Xuan Loc (6)

The fall of Xuan Loc was the final signal that Saigon was doomed. But the U.S. Ambassador, Graham Martin, didn’t accept the evidence of a forthcoming assault on the city. The following is a recap of my final briefing to the ambassador days before Saigon fell. It is quoted from Last of the Annamese. I tell the story from the point of view of Chuck Griffin, the novel’s protagonist:

Chuck opened the briefing book on the desk with the pages facing the Ambassador. He reviewed the status of North Vietnamese forces within striking range. “Sir, the situation is critical. The fall of Xuan Loc removed the last barrier to the North Vietnamese approach to Saigon. We know from signals intelligence that sixteen to eighteen North Vietnamese divisions now surround us, poised to invade Saigon. An intercepted message early this morning sent by an unidentified North Vietnamese unit two kilometers north of Tan Son Nhat told a subordinate to await the order to attack.”

The Ambassador glanced at his watch.

“Our best estimate,” Chuck went on, “is that the enemy won’t be completely ready to move against us for another two to three days. But the North Vietnamese are in no hurry. The South Vietnamese military is crumbling fast. We expect that when the attack begins, we’ll be hit first with rockets and mortars, then artillery as enemy troops enter the city.”

The Ambassador gave him a patient smile. “Anything else?”

Chuck’s mouth opened in surprise. “Sir?”

The Ambassador stood. “If there’s nothing more, I need to get on to other matters.”

Chuck stumbled to his feet. He took a deep breath, stood straight, and calmed himself. “Forgive me, sir, but we have little time left to get U.S. citizens and vulnerable South Vietnamese out of the country before it falls to the North Vietnamese.”

The Ambassador came from behind his desk and rested his hand on Chuck’s back as if to urge him toward the office door. “Thank you, Mr. Griffin. I’ll handle it from here.”

Despite the pressure from the Ambassador’s hand, Chuck didn’t move. “Mr. Ambassador, to save lives, I plead with you to order the evacuation immediately. Even if we start now—”

The Ambassador put his arm around Chuck and edged him toward the door. “Young man,” he said as they moved away from the desk, “when you’re older, you’ll understand these things better.”

At the door, the Ambassador smiled, showed Chuck out, and closed the door. The tingle at the base of Chuck’s spine peaked.

More tomorrow.

Xuan Loc (5)

During the night of 26 April 1975, I was trying unsuccessfully to sleep in my office when a blast threw me from my cot and slammed me to the floor. I ran to the comms center. The few remaining guys not yet evacuated looked dazed, but everything was working, and nobody was hurt. A bulletin arrived within minutes telling us that North Vietnamese sappers had blown up the ammo dump at Bien Hoa, just north of us. That meant, among other things, that panic in the streets of Saigon would ramp up a couple of notches.

The next day, 27 April, we learned that the last small contingent of South Vietnamese forces who survived the battle of Xuan Loc had abandoned the city. It was now firmly under North Vietnamese control. The last obstacle to the siege of Saigon was removed. I described that series of events in Last of the Annamese:

“Wednesday morning, Chuck learned from a Liberation Radio transcript that the explosion had been the mammoth ammo dump at Bien Hoa, less than eighteen miles northeast of them. Friendly after-action reports confirmed that enemy sappers had penetrated the perimeter. The airbase, the largest still in the hands of the South Vietnamese, had been hit the day before with rockets and artillery, and the runway had been closed for repairs. Meanwhile, the defense of Xuan Loc was over. Withdrawal had begun. The enemy’s pincers were closing.”

Xuan Loc (4)

As the fall of Saigon came closer, I worked harder to assure that none of my people or their families would be caught in the city after the North Vietnamese seized it. After my wife and four children were evacuated, I moved from our villa to my office and slept on a cot in front to of my desk with a .38 revolver under my pillow.

I was somehow becoming inured to lack of rest, and my emotional reaction to the disasters surrounding me became muted as I gave all my attention and strength to getting my people who were still in Saigon out of the country. As reported in Last of the Annamese:

“The North Vietnamese had turned the Xuan Loc battle into a meat grinder. They were willing to sacrifice unit after unit to drive out the South Vietnamese 18th Division and seize the town. Somehow the endless reports of gore and annihilation no longer moved [the novel’s protagonist] Chuck. Was there such a thing as disaster fatigue?”

Fellow writer Bruce Curley assures me there is such a thing. The human psyche is able to sublimate physical and psychological needs into strength to achieve a higher goal. I honestly believe that I am living evidence of that human capability.

Xuan Loc fell to the communists on 21 April 1975, but skirmishes on the city’s perimeter continued.

More tomorrow.

Xuan Loc (3)

Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, fell to the Khmer Rouge, the Cambodian communists allied to North Vietnam, on 17 April 1975. Communist conquest of Southeast Asia was almost complete. The battle for Xuan Loc, less than 40 miles northeast of  Saigon, reached new levels of savagery. Here’s the description of the situation from Last of the Annamese:

“In the tank, he [Chuck Griffin, the protagonist] read the incoming dispatches. The battle for Xuan Loc raged on. Elements of the North Vietnamese 7th Division had joined the 341st in the battle. Liberation Radio urged the populace to rebel against the South Vietnamese government. Chuck pulled together signals intelligence, prisoner interrogation reports, and aerial photography and concluded that the North Vietnamese had set up a corps headquarters in Phuoc Long Province. It commanded four divisions, two of which were dispatched to the battle for Xuan Loc. Two more divisions were moving toward Saigon.

“Then came the word they’d been expecting: Phnom Penh had fallen to the Khmer Rouge, the Cambodian Communists allied to North Vietnam. One more domino down.”

More tomorrow.

Xuan Loc (2)

By the middle of April 1975, I was feeling the drag of overwork and lack of sleep. But the demands of the job allowed little time for rest. Here’s more from Last of the Annamese on the protagonist’s struggle to keep himself going as the loss of Xuan Loc loomed:

“Thursday morning, Chuck sent Sparky back home without him. Too much was happening. Muscles aching, eyelids like sandpaper, he tracked the probes by the North Vietnamese 341st Division against Xuan Loc. The town had been subjected to an artillery bombardment of 4,000 rounds, one of the heaviest in the war, and enemy tanks were in the streets. At 1800, Sparky was back, helping him track hand-to-hand combat that lasted until dark when friendly forces drove the North Vietnamese from the city. [Chuck’s boss, Colonel] Troiano commanded Chuck to go home and rest. Starting Friday he’d be on the day shift. That meant from before 0700 until long after dark. On the cusp of incoherence, he was afraid to drive. A cab dropped him at Yen Do. He went straight to bed without eating.”

I had a problem Chuck didn’t face: getting my people out of the country despite the ambassador’s order that no evacuations would be allowed. I lied, cheated, and stole to get my people and their families safely out of Saigon. That added to the stress on my weary body and soul.

More tomorrow.

Xuan Loc

The seizure of the city of Xuan Loc by the North Vietnamese on 21 April 1975, just eight days before the fall of Saigon, stands out in my memory as the death knell for South Vietnam. I was in the midst of the frantic evacuation of my 43 subordinates and their families. I was forced to fake the reasons for their departure because the U.S. Ambassador, Graham Martin, refused to allow an evacuation. He was convinced that the North Vietnamese would never attack Saigon.

Xuan Loc, the capital of Long Khanh Province, was just northeast of us. It was the last obstacle between the North Vietnamese and Saigon. It was defended by the South Vietnamese 18th Infantry Division in what can only be described as an heroic effort to save the country. The battle went on for more than ten days. The North Vietnamese threw unit after unit into the fray.

Last of the Annamese, set during the final days of Vietnam, tells the story of Xuan Loc as it happened. The protagonist, Chuck Griffin, tracks the advance of North Vietnamese forces day by day just as I did, starting in early April:

“The pile of incoming messages on his desk top had grown several inches since he left this morning [for a day of rest before the night shift]. He set his jaw and worked his way through the heap.

“The full impact of losses in the north was emerging. Whole units had disappeared in the fighting. A few stragglers had made it out of the captured territory, but the efforts to organize units from the survivors were crippled by lack of equipment and ammunition—a direct result of the cutoff of U.S. funds. Major battles were shaping up in the arc of provinces north of Saigon. Most disturbing was accumulating evidence of enemy intent to seize Xuan Loc, the capital of Long Khanh Province, less than forty miles northeast of Saigon, as close to the capital as Baltimore was to Washington. Elements of three North Vietnamese divisions were converging on the town. First attacks had been repulsed but more were to come. Chuck posted the location of friendly and enemy units on the Long Khanh map.”

More tomorrow.

Air Attack on the Saigon Presidential Palace, April 1975

In February 2017, I wrote in this blog about the attack by a renegade South Vietnamese F5E pilot on the presidential palace in Saigon on 8 April 1975. I reported that my wife and four children in our villa on Le van Duyet street, not far from the palace, were terrified. They were preparing to leave the country—their flight out was the next day. Their departure was part of the general evacuation I was pushing to get all my subordinates and their families out of the city which I knew would soon fall to the North Vietnamese.

I described the F5E attack in Last of the Annamese. Chuck, the protagonist, and Tuyet, the woman he loves, are in the square on Thong Nhat Boulevard, close to the palace and the American embassy, when the attack begins:

“A whine cut through the clatter of the city traffic. A turbojet engine, getting closer. Chuck looked up in time to see an F5E Tiger fighter dive like a raptor, its attention riveted on the palace. Chuck yelled to Tuyet, but the scream of the plane blocked his voice. The jet swooped low, left behind black smudges, and shrieked upwards.

“Chuck tackled Tuyet. As the grass met their bodies, the air imploded into his ears. The earth beneath them jerked. He looked up. The plane circled and came in for a second dive. Ear-shattering thunder, and the earth jumped again. Antiaircraft on the palace grounds spat tracers into the air. He covered his head with his arms, tried to push himself into the earth, then turned to look toward her. She was struggling to her knees, staring at the palace. He grabbed her, forced her down. As a section of the palace collapsed and burst into flame, he threw his body over hers. Gunfire split the air around them.

“The plane flew off. Silence. People sprang to their feet and ran in all directions. He was up, dragging her across the square toward Pasteur Street. They were three blocks up Pasteur when the firing erupted again. They fell to the pavement, arms over heads. When the shooting paused, he yanked her up. She struggled for breath, stumbled in her high heels. He caught her as she fell.”