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South Vietnam refugees return to Fort Chaffee, decades after seeking sanctuary there

The first of many transport aircraft arrive at Ebbing Air National Guard Base, Fort Smith, Ark., on May 2, 1975. The transports were part of the Vietnamese airlift also known as Operation New Life. The Vietnamese refugees were brought in through the 188th Tactical Fighter Group. The Indochinese refugees were then transferred to temporary housing at Fort Chaffee, Ark.

COURTESY PHOTO VIA U.S. AIR FORCE

By JOHN LOVETT | Times Record | Published: June 20, 2019

(Tribune News Service) — Nghi Van Le thought he was flying into another jungle when he arrived at Fort Chaffee from Vietnam in April 1975.

The C-7A cargo plane pilot for the South Vietnamese Air Force had just fled the war-torn country with several family members and was among about 50,000 refugees from Southeast Asia following the fall of Saigon to communist North Vietnam.

The Le family wasn't sure where they were at first, but at least they knew they were safe.

"They would have killed me or sent me to a concentration camp," Le said Wednesday with his wife, Phuong Le, and daughter, Vi Le, at his side near the Viet Nam Veterans of America Chapter No. 467.

Vi Le, an attorney and regional general counsel for Mercy in Oklahoma and Arkansas, brought her parents to what is now the Chaffee Crossing Historic District on Wednesday. It was just more than 44 years since they were last there.

Vi Le arrived with her family at Fort Chaffee as an 18-month-old just days after the fall of Saigon on April 30, 1975. Most of her knowledge of the event comes from her parents' stories over the years. She hoped one day to return to Fort Chaffee to see what it was like during the seven months they spent there.

"When people ask where I come from, that's a very difficult question for a refugee because you can come from so many places. My American story begins at Fort Chaffee. It's really a special place," Vi Le said. "This story isn't really my story because I was a baby. This is about what my parents were willing to do so I could have an education, grow up in a democracy and be whatever I wanted to be."

Nghi Van Le said he was born in central Vietnam and started college in 1968. He trained as a South Vietnamese air force pilot at both Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, and Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi, Mississippi, before going back to Vietnam. There, he flew a C-7A cargo plane, moving troops and cargo throughout the country in the war effort to stop communist control of South Vietnam.

In April 1975, as the communists closed in to take over Saigon, Nghi Van Le sent his family with a trusted friend on a plane to Thailand. He stayed behind to fly others out of the war-torn country. Vi Le's aunt and uncle also made it on the first flight to Thailand.

"We thought my dad was dead because he had sent us on a plane ahead of him," Vi Le said. "There wasn't time to gather things and we could only take what we could carry. We came to America with hardly anything. People ask me about my baby pictures and I don't have any except a couple."

The U.S. Army was notified on April 25, 1975, that Fort Chaffee would be used as a relocation center. The first Indochinese, including Vietnamese, arrived seven days later on May 2, 1975.

"At Fort Chaffee, my parents felt very welcomed and taken care of," Vi Le said in a Mercy Fort Smith news release. "It was not a good time, of course, but the stories of the refugee camp are always positive. There was much uncertainty but also a sense of hope that things were going to be OK. They were overwhelmed with gratitude."

The Sisters of Mercy helped at the refugee camp, which was a comfort to Le's family, all of whom converted to Catholicism in Vietnam.

"The sisters did phenomenal work that has paid off for generations," Vi Le added. "They probably had no idea at the time of the impact they made."

The Vietnamese refugees didn't stay long at Fort Chaffee before they were relocated. The Le family and more than 25,000 other refugees settled in the Oklahoma City area. In addition to being a Mercy leader, Vi Le also is board president of Catholic Charities in Oklahoma.

"My story really is about the intersection of my personal, professional and volunteer life," she added. "In all parts of my life, I get to have a heart for the poor, immigrants, women and children, and those in political strife, all things that the Sisters of Mercy believe in."

Knowing today is United Nations World Refugee Day, Nghi Van Le said he understands the difficulty of controlling the southern border with Mexico and the influx of migrants and refugees from South America.

"It's hard for the government to control it, but I know that the United States has the rule and process to let the refugee in," Nghi Van Le said. "That's a great process but you should know that everyone should go through the process in order."

©2019 Times Record (Fort Smith, Ark.)
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