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Taste Of Ginger: The 1975 Vietnamese Refugee Reception Center At Eglin Air Force Base

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A new book looks at how the Ft. Walton Beach community rallied together to help Vietnamese refugees fleeing after the fall of Saigon. The book not only shares a slice of local history, it’s also being used as a teaching tool at UWF.

The book - Taste of Ginger is about the 1975 Vietnamese Refugee Reception Center at Eglin Air Force Base. It was co-written by John Woods, who was stationed at Eglin for almost 12 years, “You’ve got to set up some housing, for an unknown number of individuals, coming from a foreign country, that probably cannot speak the language, and you have to have all of the facilities available to them.”

In a recent talk at the Fort Walton Beach Library, Woods said he was unaware the Vietnamese Refugee camp existed (at Eglin) in the summer of ’75. But, he found out the scope of what was involved in setting up the camp when he agreed to help research the material located ‘on base,’ You don’t know exactly how many you’re going to get. Are they going to come all at once, are they going to come in groups, is it going to be sequenced out.  Is it going to be even? How’s it going to be?”

It turned out to be a “tent city” involving over 500 tents that were constructed over the course of about 4-5 days.

In addition to Eglin, the State Department authorized three other reception centers in Arkansas, California, and Pennsylvania.

Woods says the location at Eglin was a good choice because it had plenty of open space. It also had some infrastructure, including several buildings, a water tower, and a telephone system, all of which needed a bit of fixing.

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According to Woods, what it didn’t have was a lot of security, which helped the refugees feel more at ease, “They felt more comfortable at Eglin. Eglin did not have a fence at that time. They had a rope that went around, and that rope was the barrier. And basically they were supposed to stay within inside the rope.  You didn’t have a chain linked fence up put up, most of the camps had a chain linked fence or some way to prevent them from going off the land.”

But Woods believes the biggest thing emphasized in the book was the contribution of volunteers at the camp, Because without them this couldn’t have happened, there would be no way. And we even heard through letters (that are not in the book) from people who wrote back that left Eglin to go to other camps. And that the other camps were nothing like Eglin was.”

“And they were met there by a volunteer.”

That’s UWF professor and co-author, Dr. Susan Jans-Thomas, noting the efforts of the local residents from the moment the refugees arrived, “So a volunteer was assigned to someone as he or she or the family got off the plane. And then the volunteers got into their cars and the Vietnamese refugees got on to buses and were taken up the road to the camp.”

Jans-Thomas is on the faculty of the Department of Research and Advance Studies at UWF and is also the Director of the doctoral program in Diversity Studies and the Director of the Civil Rights Research Lab.

She says in her research for the book, she found what happened in the food tents to be most interesting, “They came in and set up the kitchen, and the first meals that they served they used Minute Rice. And nobody was eating the Minute Rice. It wasn’t a matter of them being ungrateful; it just didn’t taste like rice to them. So, they said they wanted real rice. So they got the real rice. And then after just a little while, they graciously said “You don’t know how to cook” and the refugees took over the kitchen. “

Dr. Jans-Thomas says she also discovered some special relationships that developed between some of the host families and the refugees…such as the Halls and the Tu family, who were separated from their three children when they arrived, “The Halls befriended them over time. And they were sponsored by the United Methodist Church and their children all ended up going to FWB High School. The grandmother, so the matriarch of the family knew that Mr. Hall loved a little taste of ginger every now and then and every time she came over she brought him a little piece of ginger”

Thus the name of the book…Taste of Ginger.

Dr. Jans-Thomas says the idea for the book sprang from her Qualitative 1 research class and highlights her effort to pull in various individuals, including John Woods, to do research for the book.

The refugee reception center at Eglin would eventually house and process more than 10,000 Southeast Asian refugees, until it was forced to close by Hurricane Eloise, which made landfall near Destin in September of 1975.

In 1975, the resettlement camp was located at Field Two. Today, the area is 10 miles north of the East Gate on Highway 285 and is identified on maps as Site C-3 and is currently used as base installation security system testing.

A tabletop exhibit and slideshow illustrating the times at Vietnamese Refugee camp is now display at the John C. Pace Library located on the UWF main campus.