I return today to an idea I first explored several years ago in this blog, the sense of devotion that a service member or government representative must have in a crisis: the willingness to do what is required no matter the personal cost, even it means giving up one’s life.
That devotion was one of the principal themes in my novel, Last of the Annamese. It appears at the beginning and the end of the novel and is a motto for the each of the main characters: “Do what you have to do, whatever it takes.”
Those words were my guiding principle during my thirteen years on and off in Vietnam supporting both army and Marine units in combat. It was an honor to be on the battlefield with the troops, but it also meant that I had to be willing to give up my life if that’s what it took.
I was put to the test multiple times during the war. The hardest came at the very end, in April 1975, when it was incumbent upon me to get my 43 subordinates and their families safely out of the country before the North Vietnamese attacked Saigon. I had to stay until the attack was underway. I had to lie, cheat, and steal to get my people on flights because the U.S. ambassador, Graham Martin, forbade me to evacuate them. A representative of the government of Hungary, a communist nation allied to North Vietnam, had assured him that the North Vietnamese had no intention of attacking Saigon. Signals intelligence—the intercept and exploitation of the radio communications of the North Vietnamese, my job and the job of all my guys—made it blatantly clear that the North Vietnamese were about to launch a blitzkrieg against the city. The ambassador believed the communist representative instead of acting on the intelligence I was giving him.
The result was the worst days of my life. At the very end, I and two communicators who had agreed to stay with me were isolated at our office during the final assault against the city. The enemy used rockets and artillery against us as they prepared to seize Saigon. The building we were in was hit repeatedly. The building next to us was destroyed, and two Marines at our gate were killed. On the afternoon of 29 April, my two communicators were extracted safely. I escaped that night under fire.
I’m justifiably proud of my service to my country and especially of my willingness to stay to the end during the fall of Saigon to assure that none of my guys or their wives and children were killed. I did what I had to do, whatever it took.