MARINE CORPS BASE CAMP PENDLETON, Calif. -- A quarter-century after the fall of Saigon, Vietnamese refugees and American veterans of the Vietnam War came together at the Hand of Hope Memorial Sunday at Camp San Mateo.
The ceremony served several purposes, said retired Maj. William Mimiaga, who oversaw Marines helping erect a massive 'tent city' that housed tens of thousands of refugees on base after the fall.
"First, it recognized the 25th anniversary of the fall of Saigon, which resulted in the creation of Operation New Arrival, the welcoming and the resettlement of the Vietnamese refugees to our country," he said about the ceremony.
Second, it recognized the positive contribution to our country and communities resettled refugees have made, Mimiaga continued. "We have schoolteachers, doctors, lawyers, politicians, political appointees and, yes, even Marines who are of Vietnamese origin."
Third, it recognized the Vietnamese armed forces that were our allies in the fight against communism, Mimiaga said. "War brought us together as allies in a just cause, and peace, once again, brought us together in a day of remembrance for all those lost."
The ceremony brought together, shoulder to shoulder, the Vietnamese and American veterans who fought gallantly throughout the struggle in Southeast Asia, said retired BGen. Nhut Tran, a South Vietnamese general.
Many of the veterans who attended the ceremony, both American and Vietnamese, came together for the first time since the war, Mimiaga said.
"They immediately felt the old friendships and closeness, as comrades-in-arms and former allies. A lot of healing was accomplished this day and old friendships renewed," he added. "It was a heartfelt moment for us that only warriors and soldiers can understand and appreciate."
The refugees of 25 years ago came to commemorate their arrival in this country and to show their children where they lived before they were sponsored, Mimiaga said. "It also allowed the returning refugees, once again, to say thank you to the United States and especially to the men of the United States Marine Corps for welcoming them and taking care of them," Mimiaga said.
Saigon fell April 30, 1975. Refugees were already being transported to the United States by then, and work began April 28 to hastily erect the tent city.
"I was a Warrant Officer ..." Mimiaga recalled, "serving with the 11th Marines when the refugees arrived. I had a working party of 82 Marines helping to set up the tent camps.
"Having served two tours in Vietnam, I felt a tremendous personal sadness when Saigon fell. I welcomed the refugees with mixed emotions. Sadness for them losing their country and also for the tremendous loss that we paid with American lives."
"The Vietnam experience has left a scar on the United States and everyone involved. The ceremony here helped to continue the healing process," said Brian H. Ward, a Vietnam War veteran and former prisoner of war. "The healing process will go on for sometime, it is something you never forget."
Twenty-five years after the end of the war in Vietnam, a group of American and South Vietnamese war veterans and citizens formed a committee to build the world's first memorial commemorating the alliance between Vietnamese and American people during the war.
The memorial -- to be built on city property in Westminster, home of one of the largest populations of Vietnamese refugees in the United States -- will represent the sacrifice of 58,000 Americans and 300,000 South Vietnamese soldiers who died in the Vietnam conflict, Mimiaga said.
"It is a symbolic memorial for all warriors who (answered) their country's call."
For more information on the memorial, visit www.vnwarmemorial.com.