Chuck’s Briefing of the Ambassador in Last of the Annamese

The protagonist of Last of the Annamese, Chuck Griffin, briefs the U.S. Ambassador to the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam) once a month. His boss, Colonel Troiano, chief of the DAO Intelligence Branch, assigns that job to Chuck because Chuck has the rare ability to look at a series of events and know what’s going to happen next.

This is one more case where Chuck’s experiences almost exactly match mine. I briefed the U.S. Ambassador, Graham Martin, regularly, and, like Chuck, warned him of North Vietnamese preparations to attack Saigon. He didn’t believe me. Instead, he believed the assurances of the Hungarian member of the ICCS that North Vietnam had no intention of invading Saigon; it wished, instead, to form a coalition government “with all the patriotic forces” and rule jointly. That gentleman was a representative of a communist government allied to North Vietnam. And the Ambassador accepted his statements in the face of the overwhelming evidence I was providing him that the attack was imminent.

Chuck’s gift for foreseeing the future was another trait he and I have in common. Over my many years of working on intelligence about North Vietnam, I found a small handful of analysts who possessed that same insight. They and I worked together to warn the U.S. government and military commanders of what was coming next. We successfully foretold each major North Vietnamese offensive from 1964 on. Our fate was like Chuck’s in Annamese: all too often we weren’t believed. It happened so often I coined the name “Cassandra Effect” to describe it.

Armed South Vietnamese Air Force Officers Demand Evacuation at Gun Point

In the final pages of Last of the Annamese, the protagonist, Chuck Griffin learns that South Vietnamese Air Force officers have forced their way into the DAO building (on the northern edge of Saigon at Tan Son Nhat) and are demanding evacuation at gun point. Chuck and his office mates receive orders to proceed immediately to the evacuation staging area.

The event described really happened. In the early hours of the morning on 29 April 1975, Bob, Gary, and I—the only ones left of the 44 men who had been assigned to my office—received a telephone call telling us that the officers were roaming the halls, guns drawn. We were to leave our office suite and go immediately to the evacuation staging area, another office the Marines had secured. So we sent our last message. It’s a personal message from me to my boss, General Lew Allen, the Director of NSA. It’s now declassified so I can quote it:

  1. HAVE JUST RECEIVED WORD TO EVACUATE. AM NOW DESTROYING REMAINING CLASSIFIED MATERIAL. WILL CEASE TRANSMISSIONS IMMEDIATELY AFTER THIS MESSAGE.

 

  1. WE’RE TIRED BUT OTHERWISE ALL RIGHT. LOOKS LIKE THE BATTLE FOR SAIGON IS ON FOR REAL.

 

  1. FROM GLENN: I COMMEND TO YOU MY PEOPLE WHO DESERVE THE BEST NSA CAN GIVE THEM FOR WHAT THEY HAVE BEEN THROUGH BUT ESPECIALLY FOR WHAT THEY HAVE ACHIEVED.

I added “from Glenn” before the final paragraph to assure that General Allen would know these words were from me personally.

We destroyed our crypto and comms equipment and went to the staging area. Bob and Gary flew out on a helicopter at 1400 hours that afternoon. I followed later carrying the two flags that had stood beside my desk, the stars and stripes and gold and orange banner of the now defunct Republic of Vietnam. Those two flags are now in the Cryptologic Museum at Fort Meade.

The Prologue in Last of the Annamese

The prologue to Last of the Annamese is set in Da Nang in 1967. Chuck and Ike visit an orphanage, and in the infirmary, they find a small boy with phosphorus still burning in his skin. They rush off to find an American military doctor to treat the boy, but when they return, the boy has died. This episode sets the stage for the drama that follows.

The boy’s death has several ramifications. First, it mirrors the way Chuck’s own son, Ben, died. Second, it establishes the theme of the boy-child in Chuck’s life. The theme recurs throughout the book.

Third, and in some ways most important, it underlines in unspoken terms the U.S. responsibility for the tragedies that the various boy-children in Chuck’s history endure. Ben, it turns out, didn’t die in combat; he was killed by another GI. Thu, the child of Thanh and Tuyet, is orphaned during the final U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam.

And the unnamed boy in the prologue? He dies of white phosphorus burns. The North Vietnamese and Viet Cong didn’t use phosphorus. Only the U.S. did. So it was U.S. fighting forces that delivered the weapon that killed the boy.

I don’t mean to use this theme to accuse the U.S. of deliberately killing innocent civilians. I meant to underline that in war even the side with morality on its side causes the deaths of innocents. That thought is endemic to Chuck’s struggle throughout the book—he tries with all that’s in him to win the war against the North Vietnamese, but in the end witnesses the destruction of South Vietnam caused in large measure by the Americans’ decision to abandon Vietnam to its fate.

The Foundation of The Trion Syndrome

The novel, The Trion Syndrome, tells of the struggle of Dave Bell, the protagonist, against Post-Traumatic Stress Injury (PTSI). His marriage fails, his children won’t talk to him, and he loses his job. Rather than fight back, he runs away to northern Maine, where he gets a job in a gas station and lives in a storage shed while he contemplates suicide.

Dave’s story is similar to my own. After the fall of Saigon, I returned to the world (that’s what we called the U.S.) a physical and emotional wreck. I had amoebic dysentery, pneumonia, and ear damage. And I was a living example of PTSI, although we didn’t have a name for it back then. My wife and four children had just returned to the U.S. after a grand tour of the world (Asia, Europe) following their evacuation from Vietnam 20 days before Saigon fell. They were staying at her father’s house in Massachusetts. I telephoned her and asked her to come to Maryland as soon as possible. I told her I was very sick and needed her help. She turned me down.

That was May 1975. She and the children finally came home in July after I’d been able to get our house back from the family that had leased it for three years in 1974. I had to face my ghosts on my own. The marriage was over.

Dave Bell finds salvation through his son. I found mine by writing and helping others. By the end of Trion, Dave understands that he’ll never be free of his memories—he’ll have to face them and come to terms with them. In that respect, he and I are the same.

What the Guys Say

After I learned that the Naval Institute Press would be publishing Last of the Annamese, I sent copies of the ARC (advance review copy) to men who had seen combat in Vietnam. I wanted to know how they reacted to the book and, if they wanted to, I hoped they’d write and publish reviews.

They’re feeding back to me now, a little at a time. I’m moved by the mix of pride and pain they show in their responses—pride that they stood their ground for their country and risked their lives for what they believed was right; and pain at remembering the gruesome experiences they went through in combat.

They’re all younger than me. So many of them were 18 or 19 when they arrived in Vietnam. By the time I got there in 1962, I was already 25 with a wife and my first child. I’d finished my military service and was a civilian operating under cover. Most of the guys I knew went to Vietnam after 1964. When Saigon fell (I was 38), most of them were still in their twenties.

So I was more mature than the guys I served beside on the battlefield. I looked so young that they assumed I was their contemporary when I was actually old enough that I qualified for the name “Pops” as they called men serving with them who were already in their mid-twenties. Worse, in civilian-to-military equivalency, I outranked their commanders. Nevertheless, once they saw that I was going to be with them through it all, even in combat, they accepted me and we worked together.

What I’m starting to understand is how rough it must have been on them. I was older, more experienced. By the mid-sixties, I’d already been through combat; they hadn’t. Besides, they were fighters. I was just there to help and was armed, at most, with a pistol. They were there to kill or be killed. I struggle with my own memories. How much worse it must be for them.

I do sense their pain, and I understand their unwillingness to talk about their memories. But I also feel—and share in—their pride. To paraphrase Ike in Annamese, they did what they had to do, whatever it took. I salute them and honor their pride.

The Writing of Friendly Casualties

The novel-in-stories called Friendly Casualties arose from my need to confront my memories of what I lived through and witnessed during my 13 years, on and off, in Vietnam. The eight individual stories that make up the first half of the book, “Triage,” each came to me from an incident I was involved with. After those stories were completed and published, I realized that they were connected in ways I hadn’t understood when I first wrote them. Characters from one story appeared in another story; timing of stories overlapped; the settings were connected. I came to understand that the stories formed a tapestry. All that was needed was a narrative that drew the loose ends together. That pushed me into writing the novella that forms the second half of the book, “Healing.”

Once again, characters from earlier stories showed up in my writing. I sensed that I had to bring into harmony the various themes and threads, the anguish and fulfillments that permeated the entire text. So I wrote a scene for Maggie, the State Department intelligence specialist at the embassy in Saigon, and Sam, the soldier who had lost an arm. I had to show that the only way we who suffered through Vietnam could get on with our lives was to help each other. I ended the book with an unplanned meeting between Sam and Maggie when he asks her to have lunch with him:

“I haven’t had lunch with a beautiful woman in a very long time. The first time I saw you—”

“Sam,” Maggie said, “are you flirting with me?”

He blushed.

“I’m too old for you,” she said.

“No, you’re not. I mean . . . Miss Nilsson—”

“Maggie.”

“Maggie.” He hunched his shoulders. “I apologize. It’s just that  . . . What I mean is, you’ve been hurt. So have I. We’re what they call ‘friendly casualties.’ Maybe you’d let me comfort you. Just a little bit.”

“Sam, it wouldn’t be—”

“And maybe you could comfort me. Only just a little.”

Maggie started to shake her head.

“Maggie.” He took her hand. “We have to start somewhere. Have lunch with me.”

Maggie looked up into his lined face, so full of hope and pain. Her heart hurt for him.

“Sure,” she said at last. “Sure.”

 

Return to Vietnam?

So many people ask me if I’ve returned to Vietnam since the war ended. The answer is no. I have no desire whatever to go back. Vietnam is the place of my nightmares. I don’t want to relive them.

A good many men I knew there have revisited the places where they fought, and a few have even gone to Hanoi. They talk about what a beautiful country Vietnam is and how happy and welcoming the people are.

I agree that there are beautiful places in Vietnam. But there are also some ugly ones that the government of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam (the new name of the country, replacing the old name, the Democratic Republic of Vietnam) do not allow tourists to see.

I am inclined to remind the visitors that the population is under the strict control of the government. It is, after all, a police state. The people are required to look content and friendly to support the tourism industry. They have no personal freedom at all. Were tourists allowed to go to off-limits locations, for example the slums and the highlands, they might encounter a very different attitude.

But I don’t speak my mind. Let those who return reach their own conclusions. Let my nightmares remain private. I vent them in my writing.

What My Guys Knew

Since my blog post of yesterday, I’ve heard from two of the men who served with me in Vietnam and were evacuated before Saigon fell. Apparently both of them knew what was going on between me and the ambassador, even though I never told them. Maybe all of them knew. Sometimes the boss thinks he’s a lot smarter than he really is. It’s the guys who do the work who know what’s going on.

I Misled My Men

I had 43 men working for me in Saigon. In the past week or so, two of those men have expressed regret that they didn’t stay with me to the end. One other has said that he knew he and two others were not the guys I needed to have with me in-country during the attack and so agreed to go. And almost at the end, one guy I ordered out refused to go—he didn’t want to leave me there without him. It took a direct order from me, delivered with colorful language I don’t normally use, to get that man on a plane out of Vietnam. None of them knew that the Ambassador, Graham Martin, had refused my request to evacuate my staff and that I resorted to subterfuge to get my people out.

Over the years, various men have asked me why I didn’t tell them what was going on. My feeling at the time was that they had enough on their minds as it was, with the city under siege and their lives endangered. They didn’t need the extra worry of learning that the man with final authority over all U.S. personnel in the city had condemned them to stay through the final attack. I concealed from them that I was using every ruse I could think of to get my staff and their families out of Saigon before it fell. It worked. Nobody got killed. And only three of us, me and the two communicators who volunteered to stay with me, Bob and Gary, were still in Saigon when the North Vietnamese invaded the city. I got Bob and Gary out in the afternoon of 29 April, on a chopper that ferried them to the 7th Fleet in the South China Sea, and I went out under fire that night.

I didn’t tell that story in Last of the Annamese. That was my story, not the story of Chuck, the book’s protagonist. And maybe I owe my guys an apology. They were strong men who could handle whatever came their way. I admired them for their courage and calmness under stress.

So I ask for their pardon for withholding information from them. I did it with the best intentions in the world. I think they forgive me. At a gathering some months after the fall of Saigon, they gave me a plaque labelled, “Last Man Out Award.” The words inscribed on it thank me for my leadership and getting them all out safely.

Doing the Fall of Saigon Presentation

Five days ago and again yesterday, I gave the presentation called “Bitter Memories: The Fall of Saigon.” I’ve now done it more than 40 times, and I keep getting asked to do it again. Granted, it’s a very exciting story, but I’m still a little surprised that folks still want to hear it.

As I mentioned earlier, until a few years ago, nobody wanted to hear about Vietnam. It was a shameful episode in our history—a closed subject. But then Americans changed their attitude. Now Vietnam is of keen interest. My writings on Vietnam sell. And people want to know what happened.

The story I tell in the presentation is the same one told in Last of the Annamese. The difference is that in the novel, the protagonist is not me but a retired Marine officer, Chuck Griffin. But the historical facts in the novel are as accurate as I’m able to make them. And what Chuck goes through is what I went through.

I don’t like to read through the text of the novel. It still makes me choke up. The memories of those days haven’t faded. They never will.

What continues to surprise me is that when I’m giving the presentation, I still get tears in my eyes every time when I talk about the events that still break my heart. As I describe the South Vietnamese officer who shot to death his children, his wife, and himself when the North Vietnamese took Saigon; as I talk about Bob and Gary, the two men who agreed to stay with me to the end and risk their lives; as I tell of the crowds outside the compound throwing babies over the fence—those moments move me to the core of my existence, even today, even after I’ve told the story so many times.

I believe that soul-scarring events stay with us, fresh in our memories, despite the passing years. Even as I get older and my memory becomes unreliable, those recollections are as vivid as the instant they happened. They are as much a part of me as my hands or my heart. They are with me always.