured many Vietnamese individuals who had left everything behind, yet through hard work and determination, created a successful life here in Washington state.  

Liz Pham, a Vietnamese American and U.S. Marine Corp Lt. Col., was one of the keynote speakers for the celebration. Her parents initially stayed at Camp Murray after fleeing Vietnam. Pham graduated from Pacific Lutheran University, and would become the first Vietnamese American to become a Fixed Wing Naval Aviator in the U.S. Marine Corps; later deploying to Iraq and becoming part of the first all-female F/A-18 aircrew and flying over 130 combat missions.

“A memory I have was 17 years ago, meeting a U.S. Army soldier that lost three quarters of his unit in the Vietnam War. He said he was one of the lucky ones, losing vision in one eye and having shrapnel wounds all over his body,” Pham said. “As I reached out to shake his hand and thank him for his service, because without his service, me and my family would not be here today, he said something that still resonates with me today. He said that is what it is all about, giving others the chance to have a better life.”