Easter in Saigon, 1975

Easter Sunday was on March 30 in 1975, one month before Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese. In Last of the Annamese, the protagonist, Chuck Griffin, goes to English-language Catholic mass that morning after working all night at the Intelligence Branch at Tan Son Nhat on the northern edge of Saigon—he is deluged by intelligence indicating that the North Vietnamese are preparing to attack Saigon. He attends the service not because he is Catholic (he’s not) but because Molly, the American nurse at the Saigon clinic, is singing in the folk group for the mass.

My description of the mass and the music accompanying it comes from my own recollections. I was the director of the folk group at the American chapel, and I, like Chuck, had been up all night reviewing evidence of a forthcoming assault on the city. The folk group hymns sung at that Mass are the ones I remember: “I am the Resurrection,” “Lord, Make Me an Instrument of Your Peace,” “My peace I Leave You,” and “How Great It Is to Be Alive.” I recall my feelings of cynicism at the joy of the prayers and music of the feast of Easter, the greatest feast in the Catholic church, contrasted with the brutal reality we were all facing. I knew then that the attack on Saigon was weeks away, even though I couldn’t persuade the Ambassador that the end was coming.

That was the last mass I attended in Vietnam. After that, every ounce of energy I had went into getting my people out of the country before the attack came. I went from 10-hour days to 16-hour days to no time at all for sleep. I never saw the members of the folk group again. When I was evacuated on the night of 29 April, I had amoebic dysentery and pneumonia from inadequate diet and sleep deprivation, but those illnesses weren’t diagnosed until I was back in the world (the U.S.) in May.

The meaning of Easter has never been the same for me.

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