LAWRENCE — When more than 130,000 Vietnamese began to flee after the fall of Saigon in April 1975 and the U.S. withdrawal, one seemingly forgotten part of history is the massive effort to bring a majority of the refugees to the United States via Guam.
Felix Moos, a University of Kansas professor emeritus of anthropology, was the cultural anthropologist who consulted with the Navy's Operation New Life, led by Rear Admiral George Morrison. As part of Operation New Life, more than 100,000 Vietnamese were transported to Guam, which became basically Ellis Island for an entire generation of Vietnamese-Americans. Today is the 40th anniversary of the beginning of the operation on April 23, 1975.
Moos worked primarily in an area known as Orote Point, an old Japanese airstrip in Guam, that housed roughly 39,000 Vietnamese refugees. A "Tent City" there had to be built from scratch as they accepted nearly 5,000 residents per day for a time.
"When you have that many people being in a somewhat precarious psychological state, you really need to know how to deal with them," Moos said. "In any refugee situation, where you have more than a few thousand, you really need the military, but you also need anthropologists who have worked in that particular culture."
Moos worked with Morrison — the father of The Doors lead singer Jim Morrison — and military personnel to help house the influx of Vietnamese men, women and children who stopped in Guam before most immigrated to the United States or other countries.
Moos, who served in the military during the Korean War and knew Morrison from earlier work in Micronesia, was brought in to Operation New Life as a cultural anthropologist to help bridge the cultural gap between the military and the Vietnamese. The operation included many challenges such as making sure to build enough housing to keep up with demand and building proper latrines on the fly to accommodate waste on the island, he said.
Thousands of Vietnamese were able to eventually come to the United States from Guam to the various places across the nation, including Kansas, Wisconsin, Minnesota, California and elsewhere.
"For the people who immigrated, it was a success," Moos said. "It showed that in some ways America was ready to receive the Vietnamese. We flew them to Guam, which meant, let's figure out what to do with them."
Moos said Operation New Life has received little historical attention because it's often associated with the end of the Vietnam War and its unpopularity.
He said lessons still apply today, though, on how to manage large influxes of immigrants, especially with situations in the Middle East, including Iraq, Syria and Libya.
"Those who neglect history are condemned to repeat it," Moos said.
He also said he hoped Operation New Life can show the importance of fieldwork for anthropologists, particularly in the significance of enlisting scholars and researchers with expertise of other cultures.
"We shouldn't just produce degrees. We should produce people who have done field work and are multi-experienced," Moos said, "and who can use a discipline like anthropology in a practical way in everyday life."
Photo: Felix Moos, a University of Kansas professor emeritus of Anthropology, is shown conducting fieldwork in Southeast Asia in 1970s. Moos served as a cultural anthropologist who consulted with the U.S. Navy’s Operation New Life, which began 40 years ago on April 23, 1975, in Guam. The operation helped house thousands of immigrants who fled Vietnam and eventually moved to the United States.