The End in Vietnam: Physical Collapse

The last few days before we were evacuated during the fall of Saigon in April 1975, Bob, Gary, and I were under severe physical strain. We had gotten forty-one of our fellow workers and all the families out safely despite the Ambassador’s failure to call for an evacuation. The three of us told each other that we were there to turn the lights out when we finally had permission to leave.

By 27 April, we were out of food except for bar snacks we’d been able to scrounge from a hotel before we were unable to get through the streets of the city which were blocked by throngs of refugees. But we had lots of coffee, thanks to Bob and Gary’s foresight. We drank gallons of coffee, ate next to nothing, and had no sleep.

The strain of the past several months and the deprivations toward the end took their toll on my body. I came down with diarrhea. I had other symptoms, too, but due to the stress of the situation and the shelling we were subjected to, I ignored my physical problems and kept on working. I had to keep going. Bob and Gary’s survival depended on it.

I was finally able to get Bob and Gary out on a helicopter on the afternoon of 29 April. I escaped under fire that night after the North Vietnamese were already in the streets of the city. Once aboard the Oklahoma City, the flag ship of the U.S. 7th Fleet, I still had to stay on my feet. After the fleet sailed to the Philippines, I booked a flight immediately to Honolulu because I had to brief CINCPAC (Commander-in-Chief, Pacific) on what had happened in Saigon. When I sat down after the briefing, I passed out. After I got back to the mainland, I was diagnosed with amoebic dysentery, ear damage (caused by the shelling), and pneumonia due to sleep deprivation, inadequate diet, and muscle fatigue.

After a few months of recovery, I was as good as new. To this day, I’m amazed at what the body is capable of when lives are at stake.

Fall of Saigon Presentation

An announcement in the New York Times ’67 Vietnam series yesterday:
Upcoming Events
At 7:00 p.m. on Jan. 7, the author and former intelligence officer Tom Glenn will give a presentation on the fall of Saigon at the Howard County Central Library in Columbia, Md. As the station chief for the National Security Agency in Saigon in 1975, Mr. Glenn was among the last Americans to leave the country before it was conquered by North Vietnam.

The address of the central branch is 10375 Little Patuxent Parkway, Columbia, MD 21044. If any of the readers of this blog are able to attend, please let me know your reaction to the presentation.

My article in the New York Times ’67 Vietnam series is at

The End in Vietnam: Shelling

Bob, Gary, and I—the last three men in our Saigon office after the evacuation of all the others and the families at the end of April 1975—were subjected to North Vietnamese shelling starting just after sundown the night of 28 April. The North Vietnamese first used rockets against us. Then, about four in the morning on 29 April, the artillery started. A C-130 on the airstrip behind us was destroyed, the building next door blew up, and two Marine guards at our gate were killed.

Several passages in Last of the Annamese describe what the shelling was like. Here’s one:

The blast toppled Chuck to the deck. Troiano, on his hands and knees, was yelling, but Chuck couldn’t make out the words. The room shifted again. The coffee maker lifted into the air, bounced, tumbled to the floor. The telephone landed beside it. The room lurched from a third concussion. A hanging light fixture on the ceiling jumped and swung, one of its posts broken. Dust from the ceiling powdered Chuck’s neck. He and Troiano both crawled under desks.

Sparky lunged in from the hall. Another blast knocked his feet out from under him. As he hit the deck, the room jumped again. He snaked under a desk.

End of quote. The artillery attacks continued through the day of 29 April. I’ve never experienced anything like that since the fall of Saigon. The closest thing to it I’ve lived through was earthquakes in the San Francisco bay area in my childhood.

What made both earthquakes and shelling so terrifying was the helplessness—one could do nothing to defend oneself or escape the danger—and the randomness of the hits. That Bob, Gary, and I survived was pure chance.

The End in Vietnam: Forgotten and Abandoned

Half way through Last of the Annamese, Ike, a Marine captain at the American embassy in Saigon, senses the change in the atmosphere. Here’s the passage that describes Ike’s foreboding:

On Friday, 14 March [1975], ARS [American Radio Service, Vietnam] reported that Congress had voted not to appropriate funds for Vietnam. The war was over. Somehow nobody in Saigon had been notified, and the North Vietnamese were ignoring the fact as they seized more territory. Ike’s country had forgotten he was here, faced daily with threats to his life.

Riding to and from the Embassy as the days warmed toward the lowland monsoon season, Ike watched the city change. The good-natured clatter of bikes and hurrying pedestrians was gone. In its place was a city much quieter and wound ever tighter. Faces on the streets showed worry. Refugees were everywhere.

The Embassy, always marked by the lilt of southern hospitality, developed an uneasy edge. Ike’s men [the 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.

End of quote. On the rational level, I saw the end coming and warned Ambassador Martin. He ignored me. The American press, the Congress, the State Department, the CIA, even the president chose not to accept the mounting evidence that Saigon would fall to the North Vietnamese.

On the psychic level, my men and I felt the cold of aloneness and abandonment. We were voices crying in the wilderness. No one heard us. No evacuation was planned.

We were immensely comforted when, on 22 April, the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency issued an estimate that South Vietnam would fall to the North Vietnamese within the week. I learned that the military side of the U.S. government was under no delusions about what was happening in South Vietnam.

And at the final hour, it was the military—the Marines and the U.S. 7th Fleet—that rescued us. On the night of 29 April 1975, I escaped under fire on a helicopter that flew me in the dark and the pouring rain to the flag ship of the 7th Fleet, the Oklahoma City.

My respect for the military has never waned.

Writing and the Conscious Mind

Yesterday I wrote about how I create. That involves opening the unconscious and letting it flood me. Today I want to write about what the conscious mind does with that flood.

It’s called technique, style, or—the term I prefer—craftsmanship. It’s a skill that takes a lifetime to master.

To wit: writing good fiction requires both creativity and craftsmanship. Creativity is innate; it can’t be taught. But craftsmanship is a learnable skill required to produce a publishable manuscript, work that will engage a reader to the point that she forgets she’s reading. The rudiments of craftsmanship unique to fiction include how to use basic reference materials, formatting, copy editing, wording and structure, and especially the construction of dialogue.

In working on a manuscript, I first complete a draft, then start revising. The second and third drafts are usually written in the creative mode to assure that my vision is correctly and completely captured. In the fourth draft I switch to the craftsmanship mode, looking at correct spelling and formatting, overall shape and structure, pace and tension level, accurate word usage, sentence length, chapter length, correct and consistent use of point of view. I put the manuscript aside for some time—as much as a year with a novel—then do the next draft again from the craftsmanship point of view. Successive drafts shift between the two modes of writing until my creative side is satisfied that the manuscript is complete.

As a result, I spend something like 10 percent of my writing time in drafting new text and 90 percent of it in revising. It means reading aloud what I’ve written and listening for the way the words, sentences, and paragraphs come together.

I know I’m on my final draft when I start reading in the craftsmanship mode but the text moves me to the point that I read to enjoy the beauty of the words and story.

Writing and the Unconscious

My blog of two days ago, on writing as venting, led me to think further about the writing process as I experience it. The question for today is not why I write—I talked about that two days ago—but how I write.

As I’ve mentioned several times over the last year, I write in two modes, as a creator and as a craftsman. Today I want to reflect on how I create.

My characters, my stories, even my vocabulary and tone come from my unconscious. I learned early in life to tap into that secret part of my mind. As a young man, I was intrigued with the Sufis and their way of seeing life. What we call meditation is major element in Sufi practice. They taught me how to quiet my mind to a wordless, image-free state. Once in that place, the soul is open to direct communication with the deity.

After Vietnam, my soul was overloaded with unspeakable memories. At first, simply to survive, I banished the images from my conscious mind. But they came back to haunt me as flashbacks, irrational rages, nightmares, and panic attacks. I learned that I had to unleash them, face them head-on, find out how to live with them. I used the techniques the Sufis had taught me to bring them into my conscious memory. Little by little, I learned to control my emotions.

I know now that when a story or character or situation or scene arises in my imagination and demands that I write it down, it’s coming from my unconscious. So when I sit down to write, I let my soul slip into the meditative state. Sometimes, it’s like watching a movie and writing down what I see; sometimes it’s responding to a character who insists that I bring him or her into existence; sometimes it’s observing a scene play out in my imagination and letting the deepest recesses of my mind tell me how it ends.

The grisly memories from Vietnam and later never go away. They are with me always. Their presence explains why so much of my writing is about war and combat. Hence Friendly Casualties, The Trion Syndrome, and Last of the Annamese. Writing my memories into stories puts me in charge—I control them instead of them controlling me. Unburdening myself by telling what happened, even in fictionalized form, eases my soul.

Perfect peace will never be mine. The recollections are too hideous for that. But telling the world what really happened offers me another satisfaction. In writing, I find fulfillment.