Christmas

Forty-three years ago today, in 1974, I celebrated Christmas with my family—my wife and four children—in Saigon. Because I was in Vietnam on an accompanied tour (my family was with me) and most of the other American men were there without family, our villa that day was filled with guests. All the forty-three men and the one woman (my secretary) in my office were invited to our open house. More than half showed up. Most of the others were out of country or in the field.

I was absent from the party for part of the day. I had to be in the office. We were following the North Vietnamese offensive in Phuoc Long Province, some sixty miles north of us. We had predicted the attacks and forecast that the provincial capital, Phuoc Binh, would fall shortly—the North Vietnamese captured it on 6 January 1975.

It wasn’t a festive Christmas. The signs of the impending conquest of South Vietnam were hard to ignore. I did the best I could to bring the cheer of the season to my men. I wasn’t very successful.

I remember looking around the room at my guys and promising myself that if things went south, they’d all get out alive. I kept my promise. All of them escaped at the end. I stayed until they were all safely out of the country, then flew out under fire as the city fell.

The End in Vietnam: Unseasonable Rain

In south Vietnam, the monsoon rains start in early May and last until November. It never rains during the dry season, between November and April. But in 1975, the year Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese, the weather violated its own rules. I recorded the eerie change in Last of the Annamese.

The passage quoted below describes what happened on 6 January 1975, the day that Phuoc Binh, the capital of Phuoc Long Province sixty miles north of Saigon, fell to the North Vietnamese. In the text, the South Vietnamese Marine colonel, Thanh, refers to “An Nam.” That was a former name for Vietnam, the name preferred by Thanh. It means “peace in the south.” “Vietnam,” the name conferred by the Chinese, means “the troublemakers in the south”:

Chuck waited by the jeep. The sky was in an ugly mood.

“Rain?” Sparky came down the steps into the driveway and squinted at the black clouds.

“Never rains in January,” Chuck said. “Dry season.” A drop of water ran down Chuck’s cheek. They stretched the canvas top over the jeep’s roll bars, snapped the door skins in place, and headed out into the thicket of bicycles and cyclos. By the time they reached Cach Mang Boulevard, fat drops were splattering across the windshield. The orange-and-white propaganda banners overhead were wilting. . . .

[Later that day] it cost Chuck fifteen minutes to flag down a cab in the downpour. The ride through the mash of traffic took another fifteen minutes. At Thanh’s villa, a maid, cowering under a vinyl poncho, nodded, smiled, chattered, and motioned him through the house to the back steps. Chuck descended into the garden now blurred gray in the rain. His feet sank into the flooded grass.

He found Thanh alone, sitting on a Chinese garden seat at the rear of the compound in a grove of bamboo. He was in utilities but hatless, wet to the skin, his sparse hair plastered to his head. Chuck sat next to him. Together they watched the rain.

At last Thanh turned to him and spoke. “Phuoc Binh fall.”

“Yes, sir.”

“You tell Mac for me, yes?”

“Yes, sir.”

Thanh’s face turned upward again. His eyelids quivered as raindrops splashed down his forehead. “The Heaven.” He pointed upward. “The Heaven weeps. An Nam no more. An Nam was. You listen to her weep now.”

Chuck listened to the rain. He heard the weeping. Thanh was no longer the tiger of Phat Hoa, Thanh the fierce, Thanh the incorruptible. He was just a little man sitting in the rain, a man grown old so quickly. Thanh is a dead man.

 

The End in Vietnam: Yearning for Home

When Saigon fell, I escaped under fire by helicopter to a ship of the U.S. 7th Fleet cruising in the South China Sea. It was the night of 29 April 1975, pitch black and pouring rain. I recounted my memories of my first night on the ship in Last of the Annamese. I attribute the experiences to Chuck Griffin, the novel’s protagonist, but they are what I went through.

At the time, I was starting to hallucinate. I was in bad shape as a result of exhaustion, amoebic dysentery, and pneumonia, brought on by sleep deprivation, inadequate diet, and muscle fatigue from being holed up for days in my office as the North Vietnamese attacked Saigon. Here’s how I recounted my irrational state in the novel:

Chuck wandered until he was on a deck. Bits and snips of light flickered uncertainly over the ocean’s surface, like specks of moonlight, but no moon was in the sky. The deck was wet from recent rain. The ships of the fleet he could see clearly. But there, away from the ships—no, sometimes in between them—were fragments of light, some like candles, others like dying flashlights. Little boats. Thousands of them. He watched them, hypnotized. Who were they? Why were they there? He closed his eyes. He could still see them. They were swirling now. He felt himself sinking . . .

. . .

Lights—little flecks of them, playful, zesty—swam and fluttered and hovered and vanished. They were stars on a black sky swimming over a black ocean. . . They smiled as they flew about, streaked themselves into lines and circles, then merged and disappeared. He couldn’t hear them, but he knew they were singing sweet songs about breathing clean air. They told him to let go. He could grieve later, but now all he had to do was rest. No more searching. . . The last shred of awareness blanked out as if someone had switched off the sweet lights.

End of quote. By the time the fleet sailed to the Philippines some time around 10 May, I knew I needed to get to a doctor. But I wanted to go home. I can’t tell you how much I yearned just to go home. I finally got a diagnosis and treatment after I arrived in Maryland toward the end of May. But the home I so craved no longer existed.

Correction

I just noticed an error in the New York Times announcement of my presentation on the fall of Saigon. It’s to be at 7:00 p.m. on Tuesday, 9 January, not 7 January. It will be at the Howard County Library Central Branch at 10375 Little Patuxent Parkway, Columbia, MD 21044.

My apologies.

The End in Vietnam: Physical Collapse

The last few days before we were evacuated during the fall of Saigon in April 1975, Bob, Gary, and I were under severe physical strain. We had gotten forty-one of our fellow workers and all the families out safely despite the Ambassador’s failure to call for an evacuation. The three of us told each other that we were there to turn the lights out when we finally had permission to leave.

By 27 April, we were out of food except for bar snacks we’d been able to scrounge from a hotel before we were unable to get through the streets of the city which were blocked by throngs of refugees. But we had lots of coffee, thanks to Bob and Gary’s foresight. We drank gallons of coffee, ate next to nothing, and had no sleep.

The strain of the past several months and the deprivations toward the end took their toll on my body. I came down with diarrhea. I had other symptoms, too, but due to the stress of the situation and the shelling we were subjected to, I ignored my physical problems and kept on working. I had to keep going. Bob and Gary’s survival depended on it.

I was finally able to get Bob and Gary out on a helicopter on the afternoon of 29 April. I escaped under fire that night after the North Vietnamese were already in the streets of the city. Once aboard the Oklahoma City, the flag ship of the U.S. 7th Fleet, I still had to stay on my feet. After the fleet sailed to the Philippines, I booked a flight immediately to Honolulu because I had to brief CINCPAC (Commander-in-Chief, Pacific) on what had happened in Saigon. When I sat down after the briefing, I passed out. After I got back to the mainland, I was diagnosed with amoebic dysentery, ear damage (caused by the shelling), and pneumonia due to sleep deprivation, inadequate diet, and muscle fatigue.

After a few months of recovery, I was as good as new. To this day, I’m amazed at what the body is capable of when lives are at stake.

Fall of Saigon Presentation

An announcement in the New York Times ’67 Vietnam series yesterday:
 
Upcoming Events
At 7:00 p.m. on Jan. 7, the author and former intelligence officer Tom Glenn will give a presentation on the fall of Saigon at the Howard County Central Library in Columbia, Md. As the station chief for the National Security Agency in Saigon in 1975, Mr. Glenn was among the last Americans to leave the country before it was conquered by North Vietnam.

The address of the central branch is 10375 Little Patuxent Parkway, Columbia, MD 21044. If any of the readers of this blog are able to attend, please let me know your reaction to the presentation.

My article in the New York Times ’67 Vietnam series is at https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/03/opinion/vietnam-tet-offensive.html?action=click&pgtype=Homepage&clickSource=story-heading&module=opinion-c-col-right-region&region=opinion-c-col-right-region&WT.nav=opinion-c-col-right-region

The End in Vietnam: Shelling

Bob, Gary, and I—the last three men in our Saigon office after the evacuation of all the others and the families at the end of April 1975—were subjected to North Vietnamese shelling starting just after sundown the night of 28 April. The North Vietnamese first used rockets against us. Then, about four in the morning on 29 April, the artillery started. A C-130 on the airstrip behind us was destroyed, the building next door blew up, and two Marine guards at our gate were killed.

Several passages in Last of the Annamese describe what the shelling was like. Here’s one:

The blast toppled Chuck to the deck. Troiano, on his hands and knees, was yelling, but Chuck couldn’t make out the words. The room shifted again. The coffee maker lifted into the air, bounced, tumbled to the floor. The telephone landed beside it. The room lurched from a third concussion. A hanging light fixture on the ceiling jumped and swung, one of its posts broken. Dust from the ceiling powdered Chuck’s neck. He and Troiano both crawled under desks.

Sparky lunged in from the hall. Another blast knocked his feet out from under him. As he hit the deck, the room jumped again. He snaked under a desk.

End of quote. The artillery attacks continued through the day of 29 April. I’ve never experienced anything like that since the fall of Saigon. The closest thing to it I’ve lived through was earthquakes in the San Francisco bay area in my childhood.

What made both earthquakes and shelling so terrifying was the helplessness—one could do nothing to defend oneself or escape the danger—and the randomness of the hits. That Bob, Gary, and I survived was pure chance.