On April 29, 1975 – as US helicopters evacuated military and civilian personnel from besieged Saigon – the first of some 50,000 Southeast Asian refugees began arriving at Camp Pendleton.
The San Diego base became a temporary resettlement center for South Vietnamese, Cambodian and Laotian refugees who fled their homelands when the United States withdrew from the war in Vietnam and Saigon, then the capital of South Vietnam, fell to North Vietnamese forces.
Those who came to Camp Pendleton stayed about 45 days before getting new homes sponsored by churches, community groups and individuals.
First refugees check in at Pendleton
By ROBERT DIETRICH, Tribune military writer
CAMP PENDLETON – A village of World War II-era Quonset huts in the far northern part of this Marine Corps base, typically used to train Leatherneck reservists, is now the hometown of around 1,000 war refugees from Southeast Asia.
Marines and Navy personnel worked through the night to set up a reception center at the base after being ordered by the Ministry of Defense to accommodate up to 20,000 Cambodians and South Vietnamese fleeing their country of origin.
Fort Chalice, Ark., and Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., received similar orders. The Pentagon has referred to the temporary camps as “reception centers”.
Lt. Col. Arthur Brill, Camp Pendleton Public Affairs Officer, said this
morning, “We went from zero capacity to house civilian refugees to creating a facility for 4,500 people – all in the space of 24 hours.”
The Marine Center, in the Talega area about 5 miles from the perimeter fence that separates the San Clemente base and Richard Nixon’s beachfront home, Casa Pacifica, was manned with 90 16-man patrols.
Another hundred tents were to be erected by this evening.
Four planes carrying around 260 refugees, half of whom were children, arrived this morning at Norton Air Force Base near San Bernardino. The refugees were then to be taken by bus to Camp Pendleton.
Two other planes due to arrive at Norton during the day were diverted to El Toro, along with other planes scheduled later. A Norton spokesperson said the refugees appeared to be in good health and happy to be in the United States.
Up to 1,000 refugees are expected to be at Camp Pendleton by midnight.
Brill said the reception center would be a “controlled area”, with limited access, to prevent the possible spread of any disease to other sections of the base or to nearby civilian communities.
Capt. ED Loweecey, commander of Naval Medical Region Camp Pendleton, has requested additional Navy medical personnel from the San Diego area.
Brill said each refugee will be screened and given basic sanitary supplies, including soap, towels and toothbrushes, as well as clean clothes.
The Marines installed additional showers and chemical toilets in the suburbs of the “tent city”.
All U.S. Army and federal agency personnel working with evacuees were required to receive vaccinations against hepatitis, bubonic plague, and other illnesses not routinely covered by military preventive medicine for service in the United States.