Another one of my less grisly memories from the Vietnam war came from an assignment when I was working with a squad of military signals intelligence specialists in support of an army combat unit. As usual, I did everything I could to get the guys to accept me as one of them. This group, used to working in combat situations, was more resistant than most to accepting a civilian in their midst.
Working in Quonset huts hastily assembled to hide what we were doing, we were intercepting the communications of the North Vietnamese unit preparing to attack the Americans. Once I had broken the combat cipher used by the enemy, we perfected a system of operation whereby I would decrypt an intercepted North Vietnamese message while the intercept operator, listening to the enemy transmission, was still writing down the cipher text. As soon as the transmission was complete, I’d translate the message. Next came writing a report based on the message text—we had to do that because the North Vietnamese used cover terms in their text, and the originator and recipient had cover names. A direct translation would be meaningless to the supported unit.
One afternoon we intercepted a message about preparations for an attack on the U.S. unit we were supporting. It would begin, the intercepted message said, with an artillery barrage. The message gave time the barrage was to commence, only a few minutes from the time we began intercepting the message. Immediately after intercept, decoding, and translation, I hurriedly typed the report onto a paper tape that would be used to transmit our warning to the combat unit.
While I was typing, the artillery barrage began. All my military partners rushed to their battle stations. I was a civilian. I had no battle station. I didn’t know what I was supposed to do. So I continued to poke away, grabbed the resulting tape, and transmitted it while the shells rained down on us. The GI assigned to guard the Quonset I was in watched in amazement.
The soldiers I was working with were enormously impressed. I didn’t tell them that I went on working on the report because I didn’t know what else to do. After that I was one of them, and our work together was among the most successful and effective of all I did during those years.
Another humorous incident grew out of my work under cover in Vietnam. In 2013, Maryland Public Television (MPT) chose me to be among the sixteen veterans they featured in the three-part Vietnam war documentary to be aired in 2016. When they first interviewed me in 2014, my connection with the National Security Agency during my years in Vietnam was still classified. So I simply didn’t mention who my parent organization was. MPT found photos of me in various uniforms and finally concluded that I must have been an army officer. They produced eight-foot banners on each of us vets to be displayed in their travelling exhibit. Mine shows two of those shots of me in an army uniform and proclaims that I was an army intelligence officer.
After the final declassification of my work in Vietnam in 2016, I informed MPT of my true status. It was too late. The documentary was already scheduled for broadcast in June. The traveling exhibit, still touring throughout Maryland, shows me as an army officer.
The exhibit is still on the road. You can check the schedule at http://vietnam.mpt.org/travelingexhibit/ The Howard County Public Library Central Branch (10375 Little Patuxent Pkwy., Columbia, MD 21044) will be showing it from 9 May through 11 June. It will be at the Perryville Library (500 Coudon Blvd., Perryville, MD 21903) between 13 June and 23 July. I’ll be doing the fall of Saigon presentation there at 6:30 p.m. on 22 June.
It’s an impressive display, worth the trip for those interested in the Vietnam war.
A group I belong to asked me to do a presentation on my experiences in Vietnam. Some time back, I had given them the fall of Saigon story, but they asked if there weren’t some happy memories from my years in Vietnam.
My blog of several days ago came to mind. I quoted Chuck from Last of the Annamese asking himself if all memories have to hurt. As I said then, they only hurt on bad days.
There were funny things that happened. I’ll try to relate a few of them here.
The troops in just about every unit I supported found my presence among them hilarious. Somehow the idea that a civilian spy was masquerading as one of them cracked them up. But that was only after they accepted me as one of them. As long as they treated me with the distant respect due a superior and called me “Mr. Glenn” rather than “Tom” or just “Glenn” (use of the last name alone was common), we couldn’t work together as a team. So I spent all my time with the troops—ate C-rations sitting on the ground with them, slept beside them in the open or in a tent, used their latrines, dressed in their uniforms (my cover was that I was one of them), and went into combat with them. Sometimes it took a day or two or sometimes weeks, but the troops in all units I served with eventually welcomed me to their ranks.
My favorite story comes from a time when I was working with an army combat unit. One morning (during a lull in the fighting) when I woke up, my fatigues (the work and combat uniform of a soldier) had all disappeared. Dressed in my shorts, I wandered through the cantonment area asking if anyone knew where they were. An hour or so later they reappeared. The troops had snitched them while I slept. They’d taken them to tailor in a nearby village and paid him to sew labels above the breast pockets of my fatigue shirt. One said “GLENN” the other “CIVILIAN.” My two fatigue caps were now adorned with the unit insignia. Giggling and chortling, they couldn’t wait to snap my picture in my newly decorated fatigues.
Now I was truly one of them.
A man in prison for several decades wrote to me. He’d read The Trion Syndrome, about a Vietnam vet with Post-Traumatic Stress Injury (PTSI). He was moved by it. He told me he suffers from PTSI from combat in Vietnam.
He didn’t tell me why he’s in prison or what happened to him in Vietnam. He suspects his PTSI contributed to his confinement. He’s still having nightmares.
This man is my brother, just as much as other vets with whom I’ve shared some quite hours. I managed to get through bad times by writing. He didn’t have writing to turn to. I, by sheer happenstance, muddled through. He didn’t. My heart is with him.
Some readers have expressed shock at the gruesome events depicted in Last of the Annamese. They should be shocked. I am. Even after forty-two years, the events I witnessed still make me shudder.
One of the several reasons I wrote Annamese was to tell readers of the horrors of war in general and of the Vietnam war in particular. A fraction of 1 percent of Americans have ever experienced combat. Most have no inkling of the savagery and the terrible damage to the human body that combat inflicts, as described, for example, during Thanh’s visit to the highlands infirmary tent. Nor have they observed civilian casualties of war, like the boy with white phosphorous in his skin in the prologue. They can’t comprehend the anguish that loss of a loved one to enemy fire visits on the human soul—like the despair of the Chinese maid Huong at the news of her husband’s failure to return from battle.
I want people to know.
I’m pessimistic enough to believe that we’ll never stop going to war. But maybe if Americans understand better the ghastliness of combat, they’ll think more carefully before committing our troops to combat.
Saturday and Sunday were the forty-second anniversary of the fall of Saigon. Sad days for me, filled with bitter memories. Ironically, those days I was at the CityLit gathering and at the Lit and Art event, respectively, both in Baltimore. I offered my books for sale and read from Last of the Annamese.
I was mostly successful in maintaining my composure at both events. But Sunday night, at Lit and Art, I read aloud for the audience the first scene (the prologue) and the last scene from Last of the Annamese. My emotions almost caught up with me. Annamese is about the fall of Saigon. I read with tears in my eyes.
So yesterday and the day before, the first and second of May, were my days to recover, just as they were forty-two years ago. I spent the days doing hard physical work. But my mind turned to the story I lived, then told in Annamese. At the beginning and again at the end of the novel, the protagonist, Chuck Griffin, asks himself, “Do all memories have to hurt?”
Some days they do. Those days, I don’t blog.
I spent 30 April forty-two years ago aboard the Oklahoma City sailing in the South China Sea. I was asleep most of that day, but when I was awake I was badgered by recollections. I began to suspect that some of them were of things that didn’t happen.
In the blog I posted yesterday, the forty-second anniversary of the fall of Saigon, I mentioned that by 29 April 1975, I was in such bad shape from lack of food and sleep that I was starting to hallucinate. Bob Hartley, Gary Hickman (the two communicators who volunteered to stay with me through the fall of Saigon), and I had been isolated in our office suite at Tan Son Nhat on the northern edge of the city for the better part of a week. We had run out of food and were on an alternating schedule of one guy resting for two hours while the other two worked. We couldn’t sleep because of the small arms fire and the shelling. Our compound was hit with rockets and artillery—the building next to us blew up and two Marine guards at our gate were killed.
After I got back to the states in mid-May, I was diagnosed with amoebic dysentery, ear damage, and pneumonia due to muscle fatigue, inadequate diet, and sleep deprivation. But at the time, all I knew was that I had to keep going.
I have memories I can’t verify. Were they waking nightmares or did they really happen?
I don’t write about what might have happened, only what I know happened. Yet these pseudo-memories still haunt me. They’ll remain leftovers from a brain sick from hunger and exhaustion.
I’ve never read of anyone else suffering from memories of things that might not have happened. If any of my readers can enlighten me, please do.