As the head of the covert NSA operation in Vietnam and the tenant resident, along with my wife and children, of a fine villa in Saigon, it was incumbent upon me to host parties for my subordinates and associates as often as practical. Many of the 43 guys who worked for me were in Vietnam without their families. And the others, who had their wives and children with them, had few chances to socialize with others like them. So at every opportunity, my wife and I hosted gatherings. We had three servants who could manage the work load, and with hazardous duty pay, I could afford the cost. I saw entertaining my guys and their families and one of my duties.
Holidays were the most important. Thanksgiving and Christmas of 1974 will stay in my memory for life. The gatherings were so large that the Saigon police sent extra men to keep watch on my villa lest a VC activist toss a grenade over the walls surrounding our villa. We even hired extra guards to work inside the villa grounds to assure the safety of the guests.
By March, 1975, the gatherings were becoming rare. As the impending attack on Saigon came closer, we had less and less time away from the office, and the danger of a guerrilla attack on the villa caused me to reduce the size and frequency of the gatherings. That same month, I began sending my subordinates and their families out of Vietnam as the threat to the Saigon grew. By April, we had stopped all celebrations. I got my wife and children out of the country on 9 April. The remaining families were gone about the same time. Then came to struggle to get my remaining subordinates out, discussed elsewhere in this blog. By 27 April, only three of us remained, me and the two communicators who had volunteered to stay until the end with me. The city fell two days later, and we were evacuated.
For all that, I remember the gatherings at our villa fondly. Granted, we all felt the unease of growing danger. But the men who worked for me were the finest crew I’ve ever come across. I had enormous respect for their devotion to duty and the skill they brought to bear. Though I never would have used the word with them, I loved them every one. I’ll always be grateful that, in the midst of the tragedy of the fall of Vietnam, we shared a bond of brotherhood and devotion to each other.
Yesterday a box of books arrived from the Naval Institute Press. Last of the Annamese is now in print. I assume that means that those who ordered a copy of the book will receive it shortly. And I’ll have copies to sell and autograph at the many planned events during the next several months.
There’s something unique about holding in one’s hands a printed copy of a book one has written. It brings with it a sense of completion and fulfillment. All the blood, sweat, and tears—in the case of Annamese I mean those words literally—has born fruit.
At the end of Last of the Annamese, three South Vietnamese Air Force officers force their way into the DAO Building at Tan Son Nhat, on the northern edge of Saigon, and demand evacuation at gunpoint. They take Chuck Griffin hostage and threaten to shoot him if their demands are not met. Chuck at the behest of the officers negotiates with Marine Colonel Macintosh, the Ground Security Officer—the guy in charge—for the evacuation. The three officers relent, give up their weapons, and surrender to the Americans.
The event described did indeed take place. The three of us still in our office suite—Bob Hartley, Gary Hickman, and I—were waiting to be evacuated when I got a phone call telling me that the three officers were roaming the halls, guns drawn. We were to proceed at once to the evacuation staging area, another office secured by U.S. Marines. We sent our last message, quoted earlier in this blog, reporting that we were closing down, and hurried to the staging area. Later, I was told to wait alone in yet another office until it was my turn to be evacuated. I had to remain there, locked in, because the three renegade officers were still at large. They did take a hostage but eventually gave up their weapons and surrendered. What became of them after that I don’t know.
The Marine colonel who dealt with them and got me and my two communicators out alive was Al Gray, later Commandant of the Marine Corps. I owe him my life. I’ve never met a Marine who didn’t know about General Gray, even today a hero to Marines.
I subscribe to A Word a Day posted daily by Anu Garg. At the end of each post, Garg includes a quote. Today’s is one I’d like to send to Donald Trump:
“We have abundant reason to rejoice, that, in this land, the light of truth and reason has triumphed over the power of bigotry and superstition, and that every person may here worship God according to the dictates of his own heart. In this enlightened age, and in this land of equal liberty, it is our boast, that a man’s religious tenets will not forfeit the protection of the laws, nor deprive him of the right of attaining and holding the highest offices that are known in the United States”. -George Washington, 1st US president, general (1732-1799)
Toward the end of Last of the Annamese, Chuck Griffin drives early in the morning through the streets of Saigon to his office at Tan Son Nhat, on the northern edge of the city. The text describes Chuck’s view of Saigon at the end of the dry season, in April 1975, before the onset of the monsoons and weeks before the city fell to the Vietnamese Communists:
“The city was already writhing in the heat. Dust trailed after everything that moved. The canals and gutters that riddled the city had turned black, oozing with clots of human waste. The morning mist, suffused by exhaust and smoke from charcoal fires, hung in the blighted trees and discolored eaves. Orange and white [propaganda] banners sagged, some falling into the street. Refugees choked byways and alleys and spilled over the boulevards and parks. Chuck smelled the raw force of incipient panic.”
This passage, like so many others in the novel, reflects my memories of a city crumbling in the prelude to defeat. Despite declarations to the contrary by the South Vietnamese government and the U.S., a foreboding of destruction hung in the air indistinguishable from the dirty smoke that dissipated only when the monsoon downpours washed it away and replaced it with steam rising from the Saigon River. Ironically, the cleansing monsoon rains started the night of 29 April as the city fell to the North Vietnamese and I escaped under fire to the safety of the 7th Fleet cruising in the South China Sea.
Earlier in this blog, I wrote about Huong, Molly’s Chinese maid. In December, 1974, Chuck, the protagonist, persuades Molly to allow him and Tuyet to use her apartment for several days. As Chuck is preparing for Tuyet’s arrival, Huong suddenly appears and offers to fix their evening meal. When Tuyet arrives, she has her own personal maid, Mai, with her. The two Vietnamese women demand that Huong leave and that Mai take over the cooking duties. When Chuck later asks Tuyet to explain, she responds:
“. . . Huong is Chinese.”
“How do you know?” Chuck said.
“She looks Chinese.” Tuyet wrinkled her nose. “The way she dresses. Her accent. Her name . . .”
The episode is based on my experience with the Vietnamese. They were prejudiced against the Chinese and accused them of faults regularly cited in any prejudice, that they smell bad, they’re dirty, ignorant, dishonest.
The irony was that these same Vietnamese looked own on Americans because of their bias against African-Americans. The difference was the source of the bias. The Vietnamese and Chinese have been at odds for more than a millennium. They have been at war repeatedly, and each looks down on the other as primitive and uncultured. The dislike is particularly striking on the Vietnamese side since their culture, language, music, and art is so deeply influenced by the Chinese. Even the name of their country, Vietnam, is Chinese. It is derived from the Chinese words yuëh nan, meaning “the troublemakers in the south.”
In short, the prejudice is illogical and not based on fact. In that respect, it is like all other prejudice.
I’ve spoken earlier in this blog about my bouts with Post-Traumatic Stress Injury. I refer to it as “injury” rather than “disorder” because it is an externally inflicted wound. Some writers call it soul damage; others refer to it as a moral wound. I know from my own experience that it is the result of an experience (or series of experiences) so brutal that the psyche is permanently damaged and never heals.
So one learns to cope. Facing the memories is requisite. Writing about them is one of the best methods of confronting them. Hence so much of my writing, including Last of the Annamese. But sometimes a scent, a sound, a brief glimpse will ignite them all over again.
That happened to me when the reporter from the Howard County Times interviewed me a couple of weeks ago. She asked questions and prodded my memories. They came back at full strength.
You can read the results in her article: http://eedition.howardcountytimes.com/Olive/ODN/HowardCountyTimes/default.aspx
I never know when the haunting will return full bore. My job is to bear them and keep on working.