Thank You and Welcome Home

Last night I attended the “Welcome Home—Vietnam Veterans Celebration: Warriors Remembered” in Greenbelt. I wasn’t prepared.

For years, when I returned from Vietnam with the troops through San Francisco, we were met by crowds who yelled “butcher” and “baby killer” at us. They spat on us. I was shamed to the depths of my soul, not for the troops who had fought bravely and followed commands even at the risk of theirs lives, but for America. Our people, the people we fought for, were blaming us for what they saw as an unjust war. I was sickened.

For years, I never mentioned my Vietnam experience. My Post-Traumatic Stress Injury (PTSI) was worsened by my silence. No one wanted to talk about Vietnam. The war was shameful, and I was one of the perpetrators.

But Vietnam was bursting my seams. It dominated my writing. No one would publish my stories and novels. Vietnam was anathema.

Then, three years ago, I attended the first Welcome Home celebration for Vietnam vets. For the first time I heard the words, “Thank you for your service. And welcome home.” I cried.

Last night, when I walked into the ballroom where the celebration was underway, a young man in uniform smiled, shook my hand, and said “Thank you. And welcome home.” The tears came.

Toward the end of the gathering, the young soldiers, airmen, Naval Academy cadets, and ROTC members lined up and saluted us Vietnam veterans to thank us for our service. My tears embarrassed me again.

The last speaker, U.S. Army Sergeant Major Rodwell L. Forbes, told of his reluctance to admit his PTSI until a Vietnam vet called him a fool for not facing it. Forbes’ wife reiterated the insult. He submitted to therapy and found a well of torment aching to be freed. He expressed his gratitude to a Vietnam vet. Then he, too, thanked us and welcomed us home.

My Vietnam writings are being published now. These days many people thank me for my service. But I still choke up when I hear “Welcome home.” Those were words I yearned for. I grieve that so many of my comrades in arms did not live long enough to hear them.

The End of An Nam

As the fall of Saigon grew close, the city went into chaos. I saw none of it because I and my two communicators had moved out of our residences and were staying 24 hours a day in our office suite at Tan Son Nhat on the northern edge of the city. But we read press reports and embassy cables. The following passage from Last of the Annamese quotes, to the best of my memory, one such cable:

“The panic is spreading. Take a look at this.”

[Troiano handed Chuck] an Embassy cable, date time group of an hour ago. “Looting has started in Saigon. Boutiques on Tu Do Street have been vandalized, display windows smashed. Shoe stores on Le Thanh Ton, the street of shoes, report that hooligans, referred to as ‘cowboys,’ and renegade soldiers are forcing shopkeepers to give up their goods. Merchants specializing in televisions and stereos have been stripped of their wares.”

Chuck handed the cable back to Troiano. “And so it begins. The end of An Nam.”

Troiano’s bloodshot eyes looked up at Chuck.

“An Nam, sir. The old name for Vietnam. It means ‘peace in the south.’”

Thanh Keeps Coming Back

I’ve written in this blog about the South Vietnamese Marine Colonel Thanh, one of the three principal characters in Last of the Annamese. Reviewers of the book and ordinary readers are more taken with Thanh than with the other characters.

Maybe there’s justice in that. Thanh is really the soul of the story. He insists that he Annamese, not Vietnamese—native to the core of his people, better described as peace makers (from An Nam, “peace in the south”) than troublemakers (from Viet Nam, “troublemakers in the south”). He is the shaper of the tale, the man who stands serene as his country crumbles about him.

I can’t claim the credit for inventing Thanh. He came to me, as all my characters do, fully formed. At first he kept parts of himself hidden from me. He allowed me to know his history as a monk, then a warrior, slowly as I wrote about him. When I wanted him to be angry with Tuyet for her betrayal, he instead found peace from within himself. When I tried to write him as showing strength after the fall of Phuoc Binh, he became despondent, then had to restore himself to greater strength through his own internal harmony.

As irrational as it sounds, I don’t feel like I created Thanh. Rather, he revealed himself to me at his own pace and in his own way. He is a far greater man than I could ever hope to be. And he is more real to me than most of the men I know.

Number of NSA Men in Saigon at the End

I’ve confused my readers. I’ve said that I safely evacuated all 43 men working for me before the North Vietnamese took Saigon in April 1975. That’s true. At other times, I mentioned getting 41 out. The difference is that two of my guys, Bob Hartley and Gary Hickman, volunteered to stay with me through the attack on the city. Before that, I got 41 men and all the families out safely. The three of us—Bob, Gary, and me—were still there when the attack began on 28 April. We were shelled throughout the night, the building next door to us blew up, and two Marine guards at our gate were killed. Bob and Gary were evacuated by helicopter on the afternoon of 29 April. That added up to 43 guys out. I went out that night under fire.

French Journalist Killed, March 1975

A little past the middle of book, Last of the Annamese records the death of a French journalist, shot to death by the Saigon police. It was one sign of the panic that was overtaking Saigon as the end approached.

As I piece together the story of what happened, Paul Leandri, a journalist for Agence France Presse, was questioned by the Saigon police on 14 March 1975 about a story he had published on the fall of Ban Me Thuot to the North Vietnamese. As he was leaving police headquarters, he was shot in the head and killed instantly after “refusing orders to stop.” The police were trying to find out the sources he used for his story on the battle in the highlands.

That battle forms an important part of the story of Last of the Annamese. The South Vietnamese Marine Colonel Thanh takes Chuck Griffin with him on a visit to the highlands. Their last stop is Ban Me Thuot where both know that the North Vietnamese are about to attack. They escape under fire by plane from the runway as the North Vietnamese onslaught begins.

That episode is based on my own experience travelling with a South Vietnamese general. We took off in his C-47 from Ban Me Thuot just as the airstrip came under fire. The town fell with a day or two, followed by the whole of the northern half of South Vietnam. The North Vietnamese then turned their eyes south to Saigon which fell a month and a half later.

Leandri’s death was one of many signs that the order imposed by the South Vietnamese was collapsing. I remember at the time, having just returned from the trip to Ban Me Thuot, thinking that his killing was one more indication that South Vietnam’s days were numbered.

Who or What is the “Last of the Annamese”?

The title of my most recent novel is deliberately ambiguous. It could be understood to be the end of the Annamese as a nation, or it could refer to that nation’s last surviving native. I intended both meanings.

As of Last of the Annamese progresses, the definition of “Annamese” becomes clear. The reader learns that Thanh, the South Vietnamese Marine colonel at the heart of the story, dislikes “Vietnam,” a name conferred millennia ago by the Chinese which means “troublemakers in the south.” He prefers the name “An Nam,” which means “peace in the south.” An Nam was one of the original names for the country now known as Vietnam, and in English, a resident of An Nam is an Annamese.

As the final conquest of South Vietnam by the north comes closer, the end of the Annamese as a people is imminent. Thanh considers himself the last of the Annamese in the sense of being the last of his race. All his loyal brethren have fled or been killed or have gone over to the North Vietnamese. But Thanh has a son, Thu, six years old. He will survive Thanh in the long run. Toward the end of the book, Thu’s mother, Tuyet, refers to Thu as the last of the Annamese. She understands that Thu will end up in the United States and will grow up as an American. That doesn’t alter the fact that he, in her view, will be the last surviving member of his nationality.

So “last of the Annamese” has two meanings. Both are fulfilled by the end of the story.

Last Days

Toward the end of Last of the Annamese, as the attack on Saigon begins on 26 April 1975, Chuck, Sparky, and Colonel Troiano are caught in their office at Tan Son Nhat, on the northern edge of Saigon, where they were holed up. Here’s the text from the beginning of chapter 19:

It started Saturday morning. Reports swamped the comms center. Long Binh was under attack, and Ba Ria fell. North Vietnamese shelling of Bien Hoa was low thunder that shook the floor. The final assault was under way. To get around the Ambassador’s edict that no one was to be evacuated, Troiano sent most of the remaining personnel out of country by air on trumped-up “temporary duty” missions. The Intelligence Branch, the comms center, and the tank were now manned by five people—two comms techs who’d volunteered to stay to the end, Chuck, Sparky, and Troiano. “We’re just here to turn off the lights when the Ambassador gives us permission to leave,” Troiano told Chuck. They adopted the eight-sixteen rule—eight hours of sleep, sixteen hours of work on rotating shifts, so that two people would man the tank at all times. Sparky made a food run, found out that the snack bar was deserted.

That description matches what really happened to me. Most of my subordinates were already gone, sent out the country on phony temporary duty, home leave, or vacation—all to get around the ambassador’s no-evacuation order. By the next day, Sunday, 27 April, we were down to three of us, me and two communicators who had volunteered to stay through attack. We had already been on the eight-sixteen rule but switched to a 24-hour schedule with two hour breaks for one man while the other two worked.

I’ll never forget or stop honoring the two men who agreed to remain during the attack. Bob Hartley and Gary Hickman showed enormous courage. They stayed calm in the face of disaster, knowing they could be killed in the next barrage. They worked harder than I had any right to expect, doing between them the job 16 men had done when we were at full strength. When they were extracted by helicopter on the afternoon of 29 April, I knew my work in Vietnam was finished.

Beacon Article and Bohannon Interview

The April issue of the Howard County Beacon is out. It features a cover story on me and Last of the Annamese. You can view it on the Howard County Beacon web site.



. . .  but I found it hard to read.

Jim Bohannon’s interview of me from last night is now up on his podcast page. Click on the 3-20 podcast. The interview starts at about 39 minutes into the broadcast—you can click to find that spot. The URL is:

I invite comments.

Glossary to Annamese

Because most of the characters in Last of the Annamese are concerned with military matters, much of the language in the book typical of the patois of soldiers and Marines.  I realize in looking over the terms included in the book’s glossary that that was the language I spoke during the final days of Vietnam. Because the three major male characters are Marines, the book uses more Marine slang than any other.

Because I worked with Marine units so often between 1962 and 1975, when Saigon fell, and because it was the Marines that saved my life when I escaped under fire, I still use a number of the Marine terms recorded in the glossary—much to the confusion of everyday American citizens. “World” still means the United States to me, and my natural impulse is to refer to a wall a “bulkhead” and a floor as the “deck.” And “ASAP” springs to my lips faster than “as soon as possible.”

All that makes people think I’m a little odd. That’s okay with me.

Le van Duyet

Around the middle of Last of the Annamese, Colonel Thanh takes his family—his wife Tuyet, his niece Lan, and his six-year-old son Thu—to the tomb of Le van Duyet on a family outing. The trip is not a success. The tomb, which Thanh remembers from his youth, has been neglected and is overrun with beggars. Worse, a VC assassin shoots Thanh on the shoulder as the family searches for a taxi to take them home.

Le van Duyet is one of the most revered of figures of Vietnamese history, but he was not a king. Here’s the recap of his story from Wikipedia:

Lê Văn Duyệt (1763 or 1764 – 3 July 1832) was a Vietnamese general who helped Nguyễn Ánh—the future Emperor Gia Long—put down the Tây Sơn rebellion, unify Vietnam and establish the Nguyễn Dynasty. After the Nguyễn came to power in 1802, Duyệt became a high-ranking mandarin, serving under the first two Nguyễn emperors Gia Long and Minh Mạng.

The Nguyen family mentioned by Wikipedia is Tuyet’s family. She is a princess who married Thanh on the orders of her father.

I first visited the tomb of Le van Duyet in 1962. It was an imposing shrine, stately and moving. I went back to see it again in 1975 and found it in shambles as the chaos of the war led to general disarray. From pictures now on the internet, it appears that the communist government of Vietnam has restored it to something like its former glory.