Columbia Art Center, 6100 Foreland Garth, Long Reach Village, Columbia, MD 21045 (in the courtyard next to Stonehouse Community Center – there is a huge circular window and a fish sculpture out front)
Last Two Servicemen Killed in Vietnam
During the last week of April, 1975, as the North Vietnamese conquest of Saigon approached, I was stranded at Tan Son Nhat, on the northern edge of Saigon, in the DAO building. As mentioned in earlier blog installments, I had succeeded in evacuating 41 of the men who worked for me and their families. Since the U.S. Ambassador, Graham Martin, had forbidden evacuations, I got my people out by any ruse I could think of. Only three of us remained: the two communicators who had volunteered to stay with me to the end, Bob Hartley and Gary Hickman, and me.
For days, Bob, Gary, and I were short on food—we survived on bar snacks we’d been able to scrounge at a hotel before we could no longer get out into the streets of Saigon—and we were working 24 hours a day, alternating with each other for two-hours rest breaks on the single cot we had in the comms center where we were holed up.
I wanted to know beforehand when the North Vietnamese breached the perimeter fence around our compound, so several times a day and sometimes at night, I went outside and wandered through the parking lots, tennis courts, and trash collections areas to see what was going on. Among my regular stops was the Marine guard post at our western gate. I traded scuttlebutt with the embassy guard Marines posted there. Among them were Corporal Charles McMahon and Lance Corporal Darwin Judge. They looked so young to me (I was 38; they were 21 and 19 respectively) that I wondered at their presence in a war zone and why they weren’t back in the world in high school where they belonged.
When the North Vietnamese began shelling the compound in the pre-dawn hours of 29 April, the gate was hit. McMahon and Judge were killed. They were the last U.S. servicemen to die on the ground in Vietnam.
I grieve for them to this day. And I recorded their deaths in the final pages of Last of the Annamese.
Basis of Characters in Last of the Annamese
Last of the Annamese is historically accurate. The events I describe took place, including some not reported before because the information on them was classified until 2015. The principal characters, while not based on real individuals, are amalgams of people I knew during the fall of Saigon.
The one exception is the U.S. Ambassador to the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam). Although I don’t give his name in the novel, he was Graham Martin, and the American ambassador described in the novel is as close as I can get to a portrait of Graham Martin. The briefing sessions between Chuck and the Ambassador in the novel are drawn directly from sessions I had with Graham Martin. Like Chuck in the story, I warned him about the imminent attack on Saigon, and he didn’t believe me.
One other character is close to the real person he was based on: General Tran van Tri, commander of II Corps (whom Chuck and Thanh visit during their trip to the highlands just before the highlands falls to the North Vietnamese in March, 1975) is based on Major General Pham van Phu, the real commander of II Corps when Vietnam fell. I talked to General Phu the last time during a visit to II Corps headquarters with my counterpart, a South Vietnamese general whose name, as far as I know, is still classified. That visit was during the second week of March, 1975. Like the character in my novel, General Phu chain-smoked throughout the visit and threw his lit cigarettes on the carpet of his office while lighting the next one. He treated us with contempt and refused to accept the intelligence that the North Vietnamese were about to attack Ban Me Thuot to his south. Ban Me Thuot fell within days, followed in short order by all of II Corps and I Corps.
In the novel, General Tri escapes to his villa in the French Riviera as Saigon falls, as so many real generals and high government officials actually did. The real General Phu was unable to escape and killed himself on 30 April 1975, the day Saigon fell.
Creating Female Characters
As a male novelist, I’m regularly faced with conveying female characters persuasively. At a conscious level, I make no pretense of understanding women. I find their way of looking at life baffling. I don’t mean that they’re in any way wrong or mistaken; I mean that I don’t understand.
Maybe a recent example will illustrate my problem. A female friend was trying to open a new bottle of lemon juice. When the top didn’t respond to her gentle twisting, she rinsed it thoroughly with hot tap water, and it opened easily. I would have tried applying muscle first, then banging the top with a table knife, and finally using pliers.
“You men,” my friend observed. “You always resort to brute force first, even when there’s an easier way.”
Maybe I learned something.
Yet my women readers tell me that my female characters, for example Tuyet and Molly in Last of the Annamese, ring true to them. And when I read my own work, the female characters feel authentic to me. What’s going on here?
My guess is that we all have, at an unconscious level, an understanding of the various facets of humanity that don’t usually permeate the conscious mind. That would explain why my characters so often surprise me when they do things I wasn’t expecting.
My writing technique is to avoid the rational mind and let the words flow. That means that I don’t do an outline until after the third draft. For the first three drafts, it is as though I’m watching a scene in my mind and writing down what happens. It often feels as though someone else, not me, is doing the writing. That sensation could explain why the Greeks, for example, believed that a muse was doing the creating with the human artist acting as a tool or translator.
After the third draft, I review my work analytically and deductively, looking for balance, clarity, and craftsmanship. After that, I shift back and forth from the rational to the meditative until I am satisfied that my work is done. One of my novels, No-Accounts, went through 21 drafts before I was sure it was finished. That’s why it takes me 15 years to write a novel.
My way of writing may explain why my female characters work. Maybe I have a deep, inarticulate sense of women that only shows itself when I let go of my conscious mind and let the words tumble out on the page. And maybe that’s why, when I have a life problem I can’t solve, I sit myself down and write about it until an answer appears.
New Book Review Published
My review of J. M. Graham’s Arizona Moon, a novel about Marines in combat in Vietnam, was published this morning by the Washington Independent Review of Books. You can read it at http://www.washingtonindependentreviewofbooks.com/bookreview/arizona-moon-a-novel-of-vietnam
Let me know what you think. You can comment here or on the review web site page.
More on the Fall of Saigon
More on the escape from Saigon on 29 April 1975: After I was evacuated to the Oklahoma City, the flagship of the 7th Fleet, we sailed to Subic bay and I got a flight to first to Honolulu so I could brief the brass at CINCPAC, then to Baltimore. Once there I finally got to see a doctor. He diagnosed me with amoebic dysentery and pneumonia as a result of inadequate sleep and lack of food. Here are some details I added at the end of my report:
I’d be remiss if I didn’t credit Al Gray, a Marine intelligence officer who became a combat commander, with saving my life and the lives of my two communicators. I don’t call him Al anymore. That stopped the day he became Commandant of the Marine Corps. These days I call him “Sir.” General Gray is the finest leader I have ever seen in action and a man I am privileged to know.
None of the 2700 Vietnamese who worked with us escaped. All were killed or captured by the North Vietnamese. Many could have been saved but for two factors: (1) The Ambassador failed to call for an evacuation—by the time he was countermanded, the North Vietnamese were already in the streets of Saigon. And (2) the general in command of those 2700 abandoned his troops and was safely evacuated. They were still awaiting his orders when the North Vietnamese attacked them.
Ambassador Graham Martin’s career was effectively ended by the debacle he authored in Saigon. He retired not long after the fall of Vietnam. Bob and Gary, my two communicators, survived and went on with their careers. Bob died about seven years ago, but I spoke to Gary a few months back. He’s doing fine.
And me? Besides the pneumonia and dysentery, I sustained ear damage from the shelling, and I’ve worn hearing aids ever since. Worst of all, I suffer, even today, from a condition we didn’t have a name for back then—Post-Traumatic Stress Injury (PTSI). It resulted not just from the fall of Saigon but from earlier experiences in the war. When I got back to the states, my marriage crumbled. The home I yearned for didn’t exist, and I was afraid I was going to lose my children, my reason for staying live. I knew I needed help, but my job was intelligence, and I had top secret codeword-plus intelligence clearances. Had I sought therapy, I would have lost my clearances, and therefore my job. I had to grit my teeth and endure the irrational rages, flashbacks, nightmares, and panic attacks.
As it happens, my writing vocation and my need to help others saved me. I wrote down everything that had happened to me in Vietnam, and I volunteered to help others worse off than me. The writing ended up being 17 short stories and four novels, all now published. Meanwhile, I worked with AIDS patients, the homeless, the dying in a hospice, and sick and dying soldiers in a VA hospital. Writing down what happened, it turns out, is an effective therapy for PTSI, and when I was with people who needed help, my unspeakable memories faded. I learned that compassion heals.
Further on the Escape from Saigon
Further to my recollections about what happened in Saigon on 29 April 1975. I was in the DAO building at Tan Son Nhat on the northern edge of Saigon. The North Vietnamese were shelling us as we attempted to evacuate to ships of the 7th Fleet, cruising in the South China Sea, and armed South Vietnamese Air Force officers had forced their way into the building and were roaming, demanding evacuation at gunpoint:
I recall being locked in a room alone and told to wait until I was called for, trying to stay awake in my chair as the building pitched from artillery hits. I didn’t want to board a chopper until I got confirmation that my communicators were safe aboard a ship of the 7th Fleet. And I wanted to get to a telephone to confirm that our Vietnamese counterparts were being evacuated. As far as I knew, they were still at their posts awaiting orders. But there was no telephone in the room, and I couldn’t leave because the South Vietnamese air force officers were still on the prowl.
The next thing I remember is being outside.
It was getting dark, and rain was pelting the helicopters in the compound. I protested to [Marine Colonel] Al Gray that I wanted to wait for confirmation that my two communicators were safe, but he ordered me, in unrepeatable language, to get myself on the chopper now. I climbed aboard carrying with me the two flags that had hung in my office—the U.S. stars and stripes and the gold-and-orange national flag of the defunct Republic of Vietnam.
The bird, for some reason, was not a CH-53 but a small Air America slick. As soon as we were airborne, I saw tracers coming at us. We took so many slugs in the fuselage that I thought we were going down, but we made it. All over the city, fires were burning. Once we were “feet wet”— over water—the pilot dropped us abruptly to an altitude that scared me, just above the water’s surface, and my stomach struggled to keep up. It was, he explained to me later, to avoid surface-to-air missiles. All I remember of the flight after that is darkness.
Continuing the story of what happened at Tan Son Nhat (on the northern edge of Saigon) on 28-29 April, 1975, as the North Vietnamese were attacking us: In my last post, I told of my call to the U.S. embassy in downtown Saigon and their response that they couldn’t help us because we were too far away:
By that time, the Marines from the 7th Fleet had landed. I tracked down Al Gray and asked if he could evacuate us with his guys. He reassured me he would.
We got word that armed South Vietnamese air force officers had forced their way into the building and were on the loose, demanding evacuation at gun point. Offices were to be emptied and locked. We were to proceed at once to the evacuation staging area, an office the Marines had secured. We sent our last message announcing we were closing down. It was a personal message from me to my boss, General Lew Allen, Director of NSA:
- HAVE JUST RECEIVED WORD TO EVACUATE. AM NOW DESTROYING REMAINING CLASSIFIED MATERIAL. WILL CEASE TRANSMISSIONS IMMEDIATELY AFTER THIS MESSAGE.
- WE’RE TIRED BUT OTHERWISE ALL RIGHT. LOOKS LIKE THE BATTLE FOR SAIGON IS ON FOR REAL.
- 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.
Even though the message was from me to General Allen, I still began the third paragraph with the words “FROM GLENN.” I wanted to be sure he knew it was me speaking.
We destroyed out comms gear and crypto and locked the door as we left for the staging area.
The remaining events of 29 April are confused in my memory—I was in such bad shape [from days without food or sleep] I was starting to hallucinate. I know that, as the shelling continued, I begged Al Gray to get my two communicators out as soon as possible. I couldn’t tolerate the idea that, after all they’d done, they might be hurt, captured, or killed. Sometime in the afternoon, when finally they went out on a whirlybird, my work in Vietnam was done.
Any Reviewers Here?
I’m looking for reviewers for Last of the Annamese, which will be published on 15 March 2017. I can send prospective reviewers an ARC (advance review copy) if you give me an address and a place where your review would appear. Posting a review on the Amazon.com page devoted to Annamese would work. Leave a note for me here or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
More on the Fall of Saigon
Several days ago, I quoted from my report on the fall of Saigon, the nonfiction basis for Last of the Annamese. I had succeeded in getting my 43 men and their wives and children out of Saigon by virtue of lying, cheating, and stealing despite the Ambassador’s refusal to call for an evacuation or to allow me to evacuate my people. Only three of us remained at Tan Son Nhat, on the northern edge of Saigon: my two communicators who had volunteered to stay with me to the end (Bob and Gary) and me. We were shelled all night and two of the Marines at our gate were killed. Around four in the morning, we got in a dispatch telling us that the evacuation had been ordered—apparently Washington had countermanded the Ambassador. I pick up the story from there:
We gave up trying to rest. The air in the comms center, the only room we were still using, was faintly misty and smelled of smoke, as if a gasoline fire was raging nearby. After daylight, I got a call from the Vietnamese officer I’d visited a few days before. He wanted to know where his boss, the general, was. He’d tried to telephone the general but got no answer. I dialed the general’s number with the same result. I found out much later that the general had somehow made it from his office to the embassy and got over the wall. He was evacuated safely while his men stayed at their posts awaiting orders from him. They were still there when the North Vietnamese arrived.
Next I telephoned the embassy. “The evacuation is on. Get us out of here!”
The lady I talked to was polite, even gracious. She explained to me, as one does to child, that the embassy could do nothing for us—we were too far away, and, although I probably didn’t know it, the people in the streets were rioting. Of course I knew it; I could see them. I uttered an unprintable curse. She responded, “You’re welcome.”