With the publication of Last of the Annamese, maybe I’ve finally arrived at the culmination of my obsession with Vietnam. It began in 1959. In 1958, immediately after earning a BA from the University of California, I enlisted in the army to go to the Defense Language Institute (DLI). I put in to study Chinese, a language that had always fascinated me. I had already studied French, Italian, German, and Latin, but I grew up in the San Francisco bay area, surrounded by Chinese restaurants and laundries. I knew Chinese was too difficult to learn on my own, as I had done with other languages, so I wanted to go to the best language school in world to learn it. When I got to DLI in January 1959, the army informed me that I was to study something called Vietnamese, a language I had never heard of—we called that part of the world French Indochina back then. So I spent a year in intensive study of Vietnamese with native speakers. That year changed my life.
At the beginning of 1960, I was assigned to the National Security Agency (NSA) and worked full time in the Vietnamese language. Meanwhile, I enrolled in Chinese classes at Georgetown University. So by 1961 when I left the army and was immediately hired by NSA, I was comfortable in French, Chinese, and Vietnamese, the three languages commonly spoke in Vietnam. NSA sent me to Vietnam for the first time in 1962.
I spent the next 13 years trundling between the U.S. and Vietnam. I had two complete accompanied tours there, with my wife and children, and so many shorter trips—called TDYs (for temporary duty)—that I lost count. Most of that time, I provided direct signals intelligence support to U.S. Army and Marine units in combat. I was sent there so often because I knew the languages of the country and I was willing to go into combat with the units I was supporting. In 1974, after the withdrawal of U.S. military forces, I was named the head of the covert NSA operation in Vietnam. By a ruse, I was able to evacuate my wife and four children 20 days before Saigon fell in April 1975. The ruse was necessary because the U.S. Ambassador didn’t believe that Saigon was threatened and refused to allow evacuations. As the North Vietnamese attacked the city, I escaped by helicopter under fire on the night of 29 April. The city fell to the North Vietnamese a few hours later.
I still suffer—and always will—from Post-Traumatic Stress Injury as a consequence of my time in combat and my experiences during the fall of Saigon. Much of my writing has been driven by my gruesome memories, ending with Last of the Annamese. But the book I wrote after Annamese (I’m now seeking a publisher for it) is not about Vietnam. Nor is the novel I’m working on now. Now that I’ve told the story of the fall of Saigon, I’ve found an imperfect peace. Maybe my preoccupation with Vietnam is finally resolved.