ATLANTA — Nowhere on U.S. soil was the human toll of the fall of Saigon 30 years ago felt more immediately and more dramatically than at Fort Chaffee, Ark., an Army training base outside the town of Fort Smith.
It became a relocation center for more than 50,000 Vietnamese refugees who escaped the communist advance aboard United States airlifts, or by putting to sea in privately owned boats.
Within a matter of days, the first refugees began arriving at Fort Chaffee. Many of them had left with only the clothes on their backs and a few personal belongings.
Almost none of them had warm clothing; in Saigon they didn’t need it. They stood shivering in the brisk temperatures of early May — days after the end of the war — as they waited in long processing lines to begin the search for American families who would sponsor them.
Drastic measures to get to U.S.
Among the early arrivals in 1975 were 17 members of Nguyen Van Hac’s family. The 41-year-old fisherman explained to NBC News that he had lived and worked under communist rule in North Vietnam for five years before he fled to the South.
He resettled near the coastal town of Vung Tau, and resumed the life of a fisherman. As the North Vietnamese closed in, he gathered his family aboard his boat and set sail across the South China Sea. Eventually they were picked up by an American ship.
Hac said he left Vietnam because he knew from past experience that the communists would not permit him to fish for himself, but would make him fish for them instead. He was also afraid they would kill him because he had earlier fled from the North.
Not all of the refugees were poor, like Hac. Some of them were upper-middle class Vietnamese who could afford to invest in gold as the stability of South Vietnam became shakier. Once here, they were able to sell their gold bars and gold jewelry for U. S. dollars, to open American bank accounts and buy goods at the Fort Chaffee Post Exchange.
The hottest selling items were warm clothing and luggage, which the refugees would need to carry their newly purchased merchandise when they moved out of the camp. The line at the Post Exchange frequently stretched around the building. Sales increased from $3,600 a day to more than $10,000 a day after the Vietnamese came.
Initially mixed reaction to refugees
There was some opposition to the relocation of the refugees in this country. A few protestors outside the gate of Fort Chaffee held picket signs and shouts of “Vietnamese go home!” could be heard.
Slideshow: Fall of Saigon But for the most part the refugees were given a warm and sympathetic welcome. The Salvation Army collected clothing in a special donation drive. In the Fort Smith public schools each student from elementary grades to high school was asked to donate one toy for Vietnamese children. A truckload was collected.
Fort Chaffee was not the only relocation center for refugees in the southeast. Another was a huge tent city at Eglin Air Force Base near Fort Walton Beach, Fla.
When the refugees first began arriving, many people in the surrounding communities were apprehensive. They were afraid an influx of displaced persons would depress the economy. But as it turned out, the camp gave a boost to the economies of communities like Niceville and Fort Walton Beach.
Military and civil service personnel who came to work with the refugees spent money at motels and other business establishments, prompting the mayor of Fort Walton Beach to declare the camp a welcome “new industry.”
Vietnamese now part of American melting pot
More than 700,000 Vietnamese became refugees to the United States after the fall of Saigon.
Now 30 years later, they have become an industry of their own. According to the latest census there are 1.2 million Vietnamese Americans living here now.
Together they have created countless new “Little Saigons” in cities and towns across the country, while at the same time contributing their talents to the ever-changing American melting pot.
Kenley Jones, is a veteran NBC News correspondent based out of the Atlanta bureau. He was a combat correspondent for NBC News in Vietnam and reported on the end of the war from the domestic homefront.