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This is the post excerpt.

I have been writing since I was six years old. I now have four novels and seventeen stories in print.

My first published book, Friendly Casualties, was a novel in short stories derived from experiences in the 13 years I trundled between the U.S. and Vietnam to provide signals intelligence support to U.S. Army and Marine combat units fighting in South Vietnam. The first half of the book is a series of short stories in which characters from one story reappear in another. The second half is a novella that draws together all the preceding tales.

No-Accounts came from my years of caring for AIDS patients. It tells the story of a straight man caring for a gay man dying of AIDS. I got into helping men with AIDS to help me cope with the horrors of Post-Traumatic Stress Injury. When I was with my patients, men suffering more than I was, my unbearable memories went dormant.

Next came The Trion Syndrome. It begins with the Greek Trion legend about a demigod so brutal to the vanquished that the gods sent the Eucharides, three female monsters, to drown him. The protagonist, Dave Bell, is haunted by half-remembered visions of the war in Vietnam. At his lowest point, he recalls that he killed a child. Dave considers suicide, but a young man appears and helps him. It is his illegitimate son, a child he had tried to kill through abortion, who now helps him find his way home.

Last of the Annamese was published in March 2017. I used this novel to confront my memories of the fall of Saigon from which I escaped under fire. Once again, the image of the boy-child recurs, as the protagonist, Chuck Griffin, a retired Marine, grieves over the loss of his son, killed in combat in Vietnam. He returns to Vietnam as a civilian intelligence analyst after the withdrawal of U.S. troops and encounters Vietnamese boys whom he tries to save during the conflagration.

 

The 1967 Battle of Dak To

Last Tuesday, I gave a presentation on the battle of Dak To at the main branch of the Howard County Library system. I’ve never told the full story here, so I will now.

The village of Dak To is in Vietnam’s Kontum Province, in the midst of the western highlands. It’s a barren mountainous area along the Laotian and Cambodian borders. I, an NSA civilian, was in the highlands beginning in September 1967 working with a small team of soldiers providing signals intelligence support to the U.S. 4th Infantry Division and the 173rd Airborne Brigade.

The Vietnamese Communist headquarters in the western highlands was the B3 Front, in effect a corps headquarters with the equivalent of several divisions operating under it. We knew, from intercepting and analyzing the communications of the front, that it was a direct subordinate of the North Vietnamese High Command in Hanoi. Its status was that of a military region headquarters.

In September and October of 1967, we watched from Engineer Hill in the province of Pleiku, just north of Kontum, as the front prepared for combat throughout the highlands. The North Vietnamese 1st Division and its three subordinate regiments, all having infiltrated from North Vietnam, moved toward the U.S. Special Forces Camp near Dak To. 

In the midst of all this, one day we got an airborne radio direction finding fix on an unidentified North Vietnamese unit operating only twenty kilometers from us. It was using radio procedures reserved for combat. Other North Vietnamese units were nearby. One of my guys wrote up a quick spot report to alert the 4th infantry and the 173rd and gave to me for editing. I decided instead to poke it immediately into our comms equipment to get it to the division and brigade as soon as possible. While I was typing, we came under attack.

More tomorrow.

Xuan Loc (7)

As reported yesterday, the ambassador didn’t believe the signals intelligence evidence that the attack on Saigon was imminent. He didn’t order an evacuation. By the time he was countermanded from Washington in the predawn hours of 29 April, the North Vietnamese were already in the streets of the city. We were unable to extract the 2700 south Vietnamese soldiers that had worked with my organization. All were killed or captured by the North Vietnamese.

I escaped under fire that night. I was later diagnosed with amoebic dysentery, ear damage from the shelling, and pneumonia due to inadequate diet, sleep deprivation, and muscle fatigue. And I was one of the lucky ones.

My own survival and my ability to keep going for days despite lack of sleep and food are testimonies to what the human body can live through when the goal is more important than survival. We are amazing creatures.

It is now clear that the battle of Xuan Loc was a clarion alarm that the end was at hand. It was ignored. Incalculable loss of human life resulted.

Xuan Loc (6)

The fall of Xuan Loc was the final signal that Saigon was doomed. But the U.S. Ambassador, Graham Martin, didn’t accept the evidence of a forthcoming assault on the city. The following is a recap of my final briefing to the ambassador days before Saigon fell. It is quoted from Last of the Annamese. I tell the story from the point of view of Chuck Griffin, the novel’s protagonist:

Chuck opened the briefing book on the desk with the pages facing the Ambassador. He reviewed the status of North Vietnamese forces within striking range. “Sir, the situation is critical. The fall of Xuan Loc removed the last barrier to the North Vietnamese approach to Saigon. We know from signals intelligence that sixteen to eighteen North Vietnamese divisions now surround us, poised to invade Saigon. An intercepted message early this morning sent by an unidentified North Vietnamese unit two kilometers north of Tan Son Nhat told a subordinate to await the order to attack.”

The Ambassador glanced at his watch.

“Our best estimate,” Chuck went on, “is that the enemy won’t be completely ready to move against us for another two to three days. But the North Vietnamese are in no hurry. The South Vietnamese military is crumbling fast. We expect that when the attack begins, we’ll be hit first with rockets and mortars, then artillery as enemy troops enter the city.”

The Ambassador gave him a patient smile. “Anything else?”

Chuck’s mouth opened in surprise. “Sir?”

The Ambassador stood. “If there’s nothing more, I need to get on to other matters.”

Chuck stumbled to his feet. He took a deep breath, stood straight, and calmed himself. “Forgive me, sir, but we have little time left to get U.S. citizens and vulnerable South Vietnamese out of the country before it falls to the North Vietnamese.”

The Ambassador came from behind his desk and rested his hand on Chuck’s back as if to urge him toward the office door. “Thank you, Mr. Griffin. I’ll handle it from here.”

Despite the pressure from the Ambassador’s hand, Chuck didn’t move. “Mr. Ambassador, to save lives, I plead with you to order the evacuation immediately. Even if we start now—”

The Ambassador put his arm around Chuck and edged him toward the door. “Young man,” he said as they moved away from the desk, “when you’re older, you’ll understand these things better.”

At the door, the Ambassador smiled, showed Chuck out, and closed the door. The tingle at the base of Chuck’s spine peaked.

More tomorrow.

Xuan Loc (5)

During the night of 26 April 1975, I was trying unsuccessfully to sleep in my office when a blast threw me from my cot and slammed me to the floor. I ran to the comms center. The few remaining guys not yet evacuated looked dazed, but everything was working, and nobody was hurt. A bulletin arrived within minutes telling us that North Vietnamese sappers had blown up the ammo dump at Bien Hoa, just north of us. That meant, among other things, that panic in the streets of Saigon would ramp up a couple of notches.

The next day, 27 April, we learned that the last small contingent of South Vietnamese forces who survived the battle of Xuan Loc had abandoned the city. It was now firmly under North Vietnamese control. The last obstacle to the siege of Saigon was removed. I described that series of events in Last of the Annamese:

“Wednesday morning, Chuck learned from a Liberation Radio transcript that the explosion had been the mammoth ammo dump at Bien Hoa, less than eighteen miles northeast of them. Friendly after-action reports confirmed that enemy sappers had penetrated the perimeter. The airbase, the largest still in the hands of the South Vietnamese, had been hit the day before with rockets and artillery, and the runway had been closed for repairs. Meanwhile, the defense of Xuan Loc was over. Withdrawal had begun. The enemy’s pincers were closing.”

Xuan Loc (4)

As the fall of Saigon came closer, I worked harder to assure that none of my people or their families would be caught in the city after the North Vietnamese seized it. After my wife and four children were evacuated, I moved from our villa to my office and slept on a cot in front to of my desk with a .38 revolver under my pillow.

I was somehow becoming inured to lack of rest, and my emotional reaction to the disasters surrounding me became muted as I gave all my attention and strength to getting my people who were still in Saigon out of the country. As reported in Last of the Annamese:

“The North Vietnamese had turned the Xuan Loc battle into a meat grinder. They were willing to sacrifice unit after unit to drive out the South Vietnamese 18th Division and seize the town. Somehow the endless reports of gore and annihilation no longer moved [the novel’s protagonist] Chuck. Was there such a thing as disaster fatigue?”

Fellow writer Bruce Curley assures me there is such a thing. The human psyche is able to sublimate physical and psychological needs into strength to achieve a higher goal. I honestly believe that I am living evidence of that human capability.

Xuan Loc fell to the communists on 21 April 1975, but skirmishes on the city’s perimeter continued.

More tomorrow.

Xuan Loc (3)

Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, fell to the Khmer Rouge, the Cambodian communists allied to North Vietnam, on 17 April 1975. Communist conquest of Southeast Asia was almost complete. The battle for Xuan Loc, less than 40 miles northeast of  Saigon, reached new levels of savagery. Here’s the description of the situation from Last of the Annamese:

“In the tank, he [Chuck Griffin, the protagonist] read the incoming dispatches. The battle for Xuan Loc raged on. Elements of the North Vietnamese 7th Division had joined the 341st in the battle. Liberation Radio urged the populace to rebel against the South Vietnamese government. Chuck pulled together signals intelligence, prisoner interrogation reports, and aerial photography and concluded that the North Vietnamese had set up a corps headquarters in Phuoc Long Province. It commanded four divisions, two of which were dispatched to the battle for Xuan Loc. Two more divisions were moving toward Saigon.

“Then came the word they’d been expecting: Phnom Penh had fallen to the Khmer Rouge, the Cambodian Communists allied to North Vietnam. One more domino down.”

More tomorrow.

Xuan Loc (2)

By the middle of April 1975, I was feeling the drag of overwork and lack of sleep. But the demands of the job allowed little time for rest. Here’s more from Last of the Annamese on the protagonist’s struggle to keep himself going as the loss of Xuan Loc loomed:

“Thursday morning, Chuck sent Sparky back home without him. Too much was happening. Muscles aching, eyelids like sandpaper, he tracked the probes by the North Vietnamese 341st Division against Xuan Loc. The town had been subjected to an artillery bombardment of 4,000 rounds, one of the heaviest in the war, and enemy tanks were in the streets. At 1800, Sparky was back, helping him track hand-to-hand combat that lasted until dark when friendly forces drove the North Vietnamese from the city. [Chuck’s boss, Colonel] Troiano commanded Chuck to go home and rest. Starting Friday he’d be on the day shift. That meant from before 0700 until long after dark. On the cusp of incoherence, he was afraid to drive. A cab dropped him at Yen Do. He went straight to bed without eating.”

I had a problem Chuck didn’t face: getting my people out of the country despite the ambassador’s order that no evacuations would be allowed. I lied, cheated, and stole to get my people and their families safely out of Saigon. That added to the stress on my weary body and soul.

More tomorrow.