Vietnam: Back in Fashion

I spent last Saturday at the Gaithersburg Book Festival hawking my books.

The aura of Vietnam was palpable. The table next to mine was manned by Richard Morris, another Vietnam writer. As I wandered around the festival area, with its many pavilions set aside for speakers and authors reading their work, I heard the word “Vietnam” mouthed by those talking to audiences. Several times I overheard snatches of conversation from passersby. “Vietnam” was audible in their speech.

And I sold a respectable number of books to readers who professed an interest in the Vietnam war. I even sold books to a Vietnamese lady who was charmed by my speaking to her in native language.

I suspect that the uptick in my book sales, not only at the festival but at other places, is the result of a growing interest in the country and the war. I hope so. We could have learned so much from the ending of the Vietnam war, but we didn’t. We repeated the same mistakes in Iraq and Afghanistan. Maybe we’re ready to learn from our past errors.

Lightning Damage

Saturday morning, long before dawn, lightning struck close to my house. The flash was so bright that it awakened me, and the thunder crash that instantly followed it shook the house. I discovered after daylight that I had no internet; later in the day, I found that none of my phones were working; and one of my printers no longer prints.

Sunday, I found out that my laptop could still connect to the internet through the wi-fi system that apparently was not damaged. I finally figured out how to use data copied onto a thumb drive to connect to my blog and post.

My apologies for the prolonged silence. Now that I’ve determined a way to resume, I’ll be posting regularly again.

Who Shot at My Escaping Helicopter?

On the evening of 29 April 1975, I escaped from Saigon as it fell. My flight from Tan Son Nhat, on the northern edge of the city, was part of Operation Frequent Wind, the evacuation of Americans and some South Vietnamese as the North Vietnamese took the city. I flew out on a slick, a little Huey, rather than one of the big CH-53s. As soon as we were airborne, I saw the tracers coming at us. We took so much lead in the fuselage that I thought we were going down. But we made it. In the dark and the rain, we flew out to the South China Sea where the ships of the U.S. 7th Fleet were waiting. The pilot, despite the pelting rain and the pitch black, circled repeatedly. Finally, very slowly, he descended and landed on the floodlit helipad of the Oklahoma City, the flagship of the 7th Fleet. He told me later that he, an Air America civilian pilot, had never before landed on a ship.

Two aspects of the escape intrigue me even today. First, why was it raining? The monsoon season, with its spectacular downpours, wasn’t due until the following month. Did the monsoon come early to coincide with the fall of Vietnam to the communists?

Second, who was firing at us?

I don’t know how many U.S. and Vietnamese helicopters carried people from the city during Operation Frequent Wind. My guess is that it was hundreds. The North Vietnamese by the evening of 29 April were already in the streets of Saigon. They had a full complement of anti-aircraft weapons. And yet, as far I know, not one chopper was shot down. They could have brought down dozens, but they didn’t.

In puzzling through what happened, I’ve concluded that the North Vietnamese didn’t want to impede the U.S. flight from Vietnam. Had they fired at our helicopters, we could have inflicted great damage on them with the combat aircraft we had in the vicinity. Besides, all they wanted was for us to leave.

So who shot at the Huey I was in?

My best guess is that it was the South Vietnamese military whom we were abandoning to their fate. They had large weapons with tracer ammunition—used to show the shooter if his bullets are hitting the target. And they were both furious and desperate as we flew away and left them to the mercies of the North Vietnamese.

I escaped alive, though they certainly tried hard to bring me down. I can understand how they felt. In the end, I was the lucky one. They were all killed or captured by the North Vietnamese.

I Remember Saigon

Most of Last of the Annamese is set in Saigon between November 1974 and the end of April 1975, when Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese. I knew the city well. I had lived there on and off for thirteen years. Granted, before 1973, I didn’t spend much time in the city because I was off in the field supporting combat units. But after the withdrawal of U.S. military forces in 1973 and my final tour began (as head of the covert National Security Agency (NSA) operation in Vietnam), I lived in the city with my wife and four children. I was away only for short trips with my South Vietnamese counterparts.

When I first arrived in Saigon in 1962, the French language was as common as Vietnamese. Many French citizens still lived there, and some Vietnamese, particularly in the upper classes, preferred to speak French. So I got plenty of practice in both Vietnamese and French. To use my Chinese, I had to go to Cholon, the Chinese section of Saigon—its name means “big market”—where the residents often spoke the Beijing dialect of Chinese, the language I had studied, even though it was not their native tongue.

Saigon was a gracious cosmopolitan city back then. The restaurants and cocktail lounges catered to the French. They were, for the most part, not expensive by American standards, and they welcomed me because I spoke their languages. I rented a tiny apartment downtown on Tu Do Street which I used infrequently because so much of my time I was in the field.

By the mid-sixties, Saigon had begun to stink, literally. As the war forced more and more refugees into the city and hygiene declined, the canals that riddled the city were more and more polluted with human waste and garbage. Each time I returned to Saigon from the U.S., I noticed the stench as soon as I deplaned at Tan Son Nhat (the airport on the northern edge of the city); by the time I’d been there a week, I’d grown used to the smell and was no longer even conscious of it. Newly arrived Americans would remark on it until they, too, became inured.

By the time I arrived with my family for my last tour in 1974, Saigon was in decay. The buildings, even private residences, were in serious deterioration. The city’s population had grown beyond congestion. Maimed soldiers crammed the streets. The poor, who had no place to live, were everywhere.

When the end came in April 1975, and I escaped by helicopter under fire, the city was in chaos. I fled from a place I had loved once. Now it was ataxia incarnate.

Maryland Public Television (MPT) Travelling Exhibit

Yesterday, I went to the Howard County Central Library in Columbia to see again the MPT travelling exhibit celebrating Vietnam veterans from Maryland. The display consists of sixteen eight-foot banners, one for each veteran featured in MPT’s three-part documentary, “Maryland Vietnam War Stories” aired in June 2016. I was honored to be one of the sixteen.

Three aspects of the exhibit got my attention during this viewing, the first time I’ve seen the exhibit since last year.

One was that the banner on me depicts me as an army officer. As I explained in an earlier blog, when MPT interviewed me in 2014, my connection with the National Security Agency (NSA) during my years in Vietnam was still classified. Since I didn’t say who I worked for in Vietnam, MPT deduced from the photos they had of me in an army uniform (my cover was the uniform, army or Marine, of the combat unit I was supporting) that I was an army officer. If the observer looks closely at one of the pictures, he will see that my name tags read “GLENN” and “CIVILIAN” and that the collars of my fatigue shirt, where an officer’s rank would normally appear, sport the number “13”—I was a GS-13 at the time. The uniform, and others like it, was the result of a prank the men of one unit played on me.

Second was that several of the other men featured in banners were assigned to the 173rd Airborne Brigade in 1967. They probably took part in the battle of Dak To. I was providing covert signals intelligence support to the 173rd during that battle, so we may have run into each other back then.

Third was the seventeenth banner. I came upon it after looking at the other sixteen. It’s an explanation that the other banners each represent one of the veterans MPT was honoring. Emblazoned in large letters toward the bottom are the words, “Thank you and welcome home.” As I explained in an earlier blog, those words make me cry. I cried again yesterday when I saw them.

Articles and Memories

In the last few days, two projects have consumed my time and attention. One was writing in this blog about abandonment and finding peace. The other was composing two pieces for submission to the New York Times and Vietnam magazine. Both endeavors forced me to remember and contemplate.

In the midst of my work, an email from a man who worked with me many years ago asked about the suicide of one of the men who was with me in Saigon. There were actually two men in Saigon at the end who later killed themselves.

One was a brilliant intelligence analyst. He had the rare gift of being able to look at the data and forecast what would happen next. He foretold the fall of Saigon almost a month before it occurred. It was he who asked me 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 Last of the Annamese.

The other was an equally talented linguist who worked in Vietnamese and French. All of us enjoyed his cynical humor and his imaginative and excellent writing. As the end of the war and defeat loomed, he became silent, even morose.

The deaths of both men, some time after the fall of Saigon, crushed me. They had contributed so much to our joint effort and asked nothing in return. Both were more quick-witted than me, and I suspect both qualified as geniuses. I’ve wondered vainly if their native intelligence was their undoing. Maybe if I’d understood at the depth they did, I might have been suicidal, too.

Oddly, I never was. The lowest point in my life came in the spring and summer of 1975 after I returned to the world (the U.S.) following the fall of Saigon. I was physically ill, suffering from the worst of Post-Traumatic Stress Injury, left to manage on my own by my wife and my employer—as described in the blog posts over the past several days. I was grieving over the loss of Vietnam and so many good people I knew there. I was too sick in mind and body to see any hope in the future.

Maybe if I’d had the brilliant intellect and profound insight of the two men described above I’d have considered ending my life. All I know for sure is that my ultimate reaction was to gird my loins and fight back. I had writing and the support of other men who’d been in Vietnam, and I exploited those resources. I knew I’d done my best, given my all, during the collapse in Vietnam. I’d helped several Vietnamese families to escape. I’d saved the lives of the men who worked for me and their families in defiance of the ambassador. My honor was intact. Most of all, I knew I had it in me to recover.

The National Security Agency (NSA), my employer, years later, recognized my work during the fall of Saigon and awarded me the Civilian Meritorious Medal. I was right to hang in there. These days, as I said yesterday, people respect us Vietnam veterans. And we hear those cherished words, “Thank you. And welcome home.”