Phạm Ngọc Thanh

One of the three principal characters in Last of the Annamese is South Vietnamese Marine Colonel Phạm Ngọc Thanh. Unlike the others in those days of disaster, Thanh is under no delusion. He knows South Vietnam will fall to the communists.

Thanh insists on calling his country An Nam (literally, peace in the south) as opposed to Viet Nam (the troublemakers in the south). As a Buddhist priest turned Marine officer, he finds serenity in the face of disaster and chooses death rather than escape from his dying nation.

The character of Thanh has attracted the most attention from the book’s reviewers. As one pointed out, a possible interpretation the book’s ending is that Thanh is himself the last of the Annamese. Others have remarked on the contrast between Thanh’s untroubled courage and the self-serving drive of most of the other characters.

I based the character of Thanh on several South Vietnamese officers I knew during my years in Vietnam. They were stalwart, incorruptible men, willing to sacrifice their lives to save the country. I went to visit one as the fall of Saigon loomed. I wanted to tell him where he and his men should go once an evacuation was declared. Here’s how I described my conversation with him in my article, “Bitter Memories: the Fall of Saigon” (

“I risked another trip to check on a South Vietnamese officer I worked with. I wanted to be sure he and his troops knew where to go when the evacuation order was given, something I couldn’t discuss on an unsecured phone line. Always a model of Asian politeness, he invited me in and served me tea. He told me that his wife, who worked for USAID [United States Agency for International Development], had been offered the opportunity to leave the country with her family. That included him. But he wouldn’t go because he was unwilling to abandon his troops—no evacuation order had been issued—and she wouldn’t leave without him. Alarmed, I asked him what he would do if he was still in Saigon when Communists tanks rolled through the streets. He told me he couldn’t live under the Communists. ‘I will shoot my three children, then I will shoot my wife, then I will shoot myself.’”

That officer didn’t escape at the end. I have no doubt he carried out his plan because so many other South Vietnamese officers did precisely what he described.

More tomorrow.

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