Continuing the background on Friendly Casualties:
One story, “The Snake and the Swallow,” tells of an aging Vietnamese amah (a woman who cares for children) named Yên and her love for a little American boy, Robin. The story is set in April 1975, when the North Vietnamese were about to take Saigon and American families are fleeing. Yên knows that if she continues to work with Robin’s family, the Communists will punish her for her closeness to the Americans. But she chooses to stay anyway because of her love for Robin. Yên’s name, ironically, means “calm and peaceful.”
The story was drawn from my own experience with the Vietnamese women who were servants for my family. Their dedication to us and their love for our children moved me deeply.
One event illustrates the kindness and courage of these women. When Ngo Dinh Diem was overthrown in a coup d’état and killed on 2 November 1963 (only twenty days before John F. Kennedy’s assassination), I was working in Saigon at a site some ten blocks from our villa. As soon as I learned that the coup was underway, I hurried home because I was worried about the safety of my family. No taxis were on the streets, so I ran all the way. When I got to our villa, my wife wasn’t there. She was, as I learned later, being held prisoner at Tan Son Nhat, an airport and military base on the northern edge of the city where she was teaching English to South Vietnamese army officers. As I tried to get into the villa, I discovered that the door was blocked from the inside. I finally forced my way through. The servants had pushed all the furniture up against the doors. I found my year-and-a-half old daughter, Susan, on the floor in the middle of the room. Our three servants were seated in a close circle around her, protecting her in case there was gunfire or shelling.
In April 1975, I evacuated my wife and four children to the U.S. twenty days before Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese. I moved to my office at Tan Son Nhat. Before I left our villa, I paid our three servants triple wages and told them they could stay there if they wanted to. I never saw them again.