One of the reasons I wrote Last of the Annamese was to anesthetize memories that refuse to leave me in peace. It worked up to a point. But the memories themselves remain undiminished.
One memory I’ve mentioned several times in this blog is of a South Vietnamese signals intelligence officer I worked with. I can’t tell you his name because it’s never been declassified. He delayed escape for himself and his family waiting for the evacuation order that the ambassador never issued.
Despite the chaos as the fall of Saigon loomed, I risked a trip to check on the officer. 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—by that time, the North Vietnamese were already monitoring my phone.
Always a model of Asian politeness, the officer invited me into his office and served me tea. He told me that his wife, who worked for USAID, the 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.”
At the end, the ambassador never did call for an evacuation. He didn’t believe my warning that the North Vietnamese were about to attack Saigon. By the time Washington countermanded the ambassador, it was the predawn hours of 29 April 1975, and the North Vietnamese were already in the streets of the city. We couldn’t get to that officer. He didn’t escape. I have no doubt that he carried out his plan to shoot his family and himself. So many other South Vietnamese officers did precisely what he described.
This was a man I greatly admired. I’d worked with him for years and knew him to be a fine leader for his troops and a superb technician. I’d met his wife and children when I was a guest as his house for dinner. They laughed at my northern dialect Vietnamese—they were all southerners and made no attempt to speak the northern dialect favored by high-level officials—but were immensely flattered that an American spoke their language.
I mourn the death of this officer and his family to this day. Some memories can’t be anesthetized.