I learned a couple of days ago that Ralph Adams died on 23 January. I’d known Ralph for over fifty years. He arrived at the National Security Agency (NSA) as a soldier in 1961 one year after I did, and, like me, later joined the NSA workforce as a civilian. He served as the chief of my analysis shop in Saigon until he was evacuated just before the fall of Saigon in April 1975. He went on to become a member of the Senior Cryptologic Executive Service and became one of the highest-ranking civilians in the agency.
But the Ralph I knew was a fellow linguist. He possessed the inborn knack for understanding the Vietnamese language intuitively, and he spoke it so well that he was one of only three linguists I knew who were mistaken for native speakers on the phone. As an African American, he had to put up with the rough-and-ready humor of his fellow NSA civilians serving in Vietnam in the period just before the country fell to the North Vietnamese. They called him “Spear Chucker,” a moniker that became over time a symbol of respect and liking. There was no one like him.
His obituary is at http://www.omaha.com/obits/adams-ralph-w-jr/article_995bc9d2-09fa-5e95-8d5d-a9a272f8b801.html
Toward the end of Last of the Annamese, Molly, the American nurse working at the dispensary in Saigon, volunteers to accompany Amerasian orphans being evacuated to the U.S. during Operation Babylift. That was the name of a program launched by President Ford to get the mixed-race orphans out of Vietnam before it fell to the Communists. The aircraft to be used was the C5A Galaxy, the largest plane I’ve ever seen, some six stories high. The plane crashes after takeoff. Molly and the orphans she was accompanying are killed.
The crash is historical fact. It occurred on 4 April 1975. At the time, I was anxious to get my subordinates out of the country—I knew Saigon would be attacked soon. The last woman in my office was my secretary, Suzie. I decided sending her out via Operation Babylift was the answer. At the last minute, for reasons I couldn’t explain at the time and still don’t understand, I took her off the list of passengers. She was not aboard the plane when it went down. Thank God for my decision.
Last Wednesday, I was invited to speak at a training session for the Marine Corps Cryptologic Battalion. Here are excerpts of what I said to them:
[Throughout my years in Vietnam,] I kept running into a guy names Al Gray. I first met him in the early 1960s when he was a Marine captain . . . The last time I saw Al in Vietnam was in late April 1975 [during the fall of Saigon]. By then he was a colonel and I a GS-15, still rank equivalent. Here’s the story:
[One night, toward the end,] I was on my cot trying in vain to get some much-needed rest when the door chime sounded. I took my .38, went to the door, and looked out the peephole. Outside, I saw middle-aged American man in the wildest Hawaiian shirt I’d ever seen, colors so bright they hurt my eyes, shorts, and flip-flops. This in a war zone. He gave me a round-fingered wave and a silly grin, and I recognized him. It was Al Gray. I’d never before seen Al out of uniform. I didn’t think he owned any civilian clothes. And I knew he never came to Saigon except when he absolutely had to. He hated bureaucracy and his job was in the field with his men.
[Al explained he was the Ground Security Officer for the evacuation.]
Just before sunset on 28 April, the bombardment started . . . our western gate was hit. Two of the Marines I had been talking to were killed. Their names were McMahon and Judge. They were the last two U.S. servicemen killed on the ground in Vietnam.
Washington finally countermanded the Ambassador and issued the evacuation order in the wee hours of the morning on 29 April. [Al Gray and] the Marines from the 7th Fleet immediately flew in and got us out.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t credit Al Gray with saving my life . . . I don’t call him Al any more. That stopped the day he became the Commandant of the Marine Corps. Now I call him “sir.” He’s the finest leader I’ve ever seen in action and a man I’m privileged to know.
So maybe you can understand why I have such respect for the Marines. Were it not for the Marines, I wouldn’t be alive today. So, Marines, I salute you and thank you for my life.
In Last of the Annamese, all three of the principal characters—Chuck, Thanh, and Tuyet—foresee that Saigon will fall to the North Vietnamese. Chuck is in intelligence. He watches as the North Vietnamese close in on Saigon. But Thanh and Tuyet simply pay attention to what is going on. They see what Chuck sees.
I, like Chuck, was in intelligence, and like him, I saw the end coming. I’ve talked elsewhere in this blog about my warning to the U.S. Ambassador and his failure to believe what I told him. It was the last manifestation of the Cassandra Effect, having the means to foretell the future and not being believed.
It turns out that many of those around me saw the end coming. I knew American business people who arranged things to be sure they had a way out of the country. Other folks in government who were not in intelligence saw the writing on the wall. And, most important to me, my guys, the 43 men working for me, knew. I didn’t have to tell them.
Responses to this blog have told me, for the first time, that my men knew what was going on between me and the Ambassador—that he wouldn’t permit me to evacuate my people; that I was cheating, lying, and stealing to get my men and their wives and children out of Saigon before they got killed; that I and the two communicators who volunteered had to stay through the fall of the city might not get out.
The man in charge of our destiny, Ambassador Martin, was one of the few who didn’t foresee the fall of Saigon. Due to him, thousands didn’t escape at the end, including 2700 South Vietnamese soldiers who worked with my organization. I grieve for them as much today as I did the day Saigon fell.
When I tell the story of the fall of Saigon, listeners come up to me afterwards and accuse me of having courage. I plead not guilty. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, courage is facing danger without fear. Believe me, I was scared the whole time.
Men and women I’ve talked to who are, by my standards, heroes for their acts of bravery, often say something similar: all they did was what was required by the circumstances at the time. And I remember reading somewhere long ago a description of a man standing in front of a mirror and watching himself tremble with fear after carrying out an act of bravery and thinking wryly to himself: “This is the portrait of a hero.”
What the protagonist of Last of the Annamese, Chuck Griffin, does at the end of the book could be described as courageous. But he clearly doesn’t see it that way. He’d use words from his friend, Ike: “You do what you have to do, whatever it takes.”
Looking back on the last days in Saigon, what I remember most vividly is my determination to get all my men and their families out of Saigon safely before the attack on the city started. It took every scrap of strength I had; I didn’t have time to dwell on my fear that I might not make it out. Toward the end, I wrote a letter to a neighbor of ours back in the states and told her to deliver that letter to my wife if I didn’t make it. At the time, I really didn’t see how I was going to get out of Saigon alive. That letter was another thing I had to do, whatever it took. When I made it back to the world alive, the marriage collapsed. I burned the letter unread.
So what is courage? I honestly don’t know. What Chuck and I had doesn’t fit the description. Maybe what drives people to risk their lives is more like determination or focus on a goal of overwhelming importance. Maybe some things are more important staying alive.
If any of the readers of this blog can enlighten me and others, please leave a comment.
A friend who follows this blog asked me why I never mention my battle with cancer. Somehow, it seems irrelevant. But just to set the record straight, here’s the story:
In 2013, I coughed up blood. My doctor at the time said it was nothing to worry about. He diagnosed me with Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD). Early in 2015, I brought up blood again. Since my doctor had told me not to worry about it, I didn’t go see him until time for my regular checkup in May. He sent me for a chest x-ray. I had a large tumor in the upper lobe of my right lung.
I underwent maximum chemotherapy and radiation, and then, in November 2015, a surgeon removed the tumor from my lung. Recovery is continuing. I still have a bad cough, and I lack energy. But the cancer is gone so far as we can tell.
The surgeon and my oncologist were frankly thrilled at my ability to withstand the treatments and the surgery. I was, in every other respect, a pinnacle of health. I was a runner until my right knee gave out in 2013, and I’ve always been a devoted weight lifter. That meant that I had to watch my diet to be sure I stayed healthy enough to run and work out. The end result was that I survived both the cancer and the treatment with flying colors. And I’ve never returned to the physician who failed to diagnose the cancer in 2013.
The other factor that helped me was that I never stopped working. Even on my worst days, I wrote. When the Naval Institute Press (NIP) accepted Last of the Annamese for publication in 2016, I redoubled my efforts. I worked on the proofs of Annamese and struggled through the editing process with a genuinely excellent editor from NIP to get the book ready for publication in March 2017. At the same time, I completed work on The Secretocracy, a novel based on my years in intelligence, and I’m shopping it around to publishers. Now that I’m up to my elbows in promoting Annamese with presentations and still doing readings and book signings of my earlier books, I’m working ten-hour days and loving every minute.
So thanks to devotion to work I love, I’m well on my way to complete recovery. And I’m deeply grateful for my good luck.
A blog reader questioned me about Chuck’s gift for foretelling what the North Vietnamese would do next. How could that be? How did it work?
In Last of the Annamese, I describe Chuck’s ability to foresee the future with the sentence “. . . he’d let his consciousness rove over patterns and trends and the flow of events until he knew what was going to happen next.” That depiction is derived from my own experience. How does it work? I have no idea. I discovered how to let my consciousness blur while I studied events. I’d let my mind wander over the data. Then, sometimes suddenly, I’d know what would happen next. I don’t know how I did it. Others with the same gift were equally puzzled.
One result was that we developed over the years a series of indicators. When the North Vietnamese did x, y followed. The system was too vague to be called scientific; it was intuition at work. I’ve always thought that the best analogy was the sense of smell: it was almost as if when a certain combination of scents appeared, I’d foresee the next event. My guess is that the gift springs from an ability to be in touch with one’s unconscious. That ability dominates my writing.