Getting People Out at the End (3)

During the last ten days of April 1975, as the North Vietnamese closed in around Saigon, the battlefield suddenly became quiet. Here’s my telling of those events in Last of the Annamese:

[Intelligence analyst Chuck Griffin] prepared himself for the grind through the mountains of incoming traffic, but for the first time he could remember the total take was less than an inch high. Nearly all the classified message traffic was code-word signals intelligence reports that had originated in the States. The rest was the usual screed from the Liberation News Agency and news reports from the wire services. What was going on? The Republic of Vietnam, its northern provinces ripped from it, lay quivering. The North Vietnamese watched and waited like a cat toying with a wounded bird. With little to post or report, Chuck, on Troiano’s orders, drafted a cable to Washington, info General Smith, updating the estimate he’d given General Weyand. In it he listed the sixteen North Vietnamese divisions known to be positioned and the two believed to be close by for a three-prong attack against Saigon.

He flipped on Sparky’s portable to get the latest ARS [American Radio Service] reporting on the war. He heard news about Hollywood films and debates in Congress followed by songs from Dionne Warwick and Al Martino. Nothing about Vietnam. Toward noon word arrived that the Embassy had commanded ARS to cease all reporting about the war. Troiano speculated that the Ambassador was afraid of panic.

The eerie calm prevailed. Analyses from stateside agencies surmised that the North Vietnamese were regrouping, but the embassy responded that the North Vietnamese were waiting for President Thieu to step down so that they could begin negotiations with the United States and the South Vietnamese. Monday afternoon, the embassy announced that President Thieu had left office and was fleeing the country. Troiano told Chuck that Thieu was flying with his family to exile in Taiwan.

End of quote. More next time.

Getting People Out at The End (2)

As reported earlier in this blog, in April 1975, I warned the U.S. Ambassador, Graham Martin, repeatedly that the North Vietnamese were preparing to attack Saigon. He didn’t believe me and didn’t act. The following, from my novel Last of the Annamese, describes the scene in which the protagonist, Chuck Griffin, reports to his boss, Colonel Troiano, on his unsuccessful attempt to persuade the Ambassador and the CIA Chief of Station of the imminent danger:

[Chuck] ran through his meeting with the Ambassador and his exchange with the Chief of Station. “They don’t believe what we’re reporting to them, sir. They won’t call for an evacuation.”

“Sit down, Chuck.”

Chuck did as he was told.

Troiano’s tired face leaned toward the desk top. His eyes closed, opened, fixed on Chuck. “The Ambassador cannot contemplate that the Communist flag will ever fly over South Vietnam. The prospect is unthinkable. It cannot happen. The Hungarian member of the ICCS [the International Commission for Control and Supervision] has done what he can to reinforce the Ambassador’s conviction. He told the Ambassador that the North Vietnamese have no intention of attacking Saigon. They want to form a coalition government with all the patriotic forces in the south and rule jointly.”

“But, sir,” Chuck said, “the intelligence of a forthcoming attack is overwhelming—”

“Not to the Ambassador and his immediate subordinates. They’re waiting for the North Vietnamese to sue for peace so that negotiations can begin.”

“Why in the name of God would they do that when the conquest of the south is within their grasp?”

Troiano shook his head. “I agree. They won’t negotiate. They’ll attack. Meanwhile, the Ambassador has persuaded Secretary of State Kissinger and the president that there’s no need to evacuate anybody.”

End of quote. The Ambassador never did call for an evacuation. He was countermanded by Washington before dawn on the morning 29 April. By then, the North Vietnamese were already in the streets of Saigon. That evening I escaped by helicopter under fire.

Getting People Out at The End

As the fall of Saigon loomed, I was frantic to evacuate not only the 43 guys working for me and their families but also the Vietnamese who had thrown their lot in with us against the communists. In the end, my American subordinates and their wives and children escaped, but I failed the Vietnamese—they were all still there when the North Vietnamese took the city.

One passage in my novel Last of the Annamese describes the chaos created by the ambassador at the end:

“The Embassy’s dragging its feet,” Troiano said. “The Ambassador thinks there’s going to be some kind of cease-fire to negotiate the formation of a coalition government. But we haven’t been idle. Ever hear of the DAO Special Planning Group? Don’t let the name fool you. The SPG’s the forward evacuation coordinator. It’s been quietly working with the Marines flying in from ships off the coast to get everything ready. But the Ambassador is doing everything he can to throw obstacles in their path. He won’t allow the Marines to wear uniforms, fly in on Marine helicopters, or stay overnight. Because we’re expecting mobs outside the gate, the deputy DAO, General Baughn, sent a message to higher ups requesting additional security guards when the evacuation begins. The Ambassador was furious—ordered Baughn out of the country. So now all the preps are sub rosa. Trouble is, the city is already rolling toward panic. That’s going to make it rough.”

“So the servants at the houses, the chauffeurs—”

Troiano wilted. “If the Embassy had faced the facts and started evacuating people other than high-risk Viets, we could have gotten many of them out. As it is . . .” He shook his head.

“What will we do, sir?”

“When I find out, I’ll tell you.”

An Appreciation of Guns: You Had to Have Been There

A reader asked why I am so leery about guns. He referred to my blog post of a few days ago giving statistics about guns in the U.S. The answer is simple: I’ve seen up close what firearms do to the human body.

I’ve written here several times about the ghastliness of combat. I witnessed and participated in events so gruesome that I still can’t talk about them. And each of them involved young fighters that I knew and liked. Those experiences changed me permanently. I know that as long as I live, I’ll never get over them.

So I developed a healthy horror of firearms and their lethality. They are designed to kill. If I had my way, all firearms—but particularly automatic and semiautomatic weapons—would be removed from civil society and banished to the battlefield.

The argument that guns are part of American culture doesn’t move me. Better to change the culture than suffer almost a hundred people a day killed by gunfire.

Grossman: On Combat (3)

Further thoughts about On Combat: The Psychology of Deadly Conflict in War and in Peace (Warrior Science Publications, 2008) by Lt. Col. Dave Grossman with Loren W. Christensen.

What I haven’t yet found in the Grossman book—granted, I’m only half way through it—is a discussion of what motivates men and women in combat more than anything else: the desire to save the guy fighting next to you.

That was the dominant motivation I had on the battlefield. And from watching and talking to combatants, I believe that each of them felt the same way I did. I would have willingly sacrificed my life to assure the safety of my fellow combatants. I knew they’d do the same for me.

And Grossman’s categorization of men in combat differs from mine. He speaks of men who looked forward to combat as being the best fighters. Those who wished they could avoid it, he says, were less effective. That wasn’t my experience. I did come across a small number of men who reveled in the fight to the death. They enjoyed killing. They were men I wanted by my side when the shooting started, but I found these men strangely lacking in normal human feeling. It was as though part of their humanity was missing.

The soldiers and Marines I loved—and, yes, it was love—were those who hated war but did their job in combat anyway. They fought as well and as bravely as men who loved killing. More than once, such a man saved my life. Those who loved killing never did.

More when I’ve finished the book.

Grossman: On Combat (2)

More on my reaction to reading On Combat: The Psychology of Deadly Conflict in War and in Peace (Warrior Science Publications, 2008) by Lt. Col. Dave Grossman with Loren W. Christensen.

Two striking similarities between the men and women Grossman studied and me are the effects of sleeplessness and fear.

While on the battlefield with units in combat, the troops and I went for days without sleep. I learned to nap at every opportunity, and I gauged my effectiveness by my ability to concentrate my consciousness even when I was exhausted. But I knew that after even one day without sleep, I was of less use.

During the fall of Saigon, I and the two guys with me at the end survived for days with almost nothing to eat and without sleep. I don’t remember being tired or hungry. I only remember my obsession with getting my guys out alive. By the time I escaped under fire, I was starting to hallucinate, but I could distinguish the real from the unreal.

Like so many of the warriors Grossman describes, I remember fear before and after but not during the times of greatest conflict. I felt the flutters of panic as the combat began, and I shuddered after it was over. But in the heat of battle, I felt no trepidation. Like warriors everywhere, my compulsion was the survival of men fighting next to me. I was committed to saving them even if it cost me my life.

During the fall of Saigon, I have no recollection of being afraid. Again, I was determined to save my two guys no matter what it cost. Later, looking back, I trembled to remember how close to death we came.

More tomorrow.

Grossman: On Combat

I’m currently about half-way through reading On Combat: The Psychology of Deadly Conflict in War and in Peace (Warrior Science Publications, 2008) by Lt. Col. Dave Grossman with Loren W. Christensen. The book is a study of human behavior in a fight to the death. I’m reading the book because I experienced fighting on the battlefield repeatedly during my years in Vietnam as an undercover signal intelligence operative in support of army and Marine combat units in Vietnam between 1962 and 1973. After U.S. troops were withdrawn in 1973, I headed the covert National Security Agency operation in Vietnam and escaped under fire when Saigon fell on 29 April 1975.

I suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Injury as a consequence of my combat experience and the unspeakable slaughter during and after the fall of Saigon. To cope with that ailment, I must face my memories head on. So I want to know as much as possible about combat and the effect on combatants.

Grossman’s portrayal of combatants before, during, and after the fight to the death astonishes me. I’m stunned to read of psychological, physical, emotional, and spiritual conditions to which combatants are subjected—the author is describing me and what I went through.

More next time.