Strong Women

I’m not like a lot of men I know. I’m attracted to strong women. Dependent, weak-willed women don’t appeal to me. In part, my preference reflects my way of judging people—I admire physical, emotional, psychological, and spiritual strength, and while I’m touched by frailty, it’s not a quality I have much liking for, in myself or anyone else.

Put differently, I want to be with independent women who want to be with me, not those who have to be with a man because they can’t manage on their own. I love the idea of two strong individuals who spend time with each other because they choose to, not because they need to.

As a consequence, the characters in my novels are most often tough and resilient. That includes the women. Two of the five principal characters in Last of the Annamese are women. One, Molly, is American; the other, Tuyet, is Vietnamese.

Both face risks because of the men they choose for lovers. Both are in peril for their lives as the fall of Saigon looms. Neither flinches.

Molly at the beginning of the novel doesn’t seem especially courageous. But she has volunteered to serve in a war-torn city (Saigon) where death is never far away. Before the end of the story, she has chosen to help others because she’s so moved by the Amerasian orphans she cares for. She has the guts needed for the job.

Tuyet is of a different sort. She is of the royal family of Vietnam, a princess, forced to marry a commoner for the good of her clan. It takes courage for her to put aside her royal pride and face the fall of Vietnam to the communists.

Both characters are drawn from women I knew during the final days of Vietnam. My admiration for their bravery in the face of severe adversity has never waned.

Rains Come, Birds Depart

Two eerie signs of the fall of Vietnam were the rains and the birds.

I wrote a few days ago about the three cities that fell as the conquest of South Vietnam approached. In each case, it rained. The first, Ban Me Thuot, was in the highlands. It was monsoon season there; the rains were not unexpected. But the other two, Phuoc Binh and Xuan Loc, were in the lowlands. Both were seized by the communists during the dry season—Phuoc Binh in January and Xuan Loc in April. And yet it rained on the day the North Vietnamese captured each city.

Thanh, the prophetic character in my novel, Last of the Annamese, remarks on the rain and the end of his beloved An Nam, the name he used for Vietnam: “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.’”

Thanh forewarns that the departure of the birds from Saigon will signal the fall of the city: “‘Cataclysm comes closer. You can smell it in the air. One day soon the birds will abandon Saigon. When they do, the end is at hand.’”

Towards the middle of April—I don’t remember the exact date—as the North Vietnamese encircled Saigon and the fighting came closer and closer, I noticed one day the absence of chirping and bird calls. I looked up and saw that the birds had disappeared from the sky and trees. Their departure was chilling.

Then, on 29 April, the day the North Vietnamese invaded Saigon, it rained again. The monsoons were not due to start until sometime in May, but as I boarded the helicopter for escape to the 7th Fleet cruising in the South China Sea, the heavens opened up and drenched us.

Unlike so many of the Vietnamese I knew, I was not religious, spiritual, or superstitious. I didn’t see the rains and the departure of the birds as a divine or spiritual commentary on the loss of Vietnam. But the consistent behavior of nature in aligning itself to human catastrophe was too pronounced to ignore. It reinforced my sense of irredeemable tragedy.

The Lucky Few

A few weeks ago, Jan Herman, author of The Lucky Few (Naval Institute Press, 2013), emailed me to say that he had reread Last of the Annamese and enjoyed it. That prompted me to pull out my copy of The Lucky Few and read it again. I’m glad I did. It’s a fine piece of work and well worth my time.

The book narrates the rescue operation undertaken by the USS Kirk, a destroyer escort that was part of the U.S. Seventh Fleet Task Force 76. The ships in the task force rescued evacuees, including me, during April and May 1975 when Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese.

What makes Jan’s book so valuable to me is that it greatly adds to my understanding of the events surrounding the fall of Saigon. I knew in detail what happened on the ground—I lived it—but my knowledge and memory of actions taken at sea was at best sketchy, in part because I was so sick during those days that I didn’t observe much. Because of conditions I had to live under during the prolonged North Vietnamese siege of Saigon, I was suffering from exhaustion, amoebic dysentery, ear damage, and pneumonia due to insufficient diet, muscle fatigue, and sleep deprivation. I wasn’t physically competent to understand that huge naval operation.

Thanks to The Lucky Few, I now know that Task Force 76 was an enormous undertaking put together in great haste. It included seventeen amphibious ships, two aircraft carriers, fourteen escorts, and eleven replenishment ships. Beyond them, two other aircraft carriers farther out to sea provided protection.

The night Saigon fell, 29 April, I boarded a Huey belonging to Air America, a private company operating in South Vietnam. We came under fire as soon as we were airborne, but we made it. In the dark and pouring rain, we landed on the Oklahoma City, the flag ship of the Seventh Fleet. At the same time and in the days that followed, Vietnamese refugees escaped by boat and on the ships of the South Vietnamese navy. The Kirk alone rescued more than 30,000 of them.

I’m heartened by the story of Task Force 76. It was a gallant and magnificently executed operation that saved many thousands of lives. The Kirk story is a small and partial antidote to my grief over our abandonment of the hundreds of thousands of South Vietnamese who had fought by our side. The loss is personal to me. Some 2,700 South Vietnamese soldiers who had worked with my organization were left behind as Saigon fell. All of them were killed or captured by the North Vietnamese. The ambassador had refused to call for an evacuation, and by the time he was countermanded from Washington, it was too late to get to those men. I will always mourn their loss.


The origin of the name of Vietnam and its history continue to intrigue me. The name’s source was intrinsic to the naming of my novel, Last of the Annamese.

The Vietnamese people originated thousands of years ago as a tribe in southern China ethnically distinct from the Chinese. They were a tough and resilient people unwilling to be dominated, politically or culturally.

The Chinese used the term Yuëh-Nán ( 越 南 )  to refer to these people.  Yuëh means to cross over, exceed, or transcend with strong pejorative implications; Nán means “south.” The compound means “those in the south who cross over.” The Chinese applied the name long before the Vietnamese moved south out of China. So the implication is that “cross over” here means to challenge or make trouble. The translation that seems most plausible to me is “the troublemakers in the south.” Yuëh-Nán in Vietnamese is Viet Nam.

Millennia ago, the troublesome people started moving south, into what is now Vietnam. Despite repeated wars with the Chinese, the Vietnamese established their independence. They called themselves by various names but eventually settled on Vietnam. Among the names they used for their country was An Nam, which means “peace in the south.” A resident of An Nam is, in English, called an Annamese. Hence the title of my novel.

One of the principal characters in the novel is South Vietnamese Marine Colonel Pham Ngoc Thanh. Unlike most modern Vietnamese, he understands the unflattering connotation of Viet Nam and greatly prefers the old name, An Nam. To him, An Nam comes to mean the nation and culture he loves. It is he who, toward the end of the novel as the North Vietnamese bear down on Saigon, pronounces the death sentence of his beloved country when he says, “‘The Heaven weeps. An Nam no more. An Nam was. You listen to her weep now.’”

My Friend in Prison

Since last May, I’ve been exchanging letters with a man in prison. I first heard from him because a relative of his sent him a copy of one of my books. He, like me, had been in combat in Vietnam. He was a Navy corpsman, going into battle with Marines and treating their wounds. He was wounded and survived a helicopter crash. The grisly stuff he went through permanently damaged his soul. He, again like me, is subject to the rigors of Post-Traumatic Stress Injury, but he suffered traumata on the battlefield far beyond anything I faced. He is my brother in arms and a man I respect and admire.

He has now read three of my books and writes to me regularly. His letters are hand-written. He’s not allowed access to a typewriter or computer. So writing to me is a chore. That hasn’t stopped him.

Early on, I noticed the beauty of his writing. Then he sent me an article he had written about a patrol he had taken part in. With his permission, I edited the text and submitted it to the New York Times ’67 Vietnam series. The Times accepted it for publication.

John (not his real name) and I are still working together on articles for publication. He’s not trained in the craftsmanship side of writing, but he has what I call “the gift”—an innate understanding of how to put words together to create beauty. Of the hundred or so published writers I know, only four have the gift. John is one.

I don’t know why John is in prison or what his crime was. I don’t care. This is a man I revere. I’m honored that I can help him.

The Risks of Declassifying

Last November, I opened my New York Times article on the 1967 battle of Dak To with the words, “I learned the hard way during the Vietnam war that when intelligence is ignored, people get killed.”

Revelation of intelligence to its target often has the same result. I spent thirty-five years of my life in intelligence. I saw it happen.

President Trump recently approved the release to the public of a highly classified (TOP SECERT/NOFORN) memo drafted by Devin Nunes, a Republican Congressman from California. What is revealed to the public is also revealed to intelligence targets.

Compromise of sensitive intelligence is always dangerous. What the American public can’t know or understand—because all matters about intelligence are classified—is that revelations of sources and methods, directly or by inference, destroys intelligence. Once a target finds out that I’m gathering information about him and knows or can guess how I’m doing it, he can easily change his behavior and block further access to information about him. If I am monitoring his communications, he can stop communicating or change his method. If I am surveilling him, he can hide. If an agent is reporting on his activities, he can kill the agent.

The public is equally unaware of the value of intelligence. Knowing where an adversary is, what he’s doing, what his means of action include, and what his plans are is of inestimable value to the U.S. government. Removing that information by compromise can plunge us into the dangerous darkness of ignorance. A foe can act against us with no warning.

Most important, revealing of intelligence sources and methods can cause deaths. If the sources were human, the target removes them, usually by killing them. Put bluntly, when intelligence is made known to the target, people often die.

Ordinary Americans can’t possibly be expected to know the ins and outs of intelligence and what the risks are. Nor will they know the results of intelligence loss. That’s why the actions of our elected officials are so crucial. They act in our behalf. In sum: The revelation of intelligence sources and methods for political gain is both morally questionable and dangerous to our security.

The Fall of Cities: Phuoc Binh, Ban Me Thuot, Xuan Loc (3)

I’ve described two of the three signal losses of cities during the final debacle in Vietnam. Today: Xuan Loc.

The capital of Long Khanh Province, Xuan Loc was some forty miles northeast of Saigon. It was the last obstacle for the North Vietnamese in their advance on the capital city where I sat watching the looming end of the Republic of Vietnam. The battle at Xuan Loc began on 9 April 1975 and lasted twelve days. The South Vietnamese 18th Infantry Division fought heroically but was finally defeated by a vastly larger North Vietnamese force.

References to the battle are scattered through the final pages of my novel, Last of the Annamese, as the protagonist, Chuck Griffin, watches the collapse of the defense of South Vietnam. Like me at the time, Chuck is suffering from approaching exhaustion:

“Thursday morning, Chuck sent Sparky [his fellow intelligence analyst and roommate] back home without him. Too much was happening. Muscles aching, eyelids like sandpaper, he tracked the probes by the North Vietnamese 341st Division against Xuan Loc. The town had been subjected to an artillery bombardment of 4,000 rounds, one of the heaviest in the war, and enemy tanks were in the streets. At 1800, Sparky was back, helping him track hand-to-hand combat that lasted until dark when friendly forces drove the North Vietnamese from the city . . .”

“The battle for Xuan Loc raged on. Elements of the North Vietnamese 7th Division had joined the 341st in the battle. [The North Vietnamese propaganda organ] Liberation Radio urged the populace to rebel against the South Vietnamese government. Chuck pulled together signals intelligence, prisoner interrogation reports, and aerial photography and concluded that the North Vietnamese had set up a corps headquarters in Phuoc Long Province. It commanded four divisions, two of which were dispatched to the battle for Xuan Loc. Two more divisions were moving toward Saigon . . .”

“The North Vietnamese had turned the Xuan Loc battle into a meat grinder. They were willing to sacrifice unit after unit to drive out the South Vietnamese 18th Division and seize the town. Somehow the endless reports of gore and annihilation no longer moved Chuck. Was there such a thing as disaster fatigue?”

Xuan Loc fell to North Vietnamese forces on 21 April. They then surrounded Saigon with sixteen to eighteen divisions, and the siege began with rocket and artillery bombardment. I escaped under fire on the night of 29 April after the North Vietnamese were already in the streets of the city.