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Plaque honouring 2,885 Vietnamese who went through Sopley Camp unveiled at Friends of New Forest Airfields Heritage Centre

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A SPECIAL plaque has been unveiled at Sopley to honour its role in providing a home to Vietnamese refugees who were rescued from maritime disaster.

Five people who lived there – Tran Quan Duc, Loc Kin Wah, who changed his name to Michael Lock, Hoang Ngoc My, Tu Ngoc Long and Tu Thai Hai – returned for the occasion.

They were among 2,885 Vietnamese refugees who were hosted by the former RAF camp, which has recently been redeveloped with the Heatherstone housing complex, over three years from May 1979 to September 1982.

From left - Tran Quan Duc, Loc Kin Wah (now Michael Lock), Hoang Ngoc My, Tu Ngoc Long, Tu Thai Hai at RAF Sopley Camp for the plaque unveiling (Photo: Steve West)
From left - Tran Quan Duc, Loc Kin Wah (now Michael Lock), Hoang Ngoc My, Tu Ngoc Long, Tu Thai Hai at RAF Sopley Camp for the plaque unveiling (Photo: Steve West)

The plaque has been installed at the Friends of the New Forest Airfields (Fonfa) Heritage Centre – the sole camp building which is still standing today.

Joining the refugees were some who worked at the camp, including 96-year-old doctor Gordon Hickish, Helen Clifford, who was a field worker, and administrator Karyn Smith.

Dr Henry Goodall, Fonfa chair of trustees, Sopley Parish Council chairman Cllr Andrew Rawstron and vice-chairman Cllr Kamya Brake were also present, alongside Albert Marsh – chairman of the Heatherstone Residents’ Association.

“The unveiling of the plaque went really, really well,” Karyn said. “Working on the camp was just such an incredible experience – it was the best job that I ever worked in.”

Sopley was called into action after British ship SS Sibonga located and rescued fishing vessels in the south China seas. They had 1,003 migrants onboard who had been stranded for three days and were desperate, hungry and thirsty.

Of those, 600 were initially transferred to the then-empty camp on 21st May 1979; their relatives and more refugees later arrived over the camp’s duration.

They lived in 33 huts on site and to help them, a host of health, education and social programmes were launched, while locals donated clothing, and a cinema was set up and hosted discos.

Locals also journeyed into the village to buy items from the local shops – which displayed prices and items in Vietnamese and Cantonese – while a football team was formed and a group of young dancers took part in the 1980 Christchurch Folk Festival.

After spending time at the camp the refugees were dispersed around the UK, with some going on to become doctors and many running their own businesses.

Helen added: “It was just the most unique place and the most unique working experience I think I have ever had. The refugees were gentle, friendly and welcoming.”

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