Continuing my recounting of what happened to me in Saigon on 28 and 29 April 1975: Yesterday I described bombing by South Vietnamese pilots who had defected to the North Vietnamese. That was at sunset. Here’s more text from my article:
That was the beginning. We were bombarded throughout the night and much of the following day, first rockets, later, beginning around 0430 hours local on 29 April, artillery. One C-130 on the runway next to us was hit before it could airlift out refugees; two others took off empty. Fixed-wing airlifts were at an end. Rounds landed inside the DAO compound; the General’s Quarters next door were destroyed. Worst of all, two of the Marines I had been talking to were killed. Their names were McMahon and Judge. They were the last American fighting men killed on the ground in Vietnam.
One image I’ll never forget: sometime during the night I was on my cot taking my two-hour rest break when the next bombardments started. I sat straight up and watched the room lurch. Bob Hartley was typing a message at a machine that rose a foot in the air, then slammed back into place. He never stopped typing.
Just after that, we got word that Frequent Wind Phase IV had been declared. That was the code name for the evacuation. It had finally been ordered
The complete details of what happened to me during the fall of Saigon—the historical basis for Last of the Annamese—were declassified last year. The story was published twice earlier this year, once in CIA’s Studies in Intelligence and then reprinted in The Atticus Review. You can read the complete document at http://atticusreview.org/bitter-memories-the-fall-of-saigon/
By 27 April 1975, I had succeeded in getting everyone from my office and their families, 43 men and their wives and children, out of the country despite the U.S. Ambassador’s refusal to call for an evacuation. He was persuaded that the North Vietnamese would never attack Saigon. Only three of us remained holed up in the DAO building in Tan Son Nhat, on the northern edge of Saigon: me and the two communicators, Bob Hartley and Gary Hickman. Here, quoted from the published account, is what happened next:
Not long before sunset on 28 April, I made a head run. The mammoth Pentagon East [the DAO building] was in shambles. Light bulbs were burned out, trash and broken furniture littered the halls, and the latrines were filthy and smelled disgusting. I came across men on stepladders running cables through the ceiling. They told me they were wiring the building for complete destruction. “Last man out lights the fuse and runs like hell,” they joked.
I went into the men’s room. I was standing at the urinal when the wall in front of me lunged toward me as if to swat me down, then slapped back into place. The sound of repeated explosions deafened me and nearly knocked me off my feet. Instead of sensibly taking cover, I left the men’s room and went to the closest exit at the end of a hall, unbolted it, and stepped into the shallow area between the western wall of the building and the security fence, a space of maybe ten to fifteen feet, now piled high with sandbags.
The first thing I noticed was that the throngs of refugees had dispersed—no one was clamoring outside the barrier—presumably frightened away by the explosions. My ears picked up the whine of turbojets. I shaded my eyes from the setting sun and spotted five A-37 Dragonfly fighters circling above the Tan Son Nhat runways. They dove, dropped bombs, and pulled up. The resulting concussions sent me tumbling, but I was on my feet and running before the planes went into their next approach. Back in the office, I found out shortly that renegade pilots who had defected to the Communists were bombing Tan Son Nhat.
I mentioned in an earlier post that I suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress. I’ve been pushing as hard as I can to change the nomenclature from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) to Post-Traumatic Stress Injury (PTSI). My point is that the disease is not an internal system gone awry but an externally inflicted wound. The “disorder” label reinforces the notion that strong and brave men don’t suffer from it; only the weak and cowardly do. I find a strong strain among the military who dismiss PTSI as cowardice. It’s obvious to me that it is as much a wound (Ron Capps calls it a wound to the soul) as any physical laceration. The difference is, it never heals.
No one escaped whole from the fall of Saigon. We were all damaged. I know. I was a survivor.
I escaped under fire after the North Vietnamese were already in the streets of the city after being holed up for weeks during the siege. I suffered ear damage, amoebic dysentery, and pneumonia—due to sleep deprivation, muscle fatigue, and poor diet—and I still cope today from Post-Traumatic Stress Injury. And I was one of the lucky ones.
The experiences I attribute to the protagonist of Last of the Annamese, Chuck Griffin, are all things I went through myself. My assessment is that I am a better man for having lived through it, but the psychic wounds still haven’t healed. They never will.
The name of the novel, Last of the Annamese, comes from an ancient name for Vietnam, An Nam. The Chinese referred to the troublesome non-Chinese in South China as the Yuëh Nan, best translated as the trouble-makers in the south. The term became, in Vietnamese, Viet Nam. When the trouble-makers moved further south into what is now Vietnam, they called their country by a series of different names. One was An Nam, peace in the south, which the Chinese interpreted as the pacified in the south. But the inhabitants were anything but pacified. They fought the Chinese for the better part of two millennia and finally established their independence. Nevertheless, An Nam remained a favorite name. The French used it to designate Central Vietnam as distinguished from the north (Tonkin) and the south (Cochinchina).
“Thanh boarded his aging C-47 for the flight from Binh Tuy
Province back to Saigon. As the aircraft whined upward, its
two engines shuddering, he looked down on the wandering
La Nga River, the war-scarred town of Hoai Duc, and the
mountains northeast, soaking in the January sunshine.
Only a matter of time before Hoai Duc and its sister towns
of Tanh Linh and Vo Xu fell to the North Vietnamese. Three
North Vietnamese regiments and a newly formed division
were on the move. He’d talked to the anxious soldiers, urged
them to pray and seek serenity, and, although he didn’t use
these words, to prepare for defeat and death. The young
faces looking up as he spoke, the frightened eyes pleading
for hope, had left him depleted. He must not allow himself
to sink into despondence as he had the day Phuoc Binh
was lost. Too much work left to do. Too many hearts to
unburden. Too many souls to comfort.”
I write because I have to.
I knew from the age of six on that I was a writer. I could refuse the calling, but that would mean I’d never find fulfillment or even relief from the constant nag to put what was in my head into words. So I’ve been writing all my life.
As a young man, I went to Vietnam. I was there on and off for 13 years providing signals intelligence support to combat units throughout South Vietnam. I was caught in combat multiple times and watched the soldiers and Marines I was there to help die by my side. After the withdrawal of U.S. forces in 1973, I became the head of the National Security Agency’s covert effort in Vietnam. I lived through the fall of Saigon, escaping under fire after the North Vietnamese were already in the streets of the city.
I suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Injury as a result of the unspeakable things I lived through in Vietnam. Because I held top secret codeword-plus clearances, I couldn’t seek psychiatric help—I would have lost my clearances and therefore my job. So I wrote and wrote about the monstrous events I had lived through. I volunteered to help others worse off than I was. I worked with AIDS patients, the homeless, dying people under hospice care, and sick and dying soldiers in a VA hospital. I found that when my attention was focused on those I wanted to help, my unbearable memories receded. And I learned that compassion heals.
Three of my novels—Friendly Casualties, The Trion Syndrome, and Last of the Annamese—derive from my wartime experience. The fourth, No-Accounts, grew out of my caring for AIDS patients. Lots more to come. I’ve just submitted a fifth novel for publication, and I’m sketching out a sixth. The imperfect peace I’ve found now allows me to write about subjects other than war.