Chapter one of Last of the Annamese begins: “The Chinese maid had dry-cleaned and pressed Chuck’s tuxedo, starched his formal dress shirt, and buffed his patent leather shoes.” Readers have asked me, did Chuck own his own formal wear?
After the 1973 withdrawal of U.S. military forces, when I returned to Vietnam to head the National Security Agency covert operation there, I was the chief of the “Department of Defense Special Representative (DODSPECREP)” office—that was our cover. Few Americans in Saigon had any idea what that was; all they knew was that I headed a large defense operation with more than forty employees and their families. That meant, among other things, that I was obligated to attend the formal gatherings sponsored by the U.S. Embassy and, occasionally, those of other embassies. Consequently, I had to have a tuxedo with all its accoutrements as well as an evening jacket. No formal clothes were available for sale or rent in Saigon, so I did what all the diplomats did: I flew to Hong Kong to have formal clothes tailored.
Chuck, the protagonist of Last of the Annamese, as a ranking member of the Defense Attaché Office Intelligence Branch, faces the same requirements, so he, like me, acquired formal clothes from Hong Kong.
As my predecessor in the job (his name is still classified) explained to me, the war was over. The assignment in Vietnam was now a “gentlemen’s tour,” leisurely but formal. Hence, accompanied tours—bringing one’s family along—were welcomed, even encouraged. The U.S. Ambassador, Graham Martin, a southern gentleman with all the attitudes that implies, emphasized the social aspects of the U.S. community in Vietnam. Our job, as he saw it, was to project an image of the U.S. that displayed our sophistication and wealth.
I knew better. But it was not until we’d been there a few months that I saw how dangerous the situation in Vietnam really was. The ambassador continued to believe that the North Vietnamese would never attack Saigon. From intercepted North Vietnamese communications, I knew that attack was imminent. So I violated the ambassador’s orders and evacuated my subordinates and their families (and my own family) using any ruse I could think of to get them safely out of the country.
I escaped under fire the day Saigon fell. All I had with me were the clothes on my back. The tuxedo was lost forever.