My Books

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.


U.S. Marines and the Fall of Saigon (2)

Yesterday, I told how toward the end of April 1975 U.S. Marines, under the command of Colonel Al Gray, flew into Saigon from the U.S. 7th Fleet, cruising in the South China Sea out of sight from land, to prepare for the evacuation of the remaining U.S. citizens and as many Vietnamese as possible. Continuing my quote from “Bitter Memories: The Fall of Saigon”:

But the Ambassador was doing everything he could to throw roadblocks in Al’s way. 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 from the 7th Fleet, cruising in the South China Sea, via Air America slicks, the little Hueys, the UH-1 choppers that could only carry eight to fourteen people.

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 buzz cuts 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 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.

More tomorrow.

U.S. Marines and the Fall of Saigon

A reader asked me what the U.S. Marines actually did during the fall of Saigon. The answer is: a lot. The easiest way for me to answer the question is to quote from my article, “Bitter Memories: The Fall of Saigon”:

[Sometime after 20 April 1975,] I started doing regular physical recons of the DAO building [located on the northern edge of Saigon at Tan Son Nhat]. Sometimes I took out a load of burnbags [filled with classified material—we expected to be overrun and we were destroying all our classified papers] 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 that night. I was trying to grab a little sleep in my office. The door chime sounded. I grasped my .38 and went to the door. Through the peep hole I saw a middle-aged red-haired 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.

The American Legion and Vietnam (2)

I wrote in my most recent blog about the upcoming American Legion Flea Market Extravaganza and connections between my experience in Vietnam and my current membership in the Legion. I reported my discovery that the commander of my American Legion post, Ed Hall, was part of the U.S. Marine force who evacuated me when Saigon fell and I escaped under fire. I only discovered Ed’s role in my rescue when my legion post asked me to do my fall of Saigon presentation for them. After I’d finished, Ed told me he’d been among the Marines who saved my life.

Presenting my wares beside my fellow legionnaires at the flea market is a deeply moving experience for me. Ed will be there as will other Vietnam vets from the Legion. My bond with these men and women has never been stronger.

I’ll post more information about the flea market as the date gets closer. It will be from 9:00 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. on Saturday, 16 September, in the parking lot of the Howard County Medical Pavilion (10710 Charter Drive, Columbia, Maryland). My brothers and sisters from the Legion will be there with me. The purpose is to raise money for the charities the Legion supports. I urge all to participate.

The American Legion and Vietnam

I’ve mentioned in passing in this blog my membership in the American Legion. I am proud of that membership. I qualify because I am a veteran, but I had finished my military service (army) before I went to Vietnam the first time as a civilian undercover signals intelligence operative providing support to army and Marine units in combat. During my thirteen years on and off in Vietnam, my cover was most often as a member of the unit I was supporting, so I passed myself off as an army soldier or Marine. My respect for the men fighting at my side grew over the years. So these days, when I attend an American Legion function, that respect and my feeling of brotherhood with other veterans is stronger than ever. I’m honored that these fine men and women accept me as one of them.

This year, for the second time, I’ll be participating in the American Legion Flea Market Extravaganza. I’ll be selling my books at a table surrounded by other legionnaires and vendors who support the Legion. My brothers-in-arms will be on all sides of me.

One ironic twist of fate is that the commander of my American Legion post, Ed Hall, crossed paths with me during the aftermath of the fall of Saigon. Ed, at the time a brand-new Marine second lieutenant, was with the Marines aboard the U.S.S. Oklahoma City, the flag ship of the 7th Fleet. I escaped under fire by helicopter to that ship on the night of 29 April 1975 after the North Vietnamese were already in the streets of Saigon. The story is recounted in Last of the Annamese.

More tomorrow.

What Will My Grandchildren Know of Me?

I have four grandchildren, ages seven to nine. I wonder sometimes what they’ll come to know about their grandfather as they reach adulthood.

The eldest, a little girl named Rhyan, knows the most about me. She attended my presentation at the National Security Agency (NSA) about the fall of Saigon. Marine General Al Gray was there and also spoke. Rhyan was lucky enough to meet him. She asked her mother if she got it right—General Gray saved grandpa’s life? Yep, her mother told her, that’s right.

But the other three were too young to attend the presentation. They presumably know nothing about my history.

One of the sad things in my life is that my children—and therefore my grandchildren—live far enough away from me that I rarely see them. My best hope is that someday the grandchildren will read my books and articles. My novels and short stories are, of course fiction. But all of them, especially Last of the Annamese, are autobiographical and historically accurate.  And my nonfiction article, “Bitter Memories: The Fall of Saigon,” lays out in detail what happened to me during that cataclysm. It was reprinted twice after its original publication (most recently in the Atticus Review­http://atticusreview.org/bitter-memories-the-fall-of-saigon/).

So the historical record is there for my grandchildren when they’re old enough to understand. I’m comforted.

Becoming an Historical Figure in One’s Own Time

I was faintly shocked to realize that some grandparents living today weren’t even born when Saigon fell. And more and more, the story of the Vietnam war is considered history rather than part of current events. That makes me an historical figure rather than a member of today’s society, even though I’m very much alive and kicking.

I keep running into readers who tell me they had yet to come into the world or were in grammar school or high school in April 1975 when I escaped under fire during the fall of Saigon. Last of the Annamese is, in some quarters, referred to as an historical novel.

Most interesting to me is the difference in attitude between those who were mature during the Vietnam war and those born after it was over. Those who remember the war as part of their lives often recall their opposition to the U.S. involvement in Vietnam, and while they learn from my experiences, they still tend to view me something of a war monger.

Millennials, especially people in their twenties, lack any sense of hostility. Instead, they are very curious about how the U.S. got involved in the war and why. They know little or nothing about what happened during the war and nothing at all about the fall of Saigon. They are my most disquisitive readers.

And yet, the young, unlike us aging veterans, have never experienced combat or lived in a war zone. They are largely unmoved by my grisly tales of fights to the death. They have no frame of reference, nothing comparable in their lives. Older folks, especially veterans, don’t need to be told. They already know what I’m talking about.

To that ever-growing population of younger readers, I am a personage from long before their time who lacks the good taste to be dead. That makes me something of a oddity.

Maybe so. But I like that better than being dead.

Chu Lai

Navy corpsmen serve as medics for U.S. Marines in combat. One of the two corpsmen I wrote about earlier told me that he was assigned to 1st Platoon, Charlie Company, 1st Reconnaissance Battalion, 1st Marine Division, based at Chu Lai. His reference to Chu Lai brought back memories.

When I first arrived in Vietnam in 1962, Chu Lai didn’t exist. It was created by the U.S. Marines in 1965 when they needed an air base. I first heard of it that same year.

I remember thinking the name was odd. It didn’t sound like Vietnamese. Vietnamese place names all have meaning. Ha Noi, for example, means “lake in the middle.” But Chu Lai didn’t seem to mean anything, and the Vietnamese pronounced both syllables of the name with a level tone, as if it were a foreign word.

I eventually found out that the name wasn’t Vietnamese at all. It was the Chinese rendering of the name of U.S. Marine Lieutenant General Victor H. Krulak, commanding general of Fleet Marine Force, Pacific. I knew the term c’hu lái in Chinese (出來) meaning to appear or to arise. Turns out those were the characters used to transliterate General Krulak’s name.

As a primary Marine base, Chu Lai is familiar territory to Chuck Griffin, the retired Marine who is the protagonist of Last of the Annamese. Its abandonment as South Vietnam falls is duly reported toward the end of the book.

Chu Lai still exists today. It is a seaport and industrial area with an international airport. I wonder how many Vietnamese living there know the origin and meaning of the city’s name.