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Vietnamese Refugees in Orange County: Background information when reading The Recruit

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The Recruit by Alan Drew

The Recruit

A Novel

by Alan Drew
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  • First Published:
  • Jun 14, 2022
  • Paperback:
  • Aug 2023
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About This Book

Vietnamese Refugees in Orange County

This article relates to The Recruit

Print Review

Black and white photo of refugees deboarding planeAfter the South Vietnamese capital of Saigon fell to North Vietnamese military forces in April 1975, hundreds of thousands of South Vietnamese escaped to American ships off the coast, either by boat or helicopter. In Alan Drew's The Recruit, the character Bao Phan is one of these refugees. The International Rescue Committee (IRC) estimates that over two million people left Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia in the 20 years after the fall of Saigon, and by 1992, more than a million had been admitted to the U.S.

One of the points of arrival for refugees was the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station near Irvine, California. In the late 1970s, El Toro received tens of thousands of refugees fleeing the war-torn region. After their first steps on American soil at El Toro, the refugees were bundled onto buses for a 30-minute drive to relocation centers at Camp Pendleton (also a storyline feature in Drew's novel). In these relocation centers, relief organizations such as the IRC helped the new arrivals find housing and jobs, provided education and skills training, and helped them integrate into the social, cultural and economic life of their new environment. According to the organization, the IRC was a crucial factor in helping some 120,000 refugees "put down new roots in America."

Though the El Toro air base was decommissioned in 1999, it is remembered as an important part of Vietnamese American history. In a fascinating and moving article in the Los Angeles Times, written at the time of the base's closure, Marine lieutenant Quang X. Pham, who was stationed there in 1990, declared it the "Vietnamese Ellis Island." Over 50,000 refugees landed at El Toro, which explains the large number of Vietnamese Americans who have called Orange County home for years, since many who received help at Camp Pendleton eventually settled in the area. According to the LA Times article, more than 200,000 Vietnamese Americans were living in Orange County in 1999, making it the largest Vietnamese community outside of Vietnam, and their presence can in large part be traced to El Toro. (The Vietnamese population in Orange County was roughly 189,000 in 2011 according to a U.S. Census Bureau community survey.) For Lieutenant Pham, El Toro was "more than just a base...it's a place of history for my people," and "...part of the Vietnamese American experience."

Refugees fleeing Saigon arrive at El Toro Air Force Base, courtesy of the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration (NARA)

Filed under People, Eras & Events

Article by Peggy Kurkowski

This "beyond the book article" relates to The Recruit. It originally ran in July 2022 and has been updated for the August 2023 paperback edition. Go to magazine.

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