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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.

To be published in March 2017 is Last of the Annamese. 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.

 

April 1975 in Vietnam (15)

More on the happenings 43 years ago, in April 1975, during the fall of Saigon:

The Ambassador was doing everything he could to throw roadblocks in the way of Colonel Al Gray and his Marines flying in daily from ships of the U.S. 7th Fleet cruising in the South China Sea to prepare for the evacuation of Saigon. He wouldn’t allow Al’s Marines to dress in uniform, fly their own helicopters into the country, or stay overnight. So Al and his troops, in civilian clothes, had to fly in and out each day on Air America slicks, the little Hueys, the UH-1 choppers that could only carry eight to fourteen people. Al’s form of protest against the Ambassador’s restrictions were his wild Hawaiian shirt—colors so bright they hurt my eyes—shorts, and flip-flops

It didn’t matter. Ambassador or no Ambassador, the Marines had landed. They’d be ready for the evacuation the instant it was ordered.

During my next daylight recon of the compound, I saw 55-gallon drums ranged along the perimeter fence. I asked one of Al’s buzzcuts why they were there. He said the drums were filled with combustible material, probably gasoline, and wired: if the North Vietnamese penetrated the perimeter, the barrels would be detonated to wipe them out.

Another tour of the parking lot took me into a surreal world. Marines and civilians were cramming cars, my small white sedan among them, onto the side of the building by driving them into one another so that they formed a compacted mass. That done, the drivers turned their attention to the half-dozen cars still in the parking lot, large black sedans (including mine) and one jeep. These they used as ramming devices, crushing the heap of cars more tightly together. Then they turned the now-mangled sedans on the tennis courts. Again and again, they backed their vehicles to the perimeter and burned rubber to smash into the poles holding the fence around the courts until they tore out of the pavement. Next they used the cars as battering rams, flattening the nets and court fencing against the building. Lastly, they ground the vehicles they were driving into the jumble of mashed automobiles. The area between the fence and the wall of the building was now clear.

It dawned on me what was going on. The small Air America slicks, bringing the Marines in from the 7th Fleet, had been able to get into and out of the compound one at a time, without hitting parked cars or the tennis courts, but the much larger Marine CH-53’s—each could carry 55 troops loaded for combat—needed more unobstructed space, especially if two or three were in the compound at the same time. One more obstacle to our escape had been removed.

April 1975 in Vietnam (14)

Continuing my narrative about what happened in Saigon in April 1975:

During the night of 26 April, I was trying unsuccessfully to get some sleep in my office at Tan Son Nhat, on the northern edge of Saigon, when a blast threw me from my cot and slammed me to the floor. I ran to the comms center. The guys 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 would ramp up a couple of notches.

I started doing regular physical recons of the DAO building, that huge structure we called “Pentagon East” where our offices were located and where we were now sleeping. Sometimes I took out a load of burnbags to the incinerator in the parking lot and burned them; other times I just wandered around. I wanted to be sure I knew beforehand if the North Vietnamese were going to breach the perimeter fence. As I walked the halls and crisscrossed the compound, I saw brawny young American men with skinhead haircuts who had appeared out of nowhere. They were dressed in tank tops or tee-shirts, shorts, and tennis shoes. When two or three walked together, they fell into step, as if marching.

Marines in mufti! I knew all the Marines in country, and I didn’t recognize any of these guys. What the hell was going on?

I found out the next day. I was again trying to grab a little much-needed sleep in my office. The door chime sounded. I grasped my .38 and went to the door. Through the peephole I saw a middle-aged American man in a neon Hawaiian shirt, shorts, and rubber flip-flops. He gave me a flat-handed wave and a silly grin. It was Colonel Al Gray, a Marine officer I’d worked with over the years in Vietnam. I’d never before seen Al out of uniform—I didn’t think he owned any civies—and I knew he made it an iron-clad rule never to spend more than 24 hours in Saigon—his work was with his troops in the field and he disliked bureaucracy. I lowered the .38 and opened the door. “Hi,” he said. “Can I come in?”

In my office, I told him everything I knew about the military situation, but he knew more than I did. What he didn’t know in detail was what was going on with the friendlies. I told him about the unruly, desperate crowds jamming the streets and now ten to fifteen people deep outside the perimeter fence of our compound and my worry that the fence might not hold. He explained to me that he’d been named the Ground Security Officer—the man in charge—for the evacuation of Saigon once it was ordered.

More tomorrow.

April 1975 in Vietnam (13)

More on what happened 43 years ago, in April 1975, in Saigon:

I reported earlier on my attempts to help families to escape. I also tried and failed to evacuate a South Vietnamese officer and his family. Each of those efforts required me to drive through the streets of the city, now overwhelmed by mobs of refugees.

I had ahead of me one more foray through the throngs in the streets. I got through the hordes to the embassy and pleaded with the Ambassador to evacuate everybody as soon as possible, citing signals intelligence evidence that a North Vietnamese assault on the city was imminent. I repeated what I’d been reporting to him hourly, that Saigon was surrounded by sixteen to eighteen North Vietnamese divisions, poised to strike. Communist troops less than two kilometers north of my office at the airport were awaiting the command to attack.

The Ambassador put his arm around my shoulder and guided me to the door. “Young man, when you’re older, you’ll understand these things better.” He showed me out.

Frantic, I went down the hall to the office of the CIA Chief of Station, Tom Polgar. He laughed at my frenzy and showed me a cable to Washington the Ambassador had released that morning. It stated that forecasts of a forthcoming assault on Saigon could be disregarded. It was all due to the Communists’ skillful use of “communications deception.” Stunned, I asked Tom what evidence the ambassador had of communications deception. He waved my question away and bet me a bottle of champagne, chateau and vintage of my choice, that he and I would both still be in Saigon a year hence, still at our desks, still doing business as usual.

Even though I ran into him months later in the Washington, Tom Polgar never made good on that bet.

I finally understood what was going on. The embassy was a victim of what sociologists now call Groupthink Syndrome—firm ideology, immune to fact, shared by all members of a coterie. The Ambassador, and therefore his subordinates, could not countenance the prospect of a Communist South Vietnam and therefore dismissed evidence of the coming disaster. Graham Martin later told Congress he had been advised by the Hungarian member of the International Commission of Control and Supervision, the ICCS, that the North Vietnamese had no intention of conquering Saigon; they wished to form a coalition government with “all patriotic forces in the south.” This from a representative of a Communist government allied to North Vietnam. And the Ambassador believed him in the face of overwhelming signals intelligence that the attack was at hand.

On 24 April, the wire services, which we monitored, reported a speech that President Ford had given the previous day at Tulane. He referred to Vietnam as “a war that is finished.” My cynicism overcame my dread. If the war was finished, what was I, a civilian signals intelligence officer and potential prisoner of singular value to the Communists—in short, a spy—doing in a combat zone with nothing better than a .38 revolver to defend myself against eighteen North Vietnamese divisions?

More tomorrow.

April 1975 in Vietnam (12)

Continuing my narrative of events 43 years ago in Saigon: So much happened that to report most of it (there was too much to report it all) before the end April 2018, I need jump ahead a couple of days to 21 April 1975. The following is adapted from my article, “Bitter Memories: The Fall of Saigon”:

On 21 April 1975, Xuan Loc, 40 miles northeast of us, fell ending a heroic defense by the South Vietnamese 18th Infantry Division. Communist forces proceeded to encircle us. The same day, the president of the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam), Nguyen van Thieu, resigned and fled the country.

I instructed my comms center to reduce to the minimum the number of copies it made of each new incoming message. We bagged documents as soon as we read them and burned them in the incinerator in the DAO parking lot, then stirred the ashes to assure that nothing was left legible. I turned my full attention to persuading the Ambassador that the remaining Americans and the Vietnamese who had worked with us had to leave the country before we were captured or killed. In that task, to my undying regret, I failed.

On 22 April, the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency estimated that the Republic of Vietnam wouldn’t last more than a week. It was comforting to see that the Department of Defense and Commander-in-Chief, Pacific harbored no delusions about what was happening in Vietnam. But the Ambassador was not in their chain of command. He reported to the Secretary of State and the President. Unless they overruled him, he still had the power to keep us all in Saigon. He convinced them no evacuation was necessary.

Despite that, outgoing commercial airlines were choked with passengers, and U.S. Air Force C-130 and C-141 transports daily carted hundreds of Vietnamese and Americans out of the country. The embassy made a point of explaining that their departure was not an evacuation. It was a reduction in force to free up resources to help the Republic of Vietnam.

I didn’t know how much longer I’d be able to get out and about. As the North Vietnamese came closer, refugees fled them and jammed in Saigon. The crowds in the streets were becoming larger and more menacing. Some of the men, in ragged Republic of Vietnam military uniforms, were armed. I knew the danger, but several trips were crucial. I told my Vietnamese driver, who usually ferried me around town, to use his U.S. pass to drive his family onto the military side of Tan Son Nhat in the black sedan assigned to me, a Ford Galaxy with diplomatic plates and American flags, and escape while they still could. Then I took over the sedan. Armed with my .38, I drove it rather than my small Japanese car, foolishly believing that the impressive official vehicle would ward off the massed refugees.

I had it exactly backwards.

The sedan attracted the most desperate of those seeking evacuation. I was mobbed once, but when I bared my teeth and leveled the .38, the crowd pulled back just enough for me to force my way through.

More tomorrow.

April 1975 in Vietnam (11)

Continuing the story of my struggle to get people safely out of South Vietnam as the fall of Saigon loomed:

I made it my business to save two Vietnamese families.

One was well-to-do, living in an exclusive neighborhood. I went to their house, explained that I’d help them leave the country. They were insulted. They assured me that there was no danger and Saigon would not fall to the communists and sent me away. Months later, I ran into them in the U.S. They had escaped at the end and now upbraided me for not helping them.

The other was a poor family related to one of the servants in our villa. I hid them in my sedan—some in the trunk, others on the floor by the back seat, covered with a blanket—and drove onto the air base at Tan Son Nhat, on the northern edge of Saigon, using my U.S.-issued pass to get through the gate manned by South Vietnamese police who would not have admitted them. I drove to the airstrip and let them out, telling them to get on any aircraft they could to escape the country. Months later, back in the U.S., they contacted me to thank me for saving their lives.

More tomorrow.

April 1975 in Vietnam (10)

On 17 April 1975, as I went on living in my office at Tan Son Nhat on the northern edge of Saigon, I got word that Phnom Penh, the capitol of Cambodia, had fallen to the Khmer Rouge, the Cambodian communists, allied to North Vietnam. That was another signature event heralding the collapse of anti-communist forces in Southeast Asia.

Meanwhile, I pushed on in getting as many people out of the country as I could. I couldn’t tolerate the prospect that any of my subordinates or their families would be killed when the North Vietnamese attacked Saigon, and all the signs were that the attack was coming soon.

The ambassador has refused to allow me to evacuate my people. So I cheated. I sent my employees and their families on any ruse I could think of. One I had to order out—he was unwilling to leave me behind. Some went on trumped-up early home leave, some on contrived vacations. Others I sent out on phony business travel. One day toward the end, I bought a guy a ticket with my own money and, with no authorization and no orders, I put him in a Pan Am flight out of the country. It was the last Pan Am flight from Saigon.

I knew I’d have to stay until the end. The Ambassador wouldn’t allow me to go, but, more important, I had to be sure all my subordinates and their families escaped. Besides, there were some 2700 South Vietnamese soldiers who had worked with NSA for years. I was determined to do everything possible to get them out of the country before the North Vietnamese took Saigon. I knew how cruel the North Vietnamese would be to them if they could get their hands on them.

Since I couldn’t leave, I asked for two volunteers to stay with me. I needed a communicator and a communications maintenance technician to keep comms open to the U.S. Some of the 16 men in my communications center pleaded that they owed it to their wives and children not to risk their lives. I found that eminently reasonable. Then two brave men stepped forward. Their names are now declassified, so I can tell you who they were: Bob Hartley, the communicator, and Gary Hickman, the maintenance man. I warned them of the danger and told them that they’d have to keep the equipment going through unforeseen emergencies that might include electrical outages, shelling, and direct attack.

They understood.

Even today I admire, no, love, those two men for their raw courage. They risked their lives because I asked them to.

More tomorrow.

April 1975 in Vietnam (9)

By 16 April 1975, I was spending most of my time struggling to get people out of Vietnam. I knew the fall of Saigon to the North Vietnamese was imminent. So I put aside my two principal missions—keeping the U.S. Ambassador, Graham Martin, up to date on the North Vietnamese as they got closer to Saigon; and assisting the South Vietnamese government in its own efforts to intercept and exploit the communications of the North Vietnamese—and concentrated on saving as many people as I could.

I’ve told in passing the story of my work to move people out of South Vietnam earlier in this blog, but here I’ll recap the whole story, starting with a quote from my published article, “Bitter Memories: The fall of Saigon”:

Since the middle of March [1975], my principal concern had been seeing to it that none of my people was killed or wounded in the forthcoming attack. I had 43 American men working for me and I was responsible for the safety of their 22 dependents, wives and children, living in Saigon. My men in Da Nang, Can Tho, and Pleiku all managed to reach Saigon after hair-raising escapes and were working in our Tan Son Nhat office [on the northern edge of Saigon]. I wanted to get all my people out now.

But Ambassador Martin refused to consider evacuations. On the one hand, he wished to avoid doing anything that might stampede the South Vietnamese; on the other, he genuinely believed that the prospect of the Communist flag flying over Saigon was unthinkable.

I was stymied.

My state-side boss, General Lew Allen, the Director of NSA, ordered me to close down the operation and get everyone out before somebody got killed, but the Ambassador wouldn’t hear of it. I made him a proposition: if he would let my people go, I would stay in Saigon until the end with a skeleton staff to assure that the flow of SIGINT [that is, signals intelligence] reports for him from NSA would continue. He turned me down.

End of quote. More tomorrow.