Dak To: Fifty Years Ago

The publication of my article on the battle of Dak To in the New York Times forced me to recognize that it has been fifty years since I worked with the U.S. 4th Infantry Division and the 173rd Airborne Brigade in that conflict. I was in the Vietnam highlands doing signals intelligence—the intercept and exploitation of the communications of the invading North Vietnamese—in support of U.S. forces.

The highlands is a mountainous area along the Laotian and Cambodian borders populated by few Vietnamese and many Montagnard tribesmen. The name, Dak To, is not Vietnamese but is derived from one of the Montagnard languages—there were many tribes, each with its own language. The Vietnamese attempted render the name as Vietnamese, slightly changing its spelling and adding tones and diacritical marks so that it became Đắc Tô. For me, it remained a Montagnard name.

As I mentioned elsewhere in this blog, I’m surprised and somewhat resentful when my writing about my own experiences is termed “historical.” I am, after all, alive and kicking. I don’t feel like a figure from the past. And the Vietnam war doesn’t seem all that long ago.

But there it is. The battle began more than fifty years ago, on 4 November 1967. It was one of the bloodiest of the war, engulfing not only Kontum Province, where Dak To is located, but the entire highlands. Yet in the end, no territory changed hands. And my memory of it is as sharp as if it were yesterday.

Readers can find my article 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

Major General Phạm Văn Phú

On 9 March 1975, I accompanied my counterpart, a South Vietnamese general, on a trip to I Corps and II Corps, the northern half of South Vietnam. During a courtesy call with the commander of II Corps, Major General Phạm Văn Phú, things turned sour. The general I was traveling with and the II Corps intelligence staff chief tried to persuade General Phú that Ban Mê Thuột, in Darlac province to the south, would be the first target of the Communist campaign in the highlands. Intercept of North Vietnamese communications made that clear. The II Corps Commander was unpersuaded. He doubted that the North Vietnamese were preparing to strike, and if they were, II Corps headquarters would be the logical focus of the offensive. After all, he was the most important man in the highlands, and he was at II Corps headquarters in Pleiku.

I described the confrontation that I witnessed that day in the scene quoted below from Last of the Annamese. General Tri is the fictionalized version of General Phú.

Smoke blurred the features of the room. Cigarettes, two of them still burning, littered the deck. The snakelike man behind the desk, a lit cigarette in hand, gave no indication that he knew eight people were standing before him. He went on reading, smiling at the document in his hands. Without looking up he made a single sound, and the officers sat in a row of chairs facing the desk. Chuck hurriedly joined them. The adjutant served tea.

Chuck squinted through the smoke at the man reading. His fatigue’s name tag read TRI, and his shoulders bore the two stars of a major general. The slant of his egg-shaped bald head drew the eye to his mouth, the lips closed, the corners turned up. Something about his smile activated the tingle low in Chuck’s spine. It was a sardonic smile, a sneer.

Tri raised his eyes and said, “Thanh.” Thanh stood at attention, his eyes downcast, and spoke several sentences. Then he turned to Chuck. “Mister Griffin, I introduce you to General Tri.” Chuck jumped to his feet.

Tri fixed Chuck in his gaze. “I am honored to meet you, Mister Griffin.”

Chuck started to answer, but Tri shifted back to Thanh and went on speaking. He gestured to Chuck to sit, tossed away his cigarette, and lit another.

Throughout the exchange, the smile never left Tri’s face. Maybe it was less an expression than a facial feature. His eyes remained half closed, as though in disdain for the colonel in front of him. His speech, marked by viperous hisses, cut through the smoke.

Chuck’s weariness, aggravated by the smarting of his eyes, lulled him . . . . A bark from Tri jarred him awake. The general was glaring at Thanh. Liem stood and spoke quietly, his eyes averted. Thanh’s voice, pitched low, repeated Liem’s words. He looked directly into Tri’s eyes, his gestures calm, and pointed to the large II Corps map on the wall. Liem moved to it and waved circles around Ban Mê Thuột, in Darlac Province, directly south of Pleiku. The smile left Tri’s face for the first time. He directed half a dozen sentences at Thanh with undisguised hostility. The interview was over.

End of quote. Even though General Phú didn’t believe the forecast that the North Vietnamese would launch their offensive in the highlands with Ban Mê Thuột as the first objective, Ban Mê Thuột fell days later, followed by the rest of the northern half of South Vietnam. General Phú escaped to Saigon. He committed suicide there on 30 April when the North Vietnamese took the city.

Amerasian Orphans in Vietnam

In my novel, Last of the Annamese, the protagonist, Chuck, regularly spends time with orphans at Cité Paul-Marie, an orphanage in Saigon. He is particularly fond of a tiny crippled Amerasian boy to whom the nuns have given the French name of Philippe. Chuck calls him “Pipsqueak,” and the child, trying to repeat the sound Chuck makes, calls Chuck “Pee-kwee.” Chuck’s housemate can’t see how Chuck can stand to be with the misshapen children whom he calls as “manglemorphs.” But Chuck finds them deeply moving and does all he can to make them smile.

Neither the orphanage nor the orphans named in the novel are real, but both are based on fact. During my thirteen years on and off in Vietnam, I regularly spent time with the mixed-race orphans, fathered by American GIs with Vietnamese women, at a real orphanage run by Vietnamese nuns who spoke only French and gave the children French names. Where the children came from, how old they were, and their reals names remained a mystery. I suspected that the nuns didn’t know the children’s origin, names, or ages. These were helpless infants whose parents had abandoned them or had died in the war.

I was devastated by the 4 April 1975 crash of first flight of Operation BABYLIFT, a program sponsored by President Ford to move as many orphans as possible to the U.S. before the North Vietnamese attacked Saigon. Seventy-eight orphans were killed in the crash. I expressed my grief by attributing it to Chuck in the following passage from late in the novel:

“Chuck remembered the feel of Philippe’s tiny body pressed against his chest. Pee-Kwee. He forced himself to contemplate the unbearable—Philippe suffocating in the airless cargo hold and then crushed by the plane’s collision with the earth. Chuck welcomed the grief. No one else would mourn the death of the Amerasian ‘manglemorph’  whose real name nobody knew.”

As Chuck asks himself early and again late in the book, and as I ask myself: Do all memories have to hurt?

“Thank you. And Welcome Home”

Say these words today to every veteran you know.

When I came back to the world (the U.S.) after the fall of Saigon, I so yearned to hear those words. Returning from earlier trips I’d been call a baby killer and a butcher. Young people spat on me. It sickened my soul.

I came home in May 1975 a sick man with amoebic dysentery, hearing damaged from shelling during the attack on Saigon, and pneumonia brought on by inadequate diet, sleep deprivation, and muscle fatigue. The worst was Post-Traumatic Stress Injury. I had top secret codeword-plus clearances, so I couldn’t go for therapy—I would have lost my job. My wife and the children were in Massachusetts at her father’s house. She refused to return to Maryland until I got our house back. We’d leased it to another family until 1976, when our tour in Vietnam was due to end. She and the children finally came back the following July. So I was left to cope with my nightmares, irrational rages, and flash backs by myself. It was the lowest point in my life.

For decades, I never spoke of my thirteen years on and off in Vietnam. I was ashamed for myself and for my country. Four years ago I heard those yearned-for words for the first time. I wept.

So talk to your veterans today. Tell them you’re grateful for their sacrifices. Let them know you’re glad they got back still alive. Use those sacred words: “Thank you. And welcome home.”

Veterans Day

Today I celebrate with my brothers and sisters the joy and anguish of being a veteran. Today I declare my undying respect for my fellow veterans for their contribution and sacrifice in serving what I continue to believe is the greatest nation in the world. Today I grieve over those we’ve lost and cherish those still among us.

When I get together with other veterans, we don’t talk about our experience under arms. We don’t need to. Each of us knows what we’ve been through. There is among us a silent understanding.

The strongest bond I’ve ever observed or experienced between human beings forms when people fight side by side for their country. Each of us knows that we’ll give up our lives to save the man or woman next to us in battle. We don’t call it love—that’s too sentimental. But that’s what it is.

So today I honor all my fellow combatants, those who survived and still suffer the permanent soul damage that combat inflicts, and those who didn’t live to stand again by my side. You are my brothers and sisters. May you find peace and fulfillment.

The Marine Corps Birthday

Today is the 242nd birthday of the U.S. Marine Corps. This afternoon I did the fall of Saigon presentation at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland. Many active-duty and retired Marines were in the audience. When I told the story of how Marine Corps Colonel Al Gray saved my life, I heard the distinct Marine oo-rah from the audience. When I wished the Marines a happy birthday, the oo-rahs got louder.

I’ve never met a Marine who didn’t know who Al Gray is. I first met him in the 1960s in South Vietnam when he was a captain. Our paths crossed repeatedly as we served all over South Vietnam. When he showed up at my door in April 1975 just before Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese, dressed in the wildest Hawaiian shirt I’d ever seen—colors so bright they hurt my eyes—shorts, and flip-flops, I didn’t recognize him at first. I’d never before seen Al out of uniform. I didn’t think he owned any civilian clothes. And I knew he never came to Saigon unless he had to. He hated bureaucracy, and his job was in the field with his troops.

I invited him in, and he told me he’d been named the Ground Security Officer for the evacuation of Americans from Saigon. I told him everything I knew about the critical situation in the city. A few days later, he flew in from the 7th Fleet, cruising in the South China Sea, and loaded me on a helicopter for an escape under fire after the North Vietnamese were already in the streets of Saigon.

As I told the audience today, I don’t call him Al anymore. That stopped the day he became Commandant of the Marine Corps. Now I call him “Sir.” He’s the finest leader I’ve ever seen in action and a man I’m privileged to know.

So Happy Birthday, Marines. I bow in respect for you and thank you for saving my life.