In the tumultuous aftermath of the Fall of Saigon in 1975, Camp Pendleton, a United States Marine Corps base in California, became a temporary haven for over 50,000 refugees fleeing war-torn Vietnam and other Southeast Asian countries. As the conflict drew to a close, a wave of individuals sought refuge and an opportunity for a fresh start, posing a profound humanitarian test. And one of the places that stepped up to provide assistance was Camp Pendleton.

With little time to prepare and less than 24 hours notice, Camp Pendleton hastily transformed into a sprawling ‘Tent City,” providing shelter, support, and hope to those in desperate need. Among the refugees was Kristen Mai Pham, whose remarkable journey from a life of luxury to the confines of Camp Talega became a transformative experience that shaped her into a successful author and proud American citizen.

fall of saigon
The most iconic picture of the evacuation during the Fall of Saigon. (Image source: Wikimedia Commons)

The Arrival at Camp Talega

In a 2017 interview, Kristen Mai Pham vividly recalls her arrival at Camp Talega, one of the sections within Camp Pendleton’s ‘Tent City.’ The journey by boat had been arduous.

She recounted getting seasick and longing for the taste of clean water, free from the scent and flavor of gasoline. However, her mother reminded her of their inability to return home and encouraged her to make do with what was available. It was a stark reminder of the new reality they faced.

“We could never go home, so just drink the water, please,” her Mom said, Pham recalled.

Despite the circumstances, Pham reflects on her time at Camp Talega with surprising fondness. She remembers never going hungry, standing patiently in long lines for food but receiving an ample supply. The kindness and generosity of the people around them left a lasting impression, as Pham recalls the absence of any negative experiences during her stay. The camp provided a sense of calmness, allowing Pham to spend more time outdoors than ever before. She found solace in playing outside, enjoying activities like Frisbee with her newfound friends. The experience, though uncertain and challenging, proved to be a blessing in disguise, shaping her into a resilient individual.

“I remember people treating us well, and I don’t remember any bad experiences while I was here. I felt calm. I was outdoors more than any time I remembered in my young life,” Pham recounted.

Vietnamese refugees
A boat full of Vietnamese refugees who escaped from Vietnam sailed in the South China Sea. (Image source: DVIDS)

Resilience and Gratitude

For Pham, the experience at Camp Talega became a catalyst for personal growth and resilience. She credits her time in the camp as a blessing in disguise, shaping her into the strong person she is today. Pham expresses immense gratitude to the men and women of the military who facilitated the establishment of Camp Pendleton’s ‘Tent City‘ and provided support to the refugees.