Spotlight: Refugees, Indiantown Gap and the Cup of Elijah

By Bill Simons

Fort Indiantown Gap is a military base about 23 miles northeast of Harrisburg, PA. Since the 1930s, the modern installation has undergone periods of Pennsylvania National Guard and United States Army presence, as well as intervals of relative abandonment. Indiantown Gap has been a training camp and a staging area for embarkment overseas. In 1975, however, it was a Vietnamese refugee camp. As I think back about the Gap, I recognize that my experience had a Jewish dimension.

For the Vietnamese, the road to Indiantown Gap had antecedents enmeshed with the twilight of European colonialism, the Cold War and American foreign policy. Embracing the “domino theory” – if the pro-Western government of South Vietnam fell, all of Southeast Asia would come under Communist control – President Dwight D. Eisenhower sent military advisors, technical support and foreign aid. As the viability of the South Vietnamese government grew more tenuous, the Kennedy administration increased aid and the number of military advisors. 

President Lyndon Johnson deployed combat troops to Southeast Asia. The Vietnam War went poorly for the United States and its allies. An unpopular war, the Vietnam conflict divided America into hawks and doves while ending the forward thrust of civil rights and social welfare reforms. The Vietnamization strategy of President Richard Nixon relied increasingly on airpower. Nonetheless, Vietnam proved an unwinnable quagmire for the U.S. More than three million Vietnamese and approximately 58,220 Americans were killed during the war. Many others suffered physical and emotional wounds.

On January 27, 1973, the Paris Peace Accords, signed by the U.S. and other combatants, brought an official end to the Vietnam War and a brief faux peace. Fighting soon resumed, but absent American ground troops and airpower. With the fall of Saigon on April 30, 1975, the communists completed their conquest of the South and unification of Vietnam. Panic engulfed former government, military and business leaders of South Vietnam, who feared the bloodbath that years of propaganda had foretold. 

Little advance evacuation planning preceded the fall of South Vietnam. With the first wave numbering about 150,000, refugees fled by foot, aircraft and boat. Enduring danger and hardship, numerous “boat people” perished. Makeshift refugee camps sprouted in several, often inhospitable, Asian nations. 

Many Americans opposed admission of Vietnamese refugees. U.S. unemployment stood at a post-war high of 9.2 percent in 1975. Stagflation, coupled with widespread disillusionment about the Vietnam War, posed barriers. To his credit, President Gerald Ford insisted on an American obligation to a people who had stood with us as allies for years. On May 23, 1975, Congress passed the Indochina Migration and Refugee Assistance Act admitting the initial Vietnamese refugees under parole status. Ford personally greeted a Baby Lift and cradled an infant in his arms. Many of the refugees were initially processed in Guam. 

The Indochinese refugees, overwhelmingly Vietnamese, were confined to four facilities: Camp Pendelton (CA), Eglin Air Force Base (FL), Fort Chaffee (AR) and Fort Indiantown Gap (PA). In most cases, the Vietnamese could not leave the camps until they had a sponsor willing to take responsibility for their basic needs until the attainment of self-sufficiency. 

I spent much of summer 1975 and part of the fall at Indiantown Gap. Through the Pittsburgh YMCA, I volunteered to teach about life in America and to assist youth recreation programs. With experience as a teacher, camp counselor, playground director and coach, I felt that I could contribute. My graduate training at Carnegie Mellon University provided a framework for engaging immigration and ethnicity. And as the grandson of Russian Jewish immigrants, I felt that assisting Vietnamese refugees was something that I should do. 

The first Indochinese refugees arrived at Indiantown Gap in late May 1975 and the last left the camp in late December. At its peak, Indiantown Gap domiciled nearly 20,000 Indochinese, primarily Vietnamese. There were also a few hundred Cambodians. I did not encounter Laotians. Amongst the Vietnamese, family units from the educated urban Catholic elite predominated, but there were substantial numbers of single men formerly in the military, peasant farmers, fishermen and Buddhists. The refugees were housed in barracks that held about 100 people. A flimsy barracks partition might separate the living space of young former Vietnamese soldiers from that of a family. 

Indiantown Gap, administered by the federal Interagency Task Force (IATF) and the military, was divided into six sectors. Technically, the refugees were not considered to have yet entered the U.S. Rather, they were designated parolees at a military base and not free to leave the camp volitionally. The Army presence was ubiquitous. Refugees could not exit the camp until a sponsor, typically a host family or organization, assumed an obligation for their welfare as long as needed. Refugees had some, but not total, voice in their sponsorship placement. Indiantown Gap was meant to be a transitory experience of a few months’ duration, transforming camp refugees into American immigrants. The camp bureaucracy didn’t want the adults to get too comfortable and form a real community, so my proposals to utilize their talents were rejected. Despite the limitations of camp life, many refugees developed “campitis,” fearing dispersal into the larger American society. 

I spent a lot of time encouraging, organizing and officiating recreational activities, particularly sports. Volleyball, soccer, tetherball, badminton and ping pong ranked amongst favorites. To combat dust and heat, we took youngsters to a concrete slab where military vehicles were washed and turned the hoses on them. I made the mistake of organizing a Vietnamese-Cambodian softball game, an event that nearly descended into chaos when ethnic antagonisms and my inability to cross language barriers precluded adequate explanation of why a fielder armed with a ball could sometimes trigger an out by touching third base with a foot and sometimes could not. 

My attempts to teach English as a second language faltered. Assisted by a slide carousel, I was able to generate interest in presentations about the geographic and social diversity of America. Images of snow created anxiety about falling temperatures. Downtime away from formal activities provided some of the most meaningful opportunities for candid discussion and information sharing. I remember two brothers, enamored of Vincent van Gogh’s art, who frequently referenced Don McLean’s “Starry, Starry Night” lyrics. They aspired to go to the University of Rochester for engineering studies. 

Each refugee carried a distinct story. In his early 40s, Mr. Minh arrived with his 10 children and mother-in-law. His wife survived wounds sustained during an assassination attempt on Mr. Minh, but succumbed to cancer before the fall of Saigon. In Vietnam, he was a bank president, owner of 20,000 acres of agricultural land and influential in government circles. In Vietnam, the family enjoyed a very comfortable lifestyle, which Mr. Minh displayed through scrapbook photos. His dream was to accumulate enough capital for the family to buy a McDonald’s. Ambition and determination were also evident in Mr. Minh’s 15-year-old son Ai, who prevailed upon me to obtain an unabridged English-Vietnamese dictionary for him. Subsequently, Ai requested that I come to his barracks. At the entrance, he said, “Welcome to my abode. Welcome to my domicile.” Ai had risen at 4 am to study the dictionary. 

Pittsburgh’s St. Bede Church sponsored the Minh family. For the next two years, Mike Pini, a fellow Indiantown Gap volunteer and my dear friend, and I stayed in contact with the Minh family. Initially, Mr. Minh took a daily two-hour round trip by bus to Washington, PA, where he worked the graveyard shift as a bank guard. His oldest daughters, Lan, 18, and Thuy, 17, found employment as cafeteria workers at the Carnegie Museum. I hope that the Minh family found their golden arches. 

The U.S. government invited Catholic Charities, the Red Cross and other support groups, including HIAS, to play a service role at Indiantown Gap. HIAS provided a formal Jewish institutional presence at the camp. Originally founded in the late 19th century as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society to assist Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, HIAS, still imbued with Jewish values, evolved into a global organization for all refugees. At Indiantown Gap, HIAS helped meet the needs of Vietnamese refugees and played a major role in securing host sponsors for them. 

My Aunt Rhoda set the Passover cup of Elijah in an American context. She said that we open the door to welcome the stranger who might be without a seder place. During much of Jewish history, we have wandered in the Diaspora. We must not forget our liberation from Egyptian slavery nor that in another age we found a home in America, a nation of immigrants. The words of the Jewish poetess Emma Lazarus provide welcome at the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free… I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”