American Clothing in Vietnam Before Saigon Fell

in Last of the Annamese, Chuck dresses in Marine utilities—what the army calls fatigues—when he travels to the highlands with Colonel Thanh. Until 1974, I did the same. I dressed in the uniform of the combat units I was supporting. My purpose wasn’t comfort; I was a civilian signals intelligence operative under cover working with a combat unit in the field. As long as I was in the fatigues or utilities, the enemy wouldn’t realize that a spy was in their midst.

When I returned to Vietnam to head the NSA covert operation in 1974, U.S. troops had been withdrawn from Vietnam. So while I still had fatigues and occasionally wore them for trips to the field, that was for comfort and convenience, not to mislead the enemy.

My predecessor in Saigon had required the NSA employees under cover there to wear dress shirts and ties, even though other U.S. civilian agencies in Saigon allowed open-collar short-sleeve dress shirts with no jacket or tie due to the climate. I immediately changed the rules so that my guys would look just like every other American bureaucrat in town. My men loved me for freeing them from having to wear ties in the tropics.

When we were evacuated during the fall of Saigon, my two communicators who had volunteered to stay with me to the end and I were dressed in our standard uniform—short-sleeve shirts and slacks. But we’d been holed up in our office for more than a week while the North Vietnamese pushed their attack on the Saigon. We’d had little to eat and almost no sleep and hadn’t been able to bathe for days. And we’d been wearing the same clothes the whole time. We were rank, but that was the least of our concerns.

After I was evacuated to a ship of the 7th Fleet in the South China Sea, I was able to eat and get cleaned up, but I still had no other clothes than the ones I’d worn for days while we were stranded at our office. We finally sailed to the Philippines, arriving in mid-May, and I immediately booked a flight for Honolulu. The senior NSA official in Hawaii—the man who’d been my predecessor in Saigon—met my plane. Instead of asking how I was or congratulating me for getting out alive, he took one look at me and said, “You can’t be seen around here looking like that.”

I still shake my head in wonder at a man who couldn’t grasp that my two communicators and I cared less about how we looked, and even how we smelled, than about getting out alive.

Spring in Vietnam

Spring begins in Vietnam, particularly in the south, in late January or early February. Its arrival is announced by the Têt celebration on the first day of the lunar new year, as narrated in Last of the Annamese. Spring lasts, in the southern third of Vietnam, until May or June. With summer comes the monsoons characterized by brief downpours like open fire hoses several times a day followed by overwhelming heat.

Spring, for the Vietnamese, is a happy time on new beginnings. The weather, by Vietnamese standards, is fresh and cool, only rarely getting much above 95 degrees—if my memory is correct. And the Têt holiday is by far the biggest festivity of the year. Flowers, the symbol of spring, are everywhere during Têt.

The onset of the monsoons signals the end of spring and the beginning of the grueling summer. My sense is that the Vietnamese do not greet summer joyfully. The monsoons were especially unwelcome in 1975. They began early, on 29 April, the day Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese.

Preference for the Northern Dialect in Vietnamese

In Last of the Annamese, I write of the refusal of South Vietnamese Marine Colonel Pham Ngoc Thanh to speak the northern dialect of the Vietnamese. That was, and still is, the preferred speech for native Vietnamese speakers. And it is the favored form of Vietnamese for the elite and educated, rather like the New England accent in English among Americans.

Thanh is of peasant stock. His people were muck farmers from central Vietnam. He detects phoniness and false airs among his superiors. He is determined to remain faithful to his forebears, the ordinary people who were the bedrock of Vietnam. He insists on speaking their language, just as calls his country An Nam, peace in the south. Hence, Annamese.

I spent the full year of 1959 at the Army Language School, later called the Defense Language Institute, at the Presidio of Monterey, California, in intense study of Vietnamese—six hours a day in the classroom plus two hours of private study every night, five days a week, for a full year. I was submerged in the language. Over time, I came to speak, think, and even dream in Vietnamese. All but one of my teachers were native northern dialect speakers. I spoke as they did.

The northern dialect is more precise than the central and southern speech. Its six tones are sharply differentiated, and its pronunciation is clear and exact. The other two dialects use two tones interchangeably and slur pronunciation so that some words spelled differently sound the same. For that reason, nearly all Vietnamese radio broadcasts I’ve heard stress the northern speech.

Besides, to me at least, the northern dialect is beautiful to listen to. The tones give the language a musical aura, and the sharp, clear pronunciation reminds me of the sound of small bells.

Among the other Americans I knew who spoke Vietnamese, almost all adapted their speech while they were in South Vietnam. I never did. And to this day, when I am speaking to native Vietnamese, they often remark that my northern dialect is more pure than theirs.

My preferences notwithstanding, I see Thanh’s choice as the right one. He was faithful to his heritage. I admire his strength and courage.

The Ever-Fresh Sorrows

Yesterday I spoke of the death of a friend and of the loss of the South Vietnamese soldiers that worked with us. I described my amazement that the memories of the fall of Saigon are still so fresh. One of the reasons I wrote Last of the Annamese was to anesthetize my memories that refuse to leave me in peace. It worked up to a point. But the memories remain undiminished.

One memory I mentioned only in passing earlier in this blog is of a South Vietnamese signals intelligence officer I worked with. I can’t use his name because it’s never been declassified. He delayed escape for himself and his family waiting for the evacuation order that the U.S. ambassador never issued. The following is from the nonfiction article I wrote that was published in the Atticus Review early last year:

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, 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.”

He didn’t escape at the end, and I have no doubt that he carried out his plan; many other South Vietnamese officers did precisely what he described.

End of quote. 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 used the way they died for several characters at the end of Annamese in hopes of venting my sorrow. It didn’t help. I still mourn them.

The Final Evacuation from Saigon, 29 April 1975

The forty-second anniversary of the evacuation from Saigon is coming up. My eldest daughter posted a reminder on Facebook that 9 April was the anniversary of the day that she, her mother, her sisters, and her brother, escaped from Saigon. I find it hard to believe that people old enough to be grandparents weren’t even born then.

In Last of the Annamese, on the night of 29 April, the fictional protagonist, Chuck Griffin, flies out of Saigon on a CH-53 and goes to the Midway, a ship of the 7th Fleet cruising in the South China Sea. The historical background is that I went out that night on a little Huey and flew to the Oklahoma City, the fleet’s flagship. I was in such bad shape from lack of food and sleep (and, as it turned out, amoebic dysentery and pneumonia) that I don’t remember much of the flight except that it was dark and it was raining. But I was conscious when we approached the Oklahoma City. The pilot circled and circled before finally descending very slowly to land on the floodlit helipad in the driving rain. He told me later that he, a civilian pilot, had never before landed on a ship.

What amazes me is that my memories of those days are so sharp. I even remember my hallucinations, due to illness from lack of food and rest. The full impact of what had happened didn’t hit me until several days later. I was in recovery, still on the Oklahoma City that was circling before setting sail for the Philippines. I learned that the 2700 South Vietnamese soldiers who had worked with us were left behind to the mercies of the North Vietnamese. They were all either killed or captured.

One of my clearest memories is of a time four or five days before the end. One of my subordinates, a superb analyst, asked with tears in his eyes, “Did it have to end like this?” I attributed his words to Sparky in my retelling of the incident in Annamese.

That guy was more than a man who worked for me. He was a friend. My children, with me in Saigon, all knew him and loved him.

He later killed himself. One more sorrow that stays ever fresh.

A Letter from a Reader

Two days ago, I received a letter from a man in prison who had read The Trion Syndrome. He told me about his time in combat in Vietnam. He’d seen some of the worst. He’s been diagnosed twice with Post-Traumatic Stress Injury (PTSI)—he called it Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). He made no claims of innocence but believed that had he never suffered from PTSI, he never would have been incarcerated. I have no way of knowing, but I suspect he is right.

He wrote me that he enjoyed Trion and had compassion for the protagonist, Dave Bell, whose misjudgments, resulting from PTSI, destroy his life and lead to a suicide attempt.

The letter moved me deeply. I wrote Trion in part to vent my own PTSI, in part to reach out to others who suffer from the same disease. We damaged souls are brothers and sisters and must help each other. No one who hasn’t survived combat can understand us. But we understand each other. We share with each other the strongest bond I’ve ever observed or felt, the love shared by men and women who have fought side by side. Vets don’t use the word “love,” but that’s what it is.

To know that I helped one of my brothers is enough.

Disaster Fatigue

Toward the end of Last of the Annamese, the protagonist, Chuck Griffin, asks himself why the reported atrocities he reads about hourly in his intelligence job, as the fall of Vietnam nears, no longer spark emotion in him. The passage reads:

“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 Chuck. Was there such a thing as disaster fatigue?”

Bruce Curley, in his review of Annamese, confirms that there is such a thing. It happens when a human being has to confront too much carnage and his ability to respond with horror is numbed. Sometimes called “compassion fatigue,” it takes over to protect our psyches from going out of sync. But it has its symptoms, all similar to Post-Traumatic Stress Injury, including nightmares and irrational rages. That similarity gave birth to another name for the malady: “secondary traumatic stress.”

I suffered from it during the waning days of Vietnam. As we were flooded day after day by reports of grisly death and destruction, I stopped feeling revulsion and horror. Narratives about bloody deaths and ghastly dismemberment became routine. I was no longer sickened. I felt nothing.

My full-blown Post-Traumatic Stress Injury (PTSI) didn’t kick in until May of 1975, when I was back in the states. I had amoebic dysentery, ear damage, and pneumonia. But the worst was the spate of flashbacks, irrational rages, nightmares, and panic attacks. I was a walking wound. I don’t how much of my PTSI was aggravated by disaster fatigue—my own unspeakable memories of things I witnessed first-hand during combat and the fall of Saigon were the principal causes. I still can’t speak of some of those experiences. But my recollections of the disasters that befell so many still make me grieve.