Becoming an Historical Figure in One’s Own Time

I was faintly shocked to realize that some grandparents living today weren’t even born when Saigon fell. And more and more, the story of the Vietnam war is considered history rather than part of current events. That makes me an historical figure rather than a member of today’s society, even though I’m very much alive and kicking.

I keep running into readers who tell me they had yet to come into the world or were in grammar school or high school in April 1975 when I escaped under fire during the fall of Saigon. Last of the Annamese is, in some quarters, referred to as an historical novel.

Most interesting to me is the difference in attitude between those who were mature during the Vietnam war and those born after it was over. Those who remember the war as part of their lives often recall their opposition to the U.S. involvement in Vietnam, and while they learn from my experiences, they still tend to view me something of a war monger.

Millennials, especially people in their twenties, lack any sense of hostility. Instead, they are very curious about how the U.S. got involved in the war and why. They know little or nothing about what happened during the war and nothing at all about the fall of Saigon. They are my most disquisitive readers.

And yet, the young, unlike us aging veterans, have never experienced combat or lived in a war zone. They are largely unmoved by my grisly tales of fights to the death. They have no frame of reference, nothing comparable in their lives. Older folks, especially veterans, don’t need to be told. They already know what I’m talking about.

To that ever-growing population of younger readers, I am a personage from long before their time who lacks the good taste to be dead. That makes me something of a oddity.

Maybe so. But I like that better than being dead.

Chu Lai

Navy corpsmen serve as medics for U.S. Marines in combat. One of the two corpsmen I wrote about earlier told me that he was assigned to 1st Platoon, Charlie Company, 1st Reconnaissance Battalion, 1st Marine Division, based at Chu Lai. His reference to Chu Lai brought back memories.

When I first arrived in Vietnam in 1962, Chu Lai didn’t exist. It was created by the U.S. Marines in 1965 when they needed an air base. I first heard of it that same year.

I remember thinking the name was odd. It didn’t sound like Vietnamese. Vietnamese place names all have meaning. Ha Noi, for example, means “lake in the middle.” But Chu Lai didn’t seem to mean anything, and the Vietnamese pronounced both syllables of the name with a level tone, as if it were a foreign word.

I eventually found out that the name wasn’t Vietnamese at all. It was the Chinese rendering of the name of U.S. Marine Lieutenant General Victor H. Krulak, commanding general of Fleet Marine Force, Pacific. I knew the term c’hu lái in Chinese (出來) meaning to appear or to arise. Turns out those were the characters used to transliterate General Krulak’s name.

As a primary Marine base, Chu Lai is familiar territory to Chuck Griffin, the retired Marine who is the protagonist of Last of the Annamese. Its abandonment as South Vietnam falls is duly reported toward the end of the book.

Chu Lai still exists today. It is a seaport and industrial area with an international airport. I wonder how many Vietnamese living there know the origin and meaning of the city’s name.

Music (2)

Through it all—my thirteen years of trundling between the U.S. and Vietnam on covert missions, my time in combat, my survival of the fall of Saigon, escaping under fire, my still-classified work after 1975—my devotion to music never flagged. I still play the piano (I now have a Steinway grand, thanks to my daughter, Susan) every day. I play Mozart more than any other composer. I’d play more Bach, but much of his music is simply too difficult. Also in the mix are Satie, Beethoven, and Chopin.

Writing has always been my major vocation, but I dallied with theater, dance, and music before I accepted the judgment of my Muse and returned happily to telling stories. It’s clear to me that my fascination with languages and love of music have served me well as a writer. My novels and short stories show the steady influence of my work in languages other than English, but music rarely appears in my stories. I believe that its absence is explained by the inapplicability of the logic of music to writing. The thinking inherent in music applies to no other endeavor, and the ratiocination of no other pursuit is applicable to music.

For all that, learning to think in multiple systems of logic has helped my writing immensely. I’m especially grateful for the contribution of music. Even if it hadn’t helped, I’d be thankful for the beauty and peace music has introduced into my life.

Music

Growing up with an alcoholic mother and a father in prison, I had a hard scrabble childhood. Told I wasn’t very bright and would never be able to go to college, I turned inwards and depended on myself. Three things delighted and fascinated me: languages, writing, and music.

I taught myself French and Italian as a child, the first two of seven languages I would eventually be proficient in. I started writing stories when I was six. And I fell in love with music.

One Christmas I received a record player as a gift and bought the cheapest LPs I could find in a Payless Drugstore—knock-off labels offering performances copied from foreign radio broadcasts. I taught myself to play the piano, practicing on instruments at school and in churches.

As a teenager, I scraped together the money to buy an ancient upright. I played by ear but eventually taught myself to read music. When I graduated from high school, I went against the advice of the school counselors and applied to the University of California in Berkeley where the tuition was $58 a semester for California residents. At first I majored in drama, then switched to music. By the time I graduated, I knew I didn’t have the talent to be a first-class composer. Immediately after graduation, I enlisted in the army, was sent to language school for Vietnamese, and my career as a spy began. It lasted thirty-five years before I retired as early as possible to write fulltime. One result of that career was my novel, Last of the Annamese.

More tomorrow.

Alone and Roadblocked (3): Not Anymore

Two developments precipitated my escape from a sense of isolation after the fall of Saigon.

One was the discovery that I wasn’t the only person to suffer the aftermath of combat. Not only that, but reacting to the horrors of battle with shattering memories was a healthy, normal human response. Rebounding without shock was unhealthy; not rebounding at all was sick. Combat sickens healthy people and leaves the sick unmoved.

And there were lots of us from a variety of wars. None of us wanted to talk about what we’d witnessed and participated in. That’s the nature of the disease. For many years, I couldn’t talk about my experience because my presence and work in Vietnam on and off for thirteen years was classified. To this day, I still can’t talk about some events. It’s not because they’re classified; it’s because I can’t control my emotions.

But I learned that we veterans didn’t need to talk to help each other. Each of us knew what the others had been through. Most important, we found that we were not alone with our brutal memories. We were a band of brothers and sisters, ready to help one another.

The second development was the gradual declassification of my work in Vietnam. By the beginning of 2016, I was free to discuss what had happened to me while supporting army and Marine units in combat before 1973 and what I had experienced as the head of the covert NSA operation in Vietnam after the withdrawal of U.S. troops in 1973. I could tell the world what had transpired during the fall of Saigon and how I escaped under fire after the North Vietnamese were already in the streets of the city.

Now I can publicly own my status as a veteran of the war in Vietnam. And I can hear and savor the words I so ached for: “Thank you. And welcome home.”

I still cry when I hear them.

Alone and Roadblocked (2): On My Own

Another—and in some respects far more serious—aspect of my sense of isolation was my struggle with Post-Traumatic Stress Injury. As I noted before, I don’t call is a “disorder;” it’s the result of an externally inflicted psychological wound. When the malady hit me in May 1975, after escaping under fire from Vietnam, I had never heard of it. We didn’t have a name for it back then. I knew I needed psychiatric help, but I held top secret codeword-plus clearances; had I gone for treatment, I’d have lost my job. So I sweated it out on my own.

I thought I was the only person going through the nightmares, flashbacks, irrational rages, and panic attacks. I was profoundly shamed by the symptoms. I took them to be signs of cowardice. My memories of being called a baby killer and butcher and of being spat upon by crowds at the San Francisco airport when I returned with the troops during the late sixties and early seventies made it worse.

I couldn’t talk with anyone about Vietnam. The fact that I, an NSA employee, was in Vietnam was classified. And in the halls of NSA, the Vietnam war was seen as a shameful exercise. No one wanted to hear about it. I was silent.

I didn’t want to talk about Vietnam. I was ashamed. I believed that my condition proved that I was unbalanced or a coward or worse. I was alone.

I wrote in this blog earlier about being forced to depend on myself in childhood by an alcoholic mother and a father in prison. Foraging on my own was my natural state. I was—and still am—a loner, uncomfortable with having to depend on others. So gritting my teeth and getting through the multiple bouts with my memories on my own felt natural to me.

Some years after the fall of Saigon, I read about Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, a disease that affected those with experiences so ghastly that the psyche was permanently damaged. I had all the symptoms. Figures in most recent studies vary, but one finds that four out of five men who faced combat in Vietnam shows symptoms of PTSD.

“Thank you. And welcome home.” Words I so yearned for and never heard. Then, three or four years ago, I attended a Vietnam veterans gathering. Young people who hadn’t even been born until after the fall of Saigon came up to me. They smiled and took my hand in theirs. “Thank you for your service,” they said. “Welcome home.” I cried.

I wasn’t alone anymore.

Alone and Roadblocked

Some months ago, I wrote here about my sense of abandonment during the fall of Saigon. Here’s part of what I said:

“As the North Vietnamese encroached on Saigon and I struggled to hold together what was left of my mission and my organization, I was doing it alone. I managed to get forty-one of my subordinates and their families out of the country, even though the ambassador had forbidden an evacuation. The embassy and CIA not only didn’t help me; they threw roadblocks in my path. I lied and cheated and stole to save the lives of my guys and their wives and children. I succeeded. The only help I received was from the two communicators, Bob and Gary, who volunteered to stay with me through the fall of Saigon. The three of us propped each other up through the days when we had nothing to eat and no time to sleep.”

Because the ambassador had forbidden me to evacuate my people. I used every ruse I could think of to get them out—vacations. home leave, business travel—and toward the end even bought a ticket on Pan Am with money from my own pocket and sent one of my guys out with no orders or authorization. That turned out to be the last Pan Am flight from Saigon.

What my earlier entry may not have made clear is that there was a split in the perception of the U.S. government. The civilian side—the U.S. Ambassador, the State Department, the CIA, and the president—believed that the North Vietnamese would not attack Saigon. The Ambassador, Graham Martin, and the CIA chief of station in Saigon, Tom Polgar, accepted the assurances of the Hungarian member of the ICCS (The International Commission for Control and Supervision) that the North Vietnamese had no interest in seizing Saigon. The north wanted instead to form a coalition government to rule jointly.

The ICCS member was a representative of a communist government allied to North Vietnam. I had been warning the ambassador for more than a month that North Vietnamese forces were moving closer to Saigon and had every intention of attacking the city. The evidence from intercepted North Vietnamese communications left no doubt as to their intent. Besides, since they now held almost all of South Vietnam, why should they negotiate when conquest of Saigon would be so easy?

The military side of the U.S. government—the Department of Defense and Commander in Chief, Pacific Command (CINCPAC)—were persuaded by the signals intelligence evidence and distrusted the assurances of a communist government allied to North Vietnam. They prepared by dispatching the 7th Fleet with Marines aboard to the South China Sea.

The result was reportedly the largest helicopter evacuation ever attempted. The numbers vary, but according to one source, 81 helicopters ferried more than 7,000 people from the Saigon area to the ships of the 7th Fleet.

More tomorrow.