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Vietnamese Refugees in Washington

April 23, 2015

As Vietnamese refugees arrived in America, many of them settled in Washington State, thanks to former Gov. Dan Evans. Rochelle Nguyen, one of the first refugees that migrated to Washington, recounts her experience and how her family honored Evans.

Rochell Nguyen fled Vietnam at the age of 9.

Rochelle Nguyen: ’75 I was about 9 and a half. I was going to school 4th grade, very happy and then suddenly my dad just told me that we had to leave... that night, April 23, 1975.

Feliks Banel: Rochelle Nguyen’s father worked for the US Embassy in Saigon. When the South Vietnamese capital fell, the whole family—her father, pregnant mother, Rochelle and her four brothers and sisters—had to leave.

A Nguyen family snapshot taken in Vietnam around 1970. Photo courtesy Nguyen family.

Colin Nguyen: If the government could not help their personnel out of the country, we get a lot of dangerous problem. Maybe we die or anything happen right away.

Rochelle Nguyen: Because we left at night there was no time to go to the bank or gather any savings or any kind of valuables for us to take all we knew about was just taking the bear necessity of what we could carry. 

Rochelle Nguyen: I had no time. No opportunity to say goodbye to my friends. My dear teachers.  Or relatives you know. I was just being a good daughter and did what my parents asked us.

Banel: The family found space on an American plane. They made it out of Saigon. After a stop in Guam, they ended up at Camp Pendleton in California.

Vietnamese refugee camp at Camp Pendleton, California in April 1975. Photo by Ralphy Munro. Courtesy Washington State Archives.

Rochelle Nguyen: Just so many, so many tents. We didn’t have a house to live in. It was so cold. And my mom actually took us to one of the public restroom facilities and there maybe five other families who were there sleeping on the floor because it was much more insulated than the tent we were in.

Banel: With thousands of families like the Nguyen’s pouring into the US, California Governor Jerry Brown complained that refugees were being “dumped” in his state.

Dan Evans: I saw the pictures of the last helicopter to leave the building at the embassy was, there were still people scrambling trying to get aboard.     

Former Gov. Dan Evans.

Banel: Back in Olympia, Dan Evans was in his third term as Governor, and he heard about Brown’s opposition to refugees settling in California.

Evans: And then really the first vivid memory I have is when I was getting dressed one morning to go over to the office, and I heard the morning news about Governor Jerry Brown of California, saying “We don’t want any Vietnamese refugees here,” and then one of his staff members actually tried to keep the plane loaded with refugees from even landing at the Air Force base in California, so that really made me furious.

Banel: So Evans called on one of his staffers—future Secretary of State Ralph Munro.

Ralph Munro, future Washington Secretary of State, at Camp Pendleton in April 1975 on behalf of Governor Dan Evans. Courtesy Washington State Archives.

Ralph Munro: The Governor never called us at home unless it was really an emergency... I was outside my wife came and shouted, ‘the governor was on the phone,’ and I was really shocked, and I thought, ‘boy what did I screw up?... and Governor Evans was really just really mad.  And he said to me, he said, could you just find out what’s going on?  

Banel: Munro flew to California that same day.

Evans: I also asked Ralph to say, "If you see Governor Brown, tell him to reread what it says on the base of the Statue of Liberty ... give me your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free."

Munro: And I just couldn’t believe it.  There were tents... it was just incredible. And that’s where these people were.  There were thousands and thousands, and they were living in these Army tents and in open pit toilets and chow lines that stretched a half a mile and I just you know it was very emotional... I had never been to Vietnam.  I had bunch of buddies who died in Vietnam in the war. But I had not been there. And uh so I tried to figure out what do I do? So I started snapping pictures.

Banel: Munro then found the camp headquarters.

Munro: And I went up there and went in this little lobby thing and there was a young Marine there and I said I wanted to talk to the commanding officer of the camp and he said what do you want? I said, "Well I represent the state of Washington and we’re interested in knowing about resettling some of these people in our state."  This young man looked at me and said, "You want these people?"

Evans: We had been fighting in Vietnam for half a dozen years or more. We had a number of Vietnamese who had helped us, who had been enormous aid to our fighting forces when they were in Vietnam. And now they were desperately trying to flee because they weren’t sure what was going to happen with the Communist takeover. And I thought to just leave them after they had helped us, was not a very moral thing to do.

Munro:  And we set up a little resettlement camp out at Camp Murray, in the National Guard camp, where we had little houses and these families would come stay in a house and then they’d meet their sponsor. We decided we didn’t want anybody on welfare; we were going to try keep everybody off welfare and get them into jobs.

Banel: Among the first families to arrive at Camp Murray, the Nguyens.

Rochelle Nguyen: They helped us adapt to American customs and the culture.  Macaroni and cheese.  Peanut butter sandwiches, you know.  Cereal.  And I didn’t know why we had pancakes with very sweet syrup, and then there’s bacon that is salty. So it just tasted really strange. Along the way there were just so many kind people who extended their hand out and helped us Vietnamese refugees at the time. I think when we came to America it was a controversial time. You get a mixture of emotions from Americans about the Vietnam war you know and I don’t really blame them.

The Nguyen children, including Evans Nguyen (R) and Rochelle Nguyen (second from left). Photo courtesy Nguyen family.

Banel: Ultimately, thousands of Vietnamese refugees settled in Washington. The Evans Administration helped people find jobs and try to start a new life. A life after war.

Rochelle Nguyen: I think for me now home is here.

Banel: It was a kindness that would not be forgotten.

Evans:  About three months after we welcomed those refugees, my assistant came into the office and said, "You’ll never believe what’s happened." And I said, "Well gee, what?" She said, "Well, one of the families that came here, they had five children."

Banel: That family was the Nguyens.

Evans:  And the mother was pregnant with their sixth, and three months later their son was born, and in honor of their new place and my welcoming them, they named him Evans. So his first name is Evans Nguyen.

The Nguyen family watches as Evans Nguyen poses with former Governor Dan Evans in 1982. Photo courtesy Nguyen family.

Banel: For Dan and Nancy Evans, it was the start of a lifelong relationship, with the Nguyens, and Washington’s new Vietnamese community.

Evans: And we follow the family, we’re close to them, we’ve met with them. We have a yearly Christmas time gathering, and we’ve watched the next generation of their family come along.

Rochelle Nguyen: We felt like at the time when we were almost abandoned someone stepped up and gave us a second opportunity.  Again, and so my parents wanted to name my youngest brother Evans to remind our family of who gave us that wonderful second chance... of life here in America.



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