Those Who Stayed Behind

Several characters in Last of the Annamese choose not to be evacuated during the fall of Saigon. They decide to stay behind and face the North Vietnamese.

One is Mother Monique, the superior of the nuns that operate the orphanage at Cité Paul-Marie, a Catholic chapel in Saigon. She arranges for her subordinate sisters and all the orphans—mostly Amerasian, fathered by American GIs with Vietnamese women—to depart Vietnam as part of Operation Babylift, an effort launched by President Ford to save orphans before the North Vietnamese completed their conquest of South Vietnam.

Why did Monique stay behind to face the North Vietnamese? The reader doesn’t know, but I do. Monique is from of an upper-class family which fled North Vietnam after the signing of the Geneva agreement that divided Vietnam. She despises the Viet Cong, which she still refers to as the Viet Minh. As a young woman, she joined the convent responding to a calling she felt deep within her to devote her life to helping others. Partly because of her devotion to her vocation and partly due to her aristocratic roots, she was chosen to head the orphanage at Cité Paul-Marie. She shares with Tuyet, the principal female character in the novel, a preference for speaking French rather than Vietnamese because she grew up speaking it.

Now in her fifties, Monique feels within herself a strong bond to her native land. She knows she must not flee. She must stay and confront the North Vietnamese when they take Saigon. As an aristocrat and speaker of French, she knows that the Communists will be brutal to her. But if she is to be true to herself and her lineage, she must not run away.

I don’t know whether the North Vietnamese execute Monique outright or send her to one of the so-called “reeducation camps”—really prison or concentration camps—but I’m sure she did not survive long. I’m sure she dies at peace because she was faithful to her calling.

Last of the Annamese and The Quiet American

I am currently reading Frederik Logevall’s Embers of War, a detailed history of the French Indochina War. He writes at some length about Graham Greene’s 1955 novel, The Quiet American, and its characterization of the American presence in Vietnam as portrayed in the character of Alden Pyle whose innocence and naïveté lead to disaster. The novel was, in some ways, a forecast of the U.S. performance during “the American war” which followed the French withdrawal. The accuracy of that prediction is the subject of animated debate.

I mentioned earlier in this blog an endorsement of Annamese by Stephen Phillips, author of Proximity and The Recipient’s Son: “Tom Glenn’s novel is a proverbial bookend companion to Graham Greene’s The Quiet American . . .” I’m flattered by the comparison with Greene, a novelist I greatly admire, and I’m struck by the parallels between Alden Pyle and the protagonist of Annamese, Chuck Griffin. But whereas Pyle never learns from his experiences, Chuck does. By the end of the book he is both cynical and disheartened.

The character in my novel that seems more comparable to Pyle is Tommy Riggs, the Marine captain about whom I wrote yesterday. But he, too, ends up profoundly disillusioned by the end of the war. As one reader pointed out to me, Riggs has the same forename I do. Did I intend him to stand for me in some way? Not at the conscious level, but I cannot deny the resemblance between the buoyant boyish officer shattered by the fall of Saigon and the young intelligence officer I was when I first arrived in Vietnam in 1962 and the husk of a man left at the end.

Marine Captain Tommy Riggs in Last of the Annamese

Chuck Griffin, the protagonist of Last of the Annamese, shares a house in Saigon with his workmate, Sparky, and a Marine captain from the embassy guard named Ike. In April 1975, as the fall of Saigon looks likely, Ike returns to the world (the U.S.) to accompany the body of a nurse who is killed in the crash of the Operation Babylift’s first flight. To replace him, Marine Captain Tommy Riggs arrives and moves into Ike’s former bedroom. He and the cook who works for the men in the house, Chi Nam, strike up a friendship.

Tommy, a Naval Academy graduate, is a new captain and much younger than Ike who worked his way through the ranks first as an enlisted man, later as a mustang officer. Chuck, himself a retired Marine major, takes an immediate dislike to the immature young captain and muses to himself that “the twits shall inherit the earth.”

After the fall of Saigon and the evacuation to the 7th Fleet cruising in the South China Sea, Tommy shows up at Chuck’s table in the ship’s wardroom. Unlike the crisp young captain who was Chuck’s housemate, Tommy is dirty, exhausted, and edgy. He tells Chuck that he had arranged to get Chi Nam and her family into the embassy compound to be evacuated, then had to leave her there when the last helicopter took off from the embassy roof. The young officer is shattered.

Tommy was to me like so many young officers I knew during the final collapse and the evacuation. They started out upbeat and enthusiastic but were profoundly impacted by the tragic events at the end. They, like the rest of us, were permanently changed by what they had lived through.

Highlands Pink

Much of the soil in the Vietnam highlands, along the border with Laos and Cambodia, is red. During my time there working with U.S. combat forces, my fatigues and boot socks looked fine after washing, whether I washed them myself or a hired laundress did. But my white socks and all my underwear came back a brilliant baby pink. And, as it turned out, no amount of later washing or bleaching would remove the pink ambience.

Most embarrassing was during the second half of 1967 and the beginning of 1968. I was in the highlands in support of the U.S. 4th Infantry Division and the 173rd Airborne Brigade during the battle of Dak To, then, before Christmas, moved south to Bien Hoa to work with other units. When the troops in the Bien Hoa area got a glimpse of my underwear, I thought I’d never hear the end of it. Did all civilian males wear pink jockey shorts, they wanted to know, or was it just NSA guys operating under cover? Were there queer mail order houses where they could order pink jock straps like mine? And could they specify a different shade of pink for the pouch and the leg straps?

The razzing didn’t stop until we were well into detecting and forecasting the Têt Offensive. By then we had no time for anything but work.

During Chuck’s visit to the highlands with Thanh in Last of the Annamese, he too finds his underwear turned pink. But he was the only American in the group, and the timing of the trip—just before the fall of Vietnam—discouraged humor.

The memory of my pink undies reminds me of how much fun I had with the troops. As one lieutenant observed, you get a bunch of young men together and they always find a way to make each other laugh. Even when they know some of them will be dead the next day.

The Banishment of Brigadier General Baughn from Saigon

Toward the end in Saigon, the Defense Attaché, U.S. Army Brigadier General Homer D. Smith, named his deputy, Air Force Brigadier General Richard M. Baughn, to set up, control, and run the evacuation. His organization included the Evacuation Control Center, the Evacuation Processing Center, and the Evacuation Council. Around the middle of April, when the crowds of refugees thickened outside the Defense Attaché Office (DAO) compound at Tan Son Nhat, on the northern edge of Saigon, General Baughn cabled a request for additional security. Furious, the Ambassador, Graham Martin, ordered Baughn to leave the country.

As a result, the Special Planning Group (SPG), set up to oversee the evacuation of the DAO compound, “went black,” that is, proceeded with its work in strict secret from everybody save General Smith and his immediate evacuation planners. Despite the Ambassador, the preparations General Smith ordered for the evacuation continued.

The episode, including the SPG’s secret callsign, ALAMO, are reported in Last of the Annamese. Like Chuck in the novel, I was unaware that moves were underway to get us out of Saigon safely. I learned what was afoot during the final days when Marine Colonel Al Gray appeared at my office door one night in mufti (civilian clothes). He’d flown in from the 7th Fleet, operating in the South China Sea.

I am eternally grateful that General Smith in effect disobeyed the Ambassador and that the military side of the U.S. government—the Department of Defense and Command-in-Chief, Pacific—harbored no illusions about what was happening Vietnam. They took action. Had they not, my two communicators and I would at worst have been killed and at best been taken prisoner.

Operation Frequent Wind

After the bombing of the air strips at Tan Son Nhat (on the northern edge of Saigon) on 29 April 1975, the only means left to evacuate remaining U.S. citizens and the South Vietnamese who had worked with us was by helicopter or by boat. The airborne evacuation was called “Frequent Wind Phase Four.” That was the final phase of Frequent Wind, called after it was clear that fixed-wing aircraft could no longer be used.

The final pages of Last of the Annamese relate how Chuck, the book’s protagonist, and his two colleagues—all that were left of the Intelligence Branch Staff still in Saigon—were airlifted out on choppers. Their story is drawn from my own personal experience when I and my two communicators, Bob Hartley and Gary Hickman, were flown out.

Operation Frequent Wind Phase Four is, to my knowledge, is the largest helicopter evacuation ever attempted. Reports on the number of helicopters used vary from 81 to 91. They included Marine CH-53’s, large enough to carry 50 men outfitted for combat, and Air America hueys (UH-1 slicks), operated by a civilian corporation, that could carry only eight to 14 people each. The operation lasted 19 hours and moved more than 7,000 people from the Defense Attaché Office (DAO) compound at Tan Son Nhat and the U.S. Embassy in downtown Saigon to the ships of the 7th Fleet cruising in the South China Sea. During much of the operation, the North Vietnamese were shelling us, first with rockets, later with artillery. The last two American fighting men to die on the ground in Vietnam were two embassy Marines guarding the western gate of the DAO compound, Cpl. Charles McMahon, Jr. and Lance Cpl. Darwin Judge, killed during that shelling.

My two communicators went our around 1400 hours (2:00 p.m.) on 29 April. I went out after dark the same day. The first rains of the monsoon season started that evening, and the choppers were being pelted by downpours. I went out on a slick. No sooner were we airborne than I saw tracers coming at us. We took so much lead in the fuselage that I thought we were going down. But we made it. I looked own on fires burning all over Saigon.

I now know that the North Vietnamese could have easily shot down all the helicopters in Frequent Wind Phase Four. But, to my knowledge, not a single chopper was lost. I’ve since concluded that the ground fire that hit the helicopter I was on originated with panicking South Vietnamese soldiers, terrified that they would not be airlifted out.

The tragedy of Frequent Wind Phase Four is that we left behind thousands of Vietnamese who had worked with us. Had the U.S. Ambassador called for the evacuation before the siege of Saigon began, most of them could have been saved.

Ambassador Graham Martin’s Incredulity

The tragedies of loss of human life during the fall of Saigon, as recounted in Last of the Annamese, were due in large measure to the failure of the U.S. Ambassador to the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam) to heed the warning given him by me and others that the North Vietnamese were about to attack Saigon. For reasons indecipherable to me, he chose to believe the assurances of the Hungarian member of the ICCS—a representative of a communist government allied to North Vietnam—that North Vietnam would not attack Saigon. Signals intelligence left no doubt of the intentions of the North Vietnamese.

Had Graham Martin called for an evacuation when I first pleaded with him to do so, thousands of lives would have been saved, including those of the 2700 South Vietnamese soldiers who worked with the NSA organization during my 13 years on and off in Vietnam.

I’ve ransacked my brain for any understanding of Martin’s thinking. I’ve concluded that he was misled by ideology, his refusal to accept the idea that the communist flag could ever fly over South Vietnam. It was unthinkable. To even consider such a possibility was blasphemy.

I wrote earlier that my warnings were ignored so often in Vietnam that I coined the name Cassandra Effect for that dilemma. The worst example was the fall of Saigon. I am deeply concerned that the Cassandra Effect is alive and well in the current administration. I’m writing an op-ed alerting people of the dangers that emerge when leaders ignore intelligence.