Fiction in Name Only (3): Americans Under Stress

More on the view that Last of the Annamese is fiction in name only.

Toward the end of April 1975, when Saigon was under siege and my two communicators and I were trapped at Tan Son Nhat on the northern edge of the city, we worked twenty-four hours a day and had nothing but purloined bar snacks to eat. I learned that you can eat Vienna sausages cold straight from the can and that pickle relish, if mixed with enough mustard and eaten in quantity, can stave off severe hunger. Granted, I developed bowel problems, but at the time I attributed that more to the stress I was under than to my diet.

Despite the conditions, those in Saigon at the end performed at an astonishingly high level of competence. Here’s a passage from Annamese describing three of those Americans working under stress while they could still get through the streets of the city:

Chuck was going non-linear. He’d worked too long without sleep. . . . He awoke at four Monday morning, showered, shaved, dressed, and drove to DAO.

In the tank, Chuck found Sparky reeling. He hadn’t rested since Saturday night, but his toothpick still clung to his lower lip. His breath smelled like a cesspool.

“A lot’s happened since last we met,” Sparky mumbled. “Was that only a day ago?”

“You’re getting soupy,” Chuck said. “Go home.”

“Can’t.” His eyelids stretched and blinked. “Da Nang fell yesterday. I Corps is in rout. And the safe haven on the coast where all those people tried to flee from highlands? Tuy Hoa. It’s under enemy fire. A hundred thousand refugees are stranded along Route 7B between Pleiku and the coast. No food, no water, no medicine, nothing. Jesus, Chuck.” He ran his hands through his hair. “Did it have to end like this? After 58,000 American military dead, at least a million Communist soldiers, and who knows how many million civilians? Chuck, what the hell have we done?”

“Go home, Sparky,” Troiano’s voice said. Chuck turned. Troiano stood behind him, the class A uniform replaced by combat fatigues. A .45 was strapped on his hip. “Can’t have you going to pieces on me.”

Fiction in Name Only (2): The Weyand Brief

Continuing my commentary on the premise that Last of the Annamese is fiction in name only, the novel reports on the visit of General Frederick C. Weyand to Saigon between 28 March and 4 April 1975. Weyand was the last commander of U.S. military operations in Vietnam from 1972 to 1973 and served as the 28th U.S. Army Chief of Staff from 1974 to 1976. His trip to Vietnam, at the behest of President Ford, was to assess the military situation. Toward the end of his itinerary, he was briefed by representatives of the Defense Attaché Office (DAO) Intelligence Branch. I attended that briefing. In Last of the Annamese, I attributed the summary of the military situation in South Vietnam given to General Weyand at that briefing to the novel’s protagonist, Chuck Griffin. The text of Chuck’s assessment is based on my memory of what General Weyand was actually told. The assessment is quoted below:

The northern half of South Vietnam is lost. The southern half could survive temporarily under three conditions:

  1. the government is able to extract its forces from the north intact;
  2. the North Vietnamese do not increase their forces in the south; and
  3. the U.S. immediately resumes the air war and delivers essential ammunition, equipment, and supplies.

As this is written, it is clear that none of these conditions will be met. Casualties in the north have been overwhelming, and the remaining troops are in rout. Meanwhile, the North Vietnamese are infiltrating the southern provinces at an unprecedented rate. And the United States has ceased its matériel and air support. In short, what is left of South Vietnam will fall within weeks.

In the long term, the only option available to avoid capitulation is the reintroduction of U.S. forces—ground, naval, and air. President Nixon promised to bring U.S. military strength to bear if North Vietnam violated the Paris Agreement. Gross violations by North Vietnam are now legion. Failure to rescue Vietnam will be recognized world-wide as evidence of bad faith.

End of quote. South Vietnam fell to the North Vietnamese less than a month later.

Fiction in Name Only

As one review of Last of the Annamese wisely notes, the novel, set during the fall of Saigon which I survived, is fiction in name only. Today I want to simply quote without comment from the novel—in support of that review’s assertion but mainly to tell what happened:

The Embassy, always marked by the lilt of southern hospitality, developed an uneasy edge. Ike’s men [Marine guards] felt the change. The boyish horse-play faded. The snuffs kept their weapons cleaned and oiled, never more than an arm’s reach away. They asked Ike what was happening. He shrugged. The Ambassador, a gentleman under all circumstances, continued to preside with grace and good breeding.

In dinner table talk, Sparky and Chuck reported daily disasters. On Saturday, the Saigon police apparently panicked and shot to death a French journalist. Sunday night, shaken, Chuck said that President Thieu had ordered the evacuation of the highlands. The North Vietnamese had blocked National Route 19, the direct road to the coast, so more than twenty infantry battalions and ranger groups, three arty battalions, a tank battalion, an engineer group, and a support group had all started down Interprovincial Route 7B, not much more than a trail. It was overgrown with brush, and its fords and bridges were impassable. By Monday night, panicking civilians, a hundred thousand of them, swamped Route 7B, bogging down the troops, while the North Vietnamese attacked from all sides. Already people were calling it “the trail of blood and tears.” Meanwhile, cities were falling in the northern provinces, south of the DMZ, and the royal city of Huế was under siege. Its citadel had been struck by artillery.

Molly showed up at the villa the following Saturday night with a suitcase. “It’s my getaway bag,” she told Ike, “in case I’m here when the end comes. Got another bag at the dispensary and one at the apartment.” In her other hand she carried a clothes hanger with a full-length purple dress. “That’s the color of the priest’s vestments during Lent. Tomorrow’s Palm Sunday, and I want to fit in, you know, look properly dismal.”

 

Hồ Chí Minh’s Appeals to the U.S.

I’ve mentioned in passing earlier in this blog Hồ Chí Minh’s approaches to the U.S. at the end of World War II. He appealed to the U.S. repeatedly to assist Vietnam in its quest for independence and freedom from French colonialism.

In 1945, Hồ sent two letters to President Truman, five letters to the U.S. Secretary of State, James Byrnes, and one telegram to Byrnes. The next year he dispatched two more letters and a telegram to Truman.

As far as I can determine, Hồ never received a reply.

Hồ at that point was more nationalist than communist. His driving ambition was independence for Vietnam. When the U.S. failed to respond, he turned to China and the USSR. Both nations provided him assistance and support—material, financial, and political—and Hồ and his Việt Minh* movement became decidedly communist.

Hồ’s outreach to the U.S. made good sense. We had historically opposed colonialism and supported independence for all nations of the world, as befitted us given our own history. Hồ expected that we would no more support French occupation of Vietnam than we did German occupation of France. Nevertheless, we sided with the French. And by 1964, when we introduced troops into Vietnam, we had become vehemently anti-communist and supported the non-communist government of South Vietnam against the communist government of the North under Hồ.

How different history would have been had we responded favorably to Hồ’s pleas in the mid-1940s.

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* Việt Minh is shorthand for Việt Nam Độc Lập Đồng Minh Hội, the Alliance for the Independence of Vietnam, a national coalition of various political parties throughout Vietnam.

Do All Memories Have to Hurt?

The title of this blog post is taken from Last of the Annamese. It’s the question the protagonist, Chuck Griffin, asks himself as Saigon falls. It’s my question, too.

As readers of my blog know, I escaped under fire as Saigon fell. Then and earlier in my thirteen-year odyssey to, from, and through Vietnam, I witnessed and participated in events so grisly that my psyche suffered permanent damaged. These days we call that wound Post-Traumatic Stress Injury. I’m not alone. The majority of men in combat in Vietnam shows signs of the disease. The number of suicides among Vietnam vets exceeds the number killed in combat.

I call it Post-Traumatic Stress Injury rather than disorder because it’s clear to me that the disease is not a case of the brain or mind having arbitrarily gone awry but the direct result of an external wound inflicted in the psyche. It never goes away. It never weakens. The man or woman thus afflicted has only one option: learn to cope.

So, yes, all memories of Vietnam have to hurt. Even my happy memories—of working with the troops and the fun we had together—hurt when I remember those who were killed by my side in gruesome ways I can’t talk about even today. My recollection of my friendship with a South Vietnamese officer and his family turns sad when I remember that he shot his three children, his wife, and himself rather than be captured by the North Vietnamese. The happy times I spent with the South Vietnamese enlisted men darken when I remind myself that 2700 of them were abandoned by the U.S. and were then killed or captured by the North Vietnamese.

My memories still hurt today. They always will.

Vietnam Vets: Hear Our Story Now

We’re getting old and dying off. We won’t be around much longer. If you want to know what we know about what happened, you’d better ask soon.

I’m talking about Vietnam vets. Most are now in their sixties and seventies. A few of us are even older. And a lot of us have died. Our memories, our knowledge of what actually happened, the searing experiences that changed us forever, won’t be around much longer.

That’s why I write and speak publicly every chance I get. I want people to know what took place during a war that altered U.S. history in ways few other wars have. For decades neither I nor my comrades in arms talked about Vietnam. It was a shameful time in our history, best forgotten. Even now, according to my younger friends, history classes in our schools leave out the story of Vietnam.

My novel, Last of the Annamese, fiction in name only as one review put it, relates my experience of living through the fall of Saigon. So does my presentation, “Bitter Memories: The Fall of Saigon,” that I will have given more than fifty times by the end of the year. My novel The Trion Syndrome, describes the life of a Vietnam vet suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Injury. And my Friendly Casualties, a novel-in-stories, tells of the war from a variety off perspectives.  I want people to know what happened.

Time is getting short. Ask us while we’re still here.

My Callsign in Vietnam

Between 1962 and 1973, when I provided direct signals intelligence support to U.S. army and Marine combat units in South Vietnam, I worked under cover as a member of the unit I was supporting. The purpose was to assure that the North Vietnamese didn’t discover that a civilian spy was in their midst. I dressed in military uniform, cut my hair like the troops, and worked beside them on the battlefield.

In 2015, when Maryland Public Television (MPT) interviewed me as one of the sixteen Vietnam vets to be featured in its three-part documentary, Maryland Vietnam War Stories, my identity as an employee of the National Security Agency (NSA) while in Vietnam was still classified. So I simply didn’t say who my parent organization was. MPT found photos of me in both army and Marine uniforms. Confused, they finally decided I must have been an army intelligence officer.

The troops I worked with found my presence among them hilarious. Not only was I a civilian but, frequently, I outranked their commanding officer. I went by my own name, Tom Glenn, but when the troops discovered my payroll signature was Thomas L. Glenn III, they couldn’t stop laughing. I had worked hard to get them to call me “Tom,” and not “Mr. Glenn.” Now they started razzing me by calling me “TG3.” That became my radio callsign. I used it throughout my years of supporting units in combat.

The sad part of the story is that some of the guys who so enjoyed my presence and name died by my side during combat. I’ll never get over that. I’m drawn again to the question asked by the protagonist of my novel, Last of the Annamese, my story of the fall of Saigon told as fiction: “Do all memories have to hurt?”