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Know your history: Andersen housed 100K+ Vietnam refugees

  • Published
  • By Dr. John Treiber
  • 36th Wing Historian
Whatever one's opinion might be on America's engagement in Southeast Asia, that judgment must be tempered with an understanding of the events that followed our 1973 military withdrawal from Vietnam. 

In 1973 the Republic of Vietnam may have been politically weak, but it was still an independent state. Then, starting in March 1975, North Vietnam invaded our former ally and extinguished what might have become another South Korea or Thailand. Although the North Vietnamese called it "liberation," it was only so in the sense that individuals were liberated from their land, belongings, families and communities. For hundreds of thousands Vietnamese, their country was lost as well. 

As often occurs in the wake of war, a major humanitarian crisis ensued with tens of thousands of Vietnamese fleeing their homeland for a safe haven abroad. Among those sad victims of communist aggression were nearly 112,000 refugees who passed through Guam in 1975. 

They were on their way to America as part of Operation New Life, and Andersen AFB was at the center of ensuring that more than 110,000 of them got on their way to destinations in the U.S. (the others left via NAS Agana). 

It was one of the largest humanitarian operations of the 20th century, and arguably one of the most successful as well. 

As South Vietnam collapsed, many fled the country on ships and aircraft. 

Starting on April 23, 1975, the Air Force flew missions around the clock bringing refugees to Clark Air Base, Andersen, and Naval Air Station Agana. A small number of individuals were also sent to Wake Island. Commercial aircraft participated as well, as did U.S. Naval ships. Numerous refugee camps sprung up around Guam, one of the largest of which was located at Andersen. It was an old Vietnam War-era temporary barracks complex called "Tin City" that used to surround the Top of the Rock. 

New Life was a 24/7 effort that required assistance from everyone on base, whether one was active duty or a civilian. Even dependents participated heavily. Processing took about a week, after which chartered commercial aircraft flew the refugees out of Andersen to various Air Force bases in the United States. The bulk of the effort at Andersen took place during the first couple of weeks, but New Life did not officially end until mid-August. 

Vietnamese-Americans have been one of America's immigration success stories, but what is often forgotten is that for many of them Guam was the first American soil on which they set foot: A kind of Pacific Ellis Island. In turn the people of Guam and the military services opened their arms to the refugees, providing an early taste of American generosity and magnanimity. Virtually all the refugees spent at least some time at Andersen where they saw, possibly for the first time, the Air Force engaged in non-combat operations. 

Operation New Life was by no means perfect: How could an event so enormous and chaotic have been expected to go according to a plan that did not exist? For the most part, though, New Life flowed as smoothly as possible under the circumstances. More significantly, the operation would have been unthinkable without airlift, the military's logistical capabilities, and of course America's typical can-do spirit. 

Overall, what the Air Force accomplished during New Life was nothing short of remarkable. Two days after the operation began more than 14,000 refugees had already arrived at Andersen, and in the end this base directly housed and processed nearly 40,000 people. Andersen was also responsible for sending 99 percent of the refugees on the US via chartered commercial aircraft. 

While those numbers are enormous, it boggles the mind to consider the effort of ensuring that the Vietnamese were documented, housed, fed, clothed, and received at least some health care. We also cannot forget the language barrier that must have compounded problems further. 

Whether or not history will be kind to America for its Vietnam period remains to be seen, but Operation New Life shows another side of that involvement that only the most cynical could dismiss as irrelevant. Operation New Life was literally a new life for our Vietnamese friends, and an example of the Air Force and the United States at its very best.

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