Messenger of Bad News

In April 1975, with the fall of Saigon impending and the North Vietnamese closing in, the death toll among the defending South Vietnamese forces was shockingly high. For the most part, those of us in Saigon had no way of knowing who had survived. All we knew was that a South Vietnamese soldier or Marine was no longer accounted for.

In Last of the Annamese, I tell the story of the protagonist, Chuck Griffin, visiting Huong, the servant of Molly, an American nurse killed in the C5A crash, to bring her the bad news that her husband has disappeared. He finds Huong’s house, a shanty made of corrugated iron and cardboard in Phu Lam, a poor suburb of Saigon. They exchange pleasantries:

She gave him an apologetic smile. “You forgive me? I not ask about Miss Molly. She is well?”

He closed his throat. She doesn’t know.

“Miss Molly . . . Miss Molly is dead, Huong. The plane she took to the states crashed.” How could he say it like that, straight out, a routine statement of fact?

Huong’s polite face cracked. The smile remained as if forgotten. “Oh.”

“I’m sorry,” he said with crazy calmness. “I thought you knew.”

She didn’t answer.

“I came here to tell you,” he said, “that I have enquired about your husband.” She raised her head and looked at him, the smile in place, the eyes terrified. “We have no word on him. He was not with the men from his unit who made it to Vung Tau from Tuy Hoa.”

For a moment, she didn’t move. She shivered, wrapped her arms around herself, and turned from side to side. Then she folded her hands in her lap and sat very still. “You very good to come and see me. I thank you very much, Mister Griffin, sir.”

He understood that his visit was over. He rose. “God be with you, Huong.”

“Yes, sir, Mister Griffin, sir.” She was on her feet, looking down over her shoulder so that he couldn’t see her face.

He went outside. From inside, her voice rose, nasal, keening. The old woman hurried in. Others gathered around the door.

April 1975: Escape During the Fall of Saigon (3)

After my escape under fire via helicopter to the flagship of the 7th Fleet, the USS Oklahoma City, on 29 April 1975, the fleet circled for some time while I slept. Then we sailed to the Philippines arriving sometime around 10 May. I booked a flight immediately for Honolulu because I knew I had to go to Pearl Harbor to brief Commander-in-Chief, Pacific (CINCPAC) on what had happened in Saigon. I knew I was sick. The whole time the 7th Fleet had been circling in the South China Sea, I was sleeping. So what was wrong with me was not simply exhaustion. Nevertheless, I tried to brief the brass at CINCPAC, largely failed, then passed out. But instead of seeking medical help, I booked a flight for Baltimore. I so yearned to go home.

The day after landing in Baltimore, I finally got to a doctor. He diagnosed me with hearing damage, amoebic dysentery, and pneumonia due to muscle fatigue, inadequate diet, and sleep deprivation. It took several months for me to recover and get back on my feet.

What I didn’t recover from and still struggle with is Post-Traumatic Stress Injury (PTSI). It came not just from living through the fall of Saigon but also from all my years working with army and Marine units in combat throughout South Vietnam before the cease-fire agreement of 1973. One doesn’t recover from PTSI. One learns to cope. My hideous memories of deaths on the battlefield and atrocities during the fall of Saigon I will always have with me, but I have learned how to live with them. I’m a whole man again.

April 1975: Escape During the Fall of Saigon (2)

When I regained consciousness aboard the Oklahoma City after the fall of Saigon, I knew I had to get on my feet. Here’s what happened, again quoted from Last of the Annamese, when I awoke shivering from the cold—told from the point of view of Chuck Griffin:

“His head throbbed. His stomach ached. . . . He climbed from the berth and managed to get to his feet, but it hurt. Standing unsteadily, he felt about him in the dark. His fingers told him about cold metal and canvas. He tottered past towers of berths, located an opening leading to a passageway. More red lights. The head was directly opposite. He went in, found a commode, and emptied himself. Dysentery. His watch told him it was 1015. The morning of 30 April? . . . . For the first time in days, he brushed his teeth. Then into the shower. Only when warm water rolled down his back did the shaking stop. He dressed again in the same clothes, the only clothes he had. . . and headed for the upper decks.

“After several false leads and stopping sailors to ask for directions, he located the flight deck. The sky to the east was brilliant with sunshine. As far as he could see over the ocean were boats, some interspersed among the ships of the Seventh Fleet, others disappearing into the west. Sampans, junks, fishing vessels, commercial craft, tugs, even what looked like large rowboats, each overloaded with Vietnamese waving and calling to the ships. Two helicopters with South Vietnamese Air Force markings appeared out of the sky. They hovered not more than twenty feet above the water and dropped into the ocean. Their pilots swam away from them as they sank. Both were rescued and brought onboard.”

More tomorrow.

April 1975: Escape During the Fall of Saigon

On the night of 29 April 1975, I escaped the fall of Saigon under fire. A helicopter carried me to the Oklahoma City, flagship of the U.S. 7th Fleet, cruising in the South China Sea. Although I didn’t know it at the time, I had ear damage from the shelling and was suffering from amoebic dysentery and pneumonia due to muscle fatigue, inadequate diet, and sleep deprivation. I don’t remember much about the flight or my arrival at the ship. It was pitch black and pouring rain. I probably passed out after I got out of the helicopter. I described my sensations upon landing in a passage from Last of the Annamese—told from the point of view of the protagonist, Chuck Griffin:

“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.”

The next thing I remember was as follows, also quoted from Annamese:

“Absolute quiet. Then a deep vibration, very far away. He smelled canvas. He opened his eyes. Black. He shifted his vision and saw red, dark red, almost black. He moved his head. A red light was mounted on the bulkhead. It was quivering. He realized he was shivering. His body tightened against the cold. He focused his eyes. Stacks of hanging berths, like so many rough-hewn hammocks, some with inert forms in them. He gave full attention to his ears. Breathing. People were sleeping near him. Beneath it the low-pitched vibration.”

More tomorrow.

Colonel Macintosh

The character of U.S. Marine Colonel Macintosh in Last of the Annamese is based on many men I knew in Vietnam. I used his words to sum up the disastrous situation we Americans found ourselves in as the fall of Saigon loomed. The following is a conversation Macintosh has with the book’s protagonist, Chuck Griffin, in late 1974:

“You got to understand, Griffin. The U.S. is sick of this war. We want out. We don’t even care about losing face anymore. I tried to tell them way back when I was a lieutenant colonel that we were fighting the war all wrong—worrying about major battles and body counts when we should have been in the villages and hamlets helping the people. I’ve been telling them ever since. Why do you think they don’t let me talk to the press? Why do you think I never earned a star?”

“But, sir, if the U.S. would send forces back in—”

Macintosh laughed. “That’ll happen when Jane Fonda gets drafted. You don’t get it. It’s over. From here on it’s fucking damage control. We quit last year when we signed the cease-fire, stopped air support, and cut funds to the South Vietnamese government. That way when it all goes to hell, and it will, we can act surprised and blame the North Vietnamese for violating the terms of the agreement. Wasn’t our fault. In short, we lie. If we’re going to lie effectively, we have to live the lie, keep acting like we’ll do something.”

Chuck worked to control his breathing. “Colonel Macintosh, too many have died—”

“Don’t tell me how many have died.” Color rose in Macintosh’s scalp. “The Corps is my family. Fifteen thousand of my Marines died here.”

End of quote.

Saigon’s Propaganda Banners (2)

Continuing my quotations from Last of the Annamese about Saigon propaganda banners:

A second passage on the banners describes a conversation between the two principal Vietnamese characters, South Vietnamese Marine Colonel Thanh and his wife, Tuyet:

Thanh scrubbed one shoulder with a large sponge. “Corruption and lying thrive in the stench of defeat. Had our leaders spent less energy on their villas and bank accounts, had they worked to help the people, the ending might have been different. Now it is too late. I travel to prepare my troops to be bold and brave, because I know the ending will be painful. Many, many will die. I do not tell them, like my superiors, that victory is only months away.”

“Do not allow defeatism to destroy us.”

Thanh laughed. “That’s what the banners stretched across the streets of Saigon say. ‘Be bold and stamp out the vermin Viet Cong.’ ‘Glory to the Republic.’

“Tuyet, time is slipping away. Don’t waste it in subterfuge. As the monks taught me, so I teach you: adversity is a gift to those who wish to grow. Make the most of it. And prepare yourself. The ending will be brutal.”

A third passage is toward the end of the book as the fall of Saigon comes closer:

The city was already writhing in the heat. Dust trailed after everything that moved. The canals and gutters that riddled the city had turned black, oozing with clots of human waste. The morning mist, suffused by exhaust and smoke from charcoal fires, hung in the blighted trees and discolored eaves. Orange and white banners sagged, some falling into the street. Refugees choked byways and alleys and spilled over the boulevards and parks. Chuck smelled the raw force of incipient panic.

End of quotes. I remember my sense of impending doom as I watched the banners droop and fall: the North Vietnamese would soon be in the streets.

Saigon’s Propaganda Banners

During my thirteen years on and off in Vietnam, I visited Saigon so many times that I lost count. Early on—I don’t remember when—I noticed the orange-and-white propaganda banners strung across the streets. Using words without pictures, they encouraged the populace to support the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam) and fight against the communists. Each one had a slogan, and I don’t remember ever seeing the same slogan repeated in a second banner.

These standards, omnipresent, became a leitmotif in Last of the Annamese. The book mentions them nine times. Their presence in a dying city and their condition become a reflection of South Vietnam’s decline. Today and tomorrow, I quote three of the references.

The first, from early in the story, is from the point of view of Chuck, the protagonist, who, unlike me, doesn’t speak Vietnamese:

“He glanced up at the orange banner stretched across the intersection. Rising hot air distorted the Vietnamese words written in the western alphabet with zany diacritical marks, dots, little question marks, and tildes over and under the letters. Chuck studied the otherworldly collection of symbols. He didn’t know what the words said, only that they were propaganda urging the populace to support the Republic of Vietnam and defeat the Communists.”

More tomorrow.