[Image 1: Marine
Corps Historical Collection. Bulldozers prepare ground for
the erection of hundreds of tents. Five hours before the official
notification to establish a refugee camp at Pendleton, the
first evacuees arrived.]
Page 229(The Bitter End)
They did receive this support and with it some well-timed local assistance.
The combination made the center a success.
At the beginning, a favorable ending did not seem likely, especially after 800 bone-weary refugees arrived at El Toro at 0200 on 29 April, well before anyone expected them* Confused, tired, scared, and disoriented after having flown for 14 hours, these refugees arrived in their new country in the middle of a pitch black night. Many responded to the unfamiliar surroundings by simply crying. Marines at El Toro helped them board Marine Corps buses for the relatively short ride to Camp Talega (less than 45 minutes). General Graham immediately placed them in the Camp Talega quonset huts, which had been constructed years earlier as additional housing for Marine Corps units assigned to Camp Pendleton. His decision to postpone the mandatory processing procedure until morning saved the refugees from further suffering and allowed them some much-needed sleep.
The irony of this eleventh-hour arrival and the extreme crush it placed on General Graham's forces was that the official authorization to perform resettlement duties did not arrive until after the first refugees had fallen asleep in their new home, the Camp Talega "hotel." At 0736 on 29 April, Headquarters Marine Corps sent a message to the commanding general of Camp Pendleton. It said, "Establish New Horizon Coordination Center and be prepared to provide billeting, messing, essential medical treatment, transportation, security, and camp administration for up to 18,000 evacuees."57 The next day the final authority arrived: "This message confirms previous oral arrangements that you take action required to establish and operate the Camp Pendleton Refugee Processing Center."58
From this inauspicious beginning, Camp Pendleton more than sufficiently met the Joint Chiefs' original objective: "The Marine Corps will be tasked to receive, process, billet, and support 18,000 (eighteen thousand) RVN evacuees for a period of 90 days or more commencing about 29 April 1975."59 To accomplish this, General Graham had to organize his forces, create a staff, and plan while still receiving more refugees each day.** Complicating this matter was the presence of a dual system of command that functioned under the auspices of the State Department, which had overall responsibility for the South Vietnamese
*Colonel Nicholas M. Trapncll.Jr.. Chief of Staff. Marine Corps Air Station El Toro. had anticipated the refugees' arrival. He related thai [he reason the processing went so smoothly at 0200. 29 April. was because of his prior knowledge of ihc evacuation plans. He gained thai understanding while serving in Vietnam on the DAO staff from 1973 10 197-4. He slated. "I initialed preparations tor the refugees more than a week before receiving word from HQMC and by then the planning and rehearsal were complete." Trapncll Comments.
**Colonel Woodham related General Graham's daily routine:"General Graham's
schedule entailed arriving at Base headquarters ai 0715. taking care of pressing
base matters, then boarding the standby UH-lE and flying to the refugee camp
headquarters where he would stay until 1700. and finally returning 10 Base
to make decisions on matters that had arisen during the day. In inclement
weather, he would ride in his sedan and usually arrive back around 2000. Oftentimes
his staff would remain at work until 2300 or later." Colonel Woodham also
described the inordinate importance the dimension of public relations assumed
at staff headquarters when he said, "Refugee matters were constantly in [he
national news and as a consequence a TV was installed in my office to monitor
day and night the media reports." Woodham Comments.
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