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.
Today is the forty-second anniversary of the fall of Saigon. Tomorrow is the official celebration or commemoration—depending on one’s view—but by midnight on 29 April 1975, Saigon was in the hands of the North Vietnamese. It’s a troubling day for me, filled with nightmarish memories and things I’m not sure I remember. I was in such bad shape due to lack of food and sleep that I was starting to hallucinate (more about that in another blog).
I remember the sense of relief I felt when Bob Hartley and Gary Hickman, the two communicators who volunteered to stay with me to the end, went out that day on a helicopter destined for the 7th Fleet cruising in the South China Sea. With them gone and my other forty-one subordinates and all the families safely out of the country, I knew my work in Vietnam was finished. I flew out that night in the rain. As soon as we were airborne, I saw the tracers coming towards us. We took so much lead in the fuselage, I through we were going to crash. But we made it. When we reached the Oklahoma City, the flagship of the 7th Fleet, the pilot circled and circled in the dark and the rain. Then he finally, very slowly, descended and landed on the floodlit helipad of the ship. He told me later that he, a civilian pilot working for Air America, had never before landed on a ship.
I remember the sense of loss—we left behind many thousands of South Vietnamese who had worked and fought by our side. We abandoned them to the mercies of the conquering North Vietnamese.
Later, I took pride in what I and my men had accomplished. But not that night. That was my night to mourn.
I still grieve over what we lost. An Nam, the old name for Vietnam, was forever destroyed. And its people were all killed or captured. It was the last of the Annamese.
For the cover story on me and Last of the Annamese published in February in the Columbia Flier and the Howard County Times, reporter Janene Holzberg interviewed several fellow authors. One was Larry Matthews who wrote about me along with six other men in his 2016 book, Age in Good Time. Larry characterized me as having lived a life “that Indiana Jones would envy.”
That remark made me laugh, but it also got me to thinking. Indiana Jones went out his way to seek adventure, but I didn’t. My wild escapades resulted from a vortex of circumstances, my odd affinity for languages (especially Vietnamese, French, and Chinese, the three languages spoken in Vietnam), and my willingness to go into combat with the U.S. Army and Marine troops I was supporting.
During my thirteen years of trundling between the U.S. and Vietnam during the war, culminating with escaping under fire during the fall of Saigon, I never considered anything I did as heroic. I was just doing my job. Granted, the scrapes I got myself into were bizarre. But operating under cover is weird by nature, especially since I masqueraded variously as a soldier, a Marine, a CIA employee, and a foreign service officer. Several times over my years in Vietnam, an American who knew me under one cover would stumble across me acting under another, forcing me to explain—without much credibility—that I had changed jobs. As far as I know, my true affiliation, to the National Security Agency (NSA), was never discovered. It was finally completely declassified at the beginning of 2016.
At least, during my Vietnam years, I never was required to use an assumed name. That did happen later in my career, but everything after 1975 is still classified.
So, Indiana Jones? Nah, more like Beetle Bailey on a toot.
I’ve posted several blogs about the title, Last of the Annamese. One way to understand the title is that it refers to one person. Another is that it denotes a people, the residents of An Nam, the old name for Vietnam. As I mentioned earlier, I deliberately used to name “Annamese” in both senses.
What I left largely unsaid is that the novel is about the destruction of a people. With the defeat of South Vietnam, the culture that was An Nam, which means “peace in the south,” came to an end. The gentle, sweet way of living that characterized the non-communist Vietnamese died along with the people whom the North Vietnamese killed or captured.
Late in the story, Chuck finds the South Vietnamese Marine Colonel Thanh sitting in his garden in the rain. Thanh points to sky and says that heaven is weeping. As he says, An Nam is no more.
I’ve mentioned the character of Sparky several times during this blog. It’s time to devote a post to him.
Sparky and Ike, a Marine captain working with the Marine guards at the embassy, are housemates of Chuck Griffin, the protagonist of Last of the Annamese. They are provided a rented villa to live in on Yen Do Street in Saigon because they are willing to face hazardous duty in Vietnam after the withdrawal of U.S. troops.
Sparky’s nickname derives from his mental dullness, especially his slow uptake and forgetfulness. The moniker is also a reference to his blond-red hair which is never under control. Like Ike, he is married, but his wife awaits him in the world (i.e., the U.S.). Like Chuck, he is an analyst in the Intelligence Branch at the Defense Attaché Office located at Tan Son Nhat, on the northern edge of Saigon. He, Chuck, and their boss, Colonel Troiano, are the last three at the office after all others are sent out to safety as the North Vietnamese close in on Saigon. They are evacuated under fire as Saigon falls.
All the characters in the story find Sparky likeable. He’s down to earth but, unlike Ike, not earthy. More than once, he manages to keep Chuck out of trouble and even saves Chuck from harm by restraining him when he tries to take on South Vietnamese army guards at the Seventh Day Adventist Hospital. He’s steady, reliable, humble, and devoted to his work.
Sparky, like so many characters in the book, is based on men I worked with during the final days of Vietnam. Were it not for their quiet service and dependability, I wouldn’t be alive today.